There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to boardroom culture, CFO Day panel reveals

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At CFO Day, executives shared how unique boardroom cultures influence their companies, highlighting the balance between creativity and financial integrity.

CFOs participating in a panel discussion at CFO Day on 14 May discussed their various boardroom cultures, with the outcome showing clearly that each company has its own way of doing things, although there are similarities.

King Price Insurance, for example, would have Queens’ Bohemian Rhapsody as its boardroom song, said CFO Paul Stedall. At the insurer, there are no formal boardrooms and the office has music playing, miniature golf greens, and Slush Puppies. “That’s the day-to-day energy.”

Although the industry is highly regulated, Paul really tries to make the numbers he’s presenting a little more interesting, and there aren’t pages and pages of figures, but rather the figures are laid out like an infographic. “The conversation is robust, but in a way that allows for camaraderie. It’s still a very entrepreneurial environment and you don’t want to kill that as a board.”

He said the board is very diverse, and he also finds it important to explain technical aspects of financials without dumbing it down too much. This, Paul said, is his biggest challenge. “It’s really how to convey the message to the board.”

One business decision that had to be carefully considered was when King Price moved into the commercial space given its “zany crazy brand”. It took time to build trust and show that it was a competent insurer with sufficient backing that can deal with valid claims fairly.

Paul has been CFO at the insurance company for almost four years and initially found it tricky to step into his predecessor’s shoes, as the former CFO was very trusted and was involved in many day-to-day operations of the company while it was still very small. However, Paul has made his mark on the board and the company, having received buy-in from his colleagues.

Royal Bafokeng Holdings FD Tinyiko Sihlangu added that it’s a balance in terms of giving board members enough detail and context so they have enough information to make a decision without overwhelming them. The board is not the enemy that is trying to poke holes in your information, but rather trying to do what is in the best interests of the company, she said. “You must be open-minded, spend time listening to them, acknowledging that they sit outside of the business and have a different perspective, which gives them the opportunity to bring value to the company.”

Tinyiko added that it is important to give the full picture. “If you can't simplify for someone, maybe you don’t know what your story is”. Shareholders are not stupid, but may not have deep financial acumen. She said CFOs need to move away from just the numbers and give the board a broader picture in terms of the narrative.

Ashona Kooblall, CFO at iOCO, said that, when you have trust, your environment thrives. “Finance should never present numbers they cannot explain from source to fact. It is important to be a respected leader and drive conversations.”

Ashona added that her board lives by the standard of having a culture of no surprises, even though there are many shocks in daily life, such as accounting anomalies, questions from auditors and market movements.

The way she deals with ensuring there are as few unexpected events as possible, Ashona said, is being on top of her game around business collaboration, dealing with the market challenges, and having transparency within the organisation. “You want to get to the point of staying on top of your game and closely collaborating with your people on the ground to create that culture of no surprise.”

Paul explained that his superpower is being able to read the room as well as tell the story in a way that is understandable from a teacher to a CA. Tinyiko said it was important to be able to remain calm and come to solutions, while Ashona said her superpower was focused clarity and decision-making.

Depending on the company’s culture, and where shareholders were based, board meetings were either held in person or online, the panellists stated. Paul added that King Price prefers to have everyone in the office to generate the energy that helps the sales team drive growth.

All the panellists agreed that, when having a visionary CEO with ideas that may affect the financials, it is important to listen to what they have to say, but find a balance to execute the ideas in a safe way that doesn’t affect the company’s financial position.

Tinyiko concluded: “I think that if you're going to make a difference and really grow exponentially, you do need to think outside the box and often be visionary, but you need to execute this in a safe way. Finding that balance between the two, I think, is where we can work really well together.”

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