KFC Africa CFO Sharon Naidoo is firmly focused on today's agility and tomorrow's leadership.
Sharon Naidoo talks fast. Her words are clipped and sure and come out in rapid fire after taking a second to consider each question posed to her. This feels like an extension of her personal and professional style: take a moment to think before you act, so you can act quickly and with certainty. It’s a tactic that has no doubt contributed to her steady climb up the corporate ladder since qualifying as a CA in 2005. Now she’s over a year into her tenure as KFC Africa CFO at Yum! Brands, with both eyes firmly on the future.
Cutting her teeth in commercial
“I did my articles at Sasol, getting my start in TOPP [training outside public practice] rather than TIPP [training inside public practice], and I think that's where a lot of my beliefs around business and my passion for strategy come from,” says Sharon. In this commercial environment, her top priorities were the business being a “going concern” and delivering to investors – rather than a reporting focus.
Over the next 13 years, Sharon worked her way through several finance and leadership roles in South Africa and Africa more broadly, with a number of big brand FMCG and pharmaceuticals companies. This broad experience has given her insight into many of the divisions and responsibilities that often fall under the varied CFO mandate. “Through my career I’ve spent a lot of time being responsible for procurement, for supply chain, IT, legal, commercial management, sales and marketing,” she says.
Additionally, her career has involved extensive time and focus on how South African and global companies and brands approach a strategy of expansion into Africa. “I'm very passionate about the continent. I think we have so much potential, and I think South Africa has to be that gateway to Africa,” Sharon says.
“I don’t think we have done a great job of this in the past. Perhaps we have been afraid, or we have been arrogant. You can’t go into another country with a strategy of quickly extracting cash. That ‘cash cow’ strategy is why many companies fail in Africa. Instead, we should be investing in the consumer offerings and building brands.”
This kind of thinking is indicative of the wider skill set – including soft and business skills – that Sharon believes are critical for the next generation of CAs. She deliberately makes time for mentoring up-and-coming CAs, because she sees this as part of the responsibility of the industry’s current leaders. Sharon explains that she worries about the impact of the current trend that sees talented young CAs skyrocketing up the corporate structures blindly:
“When you become a CA, the world is your oyster and you have so much power, but the responsibility doesn't always come easily. Young CAs often chase roles with titles or chase roles for money and compensation, and they don't necessarily pick the right roles.”
This can mean a lack of relevant experience, she explains, with talent who have moved too fast and haven’t learnt what they really need to know – beyond the technical skills. “I have a few mentees of different ages that I mentor, and we are always talking about roles, being offered roles. My question to them is always, ‘why are you leaving?’. Most of them are leaving managers that they feel are not giving them the opportunity for experience. As the older leaders, we have a responsibility to fix this.”
“The challenge in my generation is that we have strong CAs that are not coaching and grooming and mentoring enough, and then we sit back and complain about the lack of talent pipeline. The skills we want them to have are not skills they will learn by themselves, including leading your team, having empathy, leading people, and showing vulnerability as a leader,” she adds. “We need to be sharing our stories and experience, telling the stories of our journey to becoming a CFO.”
The CFO function
A large part of why this has become an urgent task, Sharon explains, is that the CFO role is so varied and wide ranging. “I spend 10 percent of my time on traditional finance and 90 percent everywhere else,” she says. “The way I see it is there are two people who know the entire business, and that's the CFO and MD. We are in every function. We own and consolidate the strategies, and that's the area where we need to groom our CAs.”
Statutory accounting and management accounting are skills that stay with you, but as a CFO, that is not where you spend your time, she says. “Instead, you need to be thinking about how you grow [the business], how you're going to deliver what you promised to the board, shareholders, and investors. We need to make sure the business has a plan to get there, and that we will use the resources we have in the right places. And constantly adapt to change.”
It is the latter – that adaptability, or agility in current popular terminology – that Sharon believes technology can enable. To her mind, the tech itself doesn’t create the advantage, but allows people to act quickly and make informed decisions. “I am a strong believer in outsourcing and automation, but it is not to have leaner finance teams,” she says. “Rather, these allow finance people to be business advisors. Technology is about delivering information, and this frees us from pure data crunching. Real-time info and integration of services can mean making decisions faster than competitors. That's when we really differentiate ourselves and win.” Part of this, Sharon argues, is letting go of the idea that finance people are the gatekeepers of certain information:
“This is what a lot of finance people get wrong. We should share information so our meetings are not about the numbers and who put them together. Our discussions should be about how we action those decisions faster based on that information.”
Taking a beat
It is not all rush-rush for Sharon. Taking a moment to gather information is always the first step for her – both personally and professionally. “I have 24 hours in a day and I have stakeholders to manage,” she explains. “This includes my son, my MD, the rest of my leadership team, and 55 people in the finance team.” The only way to do it, Sharon says, is to carve out time for reflection – walking the same path she sets out for her mentees, and her work responsibilities: deliberate and considered progression. For her, that means two hours every day – book ending the work day. “I plan what needs to happen. I take time to reflect and prioritise. And that’s with a weekly, monthly and quarterly view, so that I am not continuously running blindly into the next situation.”