FutureLearn's Logamal Ramiah believes leaders are there to serve

The CFO believes servant leadership creates purpose for people, empowering them to innovate at work.

“My seven-year-old-self wanted to be a marine biologist. I loved animals and the sea,” chuckles Logamal Ramiah, CFO at FutureLearn, a South African group which operates in the education space, and which is wholly owned by PSG. “As you grow up you start to think practically and funding was an issue; my family couldn’t fund me and I couldn’t fund myself. My mom was a housewife and my dad was disabled, working part-time to provide for the family. I didn’t even qualify for student funding because I needed someone to sign as guarantor and I didn’t have that. In Grade 10 I came across a CAO handbook that said they offered bursaries. I didn’t even know such a concept existed. I said to myself, ‘If there are people out there who are going to pay for my studies I’m going to get myself there.’ I worked so hard to get that bursary, I didn’t sleep.”

Logamal is proof that hard work pays off: in 2017, she was nominated for the SAICA Top 35 Under 35 and was also a finalist for Young Professional of the year (through SAPSA, SA Professional Services Awards). 

She recalls: 

“It was very humbling. The calibre of individuals in the Top 35 is overwhelming. It is amazing to see how many of them are CAs with a highly educated background but who give back as much as they’ve been given. And not once-off either – they live and breathe philanthropy in their daily lives. The compound effect that this will have in society is phenomenal.”

Asked if she’s an ambitious person, Logamal answers enthusiastically: “For sure! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a celling to life or to anything. And I’ve never been challenged in terms of my age. I believe your future is what you paint it to be – it’s a blank canvas waiting for your story. The impact you can make is what excites me about life.”

Logamal’s current role is her second as a CFO. Before joining the education group, she was the Group CFO of Netsurit for six years. She took on this first executive role when she was 28 years old, and also moved into the IT industry – a space in which she had no experience. She had to learn the ropes quickly. 

“You are talking to business leaders who have a wealth of knowledge and you have to give them insight into something they already have. It depends a lot on you as a person. I did a lot of homework and checking and double checking before going into meetings and got advice from others in the organisation. This helps you to build credibility. You need to respect that others know more than you. You need to come in humble and get to know that business and understand it deeply and how it works from a finance and operational perspective and then come with an explanation of how you will add value.”

Logamal joined FutureLearn in April this year. Her new role is quite diverse, covering finance, legal and HR – the latter being a first for Logamal, who is visibly excited about what she can do with this. She glances towards a wall of whiteboards in her office, which are completely covered in colourful mind maps, lines drawn from one idea to the next, projects interlinked. She laughs and says this is the strategy that she and the team drew up in her first month. 

“It’s a big spiderweb of plans but it allows people to visually see where we are going and also gets them excited about things. When you explain to people why we are doing things and where we see ourselves going, it makes such a big difference. What’s beautiful about the CFO position is that you see every part of the business and you get to touch and feel so much. You’re so integrated into everything.”

Logamal’s first order of business was to “turn finance on its head”, which she did by automating. She explains: 

“I moved all of our management reporting to Power BI, which has made a massive difference – it has probably saved three to four days of my accountant’s time. Our analysis gets done here too. We now have timeous information, which is better for decision-making and accountability.” 

Logamal believes she can make the most difference, however, where the organisation’s human capital is concerned. 

“The culture here is wonderful – that of a family. But culture is something you build; it’s a living thing which you have to constantly feed and augment if you want it to be a differentiator.” 

When she arrived, she felt that people couldn’t easily see their greater purpose. “To address this, I suggested we redo the way we do certain things, such as staff induction and staff meetings. Now, there is increased learning, growing and connectedness, which we want to encourage on every level. We are, after all, an education business!”

 

Given that the company’s main purpose is to have an impact on education, what it does as an organisation must be aligned to this, Logamal says. 

“This Mandela Day, we went to a Bathabile Farm Primary School out in Olivenhoutbosch, which has 1,500 learners, with around 40 to 50 learners in each class, with one teacher. The teachers are so dedicated but they lack materials, resources, funding and infrastructure: the older children don’t have tools for maths and the younger children don’t have crayons to draw. We spent the day painting the classrooms beautiful colours, and we planted a veggie garden with over 1,000 seedlings and a few fruit trees, which the children helped with. We wanted to teach the kids that they can sustain themselves. The school also doesn’t have any books, so we gave them a small library of reading material. On the day we visited, we set up reading spots and read to the children.” 

