CFO Sharon Naidoo leads with art, smart and heart

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CFO Sharon Naidoo has spent the last three years transforming the finance function and overall business at TransUnion Africa.

In the world of finance, recognition often gets lost amid tough demands. Sharon Naidoo, the CFO of TransUnion Africa, has never slowed down to appreciate and acknowledge her success within finance. Reflecting on her 24-year journey, she shares, “When you dedicate your whole life to becoming a CFO – and the road has not been easy, let me tell you – then you have that one moment where you’re recognised by your industry and peers... It’s incredibly special.”

And so, when Sharon was announced the winner of the Finance Transformation Award at the 2023 CFO Awards, she was in tears. 

Upon receiving her award, she highlighted that finance transformation is not just about driving efficiency and optimising the processes, the systems, or the organisational design, but rather truly investing in people. “We need to lead with smart, heart and courage, because the only way we win is through our people,” she said, before thanking her team.

These are the values she lives by as a leader, she explains.

“Being smart isn’t about the qualifications you hold, but about being able to be present, impactful and having a willingness to listen. If you’re not arrogant or egotistical about it, and stubbornly holding onto your opinion, but instead truly willing to listen, that’s when it becomes your biggest virtue.”

When Sharon was appointed as TransUnion Africa’s CFO in February 2021, she was entrusted with integrating finance and providing commercial leadership, and her priority was to create an empowered finance team. “The team was disengaged, broken, and disenfranchised. My vision was to create a culture of honesty that empowered every individual with a performance contract, as well as an individual and overall career development plan. This would enable tangible conversations between individuals, managers and teams, where wins can be celebrated and development areas, as well as poor performance, can be addressed with humility.”

However, Sharon had to put a lot of “heart” into truly connecting with the people in finance to develop a relationship of trust and respect. “We all have things in common and I like to find those things. If we can create an open culture for people to get to know each other and be their best, authentic selves, we can connect in real ways and take away hierarchy,” she explains. 

“I spent the first three months speaking to every single person in my finance team, while engaging with stakeholders in the wider organisation, as well as getting my hands stuck into the business and its strategy. I wanted to know who they were. So, I asked them about their lives, what was important to them, their families, their childhood years, their love stories and their passions – if they did not need to earn a living, what would they do, for example,” she adds. 

The other initiative Sharon used was something she had done previously, and her son had done at school. “Every person had to use five objects that represented their journey in life up to the present. We learned so much about each other.” 

 

She explained that her five objects were: 

  1. Black stiletto heels: “I love my heels and the femininity they represent, because I love being a lady. In a male-dominated industry, I remind myself of who I am, and I promised myself I would never change and mimic a man to win. I was going to enter boardrooms, close deals, and be successful leading with the best version of me. You be you and I will be me, but we will be inclusive of each other.”
  2. Red lipstick: “It reminds me that I am more than the roles I play. To me, it says: I am Sharon, and I am full of passion (maybe even rebellious when I need to be). But most of all; I am ready for whatever life will bring.” 
  3. A little Ganesha: “Being Indian and embracing the spirituality, culture and traditions that come with it is very important to me.” 
  4. A mineral stone shaped like a heart: “I am a person of pure love. I love, love.” 
  5. The book Tess of D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: “I probably read it when I was nine years old. I love reading and anything vintage, and my parents loved antiques, so much so that they frequented auctions and estate sales when people moved into retirement villages. My dad bought me the entire hard-bound original collection of Thomas Hardy’s books. This was, and is, my all-time favourite book.”

Every Monday, Sharon also hosted a morning coffee hour, albeit virtually. “I would wait in the meeting room with a cup of coffee, and anyone can join whenever they want during that time to ask me anything or even just to have a chat,” she explains.

“People would sometimes just come in and say, ‘life is hard today’, because it was in the middle of Covid-19 and people were facing severe health, emotional and financial losses. There was no agenda and no rules. We would just talk and share perspectives or experiences openly.”

After two years of coffee sessions, connect sessions, town halls, etc, Sharon started a new initiative last year. “Everyone had to take the Whole Brain Thinking Model (HBDI), which tells you your individual thinking preference. We would then share our unique assessments with the rest of the team so that we could better understand ourselves and each other to integrate and leverage each other’s thinking, thus strengthening our team.” 

Because of all these concerted efforts, the finance engagement score went from low double digits before Sharon joined TransUnion Africa to 85 percent in the first year she led the team and has been improving ever since. 

And you don’t need money to achieve this, she adds. “Recently we did an Amazing Race in Sandton City. We randomly picked people out of the team and made smaller teams. We then chose 10 things in Sandton City and gave the teams an hour to take a picture with whatever was on the list. It cost us nothing, but everyone had a lot of fun.”

The team also made vision boards. Each team member had to, literally, draw out their personal and professional goals and objectives for the year – they weren’t allowed to use any words.

Sharon stresses the importance of investing time and effort in change management initiatives like these, even if it’s free. 

 The ultimate transformation plan

These initiatives also helped to give Sharon an idea of people’s sentiments; whether they were enjoying their jobs, why they came to work, and what was missing in the team or the business.

Using everything she learned from these engagements, she put together a transformation strategy for finance to better integrate into the business. “I rolled out a three-year plan,” she says. “In year one, we simplified. I told the team to stop everything they were busy with and go back to the basics. Once we had gotten rid of all the waste in the system, in year two, we focused on industrialising.” 

Sharon explains that there were regional finance teams in Africa with scattered finance team members sometimes isolated. “We were very segregated, which meant that there were different systems and processes for different parts of the business. So, we centralised that year to bring in governance, standardisation, as well as more coaching and leadership within finance – so no finance person felt alone.”

In the third year, the finance team focused on innovation and offered to pilot every system the broader group wanted to roll out.  

“Now that we have moved away from the statutory stuff, we are becoming stronger business partners and are adding more value, we’re looking at true transformation,” she says.

“But it’s not about race, gender, religion, or even experience. In South Africa, we make it about race because of the country’s history, but it should be multifaceted. What we truly want from diversity is different thinking and inclusivity.” 

A need for bravery

This brings us to courage. “A previous boss called me courageous, and he always said to me: ‘You are courageous not because you are fearless, but because you wake up and make hard decisions despite your fears’,” Sharon says. 

She explains that, from a business perspective, being in South Africa right now is challenging, but it’s always been that way. “We haven’t lost the opportunities that live on the continent. We just need to change our thinking and do things differently.”

The problem, Sharon adds, is that people have forgotten how to be innovative. “I read a Dr Seuss quote that said, ‘Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living; it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities.’ I think that’s what we need to do in business now.

“I think we’ve looked in the same direction, at the same thing, in the same way, for too long. If we start to approach it differently, we will get different outcomes.” 

Sharon encourages leaders to be transformative, explaining: “Everyone is tired, because everything is hard, but instead of waiting for someone else to fix it, we need to look at what we can do to turn it around. That’s where the opportunity lies. But there’s a need for bravery.”

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