City of Joburg’s Thabea Modise on accountability as the key to her success

Thabea Modise says she is a custodian of the public purse and must follow the rules.

The City of Joburg passionate assistant finance director Thabea Modise says that principled leadership is an important part of being a finance professional. Thabea ,who grew up in Meadowlands, Soweto has been in her position since 2010. 

For her, excelling in her field demands upholding standards, having clear internal control processes and being mindful that when controls are not enforced, trouble is not far behind. She says:

“We are the custodians of the public purse and we must be consistent with following the rules.” 

As news of public finance professionals turning a blind eye to regulations dominates the headlines, her views on upholding standards offer insight on where improvements could be made. 

Leading ethically
“As a leader, you have to be accountable and this means not pointing fingers but taking responsibility when things go wrong. Taking the good with the bad is part of leadership because when you lead, you must take responsibility for your team.” 

She asserts that it is important to stick to the principles of the accounting industry, which means being honest and making sure transactions offer value for money for the municipality, “because every rand that is lost or wasted could have been used for service delivery and improving people’s lives.”

Her leadership style is one of leading by example and has been informed by observing the ramifications when individuals don’t stay in integrity. She says that the inconsistency that some leaders display causes people to lose respect for them, and treating values as optional or applying rules inconsistently leads to problems down the line. “Being a person of your word lets people know what you stand for,” she says.  

Thabea recognises her role in driving a culture of governance throughout the organisation. She says, “Rules should be applied within the team but also beyond. In our organisation, there are non-financial managers who need to have oversight or sign off certain items. You need to explain the process to them and reiterate the importance of sticking to regulations, adhering to policies and maintaining the standards that you’re trying to enforce. That engagement is not a once-off, it's actually something that you have to continuously communicate.” 

She adds that making a deliberate effort to bring people along and impressing upon them the importance of compliance is vital.

Her key achievements thus far include centralisation of supply chain management to finance, establishing internal control systems and clear work process flow, building relations with departments where there are interdependencies, facilitating an understanding of supply chain management to non-financial managers and improving compliance to financial policies.

She excels at establishing internal control processes, identifying and building relations with relevant internal and external stakeholders, collection and collation of financial data, ensuring there is an audit trail on project spending  and that proper records are kept for audit purposes.

Lessons from lockdown
The City of Joburg is a massive institution and having to work during the lockdown proved to be extremely challenging. A lot of colleagues were not set up to work from home and beyond that, there was a lot of resistance to adopting digital tools at a rapid pace. 

“In accounting we typically have a lot of documents that have to be signed. Some people were reluctant to work on digital platforms and really wanted to work from the office, from their desktops.” Luckily, the city has offices that are not open plan, so they could go in and still follow social distancing protocols. However, as a manager she still had to co-ordinate the work virtually to ensure that financial reporting deadlines were met. 

“As a team we had to rely on each other and assist colleagues who were struggling with stress and anxiety. It was important that we all understood that we had to deliver despite the uncertainty, and we tried to do that by staying in touch and finding ways to be productive while keeping health and safety first,” She says a big challenge for the city has been moving from paper to digital. 

Looking back on this year, she says what she learned about herself is that she has resilience, is strong-willed and can power through her challenges, something she has proved having juggled her home life, work and studying during this period.

Embracing an unfolding future  
“Pre-Covid19 there was talk of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and it was more of a concept than a reality. But now, after lockdown, which forced us to accept a new way of doing things and accommodating technology more in our lives, it’s becoming a reality,” she says. Thabea hopes that after being forced to adjust, most people will see that they are more adaptable than they realised. 

Looking forward, the biggest shift that she’s hoping to see is that more individuals will become comfortable with new ways of doing things in the workplace. “I hope that the resistance to technology has been eroded and after remote working, people will be more proactive and trust themselves to work independently. I think it’s a real opportunity for growth and change and as a leader I plan to engage on this.” 

With her knack for handling complex issues and communicating benefits, opportunities and risks in a simple and conscious manner, she is well equipped to drive this transformation.

Following her own advice
Thabea believes in continuous growth and encourages those around her to develop themselves and invest in bettering themselves. Living up to this, she is studying for her MBA with Henley Business School because she wants to excel further and be able to access new professional opportunities.

Her passion for elevating everyone and everything she touches drives her. Outside of work, she enjoys inspiring and motivating others to think highly of themselves and one way she does this is through her love of fashion. 

As someone who loves beauty and has a knack for aesthetics, she subscribes to the adage that “when you look good you feel good”, and is looking into creating a vehicle that drives this philosophy, such as an e-commerce platform in the future. “I believe that we make clothes beautiful, otherwise it’s just fabric. It’s the person wearing it who gives it that extra flair and personality.”