Logamal stops to consider before continuing:

“The point of it all was that I wanted the staff to feel what it means to have an impact on education; to spend time with a child who is in a tough situation but to see the difference we can make and the impact we can have; and to show the children that there are people out there who care about them and believe in them.”

Logamal is also very passionate about empowerment – particularly women empowerment. While at Netsurit, she started an empowerment group that focused on women development. “IT is very male oriented and a lot of leadership posts are held by males,” she explains. “When I came into my CFO role from outside the IT realm, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we could inspire women to be more than what they thought they were. I wanted to motivate women to have a voice. When women come together in a group, something powerful happens. And I’ve seen that happen.”

Logamal took inspiration from Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and founder of Leanin.org. Logamal says the ideas and concepts that come out of the monthly get-togethers were very powerful. “In the two years since starting the programme, I saw so much growth of the women involved. So much so that we extended it to other women organisations outside of Netsurit,” she says.

Logamal says she likes having a purpose and enjoys co-creating within organisations as part of her career – such as the women’s group. She is also a life coach to students from Alexandra township in Johannesburg. “We work with students from Grade 10 to 12 and take them through a life methodology on how to set goals and work towards that. We show them what it looks like to be successful and we help them to create vision boards. We’ve touched 300 young lives through that.”

Logamal believes that authenticity is important in every decision that a leader makes. 

“People look to authentic leaders; people want a passion and purpose for being at work. That comes from the top down. Being authentic drives engagement and inspires people to do better. People love a true story and something to believe in. If you show them that you are the same and build a common base, they will trust you more. For me, being authentic is one of the most important aspects of being a leader.”

She continues: “When you watch or read the news and see everything that’s currently happening in the finance industry, it makes me sad as a fellow leader in the industry because those businesses were built on the blood, sweat and tears of their people. When it comes to good governance, the toughest decision is between two rights and not between right and wrong. I think it comes down to gut feel.”

Asked what sort of leader she is, Logamal considers before answering: “I’m a very hands-off leader. When you let go and decentralise leadership, it has a multiplier effect on the organisation. It cascades down and creates more leaders in the organisation, and thus less followers. So, when I build my team I build them to think and innovate and come up with ideas.” 

Logamal refers to servant leadership, what she calls an “amazing leadership style”, and which is explained in the book, ‘Good to Great’. She says: 

“Servant leadership takes the traditional view of top-down leadership and flips it on its head. It says you are there to serve the people, including employees, the community and the organisation’s stakeholders. If you are that sort of leader there to serve, it creates a multiplier effect in staff because you are giving them freedom. Being a servant leader creates purpose for people and gives them the power to come up with ideas and to bring ingenuity and innovation into their work.”

Sharing her thoughts on the importance of mentoring, Logamal says she believes this to be “utterly critical”. She says: “It is key from a top-down perspective, especially if you want to get the best out of people. And mentoring is key to a CFO. It helps you to build a scaffold and I think you need that grounding as you build your foundation.” She adds that she has several respected peers with whom she regularly touches base. “It’s so good to have that sounding board.”

For Logamal, her family is as important as her work, and she jokes that she has two full-time jobs. When she leaves the office each afternoon at around 5pm, it’s to return home to a husband and two children, ages seven and two. 

“I believe that work-life balance is important. And as a leader in any organisation, in any sphere of life, if you have a successful work-life balance people will notice and want to emulate what you do. I think this comes back to authentic leadership, because your work-life balance must be sustainable and you have to be happy with it. You don’t want to wake up one day to find that your life has passed you by. I think you need to be conscious about the decisions you make and know what’s important for you. To do this, you need to have goals.”

She continues: “I don’t work weekends as a rule. That’s family time, and I try to be 100 percent present.” Logamal also loves gardening, cooking, socialising, new adventures, and being charitable.

She tries to instil the latter in her children, too. “Before they have their birthday, the children must plan a charity event, to give back. They decide where they are doing it and which children are coming. Then we get the kids together to play with each other, we put music on and you see they’re all the same. Those nuances are beautiful,” she says.

“I firmly believe in what author Kevin Salwen talks about in his book, ‘The Power of Half’. The book talks about giving away half of what you own, as a concept. It also talks about purpose and what children are looking for. How much is enough? I don’t know. Maybe half is enough.”