Jo-Ann Pohl, CFO Standard Chartered Bank: Why CFOs are like parents


Top finance professionals are oft times like parents, remarks Jo-Ann Pohl. “You have to make tough decisions that are right for the business which people might only appreciate or understand much later. Sometimes, you are around long enough to hear the thank you. And sometimes you need to simply be assured that the decision was appropriate at the time,” says Pohl.

CFO South Africa recently spoke to Pohl, CFO of Standard Chartered Bank for Africa, about the changing roles of finance professionals, balancing work and one’s private life and doing business in Africa. Pohl also plays a prominent role in the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants (SAICA) and serves on the Board of the Charities Aid Foundation for Southern Africa (CAFSA), managing to combine this with a demanding job and four young children. “I love what I do, that’s where it starts,” Pohl says. “Working in Africa is tactile and means working very closely with people and that’s what I like.” Pohl believes that work and family both need focussed attention. “My oldest two are 12, the other two are younger – as a rule I give each of them 20 minutes of full attention each day. I think that in this day and age, we suffer from constant, partial attention so dedicated time goes a really long way. Luckily, they are very forgiving when balancing the demands of work and home don’t always work out.”

She demands the same focussed attention that she gives to her family from her colleagues. “Work-wise communicating is crucial. With email and all the social media today, Facebook and LinkedIn and so on, we sometimes feel like we have already talked to everybody, but it is still important to reach out to people and where possible meet face to face.” The time Pohl gives to SAICA and CAFSA she describes as continued professional education and “skills-based volunteering” . “I also do mentoring in small companies, speak to scholars on careers in accounting and finance and advocacy work; preferring to make a sustainable difference.”

Networking is also crucial for CFOs, but doesn’t always come naturally and CFOs don’t always make the time, Pohl observes. “CFOs can sometimes be protective of their own space, working with their heads down. By nature we exercise professional scepticism, are the keepers of the cheque book and act as the conscience of the businesses which we guard.” As a result, Pohl is very positive about the CFO SA initiative, which aims to bring all South African CFOs together. This creates a space for discussions about common problems, ideas for possible solutions and opportunities for relaxed networking. “It is great to talk with each other and it would be good if more round tables are organised. Often we don’t make time to have coffee, but we need to. We deliver hard messages internally, sometimes standing alone in this regard, we have to help drive and maintain business momentum translating strategy into executable steps whilst also keeping abreast of what is happening around us; so we need to network better with each other. Sharing will stretch how we think and play a role in supporting us as strategic partners to the business”

Pohl is an experienced professional, who has worked as a CFO for 8 years in different organisations. If she had to give a pointer to newly qualified Chartered Accountants (CAs) is would be to “start working for the right person, not only the right company”. Although a company might look great on paper, the mentoring roles of your first bosses are vital for both the technical and leadership development of a professional, Pohl says.

Pohl believes that experienced people like her should play an important role in grooming young, talented CFOs entering the big companies. “I am thinking of something like a buddy system. At the moment the profession doesn’t formally offer the softer side of mentoring for CFOs on a collective or network basis.” Pohl believes CFOs play a big role in organisations, because nothing is ‘not your problem’. As such, it would be really good to tap into the experience of existing CFOs. “No one tells you about the difference or step up when you are promoted to CFO. You might be a great performer, but you have to find your own route and style – that is where a buddy would be a good sparring partner.”

Recently profession has evolved moving away from exams that were 100 percent technical, which Pohl welcomes as a necessary development. “Now things like strategy, risk management and ethics are also assessed, which is quite a mind-set change.”

In South Africa the CA qualification is often regarded as the gateway to a successful career and a high salary. “Our CFOs can sometimes come across as arrogant about their CA qualification, which internationally can be interpreted as overconfidence.” Pohl says it is important to acknowledge that a qualification does not always make a great leader of a finance department or company; a leader needs to be well rounded with the technical qualification considered a CFOs ‘licence to trade’. Technical competence is thus almost a given at very senior levels, where we look for more; like a proven track record, demonstrated business acumen, ability to influence, connect the dots and translate strategy into an executable plan whilst playing a key role in building a corporation and culture that is compelling for the team on the ground

Many international and South African companies are currently busy widening their horizon and looking for investment opportunities in the rest of the continent. “I think South African businesses have a lot of potential, but the way we do business needs to evolve,” Pohl says. “Across Africa it is all about relationships. There is depth from a talent perspective in a number of markets, like Kenya and Nigeria as well as other countries in Southern Africa and the expat community is getting a smaller percentage of the jobs available as our local talent realise their potential.” Nevertheless, Africa can be a tricky environment, where there is a fear that centralizing services could lead to job losses. “It can be done, but you need to engage properly,” says Pohl. “In Africa you don’t announce, you engage. An African proverb rings true here that says ‘if you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far go together’ As an example, a shared service centre in one country can benefit a lot of countries. You can navigate those discussions if you build strong relationships and there is genuine value in the proposition.”

Pohl sums it up as follows “Finance professionals are no longer just number crunchers and gone are the days of ‘good old accountants’, we have earned our seat at the leadership table and how our voices are heard is now up to us.”

(In the picture from left to right; Alex van Groningen, Director CFO South Africa; Jo-Ann Pohl, CFO Standard Chartered Bank; Melle Eijckelhoff, Director CFO South Africa)

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview with you.Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].

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