Jamie Louw reveals how continuous learning has helped him become a better leader

The AFMS Group CFO believes learning and development is a business imperative for all finance leaders.

In an ever-changing world, finance professionals need to take on new skills and capabilities in order to become business partners of the future. Now more than ever, the finance professional of the future needs critical thinking skills, but also soft skills, the ability to collaborate, but also to make tough decisions. Over the next few weeks, we interview some of South Africa’s leading CFOs to find out how they are incorporating continuous and broad learning and personal development into their lives.

One of the challenges finance professionals are constantly confronted with is the fast-paced nature of change. Not only do they have to adapt and learn to be leaders of the future, but they have to stay on top of legislative and regulatory changes in the industries and markets they operate in. “CFOs are confronted constantly with the rapid rate of technological, societal, political and business-related change,” says AFMS Group CFO Jamie Louw. “We are thus foisted into a world where adaptation is key.”

He explains that one of the key components of the adaptive process is learning. “One single set of knowledge is never enough, and knowledge is never static.”

Jamie adds that there is also a need to further recommit to ethical codes of conduct, and that training in this regard goes a long way to ensure that CFOs are wholeheartedly committed to an ethical approach backed by sound and logical business principles. “We have a duty to stay abreast of what we need to do as professionals, and every little bit helps in the end.”

CFOs need to learn on the job in real-world situations, from peers inside and outside of the organisation, sharpen up academically, as well as have a willingness to explore new possibilities and not accept the status quo. “As we collaborate and engage with one another in forums, events and seminars, we also sharpen one another up and keep each other on our toes. We have this commitment to our fellow members to ensure that we build the profession and fly the flag for what we stand for as professionals – being just, fair, honest and ethically above reproach in our businesses, spheres of influence and for society as a whole,” he says.

Jamie explains that, too often, learning is chalked down as a cost centre or a stream of cash commitments to meet a particular end. “To some, learning and development spending is a grudge purchase and seen as straight off the bottom line, with no meaningful ROI measurement. But in reality, this is a much-needed spend item.”

He adds that, if done right, learning and development fosters diversity and inclusion in the organisation, and ultimately aids the process of talent management and succession planning, which reduces recruitment and placement costs in future. “These are all business imperatives, despite them often being intangible in nature.”

Jamie enthuses that CFOs have a role to play in pushing this agenda in their organisations, as it will enable the organisation to move with the times and seize opportunities as they arise.

Personal development
From 2019 to 2021, as Covid-19 broke out across the world, Jamie studied an EMBA course at the UCT Graduate School of Business. “The learning grounded me in my current context and allowed me to express myself in my role as the crisis unfolded,” he says. “It highlighted the need for greater empathy, to listen and to be receptive to the plight of others.”

Applying these learnings, Jamie found that more well-attuned listening helped him get closer to the real issues in the business and enabled him to work with others to find more meaningful solutions to problems.

His new leadership approach also enabled the employees of AFMS to work through significant challenges in a resilient, sustainable way.

Jamie adds that various learnings have also taken place after the course. “This has enabled greater space for leadership expression, growth and positive change to come into the organisation.”

He explains that the experience was eye-opening and recommends it for maturing finance executives seeking deeper immersion into their roles.

Balancing learnings and leadership
Studying while trying to lead an organisation, especially through a crisis, can be difficult. Initially Jamie had to figure out how he could manage the workload with the available hours in a day, while making sure that he wasn’t too tired and burnt out during the course of the work week.

“I had to implement a new set of practices that allowed for my work, family time, hobbies and interests, as well as my studies to happily coexist,” he explains. “I work better on academic stuff at night, so I would often switch back on after 10pm when everyone in the house was asleep to put in a couple of hours of either reading or reflective writing.”

Jamie says that what got him through was keeping the bigger picture in sight. This allowed him to more actively plan towards deadlines by breaking the work into smaller, bite-sized chunks. “I was hard on myself and made sure that I negotiated around the competing interests to ensure that I never fell too far behind at any given point in time.”

He adds that not leaving large gaps in time between writing and assignments was key for him, as “ring-rust” and writer’s block could become a challenge. Keeping the gaps small allowed him to continuously reflect on what he was writing about and to iteratively make changes to what he had written previously.

“It’s a big juggling act, but with the end goal in mind, you can hatch a plan to make it work, as long as you are quite deliberate about your goals and what you are wanting to achieve.”

Encouraging learning
In a previous interview with CFO South Africa, Jamie encouraged CAs to consider continuing learning. “We are technically skilled and trained, but there’s great learning in grounding ourselves in a form of leadership study that challenges us to think beyond the numbers and key metrics imprinted in us when qualifying.”

However, not everyone is geared towards the formal academic process, and some may be over-awed by the commitment of MBA-type programmes. “Start by committing to CPD programmes. SAICA has tailored different packages, events and seminars to meet the needs of its members. The IOD also has decent programmes that ensure ongoing development,” Jamie advises.

He adds that reading is also essential – not just market news, but good investigative journalism, as well as reports into the accounting fraternity and profession.