The VP Finance Africa at Unilever seizes every opportunity with both hands, lands and delivers.
Mikateko Tshetshe has an eye for spotting opportunities for growth - in business and for people. Her own meteoric career so far as well as the empowerment of those who work alongside her, bears proud testimony to her leadership style and drive for growth. Since her early days as a fresh B.Com graduate, she has harnessed the opportunities for growth with both hands. She embraced each step as a chance to add more strings to her considerable bow of competencies and this hunger to develop ultimately led her to being a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (FCMA) and Vice President of Finance for Africa at Unilever, an important step on her journey towards an even brighter future and even greater things.
Mikateko had her aspirations set on joining Unilever long before they approached her in 2017 to lead the finance function for Southern Africa. She leapt at the opportunity, despite a serious personal catch; the position was based in Durban, and her family was happily rooted in Johannesburg. Her contribution was quickly recognised at Unilever and one year later her role was expanded from its Southern Africa focus to include the whole continent.
She describes her journey thus far as “fantastic”. “I am fortunate that I love what I do and am super-passionate about the impactful roles I have been entrusted with in a variety of organisations. Now I contribute towards making sustainable living commonplace with Unilever.”
“I always look for opportunities that contribute towards enhancing my capabilities with experience to be gained and adding purposeful value rather than chasing specific role titles. If the opportunity ticks those boxes, I’m up for the challenge.”
Growth and development
“My leadership potential was identified early on in my career by one of my managers and I am grateful for this. As a talent catalyst, he empowered and inspired me to be my best. He invested in me to reach my full potential at the time. Sometimes people need a bit of encouragement and magnified belief. Once I had this, I took personal responsibility to develop and lead myself while also unlocking the potential in others.”
She started her career with Bayer, a German multinational pharmaceutical and life sciences company, on an apprenticeship programme straight after school, while doing a B.Com through Unisa – an early manifestation of her passion for continuous growth.
“I have worked and studied my whole life,” she says. In her two-year training programme with Bayer, she was exposed to various functions which helped her discover which aspects of the company she enjoyed most. “I fell in love with accounting and requested additional training for a year within the finance function. Once completed, I engaged HR for further opportunities to grow within this discipline.”
This love of management and financial accounting is what pushed her to start her CIMA qualification with the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting. She advanced to the consumer care division at Bayer which housed the Baygon pesticide brand. When this was acquired by SC Johnson, a family company, eight years into her career, Mikateko moved over to the new organisation as part of the merger.
Her first role at her new firm was in management accounting, where she was responsible for partnering with sales and marketing teams to deliver profitable growth. It was also her first management role, with two people reporting to her. This was the start of her exciting people leadership journey, constantly curious and courageous, she learnt from all the training and development offered by SC Johnson, where she stayed for 12 years. “There were multiple career opportunities, and I raised my hand where appropriate, which allowed me to develop the required business and technical skills for future finance leadership roles.”
From her position in management accounting, she grew into a role which she says was much more customer focussed - this was order to cash.
“I had a bigger team reporting into me, the perfect opportunity to sharpen my leadership skills. It was also a fantastic opportunity to review and optimise business processes and controls as well.”
Broadening her competence
Ever hungry for personal growth, Mikateko sought further opportunities to expand her scope. She says one of the finance roles she had not done was manufacturing finance. SC Johnson had a manufacturing facility in Pretoria, so she took on the responsibility of leading the supply chain finance team. This was followed by a traditional or “hard-core” financial accounting role. This role completed my finance experience, sharpening my technical skills to meet statutory requirements and engage external stakeholders.
From here Mikateko was able to embark on her journey towards the FMCG environment and she took up the role of finance director at SC Johnson, a position she held for five years. In 2014, the business underwent global transformation. Mikateko flourished as part of the team reviewing business models and organisational structures, aligning the way that the local company worked with the global organisation including rolling out SAP into East and West Africa. Soon, she was ready for a new challenge.
“Astra Zeneca, a science-led biopharmaceutical business which pushes boundaries to deliver life-changing medicines to patients, invited me to join their team in December 2015 as CFO for the sub-Saharan Africa region, including full responsibility for South Africa. What I really enjoyed over and above the finance scope was the additional oversight responsibilities for the procurement and IT functions and the Ghana operation. This opportunity talked to my continuous yearning for learning and developing myself and others by doing something different,” explains Mikateko.
Making waves at Unilever
In October 2017 when she took the next step and took up the inspiring role at Unilever. She sees her role there as contributing to the sustainable growth of brands with purpose through teams that thrive. Continuing her personal development journey, Mikateko is grateful for joining an organisation that has enabled her to discover her purpose which is to “dream, live and share”.
She always strives to be present at home and in the work environment, truly living in the moment while continuing to dream big. Sharing her life with family and friends while sharing her knowledge and experiences with those it could make a difference to is what motivates her daily. Mikateko’s personal development focus has not stopped her from focusing intently on the job at hand. “I always want to land in the role and deliver with impact before considering the next opportunity,” she says.
As a leader, she loves co-creating solutions with her team and empowering them to reach their full potential. “I am non-negotiable on certain issues – like controls and statutory compliance – but other than that, I strive to inspire the team to be their best, unlock capacity for teams to realise their full potential and deliver impactful results enabled by a pioneering environment.” It’s this healthy fusion of personal and team development that has brought her this far, and it’s a formula that’s sure to take her further.
Mikateko was born and raised in Soweto, having been schooled at Rosebank Convent – Johannesburg. She’s back in the city now for the VP Finance Africa role at Unilever, after having moved her family to Durban for the Southern Africa position (she shrugs as if to say, “life goes on”).
Mikateko is from a family of five girls, married and has two children, a 16-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. When asked how she manages the demands of work and life, she says it’s the support of her husband, father and sisters that enable her to thrive. She goes on to say that “In black culture, kids are raised by communities, not only by their immediate parents. The real sense of ubuntu has been a key enabler for me.”
When the Unilever opportunity came up in Durban, she spoke openly about her hopes and anxieties with her family. “That made it possible for us to make the move together,” she says. “And we thoroughly enjoyed Durban. It seemed impossible until it was done!” She says they spent a lot of their spare time at the beach and explored the coastline in KZN. She also carried on with her other downtime therapeutic activities – reading, cooking and baking with the kids.
According to Mikateko her parents are her biggest inspiration. “They were able to achieve so much with so little. Despite all the challenges we were confronted with as a family, my parents never sacrificed the quality of our education. They believed that education was the key to a better future.”
She believes it’s important to remain grounded, no matter your successes or achievements. “I’ve tried not to be overwhelmed by my success, choosing to rather remain humble while excited about the difference I’ve made”.
Mikateko on leadership
“Credible leadership is a prerequisite in today’s highly competitive marketplace, especially if one is a financial custodian at one of the largest brand houses on the continent. However, strong leaders need to balance astute business acumen, drive and tenacity to achieve with the power to empower others, a belief in the greater good and an unwavering will to remain grounded.”
This article was originally published in the Q2 edition of CFO Magazine, available this week in airport lounges.