Bongi Ngoma: the time to elevate the finance role is now

Finance Indaba Online attendees get the playbook on how to win as the next generation of finance leaders.

During her keynote address at the recent Finance Indaba Online, Bongi Ngoma, national head of audit at the Auditor-General of South Africa, where you come from as leaders is important, but where you are going is significant. “If you are a good finance leader, the time to be a great one is now,” she challenged the audience.

The importance of people

Bongi said a healthy nation is a wealthy nation, and that when finance professionals see the quality of basic services collapsing to embarrassing levels, they should have sleepless nights. “It’s about the story of kids who face hunger, who die due to lack of food. It’s about a sad generation of youth with qualifications but without jobs,” she said. “Perhaps these examples are too out of reach for those who are not in public sector finance, but the reality is that as finance professionals of the future, we are called to do things differently.”

She pointed out, “As finance leaders, we are called to care about the meaning behind the numbers that will reflect in the balance sheets. To care about climate change, and about the alarming geopolitical conflicts. We experience the impact of these in the steep rise in fuel costs, the rise in inflation, coupled with a cost of living that is becoming unbearable for most citizens. We are called to be more than just number crunchers of bean counters: we are called to be global thinkers with the kind of mindset that can link numbers to the impact.”

More rapid, complex change

Bongi said today’s changes are getting increasingly traumatic and are happening faster than ever. “It is becoming difficult to anticipate events and how they will unfold. Historical forecasts and past experiences are fast losing relevance,” she noted. “The one-size-fits-all best practices have become relegated to yesterday. It’s now rare for anything to be precisely determinable. Not everything is black and white – grey has also become an option.”

She said the demands of modern times are more contradictory and paradoxical than ever before. “Sometimes making decisions has become so complex, it is reduced to a tangled mess of reactions and counter-reactions, and choosing a single correct path seems to be almost impossible. Yet remember, as the finance leader, you are responsible for the lion’s share of these decisions,” she said.

Bongi shared a model that she has applied and adapted as disruptions and complexities have erupted. It elevates the role of the finance leader to that of a future-fit one that drives value for the business. This requires the CFO to become:

The steward

In its basic definition, it implies taking care of something, leaving things better than you found them. “We are tasked to protect and preserve the company’s assets and must report accurately on his financial position,” she said.

The operator
The operator must ensure accuracy of reporting and this is non-negotiable. “I always tell my team that you cannot be respected as a finance leader if our bases are not in order,” she said. “If your numbers are not right, they will never take you seriously. So, let’s rank this role as a licence to operate as a finance leader.”

The strategist

Gone are the days where the strategy was relegated to the strategic department. She asserted instead that finance leaders are now at the coalface of strategy – not the elementary pieces of objectives and SWOT analysis, but a deeper appreciation of speed of decision-making, agility and nimbleness in the decision-making itself.

“As the finance leader, you have a chance of survival if you are futuristic, if you can play and be prepared for the disruptions ahead with the agility to change,” she said. “We need leaders who can solve the risks that have not materialised – before they materialise.”

The catalyst

This leader does not confine herself only to her area of responsibility. Bongi described this saying, “Growth catalysts use their skills and expertise to influence other areas of the business to change for the better. There are no defined boundaries between finance and business, whether it is the audit, marketing or manufacturing units.”

The people-centred leader

Bongi was emphatic that people are any organisation and country’s greatest asset. Every decision also has to be assessed against its impact on people. “As leaders we must develop emphatic behaviours and values that are more concerned with people and their needs,” she said.

The future-fit finance leader

Bongi said this type of leader asks how every problem can be resolved in a way that drives sustainability for the business and, most importantly, has people at the centre of the solution.

She said this is the leader that develops other people’s capacity and is concerned with the experiences of the people as much as the company’s performance and sustainability.

The future finance leader is a futuristic strategist who is prepared for whatever lies ahead, she explained: “She goes to the future and comes back to prepare the organisation for what’s next by solving the problems that are yet to be known. She is agile. She knows that there are no shortcuts and she focuses on developing her craft and becomes an expert in the field while doing the right things and the small things in a great way – consistently.

“She values the importance of small victories, bounces back gracefully from failures and disappointment and hurt. More importantly, the future-fit finance leader makes a lasting impact by creating a different reality for those who will follow.”

Bongi said leaders should be concerned about all aspects of the business, constantly research, innovate, infuse new technologies, introduce disciplines that will optimise the revenue and drive efficiencies for their businesses.

She closed by saying, “May you leave a legacy that will make the future generations that are yet to be born proud.”