CFOs at the helm: changing perceptions in an uncertain world

“It’s not what you see it’s how you interpret what you are seeing,” American-born baseball player and coach turned business performance coach, Brian Farley, told the assembled audience at a master class session held on 12 May at Summer Place, ahead of the hugely successful annual CFO Awards dinner.

Keith Coats, founding partner of TomorrowToday Global, also took a turn at the podium, getting CFOS thinking with his ideas about change, the future, and how leaders need to adapt in order to survive. "Turbulence is the new operational norm," he told the rapt audience. CEOs Deon Viljoen from Alexander Forbes, and Jannie Serfontein from Eqstra, along with CFOs Nishant Saxena from Cipla, and Jo Pohl from Telesure, unpacked the concepts raised during the discussion, offering their own views and sharing their experiences.

Eliminate what you don't do well and focus on what you do do well. You must adjust quickly or you're going to lose the game. You must adapt to what the environment is giving you at all times. - Brian Farley

Explaining how we make associations with the world based on what we see, Brian said: "Your perception is your story. Everybody has their own story. It's unique. Your experiences shape how you see the world. That is your reality. When we see things we make a value judgement, and evaluate situations and decide what they mean and how they make us feel."

If you benchmark yourself on historical data, you are in for a surprise. There's a new world developing. Things are changing quickly. Change is happening exponentially. To find benchmarks in that world is difficult. - Deon Viljoen, Alexander Forbes Acting CEO

There are only two kinds of perceptions, he added, those that block our ability and those that stimulate us and give us the power to do something. We need to be focused on the mission and the joy of the situation in which we find ourselves, because when we do something we enjoy, that's when we succeed, he said.

Change is the norm these days. It's part of our lives now. Gone are the days of 10 and 15-year strategies; you need consistent change. - Jannie Serfontein, Eqstra CEO

But to get there we sometimes need to fail, because there is no growth without failure, he said: "The journey towards discovery is fraught with falling down and getting up. Failure is a part of this. You're going to fail but you're going to fail forwards."

"We are living in disruptive times. The majority of our future will be shaped by things we cannot predict today. You cannot plan your way into a world of uncertainty," said Keith Coats. Keith asked the assembled CFOS if it is possible to be adaptive and strategic in one's thinking when the rules are constantly shifting. Being too reliant on strict strategies negates our ability to change, he said, but we've become so reliant on plans that it has become difficult to change our mind-set. "Real innovation is the ability to change your business model," he said. "That is hard work."

According to Keith, the future world, this rapidly changing world, requires leaders of vision, because turbulence is the new operational norm. Leadership, he added, is a character ethic, not a skills set. But leaders these days are also faced with the challenge of paradox - right versus right. And in such a world, how do you resolve issues? "As a leader you have to build a framework of understanding. The more armed you can be with frameworks of understanding, the better you can lead in a world of constant paradox," he said.

Our entire business model could disappear with all the change happening in the world today. We have to think through the what-if scenario. The challenge is to get the team to think differently. - Jo Pohl, Telesure CFO

Leaders also need to start paying attention to what is happening below the surface, he said, because leaders cannot only drive their businesses through financial metrics along. Leaders must thus become a part of the conversation. "If you aren't involved in the conversation in or outside of the business, you certainly cannot influence it, let alone control it."

Change is important. The role of the CEO and CFO is to balance what to change and what not to change. - Nishant Saxena, Cipla CFO

The problem with the future, said Keith, is that the further you look into it the fuzzier it becomes. But it's that kind of complexity that you need intelligent frameworks around. "It's about asking the right questions - that's how you ensure a successful strategy. The role of the leader is to ask intelligent questions."

In closing Keith advised leaders to be agile and easily able to adapt. This, he said, is how leaders will survive the future. "Leaders are brokers of hope when it comes to the future. Be a conveyer of hope. This is lived through your behaviour and your actions."

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