A humble CFO is a successful CFO, says Lauren Van Zyl, Divisional CFO of Eqstra Fleet Management and Logistics
“For me, being a successful CFO is not even technical; it’s about being humble. The role can go to your head and that creates drama,” says Lauren Van Zyl, Divisional CFO of Eqstra Fleet Management and Logistics. “Being humble makes you approachable, and the more approachable you are the more likely staff will be to come to you if there’s a problem, and that’s important.” Lauren, who pursued a career in finance after convincing herself she would never be interested in the industry, heads up a team of 45 staff members, and says the people aspect of the job is as rewarding as it is challenging. “That’s what nobody prepares you for. As a finance person, you’re very comfortable with the numbers, with the technical, but you aren’t comfortable with having so many people report to you, trust you and rely on you.” How did you first get into finance and how did you come to be a CFO? “At school, one of my main subjects was speech and drama. I was convinced I was never going to go into finance. When choosing my studies, I first registered for industrial psychology, but I didn’t even make it through one lecture and realised that wasn’t going to work. I changed my degree and went into Informatics. I was doing really well but realised I didn’t have a passion for it – it didn’t gel with me. I found my way to finance and thought I’d pursue general finance, believing there was no chance I’d do a CA. But at that moment I realised I would be stopping just before the finish line, so I decided to go the whole hog and completed my B.Com (Accounting) Honours, and then my articles through Deloitte. After my articles I stayed on for a short period, but I decided I wasn’t audit manager material. I was battling with the concept of siting across the table from a CFO and telling him how to run his business when I didn’t know what it was like to be in his position. I wanted to be able to give a CFO advice based on my own experiences. I felt like I needed that foundation.”
"When I touched down here at Eqstra, I realised I wanted to become CFO from day one, and get that exposure. You get to see the operations side, and I think that's what makes day-to-day finance bearable, because it's such fun. I'm lucky, I love my work."
Tell us about your current role and your team, and what style of leadership you practice.
"Each Eqstra Business Unit has a divisional CFO and CEO who report into the Group CFO and CEO. Fleet management and logistics is one such division, with roughly 600 employees. Of these, I head up the finance department with a team of 45 staff members, six of these being direct reports."
"I am very hands-on. One of best things about my role is that I was able to develop a relationship with the people on my team before becoming CFO. I was first brought in as divisional FM under the previous CFO. It was a role created for me - I was head-hunted to Eqstra. There was no job spec or description, so I had to figure it out as I learnt. From there I was able to get my hands very far into the detail and gain the trust of the team. I grew with them. When the previous CFO moved on I was given the opportunity to take his place and become CFO. I had already done a lot of the groundwork and I had a lot of the staff's trust. I think that was fundamental to my success."
Was there anything you changed - a procedure or process for instance - that was implemented in the company before you were appointed CFO, and which you changed after you took the position of CFO?
"When I first started, our division was split, we had two very individual operating silos, and therefore two full finance departments that supported these. When I took over there was a lot of restructuring and lots of changes. One change that I think had the biggest impart was centralisation of the finance department. So instead of duplicated roles and different policies and procedures, we've centralised and streamlined it all. The efficiencies we've got out of that and how we've managed to build a team and develop an identity for finance has been a huge success so far."
What aspect of your job do you most enjoy? What aspect do you find most challenging?
"It's the same aspect: people. I really enjoy working with others but people are the most challenging part. That's what nobody prepares you for. As a finance person you're very comfortable with the numbers, with the technical, but you aren't comfortable with having so many people report to you, trust you and rely on you. There are so many different personalities involved, and a lot of time is spent focusing on how best to motivate people and how to handle change management. That's been my biggest challenge, but it's also the most rewarding part of the role. It keeps the job interesting because you've got different people with different problems."
"I love the development side of things - developing each of my staff to ensure they understand what they're doing and aren't just doing it 'parrot fashion'. I've told my staff - rather tell me no than do something I ask you to that you don't understand."
How does your company contribute to a transformed South Africa and what role do you play in this?
"We are a listed company. There's a massive responsibility from our side to be a responsible corporate citizen. We have a large spectrum of initiatives set up divisionally and from a group perspective where we also have a committee on which the three CFOs sit and evaluate potential projects brought forward. We go through projects and look at the aspects of each, and allocate rand spend to ensure that sustainable projects are funded. That's one of the nicest aspects I've been involved in, actually. We find projects that wouldn't ordinarily see the light of day and we find sustainable development solutions."
"I'm also very involved in bringing trainees into the finance department - guys straight out of varsity or who are close to getting their diplomas. They spend a few months in different finance roles - three months with each function - to get hands-on experience. I help them with their studies and traineeship. That's very rewarding. I look forward to the day I can employ some of the guys we've got here; they are blossoming in front of my eyes."
How important do you believe it is to keep up to date with legislative changes?
"I think it's probably the worst part of the job. The problem is, if you don't know these things you'll never know if something sounds wrong. That red light won't come on. In my mind it is probably one of the most important parts of what I do. Part of my ethos is continual training on anything that touches my job. It's very important for me to know what the touchpoints are, what I can and cannot do. I attend courses and also send my staff on training courses, as it's very much part of my role to ensure everybody is up to date. It's vital, but it's also constantly changing, so it can be difficult to keep up to date."
Which skill(s) do you think a finance professional should master to be most successful in their work?
"For me it's not even technical; it's about being humble. The role can go to your head and that creates drama. Being humble makes you approachable. The more approachable you are the more likely staff will be to come to you if there's a problem. And that's important."
"With regards to being respected, it's very difficult to tell someone to do something if they know that you can't do it. By growing with the staff I was able to do that, because I had done these things myself and knew what I was taking about. So, the ability to know how to do what I tell my staff to do. That helps. That's what I think makes a CFO successful."
How do you see the role of the CFO changing into the future?
"It's definitely become less financial, and I think in the future, CFOs are going to have to become a lot more involved in the business and operations. These days, half your risks are operational risks. There's no chance the CFO can remain only in the numbers. They've got to be the foundation of the business and the support of the MD and CEO."
"If you look at how much regulation there is, that CFO position in future, and even now, becomes so vital in finding the balance between compliance and doing business."
What is most important to you with regards to career development, and how do you ensure your own continuous growth?
"I'm affiliated with various industry bodies, including CFO South Africa. I think it's amazing to be able to go and speak to other CFOs and get input from them on issues you share. With regards to career development, I believe you must surround yourself with people from whom you can learn. I'm lucky, I work with some incredibly intelligent people, from legal to operations. Everybody has such incredible information to pass on. On-the-job learning is one of the most important ways I develop myself."
What advice do you have for aspirant young CFOs?
"Something I learnt from one of my previous FDs: always surround yourself with people who are more intelligent than you. And don't ever think you're an expert, because there's always something you can learn from others. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that you're the smartest person in the room."