I am an authentic leader, open to ideas, says Vodacom CFO Till Streichert

It didn’t take Till Streichert long to turn Vodacom’s finance team into a successful intelligence unit that keeps raising the bar globally. It is thus little wonder the German executive was named South Africa’s 2017 CFO of the Year, also walking away with the Strategy Execution and the Finance Transformation Awards. In this exclusive interview, Till tells us about the successful team transformation. “It was a stunning turnaround and an astonishing achievement for the finance team.”

For a textbook example of a finance executive who has used the first 100 days of his tenure to make a swift and decisive impact on his organisation, there is no need to look further than Till Streichert, CFO of Vodacom Group. Following a successful stint at Vodafone Romania, Till moved to the Midrand Campus in 2014. His most pressing issue was to drive the group’s “muted” ERP implementation, after Vodacom had gone through a significant and remarkable transformation project: switching its ERP from Oracle to SAP.

“The implementation left some challenges to bed down, which is why I was brought in, as I had overseen such projects in the past. At some stage, we had a pretty low paid-on-time ratio, which led to obvious reputational impact.”

Just about 15 months later and the finance team of Vodacom was suddenly ranked in the top-three of all Vodafone finance teams globally, and another year later the South Africans became the absolute global number one and won four group awards, a first for Vodacom. “It was a big thing, because we compete against mature European divisions,” says Till. “It was a stunning turnaround and an astonishing achievement for the finance team.”

How did he do it? Till says that successfully tackling the ERP conundrum was the source of his success, something that provided him with the credibility that he needed to reach for the stars.

No more consultants
“We put in a 90-day improvement plan in the finance operations area and analytically deconstructed the processes before restructuring,” says Till, who showed the door to all the consultants that were circling the project and kept the door shut even though he was offered resources to hire help. “I had the right people in the right places, which was crucial because I had only been at the company for three months and my judgement was more based on a gut feel.”

With the ERP system starting to hum, smiles returned on faces behind the desks, at the coffee machines and in the corridors. “Now we’ve reached a high level of automation with regard to balance sheet controls. Our internal business partners could start doing their jobs properly.”

Finance had become - to use the cliché just once more - a true business partner. “You can call us the intelligence function or precision management,” says Till. “You can give it many different names, but the most important thing is that we now bring more of a scientific approach to the future. We are doing a lot of modelling and we are looking at incorporating trends like artificial intelligence, robotics and automated journal entries and reconciliations.”

Clarity about roles
One of his most important early contributions was clarifying people’s roles and what expectations he had of them. “There is a lot more clarity now about what people need to achieve,” says Till, whose nearly 900 people strong finance team is now in good shape to meet financial targets and has set itself as a goal to remain the benchmark for finance teams in the Vodafone family.

“As an incoming leader, I was able to cut through the noise, being authentic, while being open to ideas and really listening to people. That unlocked an enormous amount of individual contributions, collective wisdom and combined power. We also hired a number of very skilled and smart people, some of them actuaries and data scientists, that helped us make finance a lot smarter.”

Till built up a diverse CV before he moved to South Africa with his wife and daughter. He occupied various key roles at T-Mobile in both Germany and the UK, before joining the consulting firm BCG. Between 2008 and 2013 he made his mark at Vodafone Romania, where he was part of the team that managed to return the company back to growth following a downturn on the back of the global financial crisis and a ratings downgrade of the country.

Many of the lessons Till learnt in Romania, where he managed to get Vodafone growing again, he brought with him to South Africa. A lot of it comes down to discipline, perhaps even better embodied by the German word Gründlichkeit, which means both carefulness and thoroughness. “What I have tried to bring in is a vision of seeing where we should be and a self-understanding of what finance should be doing. I take a systematic and focused approach when tackling issues and challenges, following a strict methodology, using root cause analysis, optimising our processes and promoting rigorous implementation of what we have set out to do.”

Becoming future-proof
Although one of Till’s successes at the Vodacom finance team has been supplementing chartered accountants with differently skilled colleagues, he feels that the exact qualification of finance team members matters less and less. What is more important in a fast-changing world is the desire to stay current, he argues.

“As a company, you need to make sure that your people get trained sufficiently through dedicated courses or conscious learning on the job. You have to develop yourself, both as a collective and individually, to be future-proof.”

CFOs are no exception and need to be future-proof too, says Till. “I have the opportunity to do training, meet other CFOs and meet very smart and senior people that I can learn from. I also try to reserve a little bit of time to think ahead and embrace what is going on in the digital space. As CFO, you also talk a lot to investors. Such conversations are always very insightful, as you hear what other people think about your business, which helps you calibrate your own thinking.”

Till is excited about the future, full of connected devices, drones, driverless cars and other groundbreaking inventions, especially as telecoms businesses like Vodacom have a significant role to play, with telephony quickly taking a backseat to data consumption. “There are huge things coming our way in the next five to ten years,” says Till, but he is quick to add that this is not what he finds most attractive about working in this industry. “What does excite me most is connecting people, in particular in Africa, where we can make a huge difference to people’s lives.”

By Ebrahim Moolla and Joël Roerig

This article first appeared in CFO Magazine