From finance to the top (Part 2): Understanding human behaviour is crucial, says Attacq CEO

According to fresh results from this year's CFO Day Survey, nearly three quarters of all CFOs are eyeing the top job and aspire to be CEO after their current role. And their ambitions are not unrealistic: a third of all CEOs of the JSE Top-40 are previous finance executives. But what does it take to scale the highest summit? Which different skills are required? How do you move from numbers to people and strategy? CFO Magazine spoke to five former CFOs who were promoted to CEO to find out what it takes.

Melt Hamman, the CEO of Attacq, was appointed as acting CEO on 1 December 2017 after the resignation of Morne Wilken. In June 2018 he was officially appointed to the CEO role. He says that being the CEO is like conducting an orchestra. “As CFO, you are one of the players, like the drums. So it is a bit of a leap to becoming a CEO. It’s less complicated to be a drummer than a conductor.”

He said it was particularly rough when he was playing the dual role – wearing one hat in one meeting and another in the next. “Being a CEO is a mindset. You have to take a leap out of the detail and start to manage the business and the team – be the conductor. If one of your players isn’t in tune, you need to help him – show him how to play the drums, or the violin.”

The biggest benefit from coming to the role from the CFO position was that he had a deep understanding of the business. “I joined the company six months prior to the listing in 2013. It was a small company with only 40 people. Now there are 142. So when I joined I was a Jack of all trades – I did HR, IT, risk – and gained a deep understanding of the business.”

He adds that another significant focus of the CFO of today is governance, and having been in the finance head role in a post-Steinhoff business environment helped him to be very analytical and structured about the way that the business operates.

Melt says that he’s lucky that he’s always been a people person, so he’s risen to the challenge of understanding human behaviour as CEO. “A big focus for us at Attacq is looking at what creates positive energy for us as individuals, and then as a company, and then, on the flip side, looking at what zaps our energy, so that we can do more of what creates energy and address what zaps it.”

Some of the energy-zapping things that have been identified are too-long meetings, or too many emails, so he tries to put processes in place to help address these.

He says that right now, South Africans in general are suffering from a sense of “gatvolheid”, being overwhelmed by negative news. “Gatvolheid” is a mental state that leads to disengagement. So we have to address it in Attacq and also in South Africa more broadly. I gave a talk about it in which I said to my colleagues, most of you are in a relationship or have kids, so you must be extremely careful that you address your negativity, so that you create positive energy in your homes.” 

He says that positivity can come from going back to basics – simple things like greeting each other and saying goodbye every day. He also encourages people to be engaged and to collaborate. “If the tea lady has an idea on how to save milk, I want to hear that idea.”

To any other CFO hoping to become a CEO, he recommends understanding the business and understanding human behaviour. “In the process of developing yourself, you need to build relationships within the company and gain a deep understanding of what is happening in your market globally, then in your sector, and finally, in your company.”

Read more:
CFOs who became CEOs (Part 1): A finance captain steering an engineering ship

Next: Nokuthula Selamolela: "Being a CEO was always a part of the plan"