Women and success: Roy Clark chats to top CFOs Mary Vilakazi and Jo Pohl - #findaba16

Two vibrant women, Jo Pohl and Mary Vilakazi, whose dynamism and energy radiates throughout the room, sat down with Roy Clark from Clarkhouse Human Capital and discussed their views on women and success. To say it was inspiring is an understatement – these two women shared such powerful messages that even the most astute and experienced business person would walk away with a burning passion to succeed.

By Roy Clark

"Women hold the key to fundamentally shifting our businesses and the growth and development of women in the workplace should be high priority." Finance Indaba 2016

Although small in stature, Jo Pohl, Group CFO of Telesure Investment Holdings Ltd, is anything but in her career, in her perspective and in her bubbling energy. Mary Vilakazi, CFO of MMI Holdings, has softly spoken words that are anything but quiet. Her wisdom, advice and outlook resonated deeply with all in the room, and made us tilt our heads a little closer towards this humble woman's guidance.

Read more on Jo Pohl and Mary Vilakazi

Obstacles: Friend or foe?
It was evident from the discussion that both ladies value family above all else. Each having a brood of children means that time is somewhat of a luxury and being successful in your career and family life requires balance, structure and a support network. It requires you to ask for help; an unthinkable thought for many. Quality time with your children and partner and being focussed and present at work is not always easy, but somehow given the advice we discuss below, it is doable. Dream it, believe it, achieve it!

A major obstacle for any women is the balance of these two areas of life. Jo beautifully compared managing a team effectively with managing her own children; that some days you're happy just to get to the finish line, as long as you get there in one piece and everyone's happy, alive, fed and dressed (even if it's with mismatched socks and tangled hair) it's ok. Don't be so hard on yourself for not being perfect, don't get too caught up in controlling it all. Let go and know that today you tried your best.

Mary Vilakazi said she feels that one of the greatest obstacles women wrestle with is their self-belief. Growing up in a world where many assumptions were made about position and success, Mary dramatically internalised these comments and provocations, which become huge obstacles for her and her success. Only by identifying these negative inner voices and addressing them was she able to truly believe in herself and her abilities. The resonating message about obstacles was to believe in yourself, be confident and above all, be brave.

The power of support
Why is asking for help such a struggle? Mary believes strongly in looking out for people who have your back, and this is evident in the support structure that has hers. Her husband, mother, women friends and coaches are all critical to her achievements, providing a great network and support structure. She is not afraid to ask for help when she needs it, and says it is not a sign of weakness, and most certainly does not make you a less capable person. So, "don't be afraid to ask for help".

How has your network helped you to get to where you are?
Networking and your network, it seems, is fundamental to growth. Jo passionately implored women, "don't compete to be the best, join forces to be better together". "CFO South Africa is a perfect example of the Finance community joining forces, from 23 people at a round table three years ago to over 5,000 now. Imagine the ideas, innovations, concepts and business deals that have come out of those forces joining," she said. And so, too, women should be joining forces, not competing, but giving each other a hand up and making work about something bigger than just their own career direction.

Mary talked about the value of coaches in your career to guide you in the direction you want to go as well as give you support and motivation to carry on. Getting a hand up and giving a hand up.

Mentorship or sponsorship?
Jo's views on the difference between mentorship and sponsorship echoed the importance of giving each other a hand up. Mentorship was summarised as "someone who is a sounding board and holds up the mirror for you while you take a good look at yourself and helps you question, motivate and encourage yourself in a safe environment", while a sponsor is "someone who acts as your advocate in public, when your head is down, they will take the risk on you and fight for your recognition. This person has seen your work and truly believes in your ability to do the job that is required, better than anyone else can. It's wise to identify people throughout your career who will act as your sponsor, so put your hand up to work with them, don't be afraid. When the right time comes, they will mention your name, and who knows what incredible experience that will bring on."

Senior women executives - the mermaids of the boardroom
Globally, women hold less than 30% of executive roles. Roy Clark had a tough job of opening this can of worms in front of his panel of audacious CFOs, and a furrowed brow was briefly cast in his direction, although the topic was delivered with grace. It was agreed that women are overlooked for many senior roles because they do not naturally trust in their abilities.

Said Mary: "If a room of people are asked whether they can perform a certain job, a man will say 'I can!', even if he is only about 70% sure he can do it, whereas a woman won't even put up her hand if she isn't 99.9% sure that she can do the job."

And that is the unashamed truth. What could almost be heard as a scream from the rafters was that women need to back themselves, take their rightful place at the boardroom table, push through the ceiling and keep going, fall, get up, work hard, run, "fail fast and fail forward". Don't back down, don't think too hard, don't be embarrassed and just be who you want to be. Because that, fundamentally, is what is was you were intended for; to live your authentic self.

Critically, women not only need to believe in themselves but also in other women. "It's important that women see one another as professional teammates and that we recommend each other, help open doors and allow someone else the opportunity to step-in and step-up," said Jo. "Make the circle bigger and let others in. We can move fast alone but farther together. Collaboration and excellent work will be done when we stop seeing each other as competition and appreciate the value of diversity in the executive suite and boardroom."

