From finance to the top (Part 3): Being a CFO was always part of the plan

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.

From acting CEO, back to CFO, to acting CEO and then finally being permanently appointed to the role, Nokuthula Selamolela’s journey may not have been exactly the one she planned, but now that she’s reached her destination, she’s exactly where she always wanted to be. 

CEOs, with their overfull schedules and multitude of responsibilities, don’t always find the time to be friendly or engaging. But when Nokuthula Selamolela is with you she’s all ears and present, with a charm that makes conversation flow. Nokuthula is the CEO of the Food and Beverage Manufacturing (FoodBev) SETA, with a hectic schedule that often sees her working late into the night. Perhaps it’s her convivial nature, but there wasn’t a hint of resentment when describing her day, often filled with urgent meetings and last-minute activities.

Nokuthula, prior to being officially appointed in 2019 as the CEO of the FoodBev SETA, acted in the position for four years. Her journey to this position has been interesting. In 2013, she joined the company as the CFO, and very soon after this, was appointed the acting CEO – a job she took on for six months before a replacement was found. But the person appointed as CEO didn’t stay in the position for long, so Nokuthula swiftly stepped in. In these five years, Nokuthula continued to perform the duties of the CFO. Perhaps it’s this kind of pressure that made it necessary for her to cultivate a calm and friendly attitude.

“Interestingly, I had always wanted to be a CEO – it was part of my bigger plan – even though I didn’t quite see the journey play out as it has at the FoodBev SETA. I became the CEO in a rather roundabout fashion,” she says.  

Nokuthula says that her experience as a CFO is invaluable in her current role, because it helps her to see the business from all angles. “CEOs have their MBAs and they’re good at operational tasks, but the CFO is analytical, excellent with numbers and decisive. The two usually make a formidable team. I’m glad I have both skillsets.”  

Now that she’s officially the CEO and needn’t perform the duties of the CFO (she appointed a very capable person to the position), she is freed up to take the FoodBev SETA to new heights.

In particular, Nokuthula spends a lot of time thinking about and preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, through which artificial intelligence and mass digitisation will become realities in South Africa. “Our role is in training and skills development, when we foresee that automation will erase many manufacturing jobs. We are finding ways to make our training more relevant, and that’s often about preparing students for change,” she says.

Nokuthula says that all CEOs should be on top of the trends in the industry. “You need to be reading as much as you can and have an appetite for lifelong learning,” she says.