CFOs who became CEOs (Part 1): A finance captain steering an engineering ship

According to fresh results from this year's CFO Day Survey, nearly three quarters of all CFOs are eyeing the top job and aspire to be CEO after their current role. And their ambitions are not unrealistic: a third of all CEOs of the JSE Top-40 are previous finance executives. But what does it take to scale the highest summit? Which different skills are required? How do you move from numbers to people and strategy? CFO Magazine spoke to five former CFOs who were promoted to CEO to find out what it takes.

The CFO of AECOM Africa since 2014, Joe Ndala was assigned an additional role in August 2018 as the managing director of AECOM’s South Africa business under the newly-formed Middle East & Africa (MEA) region.

“I had to be agile in working with the Middle East leadership team to ensure a structured approach as one region with minimal disruption,” he says. “I had to instil a collaborative approach while demonstrating trust in a new structure. But to do so I had to be convinced first as to what benefits the changes would bring.”

He says that what helped him was the fact that he always anticipates change and remains agile, which make it possible for him to maintain a calm demeanour and help others navigate through uncertain times.

In his new role, he was also tasked with improving collaboration between the finance and operations teams, so that finance could be more externally focused and support client engagement, while looking for new ways to grow the business.
 
In this regard, his experience as the CFO was clearly very useful. But at the same time, he had to make sure that he saw the bigger picture, while getting to grips with his expanded responsibilities. He describes the move up as “moving out of a comfort zone and into a growth zone”.

“During that transition, I had to be confident in my abilities, learn new skills, and manage other people’s expectations. Likewise, I had to learn to be more outgoing and have stronger presence as a leader.”

He says that while it is in his nature to anticipate uncertainty, he was able to contain his own concerns so that he could inspire and motivate his team.

“I am expected to be an enabler, to guide the ship through storms – such as difficult market conditions – into new ventures and adjust rapidly to global shifts that economic markets create.”

Joe points out that he often acted in the CEO or MD role before. “During that period, I always liaised with my coach who guided me on how to get the most out of the different teams. His advice still rings in my ears until this day: “Be a good listener and ask questions.”

Support comes from unexpected places, and Joe confesses he was also motivated by a colleague who had a note that read, “What’s stopping you?” on his desk. “After a time, I started to feel that it was speaking directly to me. That note fuelled in me a desire to take responsibility without waiting to be asked.”

However, it’s not easy to let go of the finance role which has come so naturally for so long, and Joe says that he’s still learning to look at broader business factors. “For example, every Monday morning, I chair a leadership meeting and when I prepare the agenda, I find myself thinking about finance KPIs more than I should.”

To make sure he’s getting the right mix, he checks in with his colleagues. “I ask them if the meeting was balanced or if it was leaning more towards finance issues, and the feedback helps me to self-check.” 

Another simple step he took was to alter his physical environment. “I moved my desk. Every morning when I get to the office, the desk’s new position subconsciously reminds me of my new responsibilities.”

He also schedules time to walk all the floors to gain an understanding of what people are involved in so that he can offer them support or motivation.

All of this, he says, will support him in driving his vision for the Africa business’ future in the MEA region, which is to increase the brand recognition and reputation, expand its footprint and inspire innovation.

Next: Attacq’s Melt Hamman: “Understanding human behaviour is critical”