It’s never too early to get to the top

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Three Finance Indaba panellists shared their tools for early career success.

Considering that the average age of South Africa’s population is between 19 and 20, it’s clear that young people need to play a more active role in business. So said Abdullah Verachia, CEO of strategy and advisory firm, The Strategists. Abdullah, who chaired a Finance Indaba panel titled: “Aim High: How to fast-track your CFO trajectory”, stressed the need to create a space for young people to grow. “We need young people leading organisational conversations,” he said.

It’s all about putting yourself out there and trying again if you’re unsuccessful, said panellist Etienne le Roux, CFO of Metropolitan Retail, speaking about how to climb the corporate ladder at an early age. Indeed, Etienne was rejected when he first applied for his current role. “I had to deal with that setback and disappointment,” he said, “but then a year later the opportunity became available again and I was successful.”

Fellow panellist Alastair Petticrew, CFO of Bidvest Insurance, also spoke of the need to put oneself out there. “I started out at KPMG and decided to take a chance and put up my hand for things,” he said. Seeking ongoing personal development, he came up with a winning client pitch at the age of 21. “Telling directors how to do their job was daunting,” he laughed, “but it’s all part of learning.”

Part of learning also means saying yes to every opportunity, added Julian Palliam, president and CEO of phosphates and phosphoric acid producer, Foskor. Initially unsure of where he wanted his career path to lead, Julian grabbed each chance that came along, working all around the world and even training in Switzerland. “As a young CFO, having the ability to say yes, to go into uncertainty and to know you can make a difference is key,” he said.

The three panellists also agreed that to become a leader, you need to understand and interact with people on all levels of the business. “To succeed, you have to understand what’s happening on the ground by interacting with the people on the floor and seeing what’s operationally driving the business,” said Alastair. “This strategy helped me to grow as well. Every person is important to the business, and your role as a leader is to help them understand the value they add and how they can help facilitate shared success.”

Etienne also advocates getting to know customers. “Sales is everything in insurance,” he said. “You need to go and see the places we’re insuring and invest in having the client experience. Once you understand your customers’ drivers, you can simplify them for the people on the ground.”

Julian also feels that interacting with the people both in and outside of the business is inherent in leadership. “Getting to know the people is integral in every bit of a company,” he said. “People talk about soft skills but they’re real skills that we need. Leadership is about knowing how you get someone to believe in you and do something they’d rather not do. Yes, you need to know the technical side and maximise profitability, but it’s also about how to get people excited about coming to work. You have to build a relationship with your team that’s rooted in trust.”

Becoming an effective leader, no matter how old you are, is ultimately about understanding and believing in yourself. “It’s important to understand what you’re good at and to be the best at that,” said Julian. Then hire people who are good at things that may not be your area of expertise. “Own who you are and surround yourself with excellence,” he concluded.

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