Letsema's Katlego Tlale discusses personal and business growth and learning Japanese

The young CFO is a man of many talents, and he feels a powerful alignment with Letsema's values.

Katlego Tlale is the CFO of Black-owned management consulting firm Letsema. As a young CFO, he is cognisant of the fact that he’s responsible for a workforce of more than 600 people. CFO.co.za spoke to him about the part he is playing in building a strong South African consulting brand.
 
Tell us a little about your career background
I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to do in my first year at Wits, so I started with what was then a Bachelors of Accountancy. I got some ‘vac work’ in a couple of different places, just to get a sense of it. I was fortunate enough to do this in two different environments, namely banking, and minerals and energy.

Those two experiences quickly framed my thinking about what I wanted to do in future. Banking was definitely not for me, while industrial activities definitely were. I was certainly much more interested in things that I could feel and touch, so I ended up going into audit at KMPG’s Minerals and Energy Department, where I stayed for about five years before moving into a gold mining company, Gold One.

I grew into the role of head of Group Finance and Treasury at Gold One, which was a great place to get meaningful exposure to working within a multinational, as it was dual-listed. For me, this was an incredible opportunity to grow and learn from an exceptional CFO who had also been my first manager, Philip Spencer. Just about everything I learnt, I learnt from him and the partner we worked with.

About three years into my time at Gold One, I was nominated for a leadership course run by the Letsema Foundation. This led me – for the first time in my career – to reflect on what my role as a potential future leader in the business arena of South Africa is, what it should be, and whether the path I was on was going to translate into where I wanted to be.

Through this, I realised I wanted to be in a space that would allow me to have a more meaningful impact, specifically a social impact, on the country. I was interested in building and being part of something from the ground up. I had such a strong values alignment with the organisation through the foundation work that I’d got to engage with, and they were undergoing the process of combining three separate parts of the business.

I felt like it was a perfect fit.

It was a tough decision to leave my soon-to-be-former boss. It was also an interesting transition because I worked a notice period of around five months because Gold One was going through a material transaction at the time. I submitted to Phillip that I would see that through, and to Letsema that I stay through that because it was consistent with my values, Letsema’s values.
 
What opportunities and challenges are you faced within the current industry/economic climate?
One of the issues affecting pretty much all businesses in the South African landscape now is “How do you deal with the structural challenges that we have in the economy?”

Secondly, the credibility and values of certain industries that we are active in face substantial questions. The consulting industry is faced with a number of tough questions about its role and position in society, and these are questions that require much consideration and thought.  

It is certainly a challenging space and environment, but Letsema has been fortunate in that we made a very, clear decision early on that values would be the fundamental founding and centre of the business. In hindsight, this was probably a positive departure point for the organisation. In terms of consulting, we were heavily exposed to work in the public sector, and had to pivot to find ground more in the private sector.

The private sector is demanding. They require us to sharpen our pencils and, in that process, the skills and competencies that we’ve been able to build out of our organisation over a period of time have been exceptional.

We’ve come out the other side now, I believe, as probably one of the strongest, if not the strongest, South African consulting brand. Our local focus and base are also positives. My CEO always says, “We’re here, we’re part of the country. We’re subject to the ups and downs, the vicissitudes of the South African environment, and we’re not checking out.” Being based here gives our customers and our clients an element of confidence that we’re here with them through their entire journey.
 
What was your hardest day professionally? Or your toughest lesson?
I consider myself fortunate to have been in the position where I’ve been able to learn from strong individuals, but also individuals who weren’t just going to let me “slide by”. They set a high bar.

On my toughest day, we – and I won’t say which company – had been working on a highly complex transaction. It was one of the most complex things I’d ever dealt with ,and it was on my table to run and manage this entire program. I made a mistake in that process, a mistake which was missed by a whole bunch of people. All of the finance team, the various guys who were doing the reviews, we had actually just completely missed it.

My CFO at the time came in and looked at the final product, and he just said to me, “That’s wrong.” I said, “What do you mean ‘that’s wrong?’ We’ve done all this work; everyone put this thing together. This thing can’t be wrong.” And he says: “It’s wrong because I’ve seen it before. Seven years ago, at this particular client we did a similar transaction, and this is what it’s supposed to look like.”

