Leaders become great because of their ability to empower others, says Liaan Kretzschmar, Jaguar Land Rover CFO

“Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a strong drive to succeed. My father also taught me something at a very young age: ‘Don’t do something unless you’re intending to do it exceptionally well’. I still live by this,” says Liaan Kretzschmar, CFO/FD of Jaguar Land Rover South Africa and Sub-Sahara Africa.

A 2017 SAICA Top 35 Under 35 finalist (and also a 2016 finalist), Liaan says this experience has confirmed for him the wealth of "exceptional talent" that exists in South Africa. He says:

"We've got a burgeoning pool of up-and-coming young professionals - and not only CAs. Hearing other finalists' stories and learning about their backgrounds has challenged me to think about my life and career a lot more holistically. Sometimes we define success narrowly, as what you've achieved at work. But being a part of SAICA Top 35 Under 35 has forced me to stand still and consider what I've done outside of work; how I'm balancing my career, my leadership abilities and my personal interactions."

What achievement in your career are you most proud of and why?
"Being selected or appointed to the position of finance director and CFO of Jaguar Land Rover South Africa & sub-Sahara Africa. I was still fairly young, at 31 years old, and it was a proud moment for me. Being selected during my second year with the business to take part in Advance, an executive development programme, is another, as I was one of only six people to do this, and the only one based outside of the UK. Being in SAICA's Top 35 Under 35 is another."
"I'm also proud of the way we've managed to turn around the finance team here and transform the culture and morale. When I got here I found a team that was, in many ways, quite down and out. This showed in things like engagement and performance index scores. In two-and-a-half years we've completely turned that around and we've now got some of the highest scores globally across the team. We also have a real family culture going."

Tell us about your team. Also, what sort of leader are you and how do you get the best out of your team?
"I have a fairly small team of 15 people. It's a very lean team for the size of our business. If I had to sum my team up I'd say we are like a family; it's the most amazing team and has a great culture. I hope every leader would say this. We often have lunches in the office. And I don't mean that we buy in food. Someone in the team cooks a meal at home and brings it in, and we have these amazing meals together. Our strength as a team lies in working together and support each other when the pressure is on. When the chips are down, everyone jumps in and helps one another out."

"John C Maxwell sums up my approach to leadership: leaders become great not because of their power but because of their ability to empower others."

"As a leader, I like to have open discussions and try to break down any barriers of hierarchy. Our team has open, robust and challenging conversations and in so doing, we come up with better answers than if problems were tackled by only one person. The variety of views allows us to devise the best solutions."

"I believe firmly in empowering people and including people. For me it's important that people in my team are aware of what's going on, even if it doesn't have a direct bearing on their jobs. This creates a culture of inclusion."

"In terms of getting the best out of a team, this is the transition I've been through myself as a leader, so I haven't always go it right. I've learnt that if you're clear in defining the outcome and expectations you have, you can empower your team to determine the route they will travel to get there. It's about engagement. It's also about trust - my team feel trusted and know that I trust them."

How important do you believe it is for leaders these days to be authentic, and what does an authentic leader look like?
"For me, an authentic leader is someone who is readily able to admit that they're not the expert in everything and that they don't have all the answers. In today's world, it's impossible to have all the answers. So, it's someone who is self-aware and who is vulnerable to admitting when they don't have the answers, and who is willing to go out and find the answers."
"I'm spending time with a friend at the moment who is helping me with personal and career development and we've been talking a lot lately about authenticity. I think in this world, when things can so easily get packaged and dressed up in almost any manner, authenticity is becoming rarer. When you look at real authentic leaders, people gravitate towards them. I can't stress enough the importance of just being who you are and who you're made to be. I'm trying to live up to this on a daily basis."

How valuable do you believe it is for a CFO to be operationally and commercially savvy?
"I think it's essential for a CFO, given the speed of change in the business world today. Ultimately, businesses want to all deliver and return a profit on the bottom line. That requires constant adaptation and adjustment, considering the pace of change in the world around us. The CFO plays an integral role in shaping responses and the development of appropriate strategies to respond to these changes and requires the CFO to understand the impact of changes on the business holistically, to shape the most appropriate response.

Is your role focused more on finance or on strategy, and which is your greater strength?
"Being a small team, it has to be a bit of both. I have oversight of core finance areas but over time I've managed to extricate myself largely out of this and leave it up to my managers, so these days I spend my time mostly on strategy. My greatest strength is definitely on the strategic side, and this is also what I prefer. I'm quite a broad thinker and have an ability to connect the dots across multiple areas quite well. This lends itself to a strategic role.

