CFO Olivia Serithi says medicine is in her blood

Having always had a passion for the medical industry, Olivia says being the CFO of Allergan is her dream job.

Working in the medical field has been a long-standing desire for Olivia Serithi, CFO of leading global pharmaceutical company Allergan Pharmaceuticals South Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, an Abbvie company. Olivia says she initially wanted to study medicine before settling on accounting.

“My accounting teacher motivated me to follow the chartered accounting route, but my heart has always been in medicine,” she says wistfully. However, Olivia has no regrets about choosing accounting and says her current role is what she was working towards throughout her career.

Olivia says what prepared her for current role was the MBA that she did full-time through the Gordon Institute of Business (GIBS) from 2015 to 2016. “I did my MBA to get general management experience and to learn about different sectors of the business, like strategy, marketing and HR and their role in bringing the strategic goals together. My aim was that post my MBA I would join a smaller organisation where I could roll up my sleeves and be impactful across the organisation.”

Olivia says when Allergan offered her the role of associate finance director, she knew she had found her new professional home. “This role has fulfilled everything I ever wanted to achieve in my career. It was my first CFO role, and I was given a team and a mandate, and I ran with it,” she says proudly.

Putting people first
To achieve her goals, she focused her attention on re-aligning her team. During her first few weeks on the job, she spent time with each team member to understand their perspective, frustrations, areas of growth, opportunities and where there could be changes.

“I looked at the finance team structure. We are a very lean team, but we had the support of a shared services centre in Ireland. I told my team to look at their roles and what could potentially be automated or moved to the shared services centre. The changes emanating from this exercise resulted in additional capacity being created, which allowed us to focus on our core objectives.”

Olivia says the aim of her realignment was to elevate the team and take them from just being a finance team to a strategic partner in the business. “We developed tailor-made development plans for each team member in order to play on each of their strengths, and developed any shortcomings with the ultimate goal of ensuring that we become more customer-centric and a business partner to Commercial.”

In addition, she set up a strategy session in order to align the finance objectives to the organisation’s objectives. The strategy session led to improved financial planning and analysis and developing relationships with stakeholders, such as supply chain and key customers.

Olivia says she learnt early on in her career that to achieve her goals she needed to invest in her team. “I look for the talent in the team and try to support them to execute their duties.” She says her leadership style is the ‘servant leader’ because she wants to develop and empower her team and see them shine. “I empower my people, give them the support and invest in them. My biggest asset is my people. I put them before my own needs.”

Good leaders listen
Olivia says that a secret to her success as a leader is that she is driven by empathy and excellence. “My mentor at Nedbank told me that because I am a black woman, I will always be second guessed, and the only way to stop that is by being excellent, because excellence can never be ignored. So, in everything I do, I am authentically me and I am excellent. I have always been empathetic; it is part of my nature,” she explains.

Olivia says that her leadership style and consistency have ensured that the team works collaboratively. Another trait that has proved handy in her role is that she is a good listener and able to be objective.

“I listen very carefully to what people are saying and block out the noise. I do not hear what I want to hear. I have also learnt to sometimes allow people to make mistakes, to allow them to learn from those mistakes, which will further enhance their growth.”