Leaders who show their vulnerability are appreciated, says Nonkululeko Gobodo

“It breaks my heart when I see talented young females and they are just sitting on boards as non-executive directors,” says Nonkululeko Gobodo, the country’s first-ever female chartered accountant. “If women are quitting, we are not going to produce the leaders we need,” she says. Nonkululeko sat down with CFO South Africa to talk about being a role model for female CAs, her deliberate but painful departure from SizweNtsalubaGobodo, and the new chapter in her professional life as a leadership consultant.

In the 1980s, while Nonkululeko was still thinking of becoming a doctor, she used to do the books for her father’s panel beating shop in Mthatha. Auditor for that business was Prof Wiseman Nkuhlu, South Africa’s first black CA, who these days serves as Chancellor for the University of Pretoria and member of the judging panel for the annual CFO Awards.

Prof Nkuhlu inspired Nonkululeko to an accountancy career. She joined KPMG and qualified. “I was so excited. I didn’t even know I was the first black female CA,” she recalls, adding that she never sought the limelight but was quickly told by many people that her unique achievement was not about her. “This was about being a role model for others. Only then, when people made me aware of it, I realised that I was a trailblazer.” With a pedestal comes pressure, Nonkululeko admits, but she has been adamant not to shy away from her role ever since. “We all make mistakes but I am trying to make sure I am the best role model I can be,” she says.

Sissies
Part of that job is to inspire – or rather implore – the young female accounting talent of today to stay the course. “We are all impatient with transformation but luckily we are seeing more females and black CAs than ever before. We are living in such exciting times. Yet, we become so comfortable and complacent. Most women in the corporate environment struggle with the pressure, demands and sometimes with a hostile environment. Because of that, women often think about quitting but if women are quitting we are not going to produce the leaders we need. Don’t quit because it is hard. Life is not for sissies. At the end of the day you may not have all the answers but we only have one life. If we are not prepared to face the challenges, we must be satisfied with small dreams.”Dreams, Nonkululeko argues, are the driving force behind success.

“How do you make it as an aspiring CA? You need to have a vision for yourself. We have to dream, otherwise you won’t make things happen. Of course, dreams are never static but even so you need to keep dreaming.”

For Nonkululeko, her dream included starting her own accounting firm to challenge the Big Four in both the public and private sector, so when KPMG offered her a partnership – which would have been the first ever for a black South African woman – she politely refused.

Dream
After a period as CFO at the Transkei Development Corporation, the time had come to live the dream. Nonkululeko started her own business, in 1996 morphing into Gobodo Inc when she expanded significantly and started running a company with 10 partners and 200 staff members. “It comes as a surprise to many people but I have never enjoyed auditing. When my company expanded and we added partners, I said: I don’t want to ever see an auditing file on my desk anymore. I never saw one again.”

The bigger dream – challenging the Big Four – had to wait until 2011, when Nonkululeko merged her firm with SizweNtsaluba VSP to become the fifth-largest firm in South Africa, a black-owned and black-managed company to rival the best. It was the fulfilment of a lifelong dream and SizweNtsalubaGobodo (SNG) is now a firm that boasts a growing stable of public and private sector clients.

It was also the toughest, most agonising episode in Nonkululeko’s career. It is so painful to go through a merger, she says.

“The rationale needs to be there in terms of synergies, efficiencies and growth, but the success is all about planning that integration and having the correct governance structure in place. Despite warnings from consultants, we were casual about culture around the merger. We thought our shared history as black-owned firms was enough but our approach to business was completely different. Whereas Gobodo Inc was driven, decisive and disciplined, SizweNtsaluba’s culture was far more creative and casual.”

