iOCO CFO Jo-Ann Pohl: Choose ethics, choose sustainability
ACCA-qualified Jo talks about how the intentions behind our actions determine a much bigger success.
Jo-Ann Pohl is the group chief financial officer of iOCO – the ICT business of EOH – and vice-chair of the local chapter of global professional accountancy body, the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).
Jo-Ann is passionate about the contribution accountants can play in shaping and building a fair society, and sees ethics as absolutely integral to this. She describes financial services as a noble profession, one that helps keep people's lives together, facilitates growth, and so on, and ICT as an enabler adding “I've been quite determined and deliberate about where I work being aligned to these opinions.”
Building to a purpose
She started at iOCO in April 2020, and says of the move:
“One of the things that I've learned in my career is that my next move must help leave a legacy, actively build and make stuff, and I do believe that financial services facilitates that, but [with the move to iOCO] I saw an opportunity to be part of building a solution, not just executing a solution. That was compelling.”
Jo believes, going into this life stage and finding something with significant purpose has been crucial from a career and personal perspective. “And for me, corporate governance, good ethics, a focus on a psychologically safe environment for our people etc, are as so crucial. It is also important to demonstrate that a business run well – through good governance, ethics and so on – is sustainable," she adds.
While strategy “formally outlines what you want to do”, Jo-Ann says, culture forms the “values and belief system around that”, and how you can make sure that what you do and how you do it is guided by what is essentially right.
Jo-Ann argues that those with professional accreditations – like accountants and lawyers – are “held to account at a higher level”. Ethical culture is then about “marrying that expectation with what delivery looks like on the ground”.
“And in the current environment, even more so,” she says. She points to the numerous examples of scandals and revelations that have played out in the news in recent years, in “corporates, parastatals and civil society”. “These have really called into question people's integrity and ethics and impacted the profession too. And that’s the -thing that is our challenge to rebuild.”
The bottom line, she suggests, is that this squanders the faith people put in your organisation and in individuals. “The reality is that you have one opportunity to build a reputation of trust and execution, and you have to deliver on that consistently. Trust is built based on honest, small, consistent acts in the process of execution.”
Ethical action, to Jo-Ann’s mind, is not just about how you stay out of the negative headlines, but rather how you build a successful and sustainable business and respond to issues at hand. If you are guided by doing the morally correct thing, as “an independent principle in your business, asking ‘is what we are doing right?’ then your business can really outlast you and help ensure job security for your people.”
She reminds her own finance team of this often, that their jobs are to “connect the dots, identify opportunities and risks, and to ask ‘what is the right thing to do?’” Of course, she says, mistakes can and will happen, errors will be made or things can go wrong. When they do, she encourages her people to “take a breath, take a step back, and then work together to solve the matter from a sustainable perspective”.
Stopping to take the time to ask yourself questions will make all the difference. “A number of the financial failures we see are not necessarily about intentional non-compliance,” she argues. “Rather they often the result of not doing something or doing what has always been done, how it was always done, rather than questioning it from a moral and professional standpoint.”
“We need to look at the case studies [of successes, scandals and failures] and discuss the lessons learned. We need to question the status quo and ask if this is something that should be done. Ethics is an intentional thing, choosing how you act," she adds. “Covid has shown us just how inter-dependent our businesses are”, and how we should be striving for sustainability and building to a future we want”.
Enough is enough
Building on this idea, she says that we all need to be balanced by knowing “what is enough – enough money, enough business, enough profit”. “We spend a lot of our lives chasing more, and not asking ‘is it enough and what can we give back?" she says. "There are proven cases that if you do what is right you can be equally profitable, and more sustainable. We must create spaces where people feel psychologically safe as that empowers people to speak up when they see something wrong.”
These are some of the reasons why, she says, it is so important to be in a role by choice – if you can. She knows that for many people their lifestyles and situations, and the bigger economic climate all influences our ability to make these choices. “But if you can find yourself a role where you are there by choice, then you are better able to make the right decisions, then you are aware of the fact that this is not your only option or opportunity, so you choose to be where you are and how you respond to any given situation.”
Jo-Ann believes that “the golden thread” is the “every day we make choices”. “You want the right choices to be grounded in your values, in your experiences, and then build on learning from those.”
She says that human nature is largely wired for struggle and trust, and in a professional perspective, the more you trust someone or the more credible they are based on experience, the less you second guess them – “Still a questioning mind and being alert and aware as you collect and connect dots are important”.
That’s how you begin to meet the ideal balance of “professional scepticism”. In this way, she says, the role of an auditor is “less of a reporter on what happened in the past, and more of a journalist - truly inquisitive about the ‘why’ and ‘where to from here’. This allows us to be better custodians of the numbers, and better partners to the business.”