Focus on value: an interview with IBM South Africa's new CFO Sandra Atkins-Sadler

“We have to shift the lens through which CFOs look at finance transformation and make it effective by focusing on value,” says Sandra Atkins-Sadler, who joined IBM South Africa as CFO earlier this year. “I think IBM can make a difference by continuing to invest in skills training and development of future CFOs. At the same time our business solutions will make a difference to the bottom line of current CFOs.”

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Sandra has occupied various senior roles in the United States since she started her career at the firm in 2000. She was appointed as CFO in February 2016, and CFO Magazine spoke to her in July, just after she arrived in South Africa. "I'd like to gain a better understanding of the local dynamics and culture as it relates to building a cohesive team internally as well as externally," she says, regarding what she hopes to learn from the South African finance community.

"I also would like to understand from other CFOs how IBM can enable their own finance transformation and leverage that to provide growth opportunities that are a win-win for IBM and their respective companies."

Asked what she considers some of her most notable professional achievements, Sandra says the successes she has achieved in her career come from the fact that she has had the opportunity to work cross-functionally in most of the major business units in IBM. "I would say I'm most proud of my role as a financial services manager for two of IBM's largest outsourced accounts. These were important and high visibility accounts. It was very challenging. I was new to the role and the unit, there were some staffing changes, so the cards weren't stacked in my favour. I had to conquer a steep learning curve to get results," she says.

IBM's professional culture has been much lauded and experienced professionals in the firm are often careful to talk about themselves. However, CFOs are people too and Sandra admits that in her downtime she enjoys watching movies, especially stories based on actual events or biographies.

"I also like to travel, though I don't get to do much of that because I have a five-year-old child - my daughter - in tow."

Like many CFOs in South Africa and elsewhere, work-life balance is a continuous struggle. "I try for more work-life integration," says Sandra. "It helps to have a supportive team at work and at home, but I realise this isn't feasible for everyone. As far as offering advice goes, I'd say, where possible, align yourself with a supportive team and be open to sharing your personal circumstances. You never know, there may be a manager who can relate to that and understand your situation. If you withhold that you don't give yourself a chance to get help if needed. So, try to align yourself with a team that's going to support you where possible."

What is the footprint of IBM like in South Africa and how would you like that to change?
"IBM has played a vital role in Africa's development for nearly a century and is part of the continent's technological fabric. Some of our recent footprints include establishing our client innovation centre, and we opened a state-of-the-art research lab last year to advance IBM's African agenda. Our cloud data centre is the most recent one. We have 46 cloud data centres across six continents, and it's remarkable that we now have one in South Africa as well."

"My role as CFO is to expand on what we've done so far and build on it, and to ensure that our customers get the efficiencies and cost savings on which our value proposition is anchored. So I don't want to change this, just build on it."

What do you aim to achieve as country CFO and what do you expect to be your most challenging task?
"My key objectives include supporting our country general manager and the overall team, sustaining the growth of the last two years, and continuing to build a talent base and attract new talent. We want to continue to produce the best in the workforce."

What is the biggest misunderstanding about IBM among South African CFOs?
"There is still a perception that IBM is a hardware business. Reinvention is a keyword in the company's history and, today, IBM is much more than a "hardware, software, services" company. In fact, IBM is now emerging as a cognitive solutions and cloud platform company.