3 lessons for the leader of 2020 - a chat with KPMG's Heidi Volschenk


Leaders of the future need to be able to continuously adapt to different people and situations, says Heidi Volschenk, Director: Learning & Development at KPMG. In this exclusive interview with CFO South Africa, Heidi chats about her career, the secret to time management and three crucial lessons for CFOs and other executives who want to be great leaders.

"Leaders spend so much time planning for all sorts of deliverables and influencing people. Similarly, we also have to sit down and plan what our leadership style is, or should be, because it is something that we can influence and grow."

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Why did you become an accountant?
"I reflect on that quite often, like recently, when a whole new team of approximately 200 new accountants started at KPMG. When I see all that excitement and energy, that was me. At school I did well at accountancy and I enjoyed it. I was encouraged to take the CA path, as it is a great springboard qualification and in hindsight I can certainly attest to that. It is a lot of hard work and resilience - especially when you have some setbacks on your journey. Then I got my qualification and thought 'where to from here?' I have always known that I have more of a interest in people - and that is what guided me."

How did you become a learning and development (L&D) expert?
"An opportunity opened up in 2000 in the Learning & Development team at KPMG. It was a two-year secondment, but for me it has still not ended. I fell in love with the aspect of developing people and as I became more senior, more of my work focussed on leadership development. It also gave me wonderful travelling opportunities to interesting countries around the world."

"Those experiences taught me a lot about people. One of the people I presented conferences with was Prof Adrian Furnham, who convinced me to do a masters' degree, focussing on leadership development "since that's what you do anyway". It is very interesting and challenging at the same time! I caused a few raised eyebrows when an auditor with no previous experience in thesis-writing walked into the faculty of psychology and asked them to give me a chance."

Between a masters and a demanding job, what is the secret to time management?
"And my three beautiful girls! Time management is a tricky thing. Some people think there is a magic recipe, but at the end of the day it is a case of prioritising. You cannot go on a course to learn ten easy steps and end up with more time. Fortunately I am very task focussed and organised. When I do feel overwhelmed, I stop and ask myself: what must I get done right now? Or what do I actually have control over right now? And I start there."

What is the scope of your work?
"About 80 percent of the work I do is internally for the KPMG offices in nine countries in Southern Africa, of which the vast majority of our people is in the Johannesburg office. My role is all about skills development across levels and across the wide spectrum of people in our firm. On any given day I can have auditors, tax specialists, IT gurus, forensic investigators, engineers and medical experts in my training room! What a conversation! I love it! We follow the 70-20-10 learning methodology whereby 10% of learning takes the form of formal classroom or virtual classroom learning, 20% is informal learning such as coaching or mentoring and 70% is the learning that happens on the job, with feedback from supervisors and peers. Coaching has become a real challenge. It is so valuable to both the supervisor and the staff member but all of us are getting busier and busier and time must be set aside and held onto selfishly for coaching. Those conversations are crucial."

What are the most important issues leaders are struggling with?
There are three, as follows:

  1. "One thing I would love to give leaders is time for reflection. We are constantly rushing from the one thing to the next. What are you missing out on if you are not focussing 100 percent on what you are doing and don't reflect afterwards? You can fool yourself into thinking you can multi-task, but you are always giving less attention to something. After a significant project or meeting, you need to be able to have 15 minutes to reflect on what happened, what was learnt, how people were impacted and what's next. That requires discipline to establish a habit and a routine to incorporate time for reflection in your day. And a way of doing it that works for you. Have a notebook in your car or a reminder in your outlook calendar."
  2. "Development is crucial on many levels. First of all, you need to look honestly at your own self-awareness and emotional intelligence. Being a leader, people are always watching. They want to learn from you but they will also be ready to criticise you. So a leader must take a moment and think about "what is my personal brand". Because you have one - whether you like it or not! So pay attention. Get some feedback from those you work with and trust. What do they see? What is your blind spot? What do they respect about you? And are you okay with the picture you see?"
  3. "In my master's I am focussing on assessing leadership 'derailer risks' through the relationship of the Hogan Development Survey to 360-degree feedback. At director level, through lots of workshops and reading, everyone is told what the characteristics of a good leader are. But do we know what it is that we DON'T want in a leader? All of us have a couple of derailers. What is it that pushes your buttons?
    Often a derailer is the flipside of a good leadership quality, for example being bold. Charisma is a good thing for a leader. In fact, it is important for a leader to influence others. But under pressure that quality can get overplayed. Also, being diligent in your work is a crucial thing, but under pressure people can become micromanagers and intensely perfectionistic and it becomes a negative."

"One of the most critical learnings from my studies is that most leadership failures start with poor interpersonal relationships. Use this as a warning signal that you may need to take stock and re-visit your own values and the strengths that got you here."

What has been your proudest professional achievement?
"Being the leader of a team who gets the job done beautifully while inspiring people along the way and having fun doing it! As a team we received an award for having the best L&D strategy last year July at the Careers24 Future of HR Summit. When I started in the L&D team, we had five people in the team and we were responsible for very few courses. Now we are 25 in the team, see thousands of participants come through our doors each year and are in demand for delivering and facilitating programmes across Africa and the rest of our Europe, Middle East and African region. Someone recently left our team and told me that I was an inspiration to her and she has set her career goals based on how I built our team. Now that was really great to hear! The interpersonal relationships really matter."

Why did you join the SAICA CPD Committee?
"A friend was on the CPD committee at the time and approached me to join them, because I was in training at KPMG and I was a SAICA member. It was an exciting time with lots of changes during the time that I chaired the committee. CAs are not only auditors or accountants, we also wanted to cater for the professional development of CAs evolving into entrepreneurs and specialists in various fields. I was a management board member of FASSET over the same period and these two responsibilities provided me with a real understanding of and a profound appreciation for skills development needs in our country and in our sector."

How will a leader in 2020 need to be different?
"Continuously reinventing yourself is important. Changes happen faster and faster and you have to be able to continuously adapt to different people and situations. For us in the L&D space, that means reinventing the way we learn, like including digital solutions into our programmes. My three crucial pointers are the importance of interpersonal relationships, the importance of your personal brand and taking care of yourself so that you have the energy to positively influence those around you."

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