Clarissa Appana shares how she went from a cadet pilot to the CFO of Lafarge

Clarissa’s ability to channel her sense of adventure within any sphere she occupies has led to new opportunities.

The determined country CFO of Lafarge, Clarissa Appana, hails from KwaZulu-Natal. Naturally inquisitive, she always excelled academically from a young age and despite being the youngest of four children, her go-getting attitude made her a natural leader of the pack.

Early on, the family suffered a loss which changed their trajectory. With the death of her father when she was just six, life changed and became quite difficult. Her now single-parent mom managed to maintain a home rich with principles and values, but luxuries were hard to come by. Determined to succeed, Clarissa bet on herself and set her sights on accomplishing her dreams.

“From early childhood grounding and circumstances, I always strived to be my best and create a life that was better than where I was coming from. I saw the challenges that came my way as twists to navigate along the journey, not dead ends.”

She recently went through one of her toughest periods when her mom, who had been her pillar, passed away suddenly in 2020. Still healing, she says these and other scars are what make her stronger and more resilient.

Finding her way
A natural adventurer, Clarissa says she’s always loved space, been fascinated with nature and had a hunger for seeing the world. Ideally, she would have wanted to be an astronaut, but given the limitations of being in South Africa, settled on trying to become an airplane pilot.

After being shortlisted by SAA cadet pilot training for several years, being a pilot didn’t pan out, so she fell into a career in finance and even then, her sense of adventure and wonder has never left her. Instead, she has found ways to channel it within any sphere she occupies and it has led to great opportunities, she says.

The first was when she opted to leave home to do her articles in Gauteng, which was an environment she hadn’t previously worked in. She was keen to meet and experience new people, as she already knew everyone at the KwaZulu-Natal office. “Gauteng was an opportunity to put myself in a bigger setting, culture and to challenge myself in a new setting.”

After her time at PwC, where she cut her teeth as a CA, she spent three years with NYSE and JSE listed Sasol Group, then moved on to the Milan-headquartered Tenova Group where she spent 10 years in various senior roles, including head of internal audit and global head of compliance.

She was able to work in multiple regions, managing teams across different geographies and disciplines, with a focus on people and teamwork. These opportunities led to her working and travelling to the US, Brazil, Chile, Poland, Germany, Italy, as well as in India, China and Australia.

“The exposure and level of understanding I gained from working in different cultures is an intangible skill that compounds and grows with time,” she says. “With each experience I learnt more and flourished.” Building relationships and figuring out how to interact in different settings is a skill that has resulted in her having a strong sense of self, developing deep social skills and cultivating a global network that she can leverage whenever she needs to.

Empowering teams
A champion of excellence, Clarissa is committed to surrounding herself with the best people. She believes in empowering those around her, and says, “If we are working together, I want you to share your ideas, I want new innovative, transformative ways of thinking. That makes for stronger outcomes.” She says this attitude speaks to today's generation of leaders, who aren’t afraid to surround themselves with people who have different strengths and skills, and collectively leveraging that produces stronger results.

She describes her leadership style as charismatic-transformative because she is drawn towards advancing innovation, growth and transformation. As a dynamic and driven professional, this style grows out of her personality, but she says it has flourished because of mentors and coaches who saw her innate potential and supported her growth and development over the years.

An agile and responsive leader, she says how she leads adjusts according to the circumstance. “For instance, Covid-19 has forced us to be more flexible. It’s a time for leaders to be empathetic, but also to step up and make decisions with a little more feeling than in the past. You need to be able to shift and respond to what is going on when you are in a fluid, ever-changing environment.”

As a person who deeply values relationships, she says she has made it a point to create authentic, lasting bonds. In fact, one of her proudest accomplishments is being able to maintain relationships that started in her early days. She values having a deep network of people she can call on for advice, to connect with and draw from, adding that, “The organisations you work for may change, but true relationships sustain through those transitions.”

While she acknowledges that she has deliberately driven her career, she says the strong support of leaders, coaches, mentors and her personal relationships have helped her grow. “My influences go beyond the confines of the workplace, and I am inspired by leading women trailblazers who have social impact and bring their voice to issues like ethics in business.”

In 2020 she was appointed as an independent non-executive director to Sygnia’s board and cites the company’s executive chair Magda Wierzycka as one such figure. Her late mother is also an enduring role model and the early discipline, sense of family and ability to navigate difficult situations with grace are some of the lessons she learned from her.

Defining success
She says for her, success is about seeing the teams she leads thriving. “Within the organisation it’s about being clear on strategy, being a pivotal part of defining the overarching direction and drilling down how this translates in our context.”

Outside of work, she says success is being able to honor work and family commitments and making sure that those closest to her are a priority. She admits this is not an easy balance to achieve, and adds that, “It’s probably nothing new to female executives, but as long as you have the support, manage expectations, good boundaries and a company with a healthy culture, I believe it is possible.”

The mother of a two-year-old daughter, Clarissa says becoming a mother when her career is at such great heights has been a huge transition, one that was particularly complex when Covid-19 hit. “It was a huge challenge, but my husband and I managed to get through it as a team.” She says like many parents around the world, the ability to work from home is something she grew to appreciate as she saw her daughter grow and change before her eyes, a privilege she would have never had if she had been working out of an office.

Outside of work
Clarissa loves nature and is drawn to documentaries, loves space travel and culture. She admits to being a foodie and says she gets so engrossed in culinary delights that when she went to a three-star Michelin restaurant in Lyon run by renowned chef Paul Bucose, the staff thought she was a food critic because she was so enthusiastic about the experience. “Everywhere I go, I find unique experiences and make sure I maximise every location. I have found that it’s the memories of special moments that stay with you over the years.”

Passionate about photography and art, she says the Japanese art of Kintsugi resonates with her. The artform uses a precious metal, liquid gold or silver to bring together the pieces of a broken pottery item, which fixes and at the same time, enhances the breaks. “This metaphor of putting together broken pieces of pottery is about embracing your entire life story, your flaws and imperfections. It is not about seeing yourself as fractured, but more unique because you are reconstructed in a new way. It resonates with having the ability to rebuild after facing adversity.”

The yoga enthusiast also loves spending time with her small family and including the wider extended family whenever possible.