CFOs at Finance Indaba share their mistakes and what they learnt from them

The best way to learn is from your mistakes, and these executives turned their errors into important lessons.

It was Warren Buffet who once said: “I make plenty of mistakes and I’ll make plenty more mistakes, too. That’s part of the game. You’ve just got to make sure that the right things overcome the wrong ones.”

Mistakes and their lessons were the subject this morning during a Finance Indaba Conversation. The conversation was kicked off by panellist Jubilant Speckman, CFO at Salungano Group (previously Wescoal). She said that she made a few mistakes early on in her career, and some have been more monumental than others. She once thought that one could walk into any industry without in-depth knowledge about it, but the mining industry proved to be quite challenging.

“I was performing a role at head office and isolating myself from the operations of the business at the time. So, as an analyst, I found it difficult to interpret and analyse the numbers. I quickly realised that this was going to hinder my growth, and the value that I could potentially add to the growth and sustainability of the organisation.

“I requested to spend time at a mine for a couple of months. This meant day-to-day-engagements with the mining management teams and operational staff. It really gave me a different perspective and assisted in my growth to be where I am today.”

Jubilant said that learning about every aspect of the business will make one more of a business partner than just a finance professional.

Buhle Hanise, CFO of BAIC SA, talked about leaving a company because of a strained elationship with a superior.

“When you don’t get along with a manager, you always think that it's you that’s being victimised, but here’s the problem: the other person does not necessarily need you. I was in a position where I loved a job and the company, but just didn’t get along with a manager. I left the company, but this disrupted my plans and my future goals. The lesson that I have learnt is to not leave a company just because of one person. If you love the job, just stick it out. The grass is not greener on the other side and that is clearly the case, because I left the next job for the same reason.”

Her advice was to not let one person disrupt your life and to ensure that you know what your goals and dreams are.

Marlé van der Walt, FD at Investec Bank, mentioned Investec’s stellar results and added that it was a great achievement coming out of Covid-19. But it was not without struggles. She mentioned that there was a time that shareholders were unhappy with their decisions. And there were a couple of things that they did wrong. One of their mistakes was to venture into areas or investments that they didn’t quite understand, and these areas were not properly analysed.

“It was a key mistake to go into an area without properly understanding it. I do believe that you should not always play it safe, but you should go in prepared. Ask yourself why you are going in, what you want to gain and keep on monitoring it. Stay close to the detail. If you then see that it is not performing well, and that there are more risks, you need to be able to make the tough decision quickly. Take the pain, regroup and write it off. Just go on with your core business.”

To summarise, she said that the key lessons were firstly, to properly analyse and to set objectives, secondly, to constantly monitor and thirdly to make the tough decisions.

To err is human
Jubilant added that no one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes. “Own your mistakes and be accountable,” she said. “Once you make a mistake, you will need to rebuild the trust of either the users of the information that you produced, or whoever [else] in the organisation. Being accountable enables you to rebuild the trust and ensure that you don’t repeat the same mistake.”

Buhle agreed that it is only human to make errors, and that one should learn how to adapt to your environment. She mentioned that if you struggle to get along with someone in the workplace, you must learn how to deal with them and how to adapt to the situation. There is help available, whether it is a third party, within HR or in your own department.

Marlé learnt that one should always try to think about new ideas, because the world is evolving.

“Think about new growth opportunities, but in a more disciplined way. When you go into new markets, make sure that you’ve got a detailed and in-depth understanding, the discipline of ongoing monitoring, and the discipline of making decisions quickly when things don’t work out.

“A lot of people become emotionally invested in a project, and you don’t want to make the decision to cut it because it’s your baby. You want to see it succeed, but sometimes the remedy is to simply cut it. Keep on learning and don’t get too emotionally attached to business. Be emotionally attached to people, not business.”

To conclude, the panellists all agreed that mistakes teach us more about work and life and that one should face them head-on. As Jubilant said: “Michael Jordan missed more than 9,000 shots in his career, but he made 28,000 winning shots. Keep things in perspective and don’t overthink it.”