We must purge ourselves of complacency as a profession, says Lindiwe Ndlela, 4AX CFO

4AX's Lindiwe Ndlela sees an opportunity for cleansing after the recent scandals that rocked the finance profession.

“The credibility of our profession is currently being challenged. We’ve never been here before. We’ve always been held in such high esteem. It’s a challenge because suddenly everybody sees CAs as professional crooks,” says Lindiwe Ndlela, CFO of 4 Africa Exchange (4AX), expressing her view on the recent corporate scandals involving CAs. “But part of me thinks it’s good. It’s an opportunity for cleansing, reflecting and strengthening; for strengthening the very core of what makes our profession what it is.” We sat down with Lindiwe to find out what makes her tick, what challenges her, and what she thinks the finance profession could be doing better.

What have things been like since you joined the 4AX team in July 2017? 
“It’s been interesting! It’s been get in there and get your hands dirty! It’s a small team, so everybody rolls up their sleeves to help finish building the house. It’s been challenging, all in a positive way.”
“I must give credit to the founders, who spent a gruelling two years dealing with the application, drafting exchange rules and regulations that will differentiate us from the rest, , drafting a unique business plan and dealing with the relevant authorities. We’re now in the second phase, so this is the part where we bring the business plan and strategy to life. It’s a make or break phase; one which takes the establishment from an idea and plan to a fully-fledged market. Our focus is on ensuring we don’t just make it functional but also profitable, and that it brings about value creation and drives the economic growth that it seeks to do.”
“If you think about it, this is a unique opportunity for us as a team because there’s not a lot of people who know what it takes to start up a stock exchange. It’s an opportunity to be pioneers and be innovative in building a stock exchange that is designed to address the needs of our developing country.”

 

Tell us in brief about your current role and responsibilities. What sort of challenges do you face as CFO?
“4AX is a startup, so I wear many hats. The finance role is critical. I find that it’s less traditional in this instance because I’m involved in various functions and activities, for example, capital raising functions. This makes my role interesting and diverse. It’s also a role that exposes you to various aspects of the business. We are a small team, so you slot in where you’re needed. But it’s very strategic.”
“This is phase two of the exchange, so we’re putting down the essential building blocks on top of what’s already laid down – the foundation, the rules, the technology. This phase needs a different strategic focus, which is predominantly going to market and acquiring the confidence of the market players and public. SA has had a monopoly in the financial markets for many years, and being the new kid on the block, how do we attract interest? I’m an essential part of ensuring there is ongoing growth of the business.”

“The financial markets space is new to me. It is very specialised and highly regulated and was previously a very closed-up space. I’ve always stepped into roles that are outside of my comfort zone. I’ve always done this and challenged myself to step into roles where everything isn’t necessarily familiar. As a CA, you get trained to be a business leader. You don’t need to specialise in a specific niche field to understand what’s going on. You need to understand the business plan, the strategy, the inherent risks, and the regulations that govern that particular space.”

 “Operations kicked off when I took up my role. Prior to this, the finance function was just record keeping. One of my first KPIs was putting in place systems and processes. You can’t be a regulator if you don’t have good governance in place. It was a critical thing that needed to be put in place when I came on board. This is one of my core strengths, actually.”

What achievement in your career are you most proud of and why?
“In every role I’ve taken in my career, I’ve stepped into shoes bigger than where I was at. I’m very proud of how I’ve always exceeded expectations and created value everywhere I’ve been. What I would call more of a tangible achievement in my career is the human development aspect. In my previous role at MerSETA, I had the opportunity to be instrumental in the growth of several female colleagues. It’s amazing to look back and have people in your life who are grateful for where they are and for the role you played in encouraging them and helping them grow and progress. I find it immensely fulfilling; having a practical impact on people’s lives. When you walk away from that role, people still reach out to you because of the opportunities you’ve afforded them.”

