Be proactive about risk, says Kiran Kumar, Finance Head for Africa at Wipro Technologies

Originally, from Bangalore, India, Wipro Technologies’ Kiran Kumar, has been living in South Africa for close to five years, initially sent here to reinvent the company’s processes and controls. He was elevated to head of finance towards the second half of last year, though he still shoulders the responsibilities of his previous role as finance controller. “I enjoy the visibility of the entire business. I don’t think anybody other than the finance team has such visibly of a company; it’s all encompassing.”

Tell us about your current role and responsibilities.
"Wipro is a large, multi-national IT company headquartered in India, with operations in 60 countries. Its African operations are headquartered in Johannesburg. I started in South Africa as a finance controller - one of my peers was taking care of the business finance side of things. After that colleague left, the post was empty for some time, after which they asked me to take up the additional role until somebody locally joined to take it on full-time. So I'm currently wearing two hats: business finance and finance controller; one is back office and the other front."

You've been with the company for 10 years, what keeps you loyal?
"There are a lot of opportunities with the company, as well as new challenges. They really appreciate the efforts put in by their employees, and focus on exploring their capabilities by putting them into difficult, different scenarios to see how they cope. That's a welcome challenge to me - I love it. They're also very fair. Wipro has been rated as the most ethical company in the world and has received this accolade for many years running. I love that about the organisation."

What is the most significant change you've made since taking over in October?
"My style of working has changed because of the need to be engaged with the business and sales side, for example. Earlier it was more about processes and controls, finding out risk areas. Now, with me overseeing the business finance end, I've had the opportunity to change my personality to suit the market."

Tell me about your team - what are its strengths, what are its shortcomings?
"We have quite a different structure here because we only have one person on site, me, while the rest of the team sits offshore as it is shared between geographies."
"Earlier in my career I managed HR as a function along with finance, it's a strange combination which many people may not have had a chance to do but I really enjoyed it. It's a different learning experience. Before coming to South Africa I had a large team, 30 to 35 people, and there it was totally different. I really enjoyed working with the different skillsets and the different ages of those reportees - some were older than me, some younger; some were more qualified than me, some less. I had to identify a clear strategy of working with all of them."

What is your leadership style like?
"I am a person of clarity so what I do is, even if there's an assignment or project at CEO level, for example, I go out of the way to ask the critical questions and get a complete understanding myself and then ensure that I deliver that to my teams so there's no ambiguity of understanding. I believe that if you're clear on requirements and deliverables and support your team and work with them to achieve, the work goes smoothly and is easily done."

"I am a people person and love working with others. I like to connect with people and love debating with my team and peers - healthy arguments are nice to have, without anything getting personal. I'm happy to give in to a better solution if one is offered."

What does your risk register look like?
"We have low risk factors - we are a very risk-conscious company. Most of our transactions are done with a current audit. We don't wait for results to come before we realise there's a problem - we are proactive. We are probably somewhat more cautious than others companies, but we've chosen to be this way. I think there are definite pros and cons to this."

What external factors impact the company?
"These pertain to doing business in South Africa. Because of the economic slowdown, most of the big companies, our customers, have come under pressure to not outsource their jobs and are cautious to spend. That's a major factor. It significantly affects us so we are trying to open up new lines of revenue while still supporting our existing clients and showing them what new innovations we've come up with and other areas that might interest them into the future."

What are your thoughts on mentoring and coaching?
"I informally mentor whomever caters to my geography offshore, for example, junior colleagues who need guidance. I spend some time with them helping them balance their emotions and so on. Outside the company, I like to share my knowledge and experience. I've had many coaches in my life and I've picked up some good things from that."

What value do you see in networking with peers in the finance industry?
"I think the CFO forum is great way to meet peers in the industry. I am a networking person and am always looking for avenues to meet new people and understand the different experiences in the professional workplace. For me, it changes your personality as well. When you speak to someone who you've met for the first time, topics come out automatically and talking to them you get to understand their different perspectives on a topic. I think this creates a new person in you - an open-minded kind of person."

In your opinion, what makes a great CFO?
"Understanding of the investor interest is very important, and beyond that, understanding your own team/s and peers in business and their strategies and ways of dealing with things. It's also important to understand how you can partner with the business and not just be a finance head; this is so that you can fulfill goals and understand strategies."

"A good team is also key, and the CFO must mentor and coach that team to get the themes aligned, and to clarify what he's aspiring to achieve."

"Recognition helps too, as does being a great people manager. Technically there are 100 things he should be on top of, but that comes naturally with the role."

What do you most enjoy and least enjoy about the world of finance?
"I enjoy the visibility of the entire business. I don't think anybody other than the finance team has such visibly of a company; it's all encompassing. They have a view of the whole company and what everything does, who the employees are and what they do, what increments they want to give, what marketing plans are in place. In its entirety, it's an amazing thing to have."
"I least enjoy the fact that you can't always make people like you. It's not always possible to understand what pressure another person is under, so we can only follow our roles and be mindful not to get emotional but rather, to sympathise. Working in finance, you're often seen as the 'bad boys'. The only way I come out of this is to go out for coffee and tea with my colleagues."

What keeps you busy outside of work?
"For the past 18 months I've been focusing on my fitness. In 2016 I took up running and I've done some half and full marathons. This year I took up cycling and have done a few races. I also ride with my club every week. The furthest I've gone was on 19 February, the Ride for Sight race, where I completed 116 kilometres. I do it on a mountain bike, which is much tougher than on a road bike. One of my goals was to improve my endurance. Cycling is easier than running. Running helps more with fitness because it's harder work than cycling. I chose to buy a mountain bike for this reason - to push myself harder. Other than that, I do some night runs with my family - my wife and eight-year-old daughter - otherwise we do small park runs or go to gym and do fitness together."