Boardroom skills as important as the numbers, say public sector CFOs - #findaba16

CFOs in the public sector have to be as skilled in the art of strategic relationship-building and diplomacy as they are with working with numbers, finance executives agreed in a breakaway session at the Finance Indaba Africa at Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on 14 October 2016.

Sponsored by Standard Bank, the session aimed to unpack the role of the CFO as the ultimate stakeholder, dealing with boardroom dynamics, extract truth and building effective relationships while facing the direct, difficult challenges of business.

CFOs painted a picture of a stressful, high-pressure environment that required a cool head and for them to go above and beyond the usual finance duties. They described having to deal with ulterior motives, being excluded from executive decision-making and being asked to rubber-stamp proposals without consultation, as well as the additional stress of operating in an acting capacity and enduring a change in administration.

The CFO of a municipality said:

"Without a long-term vision, you won't be able to implement anything in a structured manner. We've found that even with a complete change in administration, nothing has actually changed in terms of processes, except for new faces in the council and a new vision. The priorities boil down to same thing. As CFO, you must be aware of implications on the long-term model at any given moment. Give your accounting officer enough foresight. You need to have a long-term vision to take politicians through realities on the ground. Having a one vision every five years is unsustainable. CFOs must serve as custodians of both the financial and the strategic mandate."

The CFOs covet the executive coaching their private sector counterparts enjoyed access to. They have to provide a "20-page motivation to attend a course". They also stressed the importance of cultivating a hobby to provide an outlet for stress away from the office, such as hiking or fishing.

"There is no investment in you as an individual. You have to do it yourself. The buck stops with you - there's always someone calling you to sign some document or the other. I buy educational materials online myself, because to motivate for it would take 20 pages. I learn as I go along. Of course, I make mistakes, but I soldier through," said one CFO from a government department.

Ultimately, CFOs in the public sector felt that their success lay not just on technical competence, but the strength to speak out and go against the grain in the boardroom when necessary, while having enough emotional intelligence to be able to gauge sentiment and adapt their approach to suit different personalities and agendas. Sometimes this can entail something as basic as reading through meeting agendas and information packs thoroughly or knowing about someone's family and interests to be able engage more effectively with them.

One of the CFOs summarised what worked best:

"I'm straight-forward person who usually tells it like it is. In the boardroom, however, I've learnt that this may not always be the best approach. You've got to look at things from the other person's perspective and understand the reasons behind why they feel the way they do. You have to find a way to ensure compliance without completely alienating people. Say to them: 'I understand you, but with the budgetary constraints, let's find alternatives to help you achieve what you want.'"