How driving culture became an award-winning action

Rivasha Maharaj reflects on the journey to winning the Top Woman in Finance 2020 award.

AFGRI Group CFO Rivasha Maharaj says when she threw her hat in the ring for the Standard Bank Top Woman in Finance 2020 award, her submission wasn’t specifically limited to finance. 

“I thought it would be valuable to use this platform to talk about the things that we don’t see in board meetings, on the graphs and in numbers.” Her focus was to shed light on the role of transformation and the evolving role of finance as business imperatives. 

Winning the award shows that the industry is ready to have new conversations, and her passion for purposefully fostering a culture of inclusion and diversity as well as the changing function of the finance professional speaks to that shift.

Overhauling an old take

Rivasha says by underscoring the transformation of finance culture in her presentation, she bypassed the usual focus around tactics, steps, and corporate actions. “I wanted to shake the perception that finance people are bean counters with grey suits, that we lack personality and are balloon poppers. That is really far from the truth: finance people have amazing abilities if you take the time to peel those onion layers and get to know them as a person instead of just their job function. You will be stunned at the depth of personality and inventiveness they have.”  

Rivasha believes that leaders get the most from their teams by empowering their people holistically. For her this looks like encouraging people to speak up and share their views and ideas. “Make sure there’s a safe environment by encouraging openness and transparency and a culture of healthy debate. For my team and me, prioritising these resulted in corporate success. We have executed corporate transactions, successfully implemented acquisition, successfully exited and led to improvement in productivity of the team operating from these principles.”

Expansive leadership

Rivasha believes that leadership doesn’t follow a single template, highlighting that she is not your typical accountant. She explains that when she joined AFGRI, she had different ideas about management. Her style is based on each team member being proactive and self-directed. 

“In the beginning, I clearly laid out the outputs that I required from the team and made it clear that how they manage their time would be everyone’s individual responsibility. We would still have our weekly meetings and one-on-ones in which we discussed progress being made and caught up, but I wouldn’t be checking and following up on every detail. Of course, I am available for major issues and making decisions where there is a broader impact on the organisation, but mundane matters such as leave days or formats of spreadsheets were left to managers to handle.”

She says that level of autonomy was difficult for some, and they would still consult her about every single task and want her to make decisions for them. 

“I don't lead my team using a single approach. Instead I manage all of the talents around me differently depending on their strengths and capabilities,” says Rivasha. 

Her leadership style is one that excavates the talents and superpowers of those around her, oriented more toward coaching and mentoring. She explains: “I like engaging with my staff and I enjoy getting to know them all on a personal level; to learn about their families, kids, what matters.” 

 She has found that building that trust and respect and growing that type of inclusive environment is highly valuable. It’s about building a culture of trust, not about being seen all the time, but instead having integrity around performance and output. This became especially pertinent during the Covid-19 lockdown and making all the adjustments needed to get through this time.

Stepping into the finance of the future

“Finance has long evolved from just a support structure into more of an enabler of business,” says Rivasha who believes the only way to fully occupy that space is to engage on that level. “If all you talk about is the numbers, history and you’re constantly looking in the rearview mirror, that is how people will treat you. But if you engage with a more strategic view and you have fresh ideas and you participate in meaningful conversation, it changes your influence and impact.”

She asserts that finance leaders should also encourage their staff to be in the loop from the beginning, having found that typically in a company, people hatch plans and it is often only at the tail-end that finance is informed.

In her domain, she addresses that by trying to keep lines of communication open and making sure that if there is something happening in the group, that finance needs to be involved from a strategy and implementation perspective. “That means matters are communicated early and then what we deliver is not just about the numbers. it’s about what the numbers are telling us, what our view is on how they can improve, our take on the strategy that’s being followed and what would be the best way to implement it. I think that for me it is important that finance is much more involved in strategy and taking leading roles than previously.” 

Adjusting to the new normal

Rivasha says Covid-19 has made it very evident that as a leader you need to be able to let go of the old way of doing things, whether that is your thought process, how you think things should work under normal circumstances or whether it is trying to implement processes that no longer apply. 

For her, the uncertainty of this year has highlighted that leaders need to widen the scope of what is significant. “For instance, safety has become a big consideration, as well as factors that didn’t used to impact work, such as home workspaces. Also new things like working around home schooling schedules need to be addressed because they impact on our ability to perform.” She discloses that a willingness to have new conversations and navigate new challenges together grew that bond of trust when her teams needed it most.

Paving the way forward

Rivasha says her push for thinking laterally and taking issues such as inclusion seriously is not just for her, but for the future generations that pass through the doors of the organisation. “In an organisation, you want people not only to engage at a professional level. At a personal level it is also important to get to know each other and if you’re being excluded by language or other differentiators, it’s very difficult to be part of those conversations. They are part of getting to know each other.” 

She says this was particularly important when she first started working at AFGRI, which is a predominantly Afrikaans company. “At the time, I was the only person of colour in the executive team and it was important for me for people to get to know me. But I have a voice because I have something of value to offer,” she says.

As the winner of the prestigious Standard Bank woman in Finance award, her message illustrates that going beyond the narrow confines of convention is a gamble worth taking.