Sean Reuben, Finance Director at The Jupiter Drawing Room: CFOs can change lives

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"We as CFOs are known as hard-nosed," says the Johannesburg-based Reuben, a Chartered Accountant (SA) with more than 15 years of post-articles experience at companies like EY, CSC and SAP. "We are being trusted to make the hard decisions to lay off workers for the cause of efficiencies. It doesn't matter whether that is in response to economic pressure or whether we are using technology to drive efficiencies."

Reuben says he has been struggling with that cold image of finance leaders. "What then about our duty to society and nation-building? What are we doing to balance seemingly contradictory business and social challenges?" According to Reuben, the country needs leadership, not only from politicians but also from business executives. "We live in a country where the official unemployment rate is at 25.6 percent, and the unofficial rate sits at 36 percent. More than 20 years after becoming a democracy, we are still living with the legacies of inequality. Whether one agrees with the system of BBBEE or not, the socio-economic causes of unemployment and scarcity of skills cannot be refuted."

According to Reuben, CFOs have the tendency to look at the Human Resources department and the Social & Ethics Committee for matters of transformation, but he feels that he and his colleagues should "acknowledge that we have an increasingly important role to play in society through our significant influence in the business world". According to Reuben, CFOs should "think more about the people behind the numbers."

That is why Reuben has a problem with 'efficiency projects' being synonymous with laying off people. He calls on his colleagues to be genuine about redeployment. "Do we really fulfil our legislative obligations to re-deploy these bread-winners within our own organisation, or are we so eager to meet those headcount reduction targets that we simply don't consider it?" he asks. "Do we diligently consider other cost reduction options before laying off people? It's common that people at the lower levels are laid off, and then the 'big wigs' get a bigger bonus for meeting profitability or efficiency targets. People are not stupid, lay-offs whilst profligate spending continues in other areas is bad for the reputation of the leadership and the business."

Reuben feels CFOs should look to influence their organisations into avenues of job creation. "If we, as a group of CFOs, contribute to alleviating South African unemployment by say 2 percent that would mean a million jobs. Consider then the knock-on effect of job creation - directly, we would then have a million more consumers, but at an average of 3-5 people per family, that rises to 3-5 million more consumers for products and services delivered by our collective organisations."

"So now we are flipping the conversation from short-term cost containment, to opening up new long-term revenue opportunities. Your board will say, but how do we measure that? And therein lies the leadership challenge - how do you transform organizational thinking from short-term silo mentality (it's our organisation against the world) into a communal and social vision that encourages long term planning that transforms a nation? If that sounds too ambitious why not getting them thinking at project level or community level. Real results there can be extrapolated through our community of CFOs into the impact we're having on the nation."

"Social upliftment and sustainable growth - we've all heard that enough to make us blasé about it. But it behooves us as a professional group of individuals to think differently. It's dizzying to think that we have that level of trust and influence to change the world. But it's sobering to think about the responsibility that our professional calling has placed upon us."

If you also would like to share your ideas with the CFO community, please get in touch with us to arrange an interview with you. Please contact Jurriën Morsch on [email protected].

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