Diary of a CFO: Christiaan Engelbrecht's first 90 days at Ster-Kinekor

In November 2016, Christiaan Engelbrecht joined Ster-Kinekor as CFO, a highlight in a finance career that started at Deloitte and Vodacom. He will keep a monthly diary for CFO.co.za to share his trials, tribulations and triumphs. This is part 1: the first 90 days.

There is nothing quite like gentle rain combined with a latte at my favourite coffee shop to make me reflect on my first 90 days in office. I smile as I revisit in my mind that day where my CFO journey started. "Do you want to go for a coffee?" These simple words, and the coffee with the executive team that followed, changed my life forever!

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It is just after 7am and the shop is still quiet; much like my first few days. I was presented with mountains of reports and other reading material. The outgoing CFO was still there and my introduction to the company was only scheduled for the first Friday after I joined. I had time to digest all the information. It was a very quiet period, barring the couple of employees who could not keep curiosity at bay and popped in to meet me. Similar to the baristas preparing for the morning rush, I had the space to prepare my intellectual self.

Slowly, but surely, more and more customers arrive at the coffee shop. The regulars are usually first to arrive and the owner gives special attention to each one. My first few weeks filled up with the regulars: site visits and meeting the various heads of all departments. This was critical to understanding the essence of the company. I learnt a great deal about operations, revenue streams, cost structures and processes underlying these. All of this very important.

However, the true value lies in my interactions and experiences of the different people across all levels and the how the collective culture of the organisation influences them. Taking the time to meet with each department quickly built relationships and established credibility. It is only a few months later that I realise how critical these intangible benefits will be to our success.

Just before the morning rush, the floor manager of the coffee shop calls for a quick meeting with his staff. Even though I cannot hear what is said, it was very apparent that there are clearly defined goals and complete alignment within the team! Oh, the good old 90 day plan... A lot has been written on this topic, details of which I shall not bore you. I had my 90 day plan! It adhered to the "SMART" principals and it was very achievable. I was poised to revolutionise the finance department. Now, after 90 days, I revisited this plan and noticed we achieved very little of it. Why? Did I fail?

The contrary actually! The initial goals would have demonstrated how successful I am. It had the energy of selfish ego. I was fortunate enough to realise this a few days after I set the goals and shifted my efforts for the benefit of the company and all staff of the company. It is not enough to know my role in the organisation is about being selfless, serving of others, guiding and coaching. I need to live these qualities. I need to step out of the paradigm of all previous roles and put on a new coat. Unfamiliar? Yes. Necessary? Most definitely!

The goals we did achieve in 90 days were exponentially more beneficial for the company. We changed the entire perception of the finance department, bringing finance from a keep-quiet-in-the-corner back-office-do-not-care area, into a strategic business partnering function. Fully integrated in operations. Our team is now becoming the backbone of the company, rather than a by-product of archaic governance. Something many thought to be impossible to achieve in this short space of time.

It is now in the middle of the morning service. The coffee shop is buzzing and there is a cue for coffee stretching into the parking lot. I'm in awe of the smooth service. Wow! Everyone is at the top of their game and there is a consistent, smooth and efficient service. Almost an effortless excellence. One would love to think that this is true for our companies. Truth be told: we have a way to go still. I reflect on the seamless teamwork of the staff in the coffee shop and decide that the next 90 days will be directed towards effortless teamwork between departments. A huge goal which scares and excites me at the same time!

Morning rush did not pass without incident. At one point, one of the coffee grinders clogged up which had the potential to double the time of the coffee production line. The owner stepped in immediately and communicated the issue to all the customers who came in. One of the baristas skilfully took apart the machine, fixed one of the ceramic grinders and cleaned the machine. Ready for service again!

Life happens. Even though we had crystal clear plans of how our processes should be working and we are executing thereon, things do not always go to plan. Timing changes, deadlines are missed, information does not tie up, operations fail to produce, systems crash. As a department we consciously decided that every event that does not go according to plan will be a learning opportunity. This subtle shift in thinking had a profound impact! When the proverbial paw-paw hit the fan, each of us played to our strengths to resolve the matter at hand. Yes, that meant that I had to get my hands dirty on multiple occasions. I cherish these times, for this is where gold is forged!

As the morning rush quiets down, the team gets together again. I am close enough to hear the owner thank everyone for their contribution. He highlights the good and encourages learning from the few issues he picked up in service. He does it with compassion in his voice and I can feel the bond between the members of his staff grow stronger. Wow! How inspiring!

I can't wait to get to the office and share this story with my team. My first 90 days have come and gone. It feels like an instant, yet I've grown as though it has been years.