CFO Harriet Heymans is using radical transparency to lead at Sasfin

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Sasfin Bank CFO Harriet Heymans’s leadership style has helped the company through some challenging times over the last year, and she’s empowering others to do the same.

When Harriet Heymans joined Sasfin Bank as CFO in 2022, one of her top priorities was building trust with key stakeholders – something she believes is fundamental for any effective CFO.

“The only way you get trust is if you earn it,” Harriet explains. “It's not something any qualification or position gives you automatically. You have to prove yourself and prove your integrity cannot be questioned.”

From the outset, Harriet aimed to achieve trust through radical transparency. As a newcomer unencumbered by what she calls ‘holy cows and non-negotiables’, she played with open cards, actively surfacing issues, understanding root causes, and clearly communicating remediation plans to her team and Sasfin's leadership.

“Whenever we put objectives or goals in front of us, I try to ensure that we meet the same, and actively manage expectations as we go along,” Harriet says. “That’s how you build trust – when people aren’t surprised and understand the full context.”

Beyond professional credibility and transparency, Harriet cultivated trust by exemplifying authenticity – an approach that defies stereotypes about CFOs.

“I don't take myself too seriously or have any airs about my role,” she laughs. “Authenticity is one of my most important values. What you see is what you get.”

This authenticity extends to Harriet’s leadership style, which she describes as inclusive with “a very wicked sense of humour”. She aims to create an environment where people feel empowered to provide input and feedback.

“I love to get my hands dirty if needed. But I also know that you're always better off if there are more heads around the table providing perspectives,” Harriet says. “I don't need to do everything myself.”

The ability to adopt a proactive approach is one of the key advantages Harriet embraces at Sasfin, as it gives her the opportunity to take on a more expansive role befitting a smaller organisation. “In big organisations, it’s more difficult to go beyond your prescribed lane,” she observes. “But in smaller ones like Sasfin, you can’t stay in your lane. You have the opportunity to go deeper or wider into the value chain.”

Harriet sees this as an appealing aspect of her position. “I can play the strategic and interpretative role that I want in this CFO role. I’m very happy with the ability to truly drive impact across the business.”

A challenging South African landscape

Harriet had to quickly prioritise trust-building, as operating a bank like Sasfin in South Africa’s difficult economic environment is no easy feat. “Operating in South Africa is not easy,” she acknowledges, citing economic stagnation, power and water infrastructure constraints, and the country’s recent grey-listing as major obstacles.

“From a risk perspective, the organisation has been very focused on prioritising and proactively mitigating our key risks as much as possible,” Harriet explains. Fostering this risk awareness has been critical for Sasfin’s finance team.

Within the financial services sector itself, increased impairments and consolidation of smaller banks into giants like Absa have roiled the industry. The significant difference in size between major and smaller banks presents distinctive challenges for second-tier banks in South Africa. Prioritisation is paramount, as Harriet must strategically allocate resources toward regulatory compliance alongside core operations critical to success.

“We have to stay focused, prioritise, choose our battles and manage risks accordingly,” she says. “As a leader, I must ensure the challenges are understood, and the opportunities within those challenges are prioritised.”

Navigating the ‘perfect storm’

Harriet’s commitment to trust and transparency proved invaluable when she faced one of the biggest challenges of her career less than two years into her Sasfin tenure, as the group’s financial results were delayed. But the leadership principles Harriet had instilled – transparency, empowering her team, creating psychological safety – are paying dividends as this crisis unfolds.

The intensity and late nights persisted, but Harriet maintained open communication with her finance team. She provided full context of the situation, made action plans clear, and fostered an environment where people felt safe to struggle.

“Communication, talking, giving context: what happened? What are we doing to ensure it doesn’t happen again?” Harriet stresses. “Making sure we had clear action plans around the challenges we faced. That really helped us get through it.”

This openness complemented Sasfin’s culture of ‘loyal dissent, which Harriet champions. “We can scream, shout, be as angry with each other as we want internally,” she says. “But when we leave the room, we are one united front. There’s no attacking each other publicly.”

Harriet believes creating this kind of psychological safety empowers people to make mistakes, ask for help, or admit, “I don't know,” without judgement. “It gives them room to struggle without being negatively elevated.”

The team bonded through the shared adversity. “All hands were on deck. Everybody picked up their load. We were there for each other,” Harriet recalls. “When one person dropped something, others picked it up. That helped enormously in preserving team spirit and morale.”

Critically, her team emerged from the late release of the financial results unified, with no loss of key personnel – a testament to the resilience fostered by Harriet’s transparent leadership approach.

“I’m very proud to say we didn’t have any regrettable losses through that difficult period,” Harriet says. “That speaks volumes about the quality and character of the people in the finance team.”

Empowering through skills and coaching

For Harriet, building an effective finance team transcends just technical accounting skills. She emphasises hiring for cultural fit above all else – seeking individuals aligned with Sasfin’s values around partnership, integrity and camaraderie.

“If a person can’t fit our culture of support and trusted partnership, even if they are very technically strong, we don’t look at hiring them,” Harriet states firmly. “For us, culture is more important than just deliverables.”

She also intentionally nurtures multi-skilled team members who can provide richer insights beyond accounting and reporting. Creating ‘business partner’ roles for capabilities like scenario modelling, forecasting, budgeting and decision support allows her team to deliver maximum strategic value.

“I like people in roles that have a multi-skill set,” Harriet explains. “These business partners balance the technical accounting skills with critically analysing the numbers to uncover commercial insights.”

Harriet also emphasises developing her team’s softer skills through coaching and team-building initiatives. One programme, CoachHub, provides online coaching from mentors globally, which team members have embraced enthusiastically.

“One candidate had over 200 coaching sessions in six months while going through a leadership transition,” Harriet says. “It brings a new worldview into the organisation.”

Her team also participates in personality profiling exercises that highlight individual working styles.

“Understanding each other’s strengths and how we operate has helped the team immensely in working more effectively together,” Harriet says.

Beyond team skills, Harriet is a firm believer in investing in technology to automate routine tasks and enable her people to apply their expertise more strategically. Integrating finance with IT through technical capabilities that reduce manual workloads is an ongoing priority.

“The deeper we can get into technical automation, the more the individuals can apply their skills as analysts rather than just producers of information,” Harriet explains. “It allows them to add real value instead of being burdened with repetitive, routine tasks.”

Ultimately, Harriet believes authenticity and trust are vital anchors for any leader navigating turbulent waters.

“The challenges are real, but so are the opportunities. They just need to be prioritised and executed diligently,” Harriet says firmly. “As a leader, I have to ensure the challenges are understood and the opportunities within them are prioritised and clearly cascaded to the team."”

With transparency and trust as her compass, Harriet Heymans seems well-equipped to continue guiding Sasfin through whatever challenges lie ahead in South Africa’s tumultuous economic climate.

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