Surprise
For the first time in a long time, Nonkululeko was not in a position to call the shots herself anymore. She became executive chair of the board and led the corporate academy that worked on the culture and competence of the new firm, while the CEO role went to SizweNtaluba boss Victor Sekese, who just like Prof Nkuhlu is seated on the panel of judges for the CFO Awards. “You can imagine how frustrating it was. There were so many decisions to be made. Eventually, when we did get to the stage of defining our unified culture, people left. And that was ok. The firm was more ready for the future,” she says.

Then the bomb dropped. “People don’t understand why I left,” says Nonkululeko about her surprise resignation and sale of her stake. “The business had reached a maturity and now needed to be driven by one vision and a new governance structure with a CEO and a non-executive chairperson leading the board who can really play an oversight role without being part of the day-to-day leadership. We don’t have a legacy of over 100 years like some other firms, so the board still needs to play a strong role.”

Effectively, for the greater good of the company, Nonkululeko felt there could no longer be two captains on the ship, three years after the merger. “Victor and I have completely different styles. He is younger, so it made sense for him to continue as CEO.” On paper, the explanation makes sense. In real life, Nonkululeko admits, leaving the dream behind was a tough internal battle.

“It was very difficult to let go of the legacy. I spent a few months just dealing with that. I learnt a lot about letting go. You need to do that layer by layer. In the end, you just need to accept it.”

Coalface
When Nonkululeko eventually came up for air, she had to decide what to do next. Together with two partners, she established Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a company advising executive teams, especially after transformative events like mergers. “The work itself is very exciting. We are making a big impact in the market,” she said, smiling when she has to admit it takes a bit of getting used to, to run a small business where the PA is also the PR manager, among other duties. “Now I have to do repooooooorts,” she hoots, followed by her trademark laugh that spreads like wildfire among those who hear it. “It is very strange. I used to be the one chasing people for their reports, now I am the one being chased.”

In many respects though, she followed her own advice: ‘Pay the cost. Go to the coalface. Surprise yourself.’ “I am a board member at Mercedes-Benz SA, PPC and The Clicks Group but I didn’t just want to sit on boards. I decided to go into the leadership space. But what is that? With the two other partners, we spent a long time planning what we could do, because besides the diagnostic side of the field, the rest is a bit fuzzy. Eventually the business established three pillars: leadership consulting, change and culture and strategy, focused on “enabling the execution of strategy and removing what inhibits that”.

With some A-list clients on the books already, including the executive team of a big telecoms firm, the “integrated approach” that Nkululeko Leadership Consulting offers seems to be finding fertile ground. “We started with our diagnostic, which is a robust engagement process. We interview board members, the leadership team and other staff members. Leaders often don’t know how change is perceived by their staff. It has been exciting to design this method and the response from our clients is always: how did you get all this information?”

Potholes
According to Nonkululeko, the response has been encouraging. “They say we provide a breath of fresh air. ‘Wow, you have taken the fluff out of this leadership thing’, is what I am hearing. For us it is an important distinction to make that we don’t do talent, change management or HR consulting: this is about effective leadership. This is about having the right operating model and an enabling culture.”

That leadership is not about racing ahead of the troops is something that Nonkululeko, the ambitious dreamer, had to learn the hard way while running her own firm. “When you are younger, you think life is about you and everybody must live up to how you want things to be done,” she says. “I realised that doesn’t work. I move very fast. I thought that was normal, but it is actually good that other people slow you down. It makes you see other potholes. For people to follow you, you need to be able to work with them. We need to meet each other halfway.”

Realisation is one thing, becoming the most effective leader you can be is another. “It is never easy and I still need to find that balance but I am getting better and better at it,” says Nonkululeko. “It requires self-reflection and is not painless. We expect people to address their weaknesses, while as leaders we don’t address our own – that does not work. People really appreciate us when we are vulnerable. As a leader, I am not claiming to be everything. There is no such thing as a perfect leader. You need to be a wise leader. Demand, demand and stretch people. Stretch them, but give them the confidence that you will support them. That is when innovation happens.”

By Joël Roerig

This article first appeared in CFO Magazine