CFOs and their teams are learning new skills and ways of working during lockdown

Finance leaders reveal that teams are becoming more innovative, in this week's CFO Conversation.

On Wednesday night, CFO South Africa hosted another edition of CFO Community Conversations. Ten finance professionals gathered online to talk about some of the hardest things they have had to deal with during Covid-19 and the lessons they have learnt from these challenges. 

“We’ve already addressed a couple of concerns and challenges we’re experiencing in previous CFO Community Conversations and it’s easy to get stuck in these tangible challenges, but there have also been some amazing learning experiences,” CFO South Africa community manager John Deane said as he welcomed guests.  

CFOs agreed that one of the most important lessons they had learnt during lockdown was how they could communicate better, especially now that lockdown has been extended.

“I thought I had mastered communication, but it has only been in one manner – face to face,” Allan Gray CFO Claire Soloman said. “I’ve learned that communication is a lot more than that. You need to learn a new set of skills for virtual communication.”

Publicis FD Karen Clarke believes it’s equally important to safeguard your own state of mind. She sometimes has to tell her team that she is not available in order to focus on herself. 

One CFO echoed these thoughts, saying that people need to understand that the lockdown set-up is not a normal working environment and, as leaders, CFOs need to be tolerant of their employees being disrupted at home.

She also pointed out that it’s important to be conscious of and safeguard the mental state of employees.

This is specifically applicable to CFOs who have had to go through audits during the Covid-19 crisis, having to engage – and sometimes disagree – with auditors. The CFOs concurred that it’s difficult to manage more than 50 people in an online meeting when you are trying to come to a solution.

Two of the CFOs seemed to have stepped into a cheerleading role during lockdown, having to motivate their teams during these sombre times. 

Douglasdale Dairy CFO Bradley Wentzel says a big part of his job now involves giving his team pep talks in the mornings after driving to work on quiet roads.  

Hatch Africa CFO Craig Sumption added that “no one has a definite answer, and it makes people nervous, so you have to motivate them. You also have to be sensitive towards people. Not everyone is working from home comfortably and we need to be aware of that and not put undue pressure on them”

Another extremely pressing concern that CFOs have raised time and again is cashflow management. Many in attendance expressed that they are having to formulate new strategies for this, since they supply large retailer who, despite the fact that they are operating as essential services, are unwilling to pay suppliers during this crisis. 

“You are left scrambling because you’re caught in between not getting paid and not being able to pay people yourself,” Bradley said. But he has learnt that finding ways to make deals is important, especially in the current climate.

One CFO said that she has been receiving requests for payment holidays from the most unlikely sources and that she believes some companies are taking advantage of the situation to avoid making payments. “As a community of business leaders, we need to be aware of this and guard against this.”  

Allen & Overy head of finance Averen Deonanan said that the toughest part about not getting paid by clients is having to sit down with his teams and talk about salary adjustments. He said that he is also meeting with their smaller suppliers to try and support them, but that at the same time, he has to make sure that there is enough cash in the business. 

Another CFO agreed that all finance leaders need to make sure they’re managing their cash when big retailers aren’t paying, otherwise, a cycle of companies people not being able to pay each other will ensue and that will ultimately result in damaged relationships. 

“Bigger companies have to step up and help smaller companies because if they go under, you lose a client, and inevitably you’re going under as well,” he said. 

However, there has been a positive outcome from these situations in the form of the initiative and creativity finance professionals are seeing in their teams and companies. People are showing that they are willing to step up and take action to help their companies. 

“Lockdown has forced finance professionals to come out of their boxes and contribute in a much more creative way,” Karen said.

Verimark CFO Bryan Groome agreed, saying that he has seen the increased enthusiasm for innovation coming from his team. “Everyone is trying to think of new initiatives, trying to say what can we do differently and thinking about what we can do next,” he said. “I think after lockdown we are going to see a lot of new great ideas being implemented in companies.”