Music industry CFO: Festivals, tours, live shows all cancelled under Covid-19
RiSA CFO Nishal Lalla: Agility and resilience are key in an industry not likely to rebound quickly.
Nishal Lalla, CFO of the Recording Industry of SA (RiSA), has had a front row seat to the troubles that the music industry has faced this year, with major festivals, live shows, and tours across South Africa and all over the world postponed or cancelled.
As a leader in an industry that is not likely to rebound quickly or easily, his agility and resilience have never been more important. Fortunately, he says he is up to the task of navigating a long recovery ahead.
Preparing for his role
Nishal grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and remembers being good at two things in high school:
“I excelled at sport and accounting. One became a career, the other one is a long-term passion.”
His natural affinity for sport landed him in leadership positions such as captain of various sports teams, including cricket and soccer, where he was able to grow his ability to lead others at a young age.
Following the tragic loss of his mother when he was an adolescent, he threw himself into his interests, which anchored him, and he went on to get a B.Com in accounting from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. A qualified chartered global management accountant (CGMA), Nishal enjoys problem solving more than number crunching. “Numbers have always come easily to me, but I see myself as a strategic business partner, rather than a bean counter. I think that being able to play a constructive, strategic role in a company drives my performance.”
He recalls being retrenched over a decade ago during the 2003 recession and since then has pushed himself to grow his value, so that he is never short of opportunities. “I learned from that experience that being a significant asset to the business is crucial. Taking risks and going the extra mile has allowed me to qualify as an associate general accountant (AGA) with SAICA. I also obtained a master's in business admin (MBA) from Regent Business School, where my dissertation was chosen by the Canadian Centre of Science and Educating to be published in their open-access international business journal. I am also an associate member of CIMA. All these endeavours have contributed to me being a lateral thinker and honed my ability to think critically and be strategic in my decisions.”
With those credentials in hand, he has transitioned between many different roles in various industries. Having worked for companies such as Hatch, Investec, Dimension Data and Barloworld, his diverse experiences have given him wide-ranging insights on the levers of various markets, how world events impact on the health of certain companies and how to provide leadership in each instance.
Playing in a new field
Nishal joined RiSA in 2010 and says he was excited to do so because he had worked in more corporate, less creative sectors. “This was an opportunity to do something special in a field where people wore sneakers and jeans, yet drive a complex industry,” he says.
RiSA’s mandate includes representing the rights of its members through collective licensing and lobbying, combatting piracy, issuing sales certifications, and organising the annual South African Music Awards (SAMA). The music industry took a massive nosedive due to lockdown restrictions. “No royalties were generated when restaurants, taverns and other businesses were closed,” he explains.
The SAMAs, which have brought thousands of people together for more than 25 years, could not be held in their usual format amid the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of cancelling, RiSA took the star-studded affair virtual for the first time ever.
Re-imagining the prestigious music award ceremony was a complex task that required creative thinking and a lot of hard work to pull off. “Pivoting to a virtual event required immense co-ordination from us as a team. We had to manage all the moving parts remotely, from the production requirements, to managing the artists and ensuring we had the technical demands covered. In years past, planning the show was a lot more straightforward because we would all gather in a room and collaborate with the ease that face-to-face affords you. Remotely, we had to have more meetings and touch base more frequently to make sure nothing was slipping through the cracks.”
The awards show ran over five nights, featuring a string of artists who delivered top-notch entertainment and received rave reviews from fans. Despite that one success, he admits that the industry faces an uphill battle. “An extensive list of major concerts and events have been cancelled. Artists generate the majority of their income from live shows, so the impact has been devastating.”
An inclusive leader
Nishal sees effective leadership as exercise in inclusivity. A self-described democratic leader who values other people’s ideas and views, he says consulting others is an important part of leading. The team is a range of ages and levels of expertise, and he says having a mix of outlooks is beneficial because in a dynamic industry such as media, things move very quickly, and your team is a great resource for input.
“I believe that teams are stronger together. There have been many times when someone has come with a different perspective to a problem, and these differing points of view help us all come up with more dynamic, higher quality solutions.”
Though he doesn’t compromise when it comes to standards and performance, he says, “I believe that giving people space to find solutions for themselves has always been important, but now more than ever, as we live with so much uncertainty. Figuring things out for myself has helped me sharpen my problem-solving abilities and grow my career.”
He recalls the challenge of studying and working full time as one that elevated his ability to lead himself and others: “You have to manage your time and priorities to a high degree to be able to run your academic life, be present at work and give constructive direction at the same time.”
He also believes that leading is about knowing what’s important and what isn’t. For instance, with teams working remotely, the metrics have shifted. “It’s about measuring people on the basis of results rather than on process. That's an important distinction now, and it informs how we are changing the way we measure productivity to account for the way we work differently.”
He also notes having to kick up things like emotional intelligence to make up for not being able to see each other in the office in person and miss out on the cues of face-to-face communication. “Every person on our team is important and we have made it a point to give extra mental support to those who need it. During a crisis, people respond differently to pressures, and when you still need them to deliver at the highest standards, you need to provide an environment that supports them.”
Outside of work, Nishal enjoys spending time with his wife and two daughters aged 10 and 14, which he got to do even more of during lockdown. “It has been interesting to navigate the boundaries between work and family life; balancing the demands of work and home alongside homeschooling and keeping kids engaged and upbeat.” The biggest upside has been the ability to spend much more time with family and he especially appreciates being able to spend time with his wife, who is an HR professional and has an equally busy job.
For fun and exercise, he still plays soccer for recreation, and if he can’t get onto the field himself, can be found cheering for his favourite teams on TV.