CFOs tell Finance Indaba it's about much more than just the numbers

Zaf Mahomed and Jo-Ann Pohl agree adaptability is key for CFOs present and future.

The role of CFO has evolved from requiring strong financial skills to also demanding strong communication and interpersonal skills.

Speaking at the Finance Indaba 2019, transformation specialist and CFO of Cell C, Zaf Mahomed, said, “It’s getting tougher as it goes. Unlike before, softer skills are coming into the forefront.”

Philanthropist and CFO of Bowmans, Jo-Ann Pohl, added, “The holistic individual is required in the role of a CFO, and my biggest worry is how well-grounded my team is. If they are grounded at home, they perform at work,” she said. “Our role as CFO has grown over the years, and requires us to adapt.”

There are considerable challenges facing CFOs. It’s easy for them to make mistakes, thanks to the complex challenges they grapple with, the quality of skills at board level is not always where it should be at times, and in some cases, bonuses are being made more important than performance. In addition, not enough CFOs are taking accountability for their behaviour.

Both speakers emphasised not trying to plan your life too well, and letting things happen instead, as the lessons learned along the way give you direction in the end – both personally and professionally. “If you don’t know how to solve problems, you’re in trouble as a CFO,” said Zaf. “And stakeholder management is key: know how to connect with them.”

“The road to becoming a CFO can be lonely,” added Jo-Ann. “You spend a lot of time pushing yourself to the top and there’s no one to pass the baton to.”

And trust is key in the relationship between the CFO and their staff. People need to be comfortable enough to approach you with their problems without the fear of being chastised. You need to really care about your team, and you make changes that can make their work experience more comfortable, added Jo-Ann: “A real CFO must create environments that encourage choice.”

CFOs need to create safety nets that allow for failure, mitigate its cost, and solve problems quickly. “Young people entering the finance space aren’t taught to fail: too much pressure is put on them to not fail instead of preparing them for it,” said Zaf.

He added:

“A leader’s job is to create an environment that can do well, but that comes with failure.”

The buck will always stop with the CFO, so they need to build a space that asks the right questions. Shift from zero tolerance to early alert, and focus on how it can be fixed, he said.

In reality, the CFOs job is to make the CEO look good, to be in the background, and solve the problems. They also need to maintain focus, because it is very easy to get pulled into different directions, said the speakers. Humility is key, so be aware of your weaknesses, and be open to criticism.

For aspiring CFOs, they offered this leadership advice:

  • Don’t follow social media, have self-belief;
  • Don’t ever give up, always have self-worth;
  • Never plan your career, it can take you anywhere;
  • Don’t be a part of groupthink;
  • Don’t dwell on the things that go wrong; and
  • Ask for help.