What makes a good CFO? Narriman Taliep, V&A Waterfront CFO, shares her views

Narriman Taliep, CFO at Cape Town’s bustling V&A Waterfront, believes that modern CFOs need to embrace and get on top of technology: “For me, this is the future. It's a necessity, not a luxury. So, the question is, which aspects of the technology do you take on now, and how do you manage it?”

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The V&A Waterfront is one of Cape Town's biggest rate payers, so it is crucial its money is well-watched. Narriman, whose full title is Executive Manager: Finance and IT services at the V&A, has climbed the ranks in the organisation over 13 years, through its three owners. "I audited the Waterfront before joining them directly," she explains. "I was approached by the then-finance executive to come across. I worked in various roles from the days of Transnet to the now shareholders Government Employee Pension Fund and Growthpoint. It was a period of many changes and we had to find stability at all levels again."

That stability always had to come with growth, but these days that is not easy to come by, Narriman admits. "There are not many properties to purchase that will give you great yield. So, we aim to continue trajectory growth while also continuing development. We are a platform for job creation, a key strategic initiative, and we are strongly aligned and committed to the National Development Plan." She adds: "We are targeting growth in excess of standard escalation in a somewhat restrained property industry market." Cape Town's famous V&A Waterfront has invested heavily into development, she explains, and bringing new tenants and business into the district.

Getting connected

The finance team that Narriman leads is centralised within the structure of the V&A. "Everything that is finance runs through this team, including reporting," she says. "We are also responsible for B-BBEE, insurance, rates, valuations, taxation strategy, and compliance. We manage internal audit on behalf of our board of directors."

One of Narriman's most important portfolios is IT. This includes the V&A's single-trench fibre installation that forms the backbone of connectivity and security provision in the district, and the extensive internal network, hardware and software. She is excited by the challenge this represents, arguing that any opportunity to learn - especially about technology - is to be welcomed. "For me, this is the future. It's a necessity, not a luxury," she explains. "So, the question is, which aspects of the technology do you take on now, and how do you manage it?" The choice is not if, but how, she warns.

"You can't stop change or decide not to take technological innovations on board. In a short time you will find yourself outdated. Our core business remains property and development but IT is an enabler. I believe that any CFO in business today needs to embrace and get on top of technology. It can only add value to a business."

Plan B

Narriman describes her leadership style as "outcomes based", and believes that she is in the business of creating the next set of leaders in her division. "I want my successor to come from this team, so I push them. I want them to find the answers," she says. "This can be uncomfortable sometimes, they must be willing to live with the consequences of their proposed solutions."

Of course, that doesn't mean free rein in the finance department. Rather, Narriman says she continues to play the oversight and guidance role she needs to. Some mistakes are, naturally, not an option, she adds. "I always have to know my Plan B or when I have to step in, which items are not negotiable, which ones can fall over. But I do believe you need to give people the space and opportunity to learn and make mistakes," she says.
Creating this environment of trust and responsibility is critical to success, and this kind of relationship building - Narriman argues - a big part of the new set of skills CFOs need in a changing and shifting work environment. "If you have good relationships with your staff, your seniors, your consultants, then you have partnerships. You work in partnership towards the same end."

CFOs' top skills

There are two other key skills that Narriman believes will set good CFOs apart in coming years. Firstly, the ability to embrace change - change in both business processes and in technology, to make the most of the efficiencies that result from these changes. Secondly, Narriman emphasises the need for robust, dynamic communication skills in the boardroom. "This is not about talking to people in the traditional sense, but rather how we communicate business information in new and different formats," she says.

The flow of timely and relevant business information is a major concern of Narriman's - not just within the reporting structures of the V&A but in managing expectations up and down the hierarchy of the organisation. And she believes this function should be a focus for any CFO.

"I believe as CFO a big part of my role is managing expectations, those of the people reporting to me, among my peers at the executive tier, and at board level. Managing the expectations of your board of directors, in terms of what is coming, is such an important layer. To find yourself in a situation where your colleagues and board don't know what is coming could mean your credibility."

When it comes to reporting, Narriman says you need to consider the value you are delivering. "How do you reflect in the report what you are seeing on the ground? How do we join the dots in this business? How does a finance dashboard appeal to an operations person? We need to start telling the story, and start embracing this kind of communication," she says.

A cohesive team

Foresight and insight will come from a switched-on team, too. Narriman will be looking for more analytical skills within team members, for people who can "see beyond the numbers". She says: "Yes, we have a core business but we must also understand footfall, retail sales, commercial markets, why people are coming to the V&A, and why companies like BAT and PwC prefer the V&A as their office location."

She adds: "We need to know what they, our tenants, are looking for, and where their businesses are going. We need to put in the extra effort to understand what is happening in the markets, what's changing politically, and what it means if forex fluctuations are increasing. I want to be surrounded by people who think with me at this level. This is where our value is as a finance team."

Having spent much of her working life in an organisation brings with it considerable institutional knowledge but it remains a place of learning for her, and that - she says - is one of the reasons why she has always stayed. "With all of the changes through the years here, I found the opportunity in each one to grow. We are not a small company, but neither are we exceptionally big. This gives me exposure to different layers of people, and I thoroughly enjoy this. When you work for the Waterfront, there is never a day where you walk away from the office and say, 'I now know everything there is to know about this role or this company'. It is what you make of it, and how do you respond: That is the platform that the Waterfront has given me personally."