CFO Diary: Leadership inspired by millennials

TransUnion Africa CFO Sharon Naidoo shares her experience of learning new leadership skills from her mentees.

I had to restructure my finance team to fit the business strategy, with a directive to come in on budget. It was challenging, we had three vacancies, but the budget only allowed for one resource. This meant that I had to make a choice between one seasoned finance manager with 10 years of post-articles experience or three newly qualified CAs with no experience. I chose the latter.

As I reflect on the decision to hire raw talent over seasoned experience, I can honestly say it was the better decision. While I was coaching, grooming and investing time in developing these three talented and completely “out of the box” finance graduates, I realised that they were actually coaching me.

Having been trained in the early 2000s by baby boomers, there was one clear way to become a CFO – start at the bottom, work hard and long, and do what you are told with 100 percent accuracy. It was always a race to execute as much as possible – the number of projects you led and targets you smashed was directly correlated to the number of promotions. And while there was definitely a method to this, it doesn’t work for millennials.

As I tried different approaches in the months following their appointment, my paradigm shifted and I found my leadership voice.

This is what I learnt from them:

1. Be present
Being present means that your mind, spirit and body should be listening. Not listening to respond or listening while going through a list of chores and tasks in your mind. I heard so much of what was being said, and by saying nothing, I actually made the biggest impact as a leader.

2. Be vulnerable
As leaders, we think respect comes from admiration of our successes. This isn’t true. Respect comes from sharing experiences – your failures and how you overcame them. Those experiences probably defined you more than any success stories could have, so share them. I love the proverb: “What is the difference between the master and the student? The master has failed more times than the student has tried.”

3. Be human
Leaders are also human. We also change nappies, get sick, have heartbreaks and experience tragedy. My team saw me at the office many nights as my little one played happily on a blanket on the floor, while I reviewed budget presentations, crunched numbers or worked late to meet deadlines. They saw the self-confidence and strength of a single mother being a CFO, not compromising in either. Share your life and own your truth.

4. Say sorry
There is so much humility in owning and acknowledging a mistake. We can’t just preach accountability, we have to show up and own it, no matter the consequences. All people want to hear is a sincere apology and an acknowledgement of the fact that you made a mistake.

5. Let the head and the heart meet
I have a rule: I do not mix business and people. Every month I have a dedicated one-on-one with my direct team. In that hour, my time is theirs. I ask them how they are, how I can help them, etc. When I am coaching, I am focusing on the person, not the role, the responsibilities or the KPIs.

6. Be honest
Lastly, as people, we know our flaws, our triggers, our reach, and how we are performing. As a leader, your role is to be fair, principled and honest. I don’t believe in the traditional dismissal performance management process – I believe in honest conversations. If you are honest, genuine in your intentions and have relationships of mutual trust, you can navigate fear and uncertainty. As a leader, your role is to judge the fish by its ability to swim, not by its lack of ability to climb a tree.

When we treat each person as a person, we breed self-confidence and build self-esteem. People stop operating from fear, ego and scarcity, and start operating from “let me be my best”. They’re not comparing themselves, but feeling part of a greater purpose. They want to succeed as a collective and that is the most beautiful space for a person to work from. Our path as leaders is to unlock the person to reach that potential.