This was difficult because I had built up a certain amount of confidence in my skills, but possibly the most important lesson there was actually ‘There is no substitute for experience’.

I kept this lesson with me as a young CFO. I do recognise that coming into Letsema means that I’ve been entrusted with a lot, an organisation with 600-plus employees. Yes, I may have relatively strong technical competencies and capabilities, but hiring into my team, a key consideration is looking to hire in people who have got experience which goes beyond my own. You want strong, smart, capable people; but you also want the experience of people who have seen these things before, because they’re the best people in a situation to see when red flags appear.
 
What makes a great CFO/FD?
Good and strong CFOs are individuals who have real, meaningful ability to convert what tends to be just a collection of numbers into the context and insight that their fellow C-suite leaders can use. A strong CFO can take an aggregation of numbers or forecasts and distil it down to articulate how it applies to or informs, for example, strategies that we’ve put together as an executive team.

At Letsema, we’ve organised ourselves in an interesting way. As part of our strategic contemplation, we have five key areas that we need to be exceptional for us to achieve our long-term goals. We call them our five centres of excellence: strategy, people, market development, mergers and acquisitions, and business enablement.

If I’m going to be a strong CFO, I need to be able to convert all of the information that comes out of my centre of excellence into information that’s relevant for those running the other centres.
 
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?
I find five years to be such a short period of time. So, I’d rather not talk about time frame, but about endeavour. This project that is Letsema – what we’re trying to do here, this objective to prove that business can be a catalyst for social change – it’s something that’s fundamental to me as an individual and my personal values. What I see for myself then is putting my energies and efforts into bringing to realisation and reality the golden objective that Letsema as an organisation has set up. I certainly see my journey within Letsema continuing as it currently stands, indefinitely. I’m committed to this role and journey.

One of the most challenging questions I was asked in that leadership course I mentioned, was “Have you started anything that you will not be able to finish in your lifetime?”

I hadn’t thought about anything like that at the time. Letsema is certainly a multi-generational project. It’s something that the founders started but know will not be complete in their lifetime. I certainly have the same view and vision about my role.

It is about building an organisation that I fundamentally believe can be the archetype of a proper corporate citizen in South Africa.
 
What are your interests outside of work? 
This year my wife and I were  blessed with our first child, and he’s absolutely everything. This little guy is my absolute joy. I had no idea how big a change having a child can have on your life and your view and your outlook. But it’s absolutely been the most beautiful thing, so spending time with my boy is currently my absolute joy. But in addition to that, I run. A lot. I like to keep fit and active so I enjoy a run usually three times a week almost without fail. It’s my time to get out, unplug and spend time thinking.

I’m also learning Japanese. It’s a hobby that I kicked off last year. There’s a bit of a side story to that.

When I was young, I was in the Drakensburg Boys Choir. We went on a choir trip to Japan which I found was a very cool place. In 2017, some of my friends who had been on that trip, and I decided to go backpacking through Japan. We had a little 20-year reunion trip. I decided to take on the challenge of learning Japanese ahead of this.

Last year, I was certified as able to understand basic Japanese. The Japanese government actually administer a test globally that measures your proficiency, and I passed the basic level test. It’s a hobby that I think I’ll keep pursuing for the next three or four years, which is as much time as I think it will take me to get to a reasonable level of proficiency. I haven’t quite figured out what I’ll do with it, but I’m enjoying the process.
 
What advice would you give to your younger self? 
Self-awareness is probably the single most important thing, something that I hope that I have the good fortune of keeping and maintaining over time.

When I heard that question, I also remembered something I have used for years to keep myself grounded. Do you remember the Baz Lurhmann song from the 90s, “Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen)”? I was 12 years old when it became popular. But I only found out later that he was just reading an essay by Mary Schmich. The line is: “Don’t congratulate yourself too much, but also don’t berate yourself too much. Your decisions in life are half chance. So are everybody else’s.”

That is something that has stuck with me. Congratulating yourself too much is what translates into the risk of hubris, but berating yourself too much is what translates to an inability to learn lessons from the mistakes that you’ve made.

That’s something I’d give to my younger self: you make mistakes; don’t berate yourself too much. Learn from it, and if you ever find yourself in a position of having succeeded at something, don’t congratulate yourself too much because hubris is not a route to meaningful success.