CFO Day unpacks the impact a good story can have on any boardroom engagement

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Top finance executives gathered at The Leonardo on 14 May for the annual CFO Day to learn how to turn their organisation’s value statement into a compelling story.

Storytelling has emerged as one of the most coveted competencies in business, especially in the boardroom, where CFOs have to get buy-in on important decisions. As writer Vera Nazarian aptly puts it, "The world is shaped by two things – stories told and the memories they leave behind". But in order for a story to leave an impact, your audience needs to trust that it is true.

At the annual CFO Day, which took place at The Leonardo in Sandton on 14 May 2024, South Africa’s top finance executives heard from a host of writers, actors and TV personalities who explained what it takes to tell a good story, and learned how to become powerful narrators themselves. As they took to the stage South African storyteller Lebogang Mogashoa, Sophia Basckin and ⁠Ryan Dittman shared some personal experiences, engaging and captivating the audience with their carefully crafted words.

They revealed that a good story is a culmination of different experiences brought together under the same value statement.

Having seen how it’s done, attendees were then introduced to Advertising Regulatory Board (ARB) CEO Gail Schimmel, who explained why the stories CFOs tell in the boardroom should be good.

She took the audience through an interactive poll, where they viewed various ads and had to vote on which they thought should not be allowed on air. What the CFOs in the room considered a good story and what consumers thought made a good story, was different. In some of the cases, had the ads been published, it could have brought significant harm to the organisation’s brands.

Similarly, Gail said, CFOs have to make sure they get that value statement right, because if you don’t, then you won’t get the necessary buy-in you need to make your product, company or even decisions successful.

Next up, CFO Awards judge, Brave Inflexions founder and non-executive director, Claudelle von Eck revealed that the story might need to be told in different ways across different platforms. “Organisational cultures aren’t one dimensional. It’s a combination of people coming together, living together and working together in a specific way. However, each person has their own perspective, informed by their past experiences,” she said.

“Because of this, the value your story holds will be different for each of them and you might have to tell different stories to get their buy-in,” she added.

She added that every decision or action impacts a culture and CFOs have to consider the ripple effect.

Later, in his keynote conversation with executive community director Georgina Guedes, Standard Bank chief finance and value management officer Arno Daehnke agreed that the true value of a good story is its impact. “As CFOs, it’s our job to understand value and to report on it. If you want to have an impact, you have to consider all the perspectives that are involved,” he explained.

CFOs in the boardroom

The day also featured CFOs breaking away into three boardrooms, in which they unpacked some of the challenges and successes they’ve had in their own boards, techniques to get the most out of their time around the table, as well as what the people around the table need and want from them. CFOs Irene Singo from Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, Pramy Moodley from Sappi Southern Africa, and CJ Kujenga from BCX started the conversations with some of their own anecdotes.

Walter Leonhardt, who is a former CFO and current non-executive director, shared some practical ways finance executives can use to make sure they have an impact in the boardroom.

“The delegation of authority document is your most important tool. It outlines who is responsible for what and what the limits of authority are, so it’s clear who can make decisions on what. Having that clarity between what the board does and what management can do is important,” he said.

As someone who is now on the receiving end of the boardroom relationship, Walter said timeous information is crucial. “No one likes being surprised, so if there is something on the agenda that people don’t know about, it helps to engage with them in advance – to give them the opportunity to ask questions and get to grips with it.” In this case, he also advised using an individual-based approach.

EOH’s Ashona Kooblall explained in a panel discussion later that CFOs face surprises daily, ranging from market challenges, to auditors, to balance sheets. “You have to be transparent and honest about your situation. You can’t give the impression everything is fine when it’s not.”

This resonated with something Walter had said earlier: “Sometimes it’s necessary to tell a board what they need to hear versus what they want to hear. When (not if) you run into a problem or dilemma you think you can’t handle, it’s OK to ask someone for help.” He added that there are enough kind people in the world who will be more than willing to support you.

In this same discussion, King Price Insurance CFO Paul Stedall said that trying to convey the technical stuff, like numbers, without dumbing it down too much is his biggest challenge when telling the company’s story. “There are often complex topics that you need to break down in a way that non-technical people will understand.”

However, the day’s content made it clear that, if you understand what is important to the person you are engaging with, your story will resonate. “As CFOs, we live in the business’s day-to-day and we’re deeply entrenched in the goings-on and issues. Board members are not. It’s up to us to bridge the gap and take them with us on the journey,” said Royal Bafokeng Holdings FD Tinyiko Sihlangu.

She explained that it’s a balance between detail and context, and making sure you have enough of each to make an impactful decision.

Getting physical

The speakers all agreed that, in order to understand what matters most to people, you have to spend time getting to know people, listen to their stories and learn what is important to them.

“If you react negatively when your child brings you something or tries to show you something, they’re unlikely to bring it to you again. There’s a reciprocal behaviour in being transparent and, as leaders, we have to be equally receptive to their stories,” Walter mentioned during his presentation.

The Art of People CEO Tania Steyn then took attendees through another interactive session. She explained how 60 percent of people’s communication is non-verbal.

“The first thing we look at when we’re engaging with someone is their hands. They are the language of trust,” she said.

She divided the CFOs into three groups and, with her hands in a different position each time, asked each group to move to a different side of the room. Their reactions were not the same. “Because my hands were open and my palm was facing up, your brains told you that I was trustworthy. When my palms were down, you were unsure whether to follow. But when my finger pointed, your brains saw it as a directive, and didn’t want to obey,” she explained.

Tania noted that, by simply changing the positioning of your hands, you can change the way an engagement goes.

The final part of the programme included another storytelling session with Lebogang and, this time, Hayleigh Evans, who is an art-repreneur, actor and theatre maker.

They shared some useful tips to help CFOs pick a personal story. "The stories you pick need to be personal. Talking about your own experience is not inherently selfish if it reveals the human conditions. It is, in fact, incredibly generous," Lebogang said. 

"Stories also need conflict and a turning point," Hayleigh said. "Being able to show what you would have lost or gained if things went wrong or right for you, is a mark of a good story. The stakes do not need to be life or death but they need to exist in some way."

She explained that everyone has the ability to tell a story that follows the three-act narrative structure we learned in school. "An easy way to identify if your story follows that narrative structure is to see if there is transformation in that story."

They also shared some story prompts CFOs could use to help them tell better, more engaging stories: 

  • The best thing that has ever happened to me...
  • The worst thing that has ever happened to me...
  • You will never believe what happened to me when I...
  • I never thought I'd tell anyone this, but...
  • I can't believe I...
  • It started off as a simple day...
  • And that's the last time I'm doing that!
  • It was all my fault...

After this, the CFOs were ushered to the 45th floor for afternoon cocktails as they watched the winter sun set over the Joburg skyline.

The CFO Day was made possible by principal partner Makwa IT, executive partners BDO South Africa, Stanlib and Workday, and associate partners Allan Gray, Caseware, CIMA, Coupa and SAS.

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