Finance leaders share how they integrate soft skills into their leadership

The power of leadership with a human touch under the spotlight at Finance Indaba Conversation.

Under the theme of the ‘New Accountant’, finance leaders spoke about the value they have garnered by growing their own soft skills. Oz Desai, GM of the session’s sponsor, Corporate Traveller, said that in his business, people are a major catalyst to organisational success. He shared that the impact of Covid-19 months has brutal on the travel industry, and he has found that navigating the challenges by employing soft skills such as empathy, care and fairness had been critical.

Oz said that all leaders want to succeed and grow – and need people in order to do so. As a leader, he believes that growing and investing in people is an enabler, as is having the right values, vision, and culture. He said the future lies in embracing technology while at the same time harnessing the greatness of people.
Changing times demand changing leadership

Mark Gounder, Hulamin CFO, agreed with Oz and said that people tend to put the highest value on an organisation’s physical assets, but those don’t drive profits and sustainability, it’s the people who do. He said that especially now, we need strong leadership to stand up with a clear plan to create value and be brave enough to lead on the path to get there.

MARS SA CFO Sam Hopwood said that in the last year and half, the context has changed rapidly for CFOs: there is a lot more ambiguity, a quicker rate of change and they have often had to prioritise without the robustness of information from past. “We have the responsibility to build the bigger picture for the entire organisation, so we need to be more strategic in thinking and agile in problem solving.”

Eddie Fivaz, the FD of TWK Agri, said that for most finance leaders, leveraging soft skills has been difficult because that’s not an area that comes naturally for accountants. He said that the Covid-19 pandemic kicked up a lot of fear and uncertainty, which left leaders no choice but to respond.

He said when there is unaddressed fear, people lose focus, make bad decisions and in the long run, you risk losing the stars of your organisation. He says the Covid-19 crisis has posed its own unique risks because in the remote working environment, if a team is hopeful and digitally connected it is powerful, but if it is hopeless and digitally connected, it can be dangerous.

New skills for leading
Sam said that as professionals progress in an organisation, they spend less time on finance-related matters and are brought in to address matters such as organisational development, people and career development, policy reviews, and tackle issues such as how the office of the future will function. He says being a CFO is not just about being a functional head, but being a strategic leader that brings a diverse skills set to the organization. It is because of this that leadership capabilities and behavioral competencies become more critical.

Mark said that as a leader you are expected to have a clear plan and strategy to grow business. He says previously, the value of the CFO was measured around profit, now it’s about stakeholder wealth. “The pandemic has taught us that if you don’t have win-win relationships with suppliers and debtors, one of you will go out of business, and that is where CFOs with interpersonal skills and leadership make a difference; when you have to navigate complex situations.”

Empowering people
Mark said that leaders have a responsibility to help their teams develop and become more resilient as well. He said that leaders with EQ allow people to learn from mistakes and have the self-restraint to not meddle in how people do their jobs, because that is part of empowerment.

He said that creating and environment of trust means giving people room to make mistakes, and let them learn from fixing the mistake.

For Eddie, it was crucial to maintain a well-connected team through the disruption of the past months. He said that as a leader, he made it a point to maintain and spread positive energy throughout the team. He said that with working remotely, the risk of losing team spirit and not transferring knowledge was real. So he started a programme whereby all team members read a book every month and through informal discussion, they shared what they learned from the book, which provided a great way to connect and learn.

In addition, he wanted to make sure the team does not lose sight of their ‘why’ and provided clarity on decisions being taken, consistently gave feedback and updates to the team. He believes that a combination of leaning into soft skills such as constantly checking in, taking the pulse of the team and having a strong strategy resulted in the company being able to grow and increase profits despite the economic downturn.

EQ and vulnerability
Mark said being vulnerable is challenging because you are expected to make hard decisions, but by being upfront and and sharing that you are also learning every day, you create sense of togetherness and the joint goal of creating value in business as a collective. He said leaders need to be brave enough to offer guidance and be humble enough to ask for feedback.

Sam and Oz emphasised that being a leader who listens is vital. Sam said this trait applied throughout the organisation: “Having curiosity, and being eager to learn gives an individual an edge. If you become open and embrace feedback and drop being defensive, it’s a game changer.”

Mark agreed and advised future leaders to “listen to people, to learn from other’s experiences and believe that you can continuously work on your EQ. It will take you far.”