Finance teams are a sounding board for decision-makers, says Philip Timberlake, CFO of Liberty Health


When he’s not hard at work heading up the finance team at Liberty Health, CFO Philip Timberlake can be found running along his favourite trails on Table Mountain, developing his “mental fortitude”. The key to being a successful CFO lies in communication, he says: “Within our economy of knowledge, ideas are currency. Of course, to understand, we need to listen, engage and be prepared to let go of our own ideas.”

Much of your career has been with Liberty Health, albeit in different positions. What is it about the company that keeps you here, and keeps you loyal?

"Liberty exists to change realities by being the guiding light to financial freedom. We recognise the responsibility that we have to South Africans and strive to achieve this every day. Liberty has a legacy of breaking new ground, finding financial solutions that benefit everyday men and women, and using its knowledge advantage in the interests of customers and stakeholders. But, more so than the past, what excites me is the future; seeing how we are deploying our services across the continent - especially within the healthcare environment. We currently provide access to medical care to over one million individuals across Africa."

"I believe that individuals should bring loyalty to their teams and the organisations they work for, but Liberty has also engendered that loyalty in me. In my time here, I have experienced ongoing investment in my development and been given a wealth of learning and growth opportunities, for which I am most grateful."

You are relatively young and yet you've seen great success in your career - for instance, you are the youngest CFO of Liberty Health. To what do you attribute your career success? What advice do you have for other young and aspirant CFOs?

"I attribute much of my career success to values meeting opportunities. Of course, your qualification or CA(SA) designation is your ticket to the game - but thereafter - if you prove yourself faithful in the small things, you will be trusted with bigger things. Dependability carries a huge premium in the workplace - and it is often as simple as putting your hand up, volunteering for additional responsibilities or initiating improvements, and then following through on those commitments.

Which achievement in your business career are you most proud of?

"The development of the people in my teams - seeing them grow in their roles, assuming greater responsibility and leading their own teams - this is what makes me most proud. That is something I would like to be characterised by; playing an incubator-type role and adding value to the development of colleagues. I have heard it said that you join a company but you leave a boss, so I see this development focus as an essential ingredient to successfully building, growing and retaining talent within the organisation."

What are some of the ways in which you manage your team to ensure effective collaboration? Why do you think collaboration is important?

"The output of the teams I work within is so much greater than the sum of their parts. Without collective effort or diverse - even opposing - viewpoints, we could not consistently make the best decisions and produce optimal outputs for the organisation."

"There is no end to human creativity and ingenuity and as leaders we rob ourselves of this resource from within our teams if we are too vocal or forceful with our own opinions. Our duty is to employ people we can trust and then give them a voice, a platform, and encouragement to contribute; and grace to make mistakes. If an executive decision needs to be made in the absence of consensus, this inclusive context makes it much easier for the team to accept it."

"I think the time horizon within which the CFO operates is such an important ingredient for success. It's so easy to focus on the immediacy of what's around us and visible now, and certainly the present demands on our time are the loudest. So, a great CFO will be one focussed not only on the short term, but on the present needs and foundations required to ensure the building of a sustainable future for the organisation, beyond our own tenure. Practically this often means clearing one's desk and diary, quietening the noise and making space to get some fresh perspective on what needs to be done today for a different tomorrow."

Which skill/s do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in their work?

"Communication is a critical tool for financial professionals to master. It is key to fully understanding, engaging with and influencing the ideas of others. Within our economy of knowledge, ideas are currency. Of course, to understand, we need to listen, engage and be prepared to let go of our own ideas. Being able to influence and persuade requires clear and articulate reasoning."

How does change happen at the organisation? Is it difficult to implement change? How do you implement change so that it is successful?

"Both formal and informal mechanisms to promote and approve change should exist within organisations, and it is important for an organisation to have a good mixture of the two. This way, agility is not sacrificed where risk and impact is low and, where the stakes are higher, formality provides the framework to ensure the necessary checks are in place. Within programmes of change, the sponsor role is key and cannot be delegated; it is not a token position, but an essential ingredient to ensure effective leadership."

"Additionally, stakeholder engagement and communication cannot be overemphasised in ensuring the successful implementation of change, and it is the resulting buy-in that provides the tipping point towards mass adoption within the organisation."

In light of the above, how can or how does finance contribute to agility and flexibility in business?

"As opportunities for growth and change present themselves, finance teams function as a sounding board for decision-makers; assisting to determine whether the proposed moves are in line with the vision and strategy of the organisation."

"It is critical that financial teams are clear on and convinced of the larger purpose, vision and values of the company. The strategy that guides the organisation towards this vision is more flexible. It can and should be routinely assessed and evolved, as should the methods of executing it."

"Agility and flexibility is required in the face of disruptive market forces, but due consideration to the level of change frequency the organisation can absorb is key. Finance is well positioned to monitor this."

What can a CFO in particular do to make a business more agile?

"The CFO's role is to bring a clear perspective on risk and the ability to risk size opportunities. Not all risks are the same and so the same level of due diligence is not required for every decision. The CFO translates their understanding of the risks to the decision-makers; assisting in the avoidance of majoring on the minor or paying excessive attention to low-risk, low-impact decisions. CFOs should be aware of the fast pace of change in business, and be a champion for innovation at every level."

What are your other interests outside of work?

"In recent years, I have taken up trail running. As an introvert, I am most relaxed when alone on my home trails of Cape Town, especially on and around Table Mountain. I value the development of mental fortitude required to endure ultra-marathon distances, and the patience required to prepare one's body, injury-free. I completed the Two Oceans Ultra Trail run earlier this year and my goal is to take on longer races, such as the Puffer, from Cape Point to the V&A Waterfront. I love exploring local trails when I travel across the continent - a terrific way to experience a city in a tangible way. The maze-like Nairobi Arboretum is a favourite, whereas in Lagos I stick to the hotel fire escape for some 'hills' training!"

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