Finance Indaba hears how support, EQ and mentorship are critical for women CFOs

A panel of women finance leaders said these three things were critical in their journey to the top.

Knowing what you stand for is key to success, said the women who made up the Women Lead the Way – A Playbook for Gender Diversity and Success panel at the 2020 Finance Indaba.

Tsholofelo Molefe, CFO of Telkom, has worked in various roles in banking, technology and insurance and said both her highs and lows had shaped her as a leader. She pointed out the importance of taking advantage of every opportunity that comes your way, “even if at first glance does not fit neatly within your plan”.

Rivasha Maharaj, group CFO of AFGRI, said that as she navigated her career, she made strategic decisions along the way. One of these included joining smaller organisations to get a more holistic view. “In a smaller enterprise, you are exposed to the heart of the business, not just the finance of it. In huge organisations, your experience tends to be narrowed to finance.”

Dorette Neethling, CFO and executive director at Adcock Ingram, said she always had an interest in the medical industry, but in pursuing a finance qualification, was able to combine her two loves into a career that is stimulating and allows her to work in her zone of genius.

Challenges when appointed to an executive role

When speaking about the challenges they faced when they first reached the upper echelons of an organisation, Tsholofelo said that initially, being recognised for what you’re capable of and what you bring to the table can be a challenge. She insisted, however, that it is not necessarily a function of race or gender, but rather about people knowing your abilities.

“The ideal attitude is of one being proactive and delivering on what is in front of you,” she said. “Ask yourself how you can make the biggest contribution, be confident and make your value known to those around you. Be excellent and your capabilities speak for themselves.”

Rivasha advocates for developing women’s emotional intelligence at a young age so that when they reach leadership positions, they are well developed in this area. “Later in your career, you will have to manage difficult people of complex circumstances. Learning how to focus and control your thoughts is an asset when you are a leader.

“When you are in a boardroom, and there is tension and conflict, it’s important to be able to keep a cool head, and you do that by being in control of your thoughts and emotions,” she advises.
How male executives can support women on the rise

Dorette asserted that support isn’t a gendered issue, but about building solid relationships with those you lead. She added that whether you are a man or woman, investing in knowing the people on your team is important.

“You need to see each person for who they are,” she said. “Some people naturally want to lead, while others are specialists who want to deep dive into a defined area. As a leader, it’s key to understand the mix of people and not to try and apply a one-size-fits-all principle.

Rivasha said when supporting female talent, it is important that leaders give them the courage to use their voices. This means providing a platform that allows them to show up. “For example, if you have a task or project, engage with the manager and team members together, not just the manager. They get involved in the beginning, get the brief, get the full context and you allocate accountability to the person. They take the credit and understand the value they deliver to the project,” she said.

Bringing your whole self as a woman

“You don’t have to wear a black suit to blend in with the guys. Know who you are,” said Dorette, who insisted that as a woman you need to take charge of your brand and understand your value system. She said that women leaders should recognise that they get to decide how they want people to remember them.

Tsholofelo agreed, saying that women shouldn’t have to force themselves into a mould to be recognised in the leadership space. “What is important is to stand your ground and act beyond reproach. Integrity is the most important thing in your career if you focus on the right thing. Nothing should distract you,” she said.

The power of relationships

All three women agreed that relationships are a powerful ingredient for success. Tsholofelo has leaned on a sponsor, mentor and leadership coach trio over the years.

Dorette has enjoyed meaningful professional relationships for over 30 years, and said, “You don’t belittle yourself by asking for advice. Have someone trusted who can show you your blind spots, someone who can be frank with you.”
Rivasha is passionate about mentoring young women, which she described as a humbling experience because the environments her mentees grow up in are tough, with peer pressure, lack of engagement from teachers and no role models. She believes the best mentee-mentor relationships are ones where there is space to listen and encourage, but not give answers, and be with someone who can be brutally honest with you.