Have fun, push the boundaries and be vulnerable, says Arno Daehnke at CFO Day

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Executive community director Georgina Guedes finds out the CFO superpowers needed in the boardroom, during a keynote conversation with Standard Bank chief finance and value management officer Arno Daehnke.

Keeping with the theme of storytelling, Standard Bank chief finance and value management officer Arno Daehnke kicked off his keynote at the 2024 CFO Day with a story of his own. “I went to the dentist this morning to get some fillings. I told him I have to give a presentation at 2pm and asked him whether my mouth would still be numb by then? He said no. But I’m here now and it’s still numb,” he jokingly explained.

Arno noted that this was his first lesson in how to tell a good story. “Be vulnerable and human – tell it like it is. Part of telling the story is that you have to just be who you are and maybe you can relate to me, because I’m sure all of you have had numb cheeks, after returning from a dentist visit. That’s a rapport we can build.”

In the finance department at Standard Bank, storytelling has been one of the important focus areas for many years now. “Every February we sit down and list our six priorities for finance across the group. These apply to all 1,600 finance people. One of those priorities is always to tell our story with passion and conviction,” Arno said.

He emphasised that communication skills are critical for finance and its stakeholders.

“We’re key mediators among different business units, clients, shareholders and regulators, but if we don’t have the ability to tell our story with passion and conviction, then we’re only doing half of our job.”

A superpower that kept repeating itself throughout the day was that CFOs needed to apply different lenses when working with different stakeholders. For Arno, there are three main lenses he considers: shareholder, internal and boardroom communication lenses. “You have to think about the different perspectives involved. If you want to have an impact, consider how the client will feel about something and what the shareholder will think about it.”

Read more: There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to boardroom culture, CFO Day panel reveals

Why CFOs make great board members

Arno believes that CFOs are excellent additions to a board. “All of us are financially literate – we understand the accounts of the company, what drives value for the stakeholders, how to allocate resources, good risk management and how to assign performance metrics to employees,” he said.

As a board member himself, Arno explained that sometimes CFOs have to represent finance, sometimes the company overall and sometimes they are external board members providing input into a company. “You have to balance the three of these delicately.”

First, he said, you have to balance shareholder requirements. “You have to be clear and get to the point of why your business is a good investment case. That requires a very specific storytelling that is consistent, simple, easily understood, repeatable and has to have gravitas.”

Then comes Arno’s favourite area of communication – with the teams in the organisation. He explained why using another story.

“When I became CFO at Standard Bank, I thought I needed to make my mark in the organisation. One of my team members came to me and said they were going to put me in a stationary bicycle on stage, and I would present the future of Standard Bank while cycling in full gear. I went onto the stage, clad in cycling gear, helmet and glasses and gave my presentation to the top leaders at Standard Bank. To this day, people remind me of that presentation, because they liked it so much.”

He then encouraged the attendees to go and have fun while they are communicating internally too. “Be vulnerable, people love it. At the end of the day that’s what they remember, more than the graphs and the numbers.”

At board level, Arno explained, it’s a bit more of a moderate approach. “We were talking about AI and how the bank will be using it in the future. Our board is full of 60- and 70-year-old people who believe it’s still too risky. I had to come up with an idea to break the deadlock on whether we could use AI with clients. I asked them what they thought was safer to use, a self-driving car or one they’re driving themself. 90 percent of accidents resulting in fatalities are a result of humans. We don’t always understand everything that happens in the AI or the car, but we trust the people making those decisions,” he explained.

His analogy convinced them to try it, although with bigger guardrails!

Arno’s Arco playbook

When it comes to communication, CFOs have to learn the softer stuff, Arno said, including how to innovate within business units, clients and the company. He referred to his own playbook of soft skills:

  • Agility and the ability to pivot when you’ve made a mistake or a bad decision without losing the confidence of the company.
  • Resilience, from a company, team and personal point of view.
  • Courage, which sometimes means making decisions based on only some of the information.
  • Optimism, which goes hand-in-hand with all of the above.

“If you communicate using your EQ, you can make a bigger impact when telling the company’s story,” Arno concluded.

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