What is the hardest lesson you’ve learnt in your career?
“Probably being faced with multiple stakeholders and shareholders, as balancing their priorities and needs isn’t always easy. It’s a challenge, finding that neutral ground, that above-board ground. The biggest lesson I had to learn is how one should always refer back to the initial strategy and plan, which is usually revised on an annual basis. Because this redirects you and ensures you don’t show preference for one stakeholder need over another. You then also have a written and approved reference supporting your decision-making. Every time you are faced with a situation with conflicting needs, ask yourself what would deviate from the plan and strategy, as this helps you to act in the best interests of the entity. It’s a good litmus test: will this action contravene the company’s strategic objectives?”

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career?
“That you should always stay true to yourself and be consistent. It’s such real advice because very often, you are faced with situations for which you have no reference but to draw on yourself. There’s no handbook, so you have to draw from who you are to make a decision.”

What do you think is the most exciting thing happening right now in the finance sector?
“I always find a way of looking at challenges as opportunities. This gives us a chance as finance professionals to reflect. For example, the credibility of our profession is currently being challenged. We’ve never been here before. We’ve always been held in such high esteem. It’s a challenge because suddenly everybody sees CAs as professional crooks.  But a part of me thinks it’s good. It’s an opportunity for cleansing, reflecting and strengthening; for strengthening the very core of what makes our profession what it is. It’s important because, as people, we do become complacent. We ride on the name and reputation of the CA brand. It’s more compelling now than ever before that we purge ourselves as a profession of that complacency.”

“We live in a country where even our government will not be able to take us to the next level if it does not partner with the right people in the private sector. It’s a chance for us as accountants to re-establish ourselves and help stimulate growth and restore confidence in our corporates.”

“Right now, we have so many amazing tools we need to internalise. I absolutely love the new King Code, I prefer it to the previous versions. I find it calls more to social conscience; to balancing investor value and sustainability. We’ve seen how the moral code of companies can affect the bottom line. We need leaders who are socially conscience.”

How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
“By Grade 11 I knew I wanted to pursue a career in finance. I’ve always been comfortable with numbers, so it was a no-brainer, though it was a tug-of-war between my accounting teacher at the time saying I should study accounting and my maths teacher pushing me towards actuarial sciences. I was awarded a bursary from PwC to study accounting. I’m glad I went this route. I have no regrets. However, I do toy with the idea of one day finding myself within the interior decorating and art curating space, out of passion and love. I love art and I’m a collector. I also collect antiques and source art for friends. I love walking through Kramerville on a Saturday morning looking at pieces. It’s something I’m really passionate about and for which I have a natural flair. I never thought of myself as having an artistic or creative side. I was a typical nerd. It’s something I discovered later in my life. With growth and exposure and through getting to know myself better, I discovered this passion.”

Are you a naturally ambitious person? To what do you attribute your career success?
“Yes, I am. I set the bar high for myself. I think it’s important that I do. When I look at my career growth and progression, it’s been exponential. I’m a typical fearless go-getter type of person. My philosophy is, what have I got to lose? How will I know I can do it if I don’t take the chance? I don’t always tick all the boxes but I’m still bold enough to go for it. I find with women, it’s not something we are good at doing – applying for a job even if we don’t tick all the boxes. I’ve always been bold and unafraid of stepping into an unknown world.”

Have you achieved a work-life balance? How does this look for you?
“I’m fortunate, while I’ve always had a demanding job that requires sometimes working long hours, I am clear on my interests and hobbies, which allows me to have the work-life balance, though I can only execute or enjoy these if I put time to it. I’m a marathon runner, I love running. But I need to put effort into the training and enter for races. I also travel to participate in international races, as I also love to travel. So, I plan my holidays around races. My husband is a motorsport fanatic. I run around with him to all his motorsport functions and he chauffeurs me to my races. Generally, my life outside of work involves my hobbies and spending time with my husband. We are very good friends, we do a lot of things together. We don’t have children yet, which allows us to have a very active social life. We have the time to enjoy dinner dates and visit friends. When it comes to work-life balance, I think I’m doing well. The challenge of work-life balance is time; time is the limitation. My advice is to identify your interests and hobbies and try to align them – I like travelling and running, so I do them together. You have to consolidate your interests. Then, before you know it, it’s seamless.”