Leadership is a powerful tool to break into the boardroom, and Mary believes that women need to demonstrate their ability to lead more openly.

"First you need to demonstrate that you can deliver and have the ability to sit down and work, but then also demonstrate how you lead in the environment you're in," she said. "The more we can lead from the bottom up, the better the environment will be."

Looking back
The question, "What advice would you give your younger self?" was met with a few chuckles and raised eyebrows in Roy's direction as to whether he in fact is implying that they are now "old selves"? Ever the diplomat, Roy suggested perhaps "older and wiser selves" was the more appropriate term. A true accountant, Jo's advice was a five-step acronym: BBBEE. A personal mantra which she often shares with those she mentors:

  • 1. Be authentic - You will only be happy when you are yourself. Take time to get to know you. There will be people that misconstrue that and criticise you, but you will only be truly successful if what you do every day is in line with your authentic self, your values and principles.
  • 2. Be curious - By showing and being interested in what you're doing, by wanting to learn and having an enquiring mind, you will show the world that you have the right attitude, aptitude and passion. With this mentality you really learn and can achieve just about anything.
  • 3. Be Bold - If you're not ready to tackle something, think about what would make you ready. How do you go about accomplishing that? Make brave decisions if you know they are the right ones. It's ok to get it wrong sometimes. Fail forward, as long as you keep learning.
  • 4. Engage - Women are particularly good at emotional connections. Use this awesome ability to create those with the people around you. Make networking part of your work and be sure to block out time to make these connections. This will enable you to make better decisions with your three "brains" - your head, heart and gut.
  • 5. Escape - Lastly, but most importantly, everyone needs their down time to recharge and to create space to think. Escape by reading a book, going to gym, riding a bike, hiking up a mountain or just taking time out. Try stick to your escape routine but forgive yourself when it doesn't happen quite as planned.

Mary would give her "young self" a glass of wine and tell her to chill out a bit. Being made a Partner at PwC at the age of 27, she was very conscious about all the labels she was given and worked the hardest and longest hours to prove that she was a worthy partner - to the point of exhaustion. "I would tell myself to relax a little, have some fun and stop feeling guilty about labels that others have put on me. Life is short, enjoy it," she said. "Also be confident that I am the best me there is, there is no one else that can be a better me and trust that."

To be completely honest, walking into this session I was expecting yet another quick, clichéd and painful chat about women's rights and equality. What I got was far from it. What I got was that people, regardless of their sex, whether big or small, rich or poor, are given a choice. The choice to take control, to work hard or not to work hard, to step up or step back, and to stand out or stand down. These are all our choices; no one else's but ours. Isn't it high time that we, not just as women, but as people, take control of that?

These two insightful women are evidence that finance in South Africa is alive with opportunity for women who have the courage, attitude and passion to be as successful as they choose.

Mary Vilakazi is an extraordinary woman who grew up in Alexandra township. As a young girl, she was part of the Gifted Child Programme at the Redhill School in Morningside, after which she attended St Enda's Community College on a Rotary Fund scholarship. PwC later provided her with a bursary to study a BCom degree. Mary is now a CA and Group FD of MMI Holdings Limited. She served her articles in the financial services sector at PwC where she was admitted to partnership in 2005.

In 2008, Mary exited the auditing profession and joined an entrepreneurial business where she became CFO of the Mineral Services Group. Subsequently, Mary spent a number of years providing consulting services to various private companies in the areas of finance and tax, as well as serving as a non-executive director on the MMI Holdings Limited, Development Bank of SA, Kagiso Media Limited and Holdsport Limited (Sportsman's and Outdoor Warehouse) Boards. Earlier this year, Mary was honoured as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum (WEF) and, more recently, was acknowledged by the African Woman Chartered Accountants (AWCA), as the Private Sector CFO of the Year. Mary is married and has four daughters.

Jo Pohl is phenomenal in her approach and energy, and was also part of the Gifted Child Programm, albeit at the Johannesburg College of Education. Currently group CFO of Telesure Investment Holdings Ltd, Jo leads the Group Finance, Group Treasury and Group Risk Functions and plays a pivotal role by enabling and driving the execution of the Group's strategy. Previously she worked at Standard Chartered Bank as the CFO for the Africa region, and part of the Global Finance EXCO. She is a director of Standard Chartered Bank Zimbabwe Limited, Wealthport (Pty) Ltd, Rockport (Pty) Ltd and chairs the board of the Charities Aid Foundation Southern Africa.

Jo is highly principled and passionate about people and philanthropy, counsels cancer patients, works with young entrepreneurs, mentors women in business, and is a member of the 30% Club Steering Committee for Southern Africa. She was recognised by Euromoney as one of Africa's top 20 rising stars in 2014 and served on the judging panel for the 2015 Technology Top 100 (TT100) Awards, 2016 Accenture Innovation Index, and recent inaugural CFO Case Study finals at the Finance Indaba. She has been a sponsor and mentor on the SCB Women in Leadership Programme and Africa Emerging Leadership Programme, mentored on the Black Entrepreneurship Initiative, served on the SAICA (South African Institute of Chartered Accountants) Initial Professional Development and Exam Committees, and is a member of the African Leadership Network (ALN). She is married to her soulmate and has four children.