How leaders navigated the Covid-19 pandemic with courage and commitment

CFOs told the Finance Indaba Conversations that being courageous doesn’t always make you popular.

Finance professionals told participants of the Finance Indaba Conversation that displaying bravery now has never been more important, especially during a global crisis, in a session on courage under fire sponsored by TransUnion.

With businesses experiencing a significant number of cyber-attacks during the pandemic, TransUnion’s head of emerging solutions, Davina Myburgh said that if businesses want to regain consumer trust after a breach, they need to respond quickly.

Samara Totaram, CFO at Stadio, shared how people lack a full appreciation of the courage you must have to wear the CFO badge. “The CFO job is sometimes a lonely and hard one because you are the ‘no’ person and nobody wants to be the ‘no’ person,” she said.

For Samara, making unpopular decisions is also a great display of courage. Stadio made a significant investment in an R311 million mega campus, which began in 2019 and was scheduled to open in 2021 before being halted by Covid-19. “The campus was supposed to open this year, but when Covid-19 hit and businesses couldn’t operate, we lost access to the site,” she explained.

“We had to make an unpopular decision to pause the project because we didn’t know when we’d be able to resume it; it was a stressful time because we had multiple stakeholders.” We couldn’t exist without our suppliers, and they couldn’t exist without us, so we had to work together,” she added.

Fortunately, as the country gradually opened up in September of last year, Stadio continued with construction and has now completed the project. “We are pleased to announce that we have completed the campus and will open our doors in 2022,” she said.

According to Samara, the pandemic’s uncertainty was a blessing in disguise because it forced them to change their way of working. “It forced us to adopt this new way of working, which is here to stay.” We had to prioritise our employees’ health and safety, ensure that teaching and learning continued, and that no student was left behind, as well as pivot into the world of online learning. Fortunately, we were able to complete the academic year.”

Courage under fire, according to Senele Mbatha, CFO of Discovery Vitality, meant making difficult decisions during the pandemic and lending a helping hand while your own future was uncertain.

Hit hard by the lockdown and grounded for months, Kulula was simultaneously undergoing business rescue, which affected its parent group, Comair. They were in desperate need of help: Discovery heeded the call and partnered with the two companies in a deal where Discovery Vitality members could book Kulula flights using their membership.

“When our partners ran into financial difficulties, they filed for business rescue and asked us for help. We had to put our own beliefs to the test and ask ourselves, ‘Should we opt for self-preservation?’ This was during a hard lockdown, when no one was travelling, the leisure market was suffering, and we were also unsure of our own future,” he explained.

“They required financial backing and guarantees, and we provided this financial assistance. Such decisions, whether right or wrong, I believe, must be made, and it helps reaffirm your values as an organisation; prioritising one stakeholder over another is never an option at Discovery. This decision also strengthened our relationships with our suppliers; in retrospect, this was a wise decision,” he added.

During the discussion, the most divisive issue was whether or not vaccination against Covid-19 should be mandatory. Discovery was one of the first local businesses to require all employees to be vaccinated.

“I personally support this decision; it was not made hastily; it was supported by data,” Senele said. “This mandate was widely debated, and we had to properly look through the data, engage with our people around this issue, and we were pleasantly surprised to discover that not everyone was anti-vaccine,” he added.

The future
According to Samara, Covid-19 will most likely be with us for a few years and so will the country’s needs. “The most common mistake organisations make is losing focus, spending more time focusing on their competitors rather than themselves and what they need to do to make their organisation thrive in the future,” she explained.

“Our main focus will be on expanding access to education, our students, opening up the new campus, getting students back on campus, creating better support mechanisms, and students feeling that Stadio has aided them through their journey,” she added.

Discovery’s main mandate will be to create a healthier society because they believe that healthier people perform better and contribute to better organisations.