Learn from those ahead of you, says Central Bank of Swaziland's Philile Nxumalo
Philile Nxumalo, GM: Finance, Central Bank of Swaziland, wanted to study Fine Arts, though her father persuaded her to rather pursue a BCom, like her twin brother. Good thing he did, as she’s enjoyed a successful career in finance and finds herself constantly challenged by the fast pace and rapidly changing landscape. “I like the aspects of my job where I have to formulate strategy for the department and translate this into executable plans. It’s a particular strength of mine. I love the thrill of achieving and seeing the results, the execution of strategy – it’s very tangible for me.”
Tell me in brief about your current role and responsibilities. Is your role focused more on finance or on strategy?
"It is focused more on finance and I ensure that relevant and appropriate financial information informs the Bank's strategy. It's all the things a CFO does, such as financial reporting for external stakeholders and management accounting for internal stakeholders, and includes the key aspect of financial control too."
"I also have something that is slightly different from the traditional CFO role: the finance portfolio in the Central Bank includes oversight and regulation of payment systems in the country. The challenge here is the rapidly changing digital landscape, which impacts both the Bank as an organisation and also the industry that we regulate. Introduction and increased use of financial technology, such as mobile money, bitcoin, etcetera, is an exciting challenge to the regulator."
"I am expected to lead the pack in understanding how all this works and offer advice to the regulator on the best practise of regulating such. This involves benchmarking against those regulators that are already ahead. In cases where there are no immediate benchmarks, I am part of the Bank team that is tasked with coming up with solutions of dealing with accommodating or enabling innovations while assuring security to the public. The key to all is the good working relationship I have with all the departments in the Bank and other external stakeholders."
You are responsible for supporting the country's Financial Sector Development Implementation Plan. Tell us about this.
"The four pillars of the Financial Sector Development Implementation Plan are: i) financial stability; ii) diversification of the financial services; iii) modernisation of the financial services; and iv) financial inclusion. While my department has a role in virtually all the pillars, the financial inclusion pillar is paramount to me. A lot of African countries have large numbers of people without access to financial services and Swaziland has formulated a plan to improve this statistic.
"Generally speaking, women tend to be financially excluded and any action we take to foster financial inclusion potentially has a positive impact on women."
"One of our objectives in this area is that we want to create an environment that encourages innovation for safe and accessible payment systems. This involves many things, including important legislative reforms and learning from those countries already ahead of us."
What is the regulatory environment like in Swaziland?
"It's quite robust. It leverages a lot off the country's membership in SADC. So, it is largely in sync with what's happening elsewhere in the region. We also have a relationship with South Africa, our biggest trading partner, so there are a lot of similarities, especially as far as monetary policy is concerned. Since 2010, the financial sector has two main regulators, viz. the Central Bank, which regulates the banking sector, and the Financial Services Regulatory Authority, which regulates the non-bank financial services. There is a lot of collaboration between these regulators. Other regulators exist that indirectly impact on the financial sector, such as the Swaziland Competition Commission and the Swaziland Communication Commission. The Bank has a good working relationship even with these regulators."
How does SA's recent credit ratings downgrade affect Swaziland?
"Our currency is pegged to the Rand, so whatever happens to the Rand will affect the Lilangeni too. Another aspect to this is the fact that South Africa is our largest trading partner and any adverse impacts on inflation and economic activity in South Africa will have flow through to Swaziland."
Tell us about your team. What are its strengths; what are its weaknesses?
"There are 43 people in the team. This is divided into financial accounting, management accounting, a procurement or supply chain aspect, and the national payments team, which includes the oversight and the research and monitoring of players in the payments market in the country."
"Our strengths lie in financial analysis and reporting. What we could improve on is in controls to mitigate cybersecurity risks. We need to understand the cybersecurity risks that we face, and in the Central Bank, it's not so much the loss of information or data, it's actual financial loss. We must actively engage with our peers to better understand the best practice approaches to dealing with the threat."
"The one great thing about my team is that it's relatively young and energetic. This is great for me because it means that they are constantly looking for innovative ways to do things and are able to dedicate time and effort to pursuing further studies in the field - a key requirement if one is to keep up with the ever-changing landscape."
"I also have a personal challenge, perhaps given the national payments systems aspect, and that is how to contribute to leading the organisation into the digital era. The challenge here is that you might find some of the people you oversee in the industry overtaking you in the innovation they bring, and that you're always playing the catch-up role. Our challenge is to try navigate through that digital journey without getting left behind."
What are your leadership traits? How do you get the best out of your team?
"Something I get told a lot is that I'm very calm. In a high-pressured environment, you need someone who does not react too quickly. This has served me well as it tends to create an environment for my teams where open communication is encouraged, where even the difficult conversations are easier to have."
"I read a lot in order to stay abreast of the latest in the profession. As a result, I am able to nudge my team in the right direction. The effective use of performance appraisals with relevant KPIs also helps me to stay close in monitoring and guiding the team to deliver on the departmental mandate. I will not hesitate to congratulate and give credit to a well-performing staff member, while at the same time investing time in understanding low performers, with a view to identifying capacity constraints in order to give solutions. I am also a good listener."
What achievement in your current position are you most proud of?
"I haven't been in this role for too long but there are a couple of things that I can mention. One is improving the discipline around financial control within the Bank. My challenge coming in was to get financial policies and procedures reviewed and in some instances, implemented for the first time. It has been great to see the results of some of those improvements."
"On the payments side, the legislation review is not yet complete but we've definitely made significant strides in terms of being more open to accepting where digital technology might take us. This has enhanced the current strategy as it aims to respond better to the changing landscape. I am also happy that I represent the Bank in a number of important international organisations, such as the Macroeconomic and Financial Management Institute of Eastern and Southern Africa (MEFMI)."
What is the toughest decision you've had to make in your career?
"Leaving the commercial bank. If you consider my work history, I was positioning myself for a lifelong career as a banker. I had worked in corporate and investment banking, in risk management and retail banking, so making the shift to join the regulator - and in a traditional financial role at that - was a big change for me, though it came at a good time. I could see myself making a contribution, given my previous experience, to what the Central Bank is currently doing. It also brought the opportunity of doing something new, something I had previously not tapped into. That was the big pull for me."
How did you come to work in finance?
"I actually wanted to study fine art - that's the creative streak in me. My dad very politely asked me how I intended to support myself in that field. He didn't doubt that I could do it but it worried him. So, we made a deal: he said if I could do a BCom degree and finish it, he would pay for me to do something in creative arts afterwards. So, there I found myself at Wits, studying accounting. I didn't have any particular interest in it but my twin brother was studying it, so I went along."
"Accounting has grown on me and I've never looked back with any regret. I love it. I might sketch or draw sometimes for relaxation and I'll go along to an art gallery or show but I'm more of a collector these days, whenever my finances allow me to!"
Where do you see yourself in five years' time?
"I could return to commercial banking - I love the thrill of being in a profit-driven organisation. However, building up competence and experience within the regulatory space could open new opportunities. Given how quickly the industry is changing, it is probably an environment that will continue to challenge and stretch me for a while, whether in the CFO position or not."