Nonkululeko Dlamini, chief financial officer at the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), believes that CFOs have a duty to uplift and empower younger employees. “CFOs should be the most approachable people in the business,” she says.
When asked about their mentor-mentee relationship, Nonkululeko says she is inspired by the willingness of her menteed, Nozibele Thobeni, senior financial manager at the IDC, and other younger employees to learn, and their openness to be placed into new and uncomfortable situations and environments. It doesn't take training to be a mentor, says Nonkululeko. "Instincts drive mentorship. I am not trained to be a mentor and I may not always be able to help, but I can refer someone to an individual or group of people in my network who is able to help," she says.
"Mentorship is about sustainability. As we move forward - working ourselves out of our roles, so to speak - we are able to create stable teams through a process of mentorship."
Guide and assist
CFOs are chief stakeholder relationship managers and their position simply requires looking after younger talent, says Nonkululeko, who is uncompromising about the duty to guide and assist. "I feel it is a requirement for CFOs to uplift and empower younger employees. In some instances, we shouldn't allow people to stumble in areas where we are able to help. It is important for your team to know that there's someone to talk to. CFOs should be the most approachable people in the business."
Nonkululeko says she has benefited from many mentors herself and recalls that when she joined Eskom as management accountant early in her career, divisional executive Mpho Letlape, was the friendly face that made all the difference. "Through working together, a relationship developed," says Nonkululeko, for whom Mpho grew into an important mentor and confidante. "Today we're a group of ladies who meet regularly at her house. She has a passion for developing women and bringing women together to lean on each other. She is someone I can go to, although she's not a finance professional. She's a phone call away. So, we had never initiated this relationship. It grew naturally. It is mentors like her who had identified something in me," says Nonkululeko, who later became senior general manager at Eskom.
Nonkululeko has some great examples about how guidance from good leaders can help talented finance professionals grow, referring to her special relationship with various leaders who had an open-door policy and made it easy to interact and deal with challenges. "I had messed up a report. And I've always believed in reporting my mistakes. So, I went to the Eskom CFO, who was Bongani Nqwababa at the time, and confessed my mistake. He just laughed it off. He said, 'these things happen'. Out of this conversation a mentorship-relationship also developed. As the relationship grew I was able to ask for his advice on many other challenges. It is through relationships and mistakes that I acquired my own personal board of support, executives who supported me during my career. I also consider my high school teacher, Nolufefe Pokiya as a mentor."
In turn, Nonkululeko has now grown into a mentor of note herself, with Nozibele praising her many admirable qualities. "She has a lot of energy. When I'm working on Sundays or after hours, I can be sure that Nonkululeko is also working. We've worked together on a few projects and I've learnt so much from her already. She's the boss lady. She takes control and this is very inspiring to witness as a woman."
Nozibele says that from the mentee's perspective, it is crucial to be close to your mentor to gain the same confidence and skill set.
"You can't hide. Mentorship brings you closer to the people you aspire to be like. As someone who's not in the CFO position yet, I don't necessarily know how to get there; what the next step to take is. But having a mentor, someone who has been there and can see the bigger picture, helps you decide what the next steps are."
For Nonkululeko, a woman's technical skills need to be balanced with other soft skills. "You might be a very good CA but in the boardroom, they're not interested in the technical jargon. In the boardroom it is about how you present to the board; communicating the bigger story with confidence. That's why it is important to invite younger employees into the boardroom, so that they can see how the CFO is grilled by the board," says Nonkululeko.
"Mentorship allows you to identify your strengths, weaknesses and your path. It's a broader community you create for yourself."
Both Nonkululeko and Nozibele feel a tremendous responsibility as public sector servants. Nonkululeko says: "For me it is important to deal with the perceived complacency in the public sector. We must make sure we groom the best leadership in the public sector. The public sector is doing a very important job in ensuring that development happens. It is therefore critical to groom the best of the best female, but also male employees. Just imagine how it would be if the public sector was functioning like the private sector at all times."
Nozibele agrees: "I've always worked in the private sector, so this is my first public sector position. And I must say, I feel very fortunate that my first public sector has been with the IDC. You're expected to know what you are doing here - just as much as you are in the private sector. But, mentorship is even more important in the public sector, because the public sector has the role of grooming future leaders. It is the training ground for the next generation of leaders. In the private sector you're given something very specific to do - and that's all you're expected to do. Here, you're given real responsibility. If I don't do what I'm supposed to do, it will be apparent to everyone."
"It is a huge responsibility either way," Nonkululeko adds. "We hear about job losses in the news every day. Our responsibility as the IDC is to counter that and to create as many jobs as possible, as well as keeping the financial sustainability of the organisation in mind. We need to ensure that we deliver on our mandates. This is a big responsibility that we need to take very seriously."
Nozibele recounts talking with her team members recently about serving the nation:
"I sat them down and said: 'You have to remember that in this environment, our shareholder is not some fat cat somewhere sitting and waiting for his dividend. Our shareholder is your mother, your father, your uncle - the people of this country. That is your responsibility. You work for the people of this country. That is who your shareholder is'."
Work and family
The challenges of female finance professionals are all too real for Nonkululeko and Nozibele. Nozibele has a six-month old and says that you need to be able to juggle not sleeping at night and raising a family with your work the next day. She finds it works best when she compartmentalises her work and family life. "When I'm at work I'm focused on work. I'm present. And when I am home, I don't think about work. I am present with my family. It's the same for women everywhere. The demands are relentless but I am a professional."
Nonkululeko says it is important for women to structure support around themselves and their lives. "Both your team at work and your family play an important role in supporting you - especially when a crisis arises," she says. "It's not easy."
Bold and courageous
The CFO says she doesn't regret any of her decisions that brought her to this point in time, but she would advise her younger self to be bolder and more courageous. "I look back and say, maybe I could've done better or more but I think I turned out okay." "Very okay," Nozibele says.
"Now I'm just focused on what I can do differently for my children to give them the best opportunities possible. For me it is about how I use what I know now."
Nozibele adds that, with time, she has learnt to be resilient. "When I was younger I had high hopes that everything will turn out the way I planned. But life doesn't work that way. I've learned to not let challenges break my spirit. So, I would advise my younger self to be resilient. To stay positive. To keep going."
By Judith Kamffer
This article first appeared in CFO Magazine