How running has helped Air Liquide FD Taki Nkhumeleni through tough times

She was under pressure to deliver life-saving gases, but denied her respite of running during lockdown.

When Taki Nkhumeleni took over the role of interim CEO at industrial and speciality gas supplier Air Liquide, on top of her current portfolio of finance director in April, this coincided with the start of the Covid-19 lockdown. To cope with the stresses of a demanding job, Taki usually takes to the road and runs. However, she was denied her release because of the lockdown that was imposed to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. 

“In running you learn that the more consistent you are the better your speed, endurance, and strength. You have to have a consistent speed to run long distances. If you are consistent with something it’s almost a guarantee that you will succeed. Yes, you may have setbacks like injuries, but you can overcome those as well,” she explains.  

At the onset, navigating the Covid-19 crisis felt like a sprint, “Initially, the pace was brutal, with back-to-back meetings and daily calls with the executive team.”      

Operating in a market where old assumptions were shifting, she says the first step was to re-prioritise. “Prior to the pandemic, we had big plans for 2020 which entailed growth in the market, elevating our customer experience and enhancing employee engagement. When the crisis hit, our priorities shifted immediately. We went from a growth orientation to one of protecting the wellbeing of employees and their families, protecting jobs and the company’s sustainability.”  

The weight of the company’s obligation to deliver life-saving gases to many state and private hospitals as well as home-based patients was also a heavy one to carry. Working with a scenario that normal national consumption of oxygen is 200 tons daily, but would be expected to go up to 1,500 tons daily at the peak of the pandemic, required that the company be able to respond quickly in an unprecedented environment.  

“While we already had high safety standards, maintaining the wellbeing of our staff has been top of mind. In addition to upping our hygiene practices, for essential staff we procured masks for employees who had to be onsite and hired private transport to reduce their exposure and keep them safe,” Taki explains. 

The company postponed capital projects that weren’t going to immediately generate cash, as growing market share was no longer the top priority and managing cash in the business was.  

Leading in a crisis 

Taki admits that her biggest career challenge thus far has been leading in the current crisis. “Wearing the hat of FD and CEO in a period where everything is changing around us has been quite an experience. The upside is the sharp clarity gained around priorities; we all understand why we do what we are doing, and our energy and focus completely changed from where it was at the beginning of the year.” 

She says that communication during this period has been very important. “Being very transparent in a crisis is crucial. People need to know that there are no hidden agendas and that means sharing facts that aren’t always pretty. For example, it is important to be upfront with the difficulties facing the company and the implications for cash management. These engagements ultimately make it easier to have conversations about decisions being taken.”  

Taki says that as a leader, you are always being watched and having your actions assessed. “You have to model the behaviour you want to see in your organisation. If you are driven, have high standards and demand the best of yourself, then those around you will do the same, but if you as a leader aren’t exemplary, you don’t get the best out of others.”  

She is aware that a lot of things are still in flux and the end of the journey isn’t in sight, but says it is important to acknowledge the contribution of the team. “We tend to gravitate towards correction and are not so quick to acknowledge the good things. As much as you want to correct people when they make a mistake, you also have to praise them when they do well. When the team feels valued, it’s a lot more positive within the team and within the business.”  

Social distancing has taken away the benefit of reassuring people with your presence and she says that to maintain visibility and amp up team morale, she would put on her personal protective equipment (PPE) to visit plants for a walk-about to check on essential workers. “I have also made it a point to reach out virtually to team members with calls and video chats. We have tried to make our teams aware of the interconnectedness of our success; how what each of us does, impacts not only the company but people’s families, their communities and more broadly the country.” 

Back on track  

As the restrictions have loosened and Taki is able to hit the road again, she appreciates the benefits of running more than ever. More than the endorphins and buzz of hitting the pavement, she is reminded of the spirit of camaraderie of the sport. “As a runner, you become part of a community and when you are in a race if someone sees you struggling they will run with you for a little while. This spirit of looking out for each other is something I am trying to carry over to the company.”  

Looking ahead, she thinks one of the biggest things companies will be grappling with is finding new ways of working. “It is obvious that people don’t have to be in offices all the time; the question is how do we ready ourselves for people to work remotely?”  

As a company, they are seeing an uptick in business as the economy opens up, but Taki says this needs to be approached with caution. “We want to make sure we are still geared up for growth next year and are taking steps to protect employment. We have to keep our workforce engaged and ready to operate at full steam when we need to do so. Customer relationships are also crucial this time, our teams must be able to deliver despite all the disruptions we may face. It’s clear to us that the demands we face, the challenges we face and the energy we expend is for a cause bigger than us; which is contributing to the wellness of the country.”  

Being physical and outdoors is a long-standing love of Taki’s, who grew up in Tshitereke village ?in Venda, right by the river. She is the eldest of four children, and her two younger sisters are taking after her; one is already a chartered accountant and the other one is finishing off her articles. She first heard of accountancy as a career path in Grade 9 from a former student who had come back to share what he was studying. She thought it would be a good fit for her since she had a knack for commercial subjects and it offered great career prospects “My journey has, by far, been inspired by my hard working parents who selflessly give so much of themselves, every single day.”   

She says: 

“I have always loved excelling and had never heard of a black chartered accountant, but I was curious if I could do it and blaze a trail somehow.” With a career that has seen her work for major corporations such as SABMiller, Shell and Deloitte Africa, she has made her professional goals a reality. 

Her approach to life is to “be consistent in running your own race at your own pace and recognise that every mile that you conquer is your personal best.”