CFO South Africa's first online summit reveals finance executives are learning rapidly


Valter Adão challenged CFOs to use the crisis to make significant jumps forward in their businesses.

On Thursday, 2 April, CFO South Africa hosted its first ever online summit with 24 finance executives in attendance. The summit was originally scheduled to be held in Cape Town, but since President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a 21-day lockdown because of the spread of Covid-19, CFO South Africa has been exploring new ways of bringing the CFO community together.

CFO South Africa MD Joël Roerig welcomed the finance executives in attendance, noting that the occasion was historic. “Never before have we come together in an online setting like this.” 

He went on to thank the CFO South Africa’s partners who are committed to supporting the CFO community. This event was supported by principal partners Deloitte and Standard Bank, executive partners SAP Concur and Workday, and associate partners Clarkhouse Human Capital, Jaguar Land Rover, Coupa and Transparent.

Joël then introduced Deloitte chief digital and innovation officer Valter Adão, who kicked off conversations around how Covid-19 has accelerated global business into what has become the new normal.

Valter discussed three steps leaders will have to go through in this time of drastic change: respond, recover and thrive. “The response speaks to what we had to do in the days leading up to lockdown, as well as when we come out of lockdown. Then we have to move rapidly into a recover and a thrive mode in order sustain ourselves into the future.” 

He also referred to Youtube, Dropbox, Whatsapp, Tinder and Skype – companies that are increasingly outperforming others, saying these businesses are already fit for the kind of environment we are currently operating in. “These businesses operate 24/7 and without geographic constraints. So it certainly challenges the traditional business paradigm.”

However, Valter says that it’s not necessarily technology that are making these businesses phenomenal, it’s what leaders are doing with their technology that is allowing them to unlock this value. As a result, a lot of the disruption or change that is allowing companies to thrive in these difficult environments are businesses that have: 

  • Dematerialised: They’ve reduced their reliance on infrastructure. 
  • Demonetised: They’ve changed their business model. 
  • Democratised: They use data to develop hypotheses for running their businesses as opposed to the other way around where businesses develop hypotheses and input data to make key decisions. 

“The other side of the digital economy and technology is that we’re getting a rapid learning in this regard,” Valter adds.

“Digital is more than just technology, it’s changing our physical, biological and chemical world. It’s changed how we live, work and communicate with each other and having a tremendous impact on our businesses, industries and economies. It’s also created awareness around the social change that we have to drive in our environment and it’s empowered us as individuals in organisation to participate in that social change.” 

He unpacked some of the principles and philosophies leaderships need to tap into in this time of change:

  • Unprecedented metabolic rate of change: This is the challenge that, as a CFO, you need to lead your business into the unknown. It also describes the adoption of these new solutions by customers. “That’s when disruption starts happening.” 
  • Lawson effect: This is when companies are innovating vigorously in the wrong direction or becoming so comfortable with something that they break it. “You have to identify these Lawson moments in your organisation and stop them. Make sure your efforts around innovation are focused on something that will make your business stronger and is relevant to the market.” 
  • Resource allocation: You have to distinguish what the right things are to invest into and what the wrong things are. You have to look for evidence of where the capex of a new digital solution is lower than the opex of how things were done before. You also have to ensure that you can unlock exponential growth, improved productivity and improved experience from these solutions. 
  • New age of the ecosystem: “We’ve now been thrust into that. In the last seven days, all our companies that are working remotely are all becoming platforms.” In order to adjust to this new workforce ecosystem, leaders have to bring in experts and expertise into your business. “If we create the right ecosystems of expertise, we can progress.” Overnight, everyone is now in a symbiotic relationship, competitors, different industries and companies are working together to move into a new ecosystem. 

Attendees were then split into “mini think tanks” to discuss their leadership style when it comes to adapting to and weathering the Covid-19 storm. CFOs shared that they are rising to the leadership challenge by being inclusive and holding regular check-ins with their teams. They are also being a lot more collaborative and transformative within their businesses’ operations. 

Others revealed that the situation is pushing them to start thinking about the future of work – and whether they really need all that floorspace, while others said they were trying to identify new, pandemic-proof income streams. 

The participants even took the opportunity to share their frustrations at having to manage their children's distance learning, in addition to working from home themselves – adding that sharing these frustrations with others on their teams helped to reduce the stress. 

When attendees were brought back into the main session, Valter said he felt incredibly proud to listen to a group of South African CFOs responding so aggressively and positively to a very challenging environment, and playing such a critical role in driving change. 

He left CFOs inspired, saying this year is going to be the greatest leadership challenge ever. “We have to become very open-minded to new ways of doing things. People work best under pressure. We get far more creative in finding solutions to progress. And the last week is evidence of that. Use the crisis to make significant jumps forward.” 

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