Shifting with purpose, iOCO group CFO Jo-Ann Pohl's tale of how to make smart moves

Her love for numbers and sharp logic make Jo-Ann Pohl a natural dynamo in finance, but what has really made her an exceptional leader is her strong creative streak and ability to imagine fresh new possibilities for every scenario.

Recently appointed as the group CFO of iOCO, systems integrator in the ICT space which is part of the EOH stable, Jo-Ann Pohl holds the view is that as a function, “Finance sits in a very privileged position in that we can see and touch all elements of the business, and give insights from an independent perspective. The finance space is evolving and while we are the risk advisers and conscience of the business to a large degree, being truly effective comes from being solution orientated and having the agility to think of alternatives to addressing challenges with a ‘yes, and’ approach.” 

Being mobile

Jo has had a varied and exciting career, from being the CFO of Ubank, group CFO of Bowman’s, executive positions at Standard Chartered Bank Africa and insurance group Telesure as well as Barclays Africa and Middle East. She sees her strength in building empowered teams, not maintaining them and whenever contemplating a transition, says, the key questions she asks herself are; what value can I add, what motivates me and what am I learning? 

For Jo, the silver lining of moving on is that it gives others the opportunity to grow. “I believe in talent and when you work with gifted people you don’t want to be the glass ceiling. If you bring in capable people, groom them, give them enough room to play and grow with sufficient air cover in an environment that fosters learning and failing forward. Recruiting up allows you to move on,” she says.

That is why being at iOCO is so exciting for her; she’s inspired by the strong purpose within the leadership, the strides made in the turnaround journey in the last year and relishes the opportunity to be part of a business that builds solutions and is an executor of ideas.

Her mobility over the years means she has often found herself settling in with new teams and adjusting to new norms. Jo says that if you want to lead in a new space, you need to have the technical ability as well as a credible track record, but emphasises that, “If you want to get anything done, it’s through people. Engaging with others will give you an understanding of current scenarios so you plan better for future scenarios.” 

Being a good leader

Jo asserts that good leaders give people a voice by genuinely listening to what they have to say and demonstrating that their voice has been heard by reflecting that in the changes to and decisions made. “If we see what we say has been heard in action and witness the change through an enhanced user experience, we can see ourselves as difference makers and co-creators of solutions.”

She has learned that while she could launch an argument based on the technical facts of the matter, a lack of understanding the “why” and empathy would put her at risk of missing the core of the issue. “Unless you step into the shoes of the other person and try to understand the consequences of any decision, whether it’s a funding proposal or business deal and how the factors impact the business and people involved, you don’t have the full picture.

“Execution is a heads, hearts and minds game, so it’s very important to get to know and understand the team and what makes them tick. Ideally, I like my team to be working with me by choice. People go the extra mile for people; If they know what you are trying to achieve, why it’s important and that they are aligned with that vision, you have a powerful dynamic.”  Therefore, she makes time to invest, coach, train others and that’s why she has been able to progress on her career journey, “Because when you invest in people, it frees you to contribute in other, more meaningful ways.” 

Jo is at her best when she’s in an environment where she can thrive and her ideas matter. She thinks this probably comes from when she was a child and her parents challenged her to find solutions to questions. “Giving a child a role in finding a solution empowers them to have a voice, ability to think iteratively and work through problems with a future view.” She affirms the wisdom in owning problems but also drawing on the genius of others, insights from different backgrounds, beliefs and experiences to come up with the best outcomes. 

Not without its hiccups

Despite her passion for her work, Jo concedes that it doesn’t come without its hiccups. “When an organisation is facing a tough situation, sometimes finance is a lone voice in the sense that we have to stand behind a choice that may be unpopular, but is the right thing to do to safeguard the organisation and people in the long term. In such instances I have learned the importance of making your technical argument a sound one, but also intimately understanding the concerns and agendas of the entire stakeholder map, both internally and externally.” She says, further sharing that decisions aren’t always wholly based on what’s on paper, so you need to be able to steer the conversation in the right direction to get to the optimal conclusion. 

Reflecting on the current situation we are faced with due to the Covid-19 pandemic, she says we need to reimagine business, given the need to operate differently and interact in new ways. “The opportunity is for people to think about what the ‘new normal’ will look like as we change how we live, work and play. I don’t think we are going to back to life as we know it. Sadly, not every business will survive this crisis, but it’s an opportunity to deepen and broaden the capabilities of tools, services and platforms which initially were stopgaps but could evolve into longer-term solutions.”

She reflects however on the damage the pandemic has had on the economy and society. The questions we have to start to grapple with are, how do you make jobs sustainable and allow people to support their families. It is very sobering to look at how the pandemic has hit our people and businesses hard, especially considering how our economy is structured and the vulnerability to poverty. We need to figure out how we can work collectively to close the inequality gap and address the level of anxiety and poverty this situation will exacerbate. “We are human first,” says Jo.
Jo points out that great innovations and inventions came out of the last recession and that if we can leverage our resources, ideas and ability to pivot we can collaborate and co-create in a powerful new way. “We should explore how to we can re-purpose our businesses, re-position our people to create value and help keep society together as our survival depends on collective action. What I know is that despite our differences, when we come together as South Africans, we can make things work.” 

Investing in work and parenting

Jo likens the investment in parenting at home to working in a professional setting. “If you make time to learn, unlearn and relearn together, underpinned by doing the right thing, at some point your children, like those you have worked with, will come back and acknowledge that what you have invested in them has had a lasting impact and return.” 

The busy mother of four – 19-year-old twins and eight and nine year old – says her house is run like, “a military operation. Everyone pitches in, we work hard and play hard.” With the family on lockdown, she appreciates the opportunity to spend quality time with her children and husband, albeit she feels that she is missing interacting on a more personal level with extended family, friends and colleagues. “In this hyper-connected world, it has been important to take the opportunity to put away our devices and gadgets and just have a simple conversation and be truly present. It has given me an appreciation of what enough is and how much we miss in our hurried world.”