"What I like about strategic work is that it involves broad collaboration and cross-functional thinking. I'm not the quintessential finance guy. I don't believe you should be pigeonholed in your role. I think it's more important to be proactive, to support the business and be involved in the operational part, and be able to link that all together."

Times are tough right now, in SA and further afield. How does this affect Jaguar Land Rover and how do you mitigate this?
"South Africa's economy is facing significant challenges. The world economy has started to slowly emerge from the economic slumber of the last couple of years, though South Africa continues to face some challenges. Jaguar Land Rover, as an importer of vehicles, is exposed to various factors, including exchange rate fluctuations, the general economic growth, consumer confidence and spending power amongst others. We also face the challenge that we don't manufacture locally, which means we must work harder to maintain our competitive positioning. We've seen, with the economic challenges, that a lot of consumers are holding off on large capital purchases, which has impacts on large purchases such as vehicle purchases."

"To mitigate this, we've been firm on separating the things that we can control from the things we can't. We can't control the exchange rate or the political landscape, so it doesn't help fretting about this or spending time wondering about how we're going to respond to this. Instead, we focus on protecting our top line. This means supporting our retail network to maintain and grow our market share. This has been helped by the launch of some fantastic vehicles over recent years."

"You have to be cost conscious in these times. You have to maintain your cost base and keep your business as lean as possible, and also go after any opportunity for a saving. I've focused specifically on driving out wastage and unnecessary costs, for example, and also introduced competitive tendering processes."

How did you come to pursue a career in finance? Did you ever consider a different career path?
"As a youngster, I did some holiday work - my uncle is a CA and senior partner in a firm so I got exposed to business through that. I liked what I saw but I wasn't 100 percent convinced. It was between CA and becoming a pilot. I love flying - more smaller planes than the big commercial airlines. However, I love & adore my family more, it's such an important thing to me. Even at that young age, I knew I didn't want to spend days and weeks away from my family flying around the world. I liked business and finance so I said I'll have a go at the finance thing and maybe one day I'll be able to afford flying as a hobby. It's still on my bucket list."

Are you a naturally ambitious person or to what do you attribute your career success?
"Yes. Ever since I can remember, I've had a strong drive to succeed. My father also taught me something at a very young age: 'Don't do something unless you're intending to do it exceptionally well'. I still live by this."
"I think there are a couple of reasons for my success. Having clear goals and objectives has helped me stay focused. I would also say that being teachable and willing to listen and learn has been a big benefit. I try to be spongy and take as much onboard as I can. I've been privileged to work alongside some amazing and talented people and to learn from them, and to work at some incredible companies, such as Jaguar Land Rover, Volvo, McLaren, and KPMG. Also, being surrounded by great teams has helped me, as has being willing to work hard."

Have you achieved a work-life balance? How does this look for you?
"At the moment, this is a bit of a challenge. However, what I am very protective of is my time with my family - my wife Illana, my son Luan (7) and two daughters Denay (5) and Arlé (2) - especially over weekends and on holidays. I do not check email over a weekend or on holidays. I refuse to do that. I believe that if I've done my job as a leader and empowered my team, this isn't necessary. It's also healthy for me to unplug."

"In a sense, work-life balance is a difficult concept because it sometimes implies that work and life are distinct and in competition. What I'm starting to challenge myself on and consciously ask myself is, how does a life well-lived look, and that includes work. I'm trying to ask myself, where would my energy and time have the most impact? But it's a continuous thing I'm learning. Sometimes we have to just cut and run."

"I'm currently reading a book called 'Essentialism, the discipled pursuit of less', by Greg McKeown, and the first chapter has transformed my thinking. It's a case of, we aren't made to be doing 10,000 things at once and all at the same time, so how do we get to the most important things?"

What is your greatest hope for the future?
"I love this country. I think we've got so much potential brimming and busting to get out and come to fruition. I hope we can get things on track. I really think we can thrive. We need some economic tail winds and then South Africa will rise to her fullest potential."
"Personally, I look around us and there's such an apparent need, homelessness and poverty and education. There is this thing in me constantly asking, 'What am I doing to make an impact and leave a legacy on this world?' I'm grappling with this. My greatest hope is that I find this one thing and leave a legacy and make a difference. So, one day when I'm not here people will say I left it in a better place than I found it."