Pursue your own goals, not others' expectations

Cobus Grove shares how the path less taken has been the right path for him.

Today Cobus Grove is an audit partner at EY, specialising in banking – a successful, but unsurprising position for a mid-career CA. What his current position obscures though is a meteoric rise and eclectic work path – from articled clerk to lecturer, from rolling out the Companies Act for SAICA to CFO at 32 and CEO two years later, and ultimately some critical decisions to walk his own path. It’s a journey Cobus recently shared with a packed room at the Finance Indaba 2018 on 4 October, at the Sandton Convention Centre.
 
“I always knew I wanted to be an accountant. I didn’t know what they did but I wanted it anyway,” says Cobus. This knowledge led him to make decisions in that direction from an early age, such as changing schools away from the one all his friends attended.
 
Thankfully, Cobus also had supportive parents.

“The first mentor in my life was my father. My father was a successful businessman and worked in a big corporate. He could have afforded to give me ‘pocket money’, but instead he pushed me to get a job delivering pizzas on the weekends.”

Next his father guided him towards starting a small business, stringing tennis rackets. It was here, he says, that his aspirations to go beyond accounting first sparked.
 


 
Cobus received a study bursary from Deloitte, and later worked for them. It was at Deloitte that Cobus met his next influential mentor, Graeme Berry. At the same time, Cobus began lecturing part-time at Unisa on the weekends. Here he unlocked a passion for training, while simultaneously completing his second year of articles in technical accounting. Things began to snowball for Cobus, with more opportunities coming his way, like SAICA rolling out a new accounting standard – and Cobus being given the chance to oversee this.
 
Next he ventured out into commerce, being promoted quickly to overseeing a large team at the Innovation Group. He was 25 with direct reports twenty years his senior. It was Graeme who gave him the advice he desperately needed: “Graeme said ‘you need to get people to buy into your leadership. Treat everyone with respect, find out what they want and need, and be the leader they need’.”
 
Having “survived” that, two years later he came to another crossroad – choosing between lecturing accounting honours at the University of Johannesburg, and an offer for a top role in the technical team at RMB. In terms of experience and compensation, there was a large gap, but Cobus turned to his mentors, and together they decided academia would give him an opportunity to cement his understanding and gain confidence.
 
Said Cobus:

“The lesson I’ve learnt is that lecturing is probably the most fulfilling experience of my life. When you stand in front of students, you build a bond with people. It requires you to [authentic] and humble” while guiding students through an exceptionally challenging course.

In quick succession then, Cobus went into consulting at EY, travelled the country with SAICA, and established a relationship with another key mentor, Professor Ben Marx, before he was recruited to be the CFO of Digicore’s CTrack. Cash flow and payroll were tight, and Cobus describes the task in front of him and “serial entrepreneur” CEO Nick Vlock as humbling – “You cannot walk away from not having cash in the bank, and I had to learn quickly to think like an entrepreneur. I knew I needed to understand how Nick works, if I wanted to survive.”
 
He set about working 18 to 20 hours a day – something he categorically does not recommend – and went through every single transaction, visited every country in which they operated. He was 20 years younger than the youngest person on board, but went in there to argue they needed to restate financials. “That was not fun. They looked at me like I was nuts,” he says. But they were convinced, and after restating, the share price went up 25 percent.
 
Cobus is credited with “saving” the company, winning the Governance & Compliance Award at the 2015 CFO Awards and then negotiating the sale to US-based Novatel Wireless where he became global general manager. Together with his young family, Cobus set off for the States and continued to climb the ranks in San Diego. But after a few years of pushing himself and traveling non-stop, he began to wonder if this was the best choice for his family. When his son was diagnosed with autism, he decided his life “no longer worked”. The company offered him the chance to work remotely but keep up his traveling schedule.
 
 True to pattern, Cobus gathered Prof. Marx, Graeme and Nick together to guide him. They looked back over his work history, noting how so many of the students he taught are now in the industry, how handy his technical accounting background had been, and how his commerce and listed company experience had guided him including three years as CFO and two as CEO. They looked at various offers, and made a call…

"We’ve been back four months and I can tell you that it was the best decision. My son is a different person compared to how he was over there. From a career point of view, I don’t travel seven months of the year, and my experience buys me trust from those I consult to. My relationship with my wife is so much better…. It’s the second time in my life I’ve chosen to halve my salary, and it was worth it.”

This rollercoaster has given him four top pieces of advice for others:

  1. Get mentors who offer you a different perspective on your choices, who are less emotional about them than you are.  
  2. In your career, consider all opportunities. “All of my various roles contributed to me as an individual and my skill set.”
  3. Think three years ahead – not just about where you want to be, but rather what skills you want to have gained in order to make the next move.
  4. Do not be afraid to make a change, to move, or to take a salary cut. It’s where you end up that matters.

Cobus ended his talk with a personal plea to his enraptured audience:

“Please don’t all get on a plane and go overseas. Everyone thinks it’s better out there. Yes, it is bigger business, bigger deals, but there are massive opportunities at home.”