CFOs must be ready for change - keynote Deon Viljoen, Acting CEO of Alexander Forbes, at 2016 CFO Awards


Deon Viljoen, Acting CEO of Alexander Forbes, won the CFO of the Year Award at the CFO Awards 2015. This year, Deon presented a keynote speech, which he began by thanking the CFO team and the CFO community of South Africa. After congratulating this year’s nominees and winners, Deon spoke about change: “No matter what industry you are in, you will be faced with these challenges. The trick is to be aware of it and get out of the trenches every now and then to look, because the world is changing around you.”

I want to thank CFO South Africa and the CFO community for honouring me with the CFO of the Year Award last year. I was very taken by surprise. I was honoured and humbled by the award. It's been an interesting year. At some stage I also featured on the front cover of a magazine [Deon was on the cover of the second edition of CFO Magazine /magazines]. No doubt my wife would've preferred I was on the front cover of Men's Health!

I'm honoured to have served on the panel of judges this year. It really gave me new insight into the process that is gone through in determining the awards and the nominees, as well as the quality of these areas. I've enjoyed the process. It is quite an onerous one but to be in it is really quite enriching.

To all those who have won an award and to those who've been nominated, I found it fascinating to go through all of those interviews and I had the privilege of sitting in on a few too. I am amazed by the depth and quality and the integrity of character of people who serve in our community.

Congrats to Leon and Simon [Leon Crouse (Remgro) and Simon Ridley (Standard Bank)] for their Lifetime Achievement Awards. It really is an honour to be recognised for consistently delivering with that kind of quality over so many years and creating what you guys have created. That's unbelievable. And it's certainly well deserved.

I've been asked a lot recently about how I enjoy the CEO role. We've had a lot of excitement over the last year and a lot of challenges. In South Africa we need job creation and bond markets, and all of those things that are top of mind for us as business people. We really need to get those macroeconomics to work in our favour. That's our challenge - to look after our clients in that way. When I took over as interim CEO, coincidentally a couple of weeks after that Alec Hay released a survey saying that the tenure of an average CFO over the last 10 years reduced by 25%. That got me a little worried. Part of the research also pointed out that the first 100 days of making an impact is important. They also said you've got three months to fail as a CEO and two years to succeed. That puts it into perspective. You need to ensure where you play your role.

I've worked with a lot of CEOs over my career and in one of the sessions today we talked about how you strike that relationship and co-pilot the business but also your support of the CEO. We discussed how you should adapt as the CFO and ensure the business gets the most out of your strengths and looking at what's left in the wake and dealt with as a CFO. With me stepping into that role you need to look at strengths and weaknesses. I need to point out my own weaknesses to the team and ensure they can clean up behind me.

We also talked about the pace of change and the role that the CFO and senior leadership has to play and how quickly things are changing.

We talked about disruptive innovation and how someone from left field can complete change things for you as an organisation. As a CFO you have to be in tune with that. Part of your role is to ensure the strategy is still valid and that the execution on that strategy is still valid. If you don't keep an eye on some of these challenges, which are fundamental, it's easy to fall into that mode of thinking.

There's also an important role to be played at a strategic level, but don't forget the same changes are happening to the profession and you must ensure these things are also looked after. In this changing environment where economies are changing the way that value proposition is delivered and accounting standards need to keep pace, that's difficult as we are trying to get alignment and standardisation under IFRS, and there are a number of issues that are difficult to deal with.

Then there are some underlying changes that may fundamentally shift our world at a technical level, things like block chain, which will fundamentally change the way we deliver and the kind of skill we need. In a world where transactions are instantaneous and there are no reconciling items, what is the ole of the accountant? When all of these ledgers are automatically reconciled, how do you then govern in that world and what changes happen to your company? It is similar with the risk side, and the risks that arise when that environment changes.

There is significant disruption from a business perspective but also within your own team. This means your leadership role needs to change in this regard. You need to looking at the CFO as a change leader and someone who can coach people through this change.

Understanding care as a leader, mentoring integrity and transformation are part of our agenda as CFOs and leaders in the profession. These changes are significant. The world changes before we can be ready for it. No matter what industry you are in, you will be faced with these challenges. The trick is to be aware of it and get out of the trenches every now and then and look, because the world is changing around you.

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