CFO of the Week: Linda Kumbemba, loveLife: being the NGO's 'bad guy'
“If you’re a quick-solutions type person, you tend to look like the bad guy at a non-profit organisation,” says Linda Kumbemba, CFO at loveLife, South Africa's largest HIV prevention initiative for young people. “The environment is slower-paced compared to the corporates, but you have to move and keep agile. It is also great to be part of a successful behavioral change campaign even though its results can’t be measured in the way a CFO would usually want results to be measured.”
Kumbemba is in a privileged position, where she can compare the best and the worst experiences from the private and non-profit sector and turn them to her advantage as a CFO. Although the Zimbabwean-born CFO is enjoying her stint at loveLife, she is most proud of her accomplishments at Shell, where she worked from 2005 until 2012. “The divestment out of Africa I was involved in at the downstream business Shell Gas LPG, Southern Africa, was one of the most successful ones. They had given us 18 months and we did the work in 12 with a seamless transition.”
During Kumbemba’s involvement the downstream operation was sold to the French firm Rubis. “I had to negotiate guarantees and a line of credit with HSBC in order for the divested companies to be able to operate as stand-alone entities. In Shell the Treasury function was centralised.” the CFO recalls. “It was a challenge in the new organisation. Rubis is a global organisation its reporting structures cannot sustain a separate finance organisation as was with Shell. This meant a significant change in reporting structures. The shareholder wanted to see the bottom line improving fast from where it had been under Shell and that went slowly. The environment changed and it became less exciting for me and within 1 year I moved to join loveLife Trust.”
Since June 2012 Kumbemba has been working for the NGO loveLife– a public benefit organisation which aims to develop “young leaders for an HIV-free future in Southern Africa”. Initially she had to get used to the slower pace and the lack of numerical goals. “I sometimes wonder how I coped in my Shell days. The work days were fast-paced and haphazard. Oil and energy is an industry where businesses need to be very responsive. In 2011 and 2012, for example, there were a lot of movements in the crude oil price. It was very hectic, but a great experience.”
Slowly but surely, Kumbemba has managed to adapt to her new working environment. “In the corporate environment you come across as effective if you are direct. It is very individualistic. While you often work with others, it is the sum of individual achievements that lead to superbly successful businesses. Here in the non-profit sector there is more collaboration. You “appear” to be a bad guy if you are a quick-solutions type person. The environment is slower, but you have to move to be agile.”
She has realised that the different pace and focus on social return on investment or social impact doesn’t mean NGOs like loveLife don’t get anything done. “Impact is the focus here; we’re aiming for a social return on investment. My own socialization internally was a huge culture change for me, but also for colleagues. They had to get used to my emphasis on execution and follow-through while I learnt to collaborate more. What working at an NGO has done for me personally is that I have found a more balanced outlook to work.”
Although Kumbemba believes she can be successful in both the non-profit and corporate world, she is planning to “bounce back into corporate” when she has accomplished her goals at loveLife.
“I feel that the corporate world fits my personality better but what would keep me forever at loveLife is making an impact and affecting the behaviour for young people. Harnessing the energies for young people for a good cause and outcomes”.
Kumbemba emphasizes that the last two years at loveLife have been highly rewarding. “loveLife had a challenge around cash flow management, due to project execution mismatch with the funders’ disbursements. It took about 9 months with the cooperation of all business managers for me to align that out. The second thing I needed to do was establish a solid finance organisation at the right capacity, something non-profit organisations often don’t worry about in this functional area. But an adequately resourced finance department can make the work much easier if it functions as a partner to the rest of the organisation. I also put in place management information planning and a controls framework. That was really exciting! Now the Finance organisation functions very well with specific measures and controls.”
The difference between an average and a great CFO, according to Kumbemba, is the ability to stay focused. “It is crucial not to lose sight of the main function of the work itself. Colleagues will need your help and you need to balance looking forward and fore-seeing macro-economic issues that might influence your business, but in the end you need to be able to focus on your core tasks.”
Unlike most CFOs in South Africa, Kumbemba is not a SAICA-registered CA but a CIMA-qualified finance professional. “I really appreciate that I took the CIMA route,” she says. “I always wanted to be an accountant and the added advantage of CIMA is that you learn to look at the future and apply decision-making skills. I see myself as a business person with finance expertise. I believe that CIMA produces more solid accountants, futuristic in their financial perspective and have always proven to be a value add to any organisations in which they are employed”.
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