CFOs agree that the first thing leaders should do during a crisis is to look after their staff

CFOs share their leadership anecdotes from times of crisis during a CFO Community Conversation.

On Wednesday evening, 6 May, CFO South Africa hosted the 6th edition of its weekly CFO Community Conversations with finance professionals joining the online discussion about leadership during times of crisis, like Covid-19. 

After welcoming the group, CFO South Africa community manager John Deane introduced Barloworld CFO Nopasika Lila to share the key lessons leaders can harness during times of crisis. 

“As we go through change, growth is inevitable,” Nopasika said. “As leaders, we are trained and experienced to manage people and situations in tested environments. So while we have a crisis plan, it may not be tested, ready or appropriate for extraordinary or sudden disruptive situations and emergencies.” 

The four key lessons Nopasika highlighted that she believes are essential for leaders and CFOs during these uncertain times were:

1.    Demonstrate confidence as a leader 
You need to decisively take charge of the situation and make sound and informed decisions. Don’t underestimate the importance of instinct in uncertain waters. 

2.    Be alert and aware of the business climate and the world around us
As a CFO you are expected to detect the early signs of a crisis, outline the precautionary measures around mitigating and managing risks, ascertain the impact of the crisis on the business and the stakeholders, and ensure business remains sustainable. 

3.    Show empathy towards the situation
Support your stakeholders emotionally on an ongoing basis. We can also receive a lot of growth from teams if we listen to them.

4.    Communication and availability
You have to show up, be present and communicate to all stakeholders and continuously provide reassurance that things are being managed. 

Concurring with what Nopasika said, Aveng CFO Adrian Macartney added his own anecdotes to leading in a time of crisis. “Liquidity is the name of the game right now. We’ve had to forego some P&L opportunities to ensure we have the liquidity to carry us through the next six to 12 months.”

Adrian added that the impact of this crisis is so dramatic that leaders need to be prepared to break the mold of the “normal” way of doing business. 

He also believes leaders should:

  1. Be authentic and aware in terms of their team members and the things they are going through
  2. Communicate extensively and recognise the efforts of individuals and teams
  3. Make hard calls and be prepared to change them
  4. Be calm and demonstrate control
  5. Look after themselves physically and emotionally

The CFOs then broke into three groups to discuss the lessons Nopasika and Adrian presented and to share the tough decisions they have had to make during the Covid-19 crisis. 

Shoprite CFO Anton de Bruyn said that the biggest challenge has been to make and apply different rules for their different businesses. “We have three sets of businesses: the essential service providers who are currently operating; the liquor businesses, which will only open at level 3 of lockdown; and the furniture businesses, which will only open at level 2 of lockdown.” 

He also mentioned an appreciation bonus of R102 million that Shoprite has paid to staff. This once-off bonus is a way of thanking and supporting the company’s shop floor and distribution centre employees for their efforts during the Covid-19 pandemic. “The first thing you do in a crisis is to look at your people and staff,” he said. 

Many of the CFOs echoed these thoughts, saying that maintaining the health and safety of their employees remain at the front of their focus even as lockdown restrictions are lifted. 

The CFOs also agree that constant communication with their teams and staff has proven vital to everyone’s sanity and productivity.

Along with having daily check-ins, one CFO’s team has a WhatsApp group where they can share memes, jokes and personal stories throughout the day. “Once we have concluded our half-year results at the end of May we are scheduling a games afternoon on Zoom for the team to engage and blow off steam.” 

She believes that “over-communication is key” during this time. 

For Adcock Ingram CFO and 2020 CFO Awards nominee Dorette Neethling leadership meant being prepared for the crisis and anticipating what might come next. “As an essential service, we are deeply committed and have a responsibility to ensure that there is an uninterrupted supply of medicines, particularly life-saving medicines such as intravenous fluids. It is for this reason that our Critical Care or Hospital factory currently operates 24/7, illustrating the commitment of our workforce who worked through the entire Easter weekend, so that if we have to shut the factory due to an infection, we can still ensure that our country remains fully supplied with these life-saving products.

 Even though they are still trading, a lot of the CFOs who are working in essential services companies agreed that their sales and revenue are worrying. “It’s hard to explain that whilst you are trading, you still have external factors impacting profits,” Dorette added. “And then having to implement cost saving measures in other areas.” 

While maintaining business sustainability and liquidity was a pressing concern on the CFOs’ minds, the consensus of the evening was that leaders need to take care of their stakeholders and ensure the safety and wellbeing of their workforce by keeping in touch during the Covid-19 crisis.