CFOs reveal their worst days - and what they learnt from them

Having to let people go, self-doubt and regulatory changes keep these CFOs awake at night.

Being a CFO comes with its fair share of challenges and tribulations. While some days, like reporting strong growth for the company, are great, CFOs can also account for their hardest day professionally or the toughest lesson they have learnt. 

Grindrod CFO Xolani Mbambo’s (pictured) hardest ‘day’ professionally was over a period of six months. “I administered the closure of our rail locomotives assembly plant in Pretoria, which saw job losses of over 500,” he said. “This was a painful experience; and significant shareholder value was also lost in this process.” 

Read more: Hooked on economics Grindrod's Xolani Mbambo

During Discovery Vitality CFO Senele Mbatha’s articles he was involved in letting somebody go. “To separate facts from emotions is not easy, and it’s important to always reflect on that,” he said. “The person had done the wrong thing that was against company policy, and I found it out. As a supervisor, I had to report what I had found, but it was hard. I spoke to someone senior about it and they said I had to do the right thing so I could sleep at night. That’s stayed with me forever.”

Read more: Discovery Vitality's CFO Senele Mbatha: we need to be slick, efficient, smart and relevant

RMB Corporate Banking CFO Storme McDonald’s hardest day was the day she got the job at RMB Corporate Banking. “I was head of product finance and for three years I had been working with a gentleman who was the head of finance, and we both applied. By my expectations, he was far more suitable as he had more experience in running the area – he had more experience and had been in the bank longer,” she explained. “On the day I was given the job, he got the feedback first, before me. I remember walking out feeling overwhelmed. The current CEO of the business and the CFO of RMB had expressed so much faith and confidence in me, but inside I was asking, “Can I really do this?”. Then I had to walk downstairs and face the person who also applied for the job. But he was exceptionally supportive and said he felt I was the right person for the job.” 

Read more: RMB Corporate Banking CFO Storme McDonald on banking digitalisation and dogs 

Fedgroup CFO Sheldon Friedericksen describes his hardest days are those in which, after every reasonable attempt to improve the performance of a team member, you are required to terminate their employment. “This is a decision that weighs heavily on me, and causes me the most stress as a leader of multiple teams. I believe that everyone accepts employment with the best intentions, comes to work to execute, learn and deliver on what is required,” he said. “However, an employment contract is a two-sided relationship, with both parties making a contractual promise to each other to deliver. And if one party is not delivering, it is critical to have these honest discussions. As a result, the lesson learnt has been to hire slowly and methodically, as the wrong hire can have ramifications down the line that play out within the broader company and its culture.” 

Read more: Be patient and enjoy the journey says Fedgroup CFO Sheldon Friedericksen

For FirstRand CFO for Rest of Africa Gideon Joubert, the worst day is the one where you get a call from one of your team members saying, “Gideon, I think you need to see this”. They come out of the blue. “As a result, they are usually very time-consuming. A new regulation or ruling from central bank may be all consuming for two or three weeks or even months. As we operate across nine jurisdictions in the Rest of Africa, there are constant changes, dynamics and regulations to stay abreast of that will influence your strategy. Many of these are subject to change at very short notice,” he said. 

Read more: 10 questions for FirstRand CFO for rest of Africa Gideon Joubert