Liesl Tweedie, Acting CFO Gijima: Courage crucial for success


Liesl Tweedie knows all about courage, having stepped into the acting CFO position at Gijima, the listed South African IT-company that has been struggling lately. “Either you look like a star or you fail,” she says. “But I have always enjoyed a challenge and have often volunteered for difficult projects when I was working at ABB.” So it is no surprise that Tweedie believes that today’s young finance talents should possess “confidence and courage.”

“I feel there is often a lack of confidence displayed by people and once encouraged, it can be of tremendous value to the individual’s personal growth as well as to the benefit of the company,” says Tweedie. She says one way to build confidence is to learn what you can from watching colleagues operate. “I don’t even mean a formal trainer or mentor; they can be senior or even juniors you admire.” Finding someone with influence to work with closely is another approach Tweedie recommends. “Go the extra mile – it is not very difficult. If someone comes to me and asks if they can do something new, I have a lot of time for them. Attitude is much more important than knowledge.”

Tweedie feels that there are definitely still a lot of people who have good ideas, they just do not always have the confidence to table them. “You need courage to challenge the status quo and ask questions. People are afraid to sound stupid, but I prefer it when people say ’I don’t understand it’ instead of keeping quiet and plodding on. You only learn and grow by asking questions.” Tweedie acknowledges that people in senior positions sometimes “forget where they came from” and leave juniors to drown. “One has to remember that you are only as good as the people working for you.” But she says the onus is on the juniors to learn. “Getting ahead begins with yourself, most successful people started at the bottom.”

From 1993 until 2010 Tweedie worked in the South African offices of international electrical engineering firm ABB, climbing up to a position of Deputy CFO in the last five years. After a sabbatical and a period at Powertech, she joined Gijima. “It has been tough,” she admits. “The stock price has lost a lot of its value, but we’re working hard to turn the company around. In situations like this you have to take on the challenge, be decisive and think out of the box. A few years ago Gijima was the darling of the IT world and we got a lot of government work due to our BEE credentials. Since then the competition has caught up and the market is tough.”

During her stay at ABB Tweedie was reporting upwards to international headquarters. Something she sometimes found “very prescriptive” and “annoying at times” as global managers did not necessarily appreciate business conditions in South Africa. At the same time, she says she learnt a lot that she can now apply in her current role; you only realize and appreciate the benefits once you leave an international organization. “I am able to apply my experience from working in an international company. I am making a difference, especially when it comes to restructuring the finance team.”

One of the things Tweedie picked up at ABB is the splitting of accounting and business controlling. “That is something I am introducing here and it took some time for people to get used to, but I really believe it is important to make the distinction in order for the finance function to add value to the business. There are not a lot of people that can do both functions well, and this gives one the opportunity to structure the finance function more efficiently. That is why I pushed for this split.”

Tweedie has signed up for a year with Gijima, but says she does her job like she’s on a permanent contract. One of the things that were desperately needed was culture change, she says, again advocating confidence and courage. “Previously people were not tasked to think. They weren’t used to asking questions and there was a fear of speaking up. I have two direct reports in finance who are also new and together we are trying to push open communication. You have to make people part of the process, ensure accountability and responsibility and above all remain true to yourself and act with determination and integrity. And at the same time deal with a few non-negotiables such as legislation, board decisions to name a few. Running workshops and ensuring no hierarchy is critical to ensure issues and solutions are tabled and analysed properly.”

The relationship with other departments also needed work, Tweedie says. “The finance department didn’t have a good reputation. It was an island and our business people complained about that. I want finance managers to become the finance partners of the business people and the accounting department to provide a value added service to the business in an effective and efficient manner.”

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