Having the wisdom to make smart decisions is something Thobeka Ntshiza, CFO of Avis Fleet, values.
Thobeka Ntshiza was born and bred in the community of Clermont, north of Durban. She grew up in a dynamic household, which was a bevvy of activity.
Her grandmother was the matron at the local hospital, and her grandfather was a priest at the Anglican Church. “We had a steady flow of visitors coming through our doors, some looking to be ministered to, others seeking marriage counselling and some requesting my grandfather to officiate a family funeral. Others would be looking for help for sick babies and ill parents from my grandmother.”
This constant trickle of traffic required them to be in a state of ever-readiness maintaining immaculate standards of order. “My grandmother ran a tight ship. By 7am, the whole house had to be spotless, so sleeping in during school holidays never happened,” she laughs
The structure and discipline demanded by her grandmother inculcated a level of discipline she has carried well into adulthood. Living in a multi-generational home of 13, with her mother, aunts, uncles and cousins, offered lots of support. Yet, because there were so many people in the household, she had to play her part in the home.
Living in the hub of the community fostered in her an ability to empathise. “Having people arrive at our doorstep looking for help wasn’t always convenient or easy. This was especially true during the struggle of the 1980s, where one could get entangled in complex situations. One of my most formative memories was when a political activist had sought refuge at the church. Unfortunately, this resulted in the family home being petrol bombed by Security Forces.”
Her mother had Thobeka when she was young, only 19, and therefore the decision by her grandparents to share the responsibility of raising her so her mother could pursue her education impacted her life immeasurably. “My mom’s pursuit of education, even though at the time society would have told her that she couldn’t, showed me that I could also achieve my dreams.”
In the early 1990s, she was sent to a Model C school, where she formed part of the first intake of black girls in that environment.
She found herself straddling two worlds. One was where she went to school with kids who lived, looked and spoke differently from her, and the other was in Clermont. “Going into town daily taught me to appreciate the access to quality education and exposure to experiences I couldn’t find in my area. Going back to where I lived taught me to understand the impact of people’s environment and circumstances, and not judge them harshly due to their conditions. I learned how to be comfortable enough to find my own voice at an early age, and that has stood me in good stead my whole life.”
This trait especially came clear for her when she started her articles and while the employer offered her valuable technical knowledge, the experience forced her to grow a thick skin. “It was a very Afrikaans, male-dominated culture and there was an expectation among some that I wouldn’t thrive in that environment. I focused on what I was there to do; learn, doing my best and be excellent while achieving my goals,” she recalls.
Even though she had decided early on that she would become a chartered accountant, the path to achieving the goal was by no means a walk in the park.
Discernment is one of her superpowers and honing particular wisdom came after she faced a crisis, struggling to ace her CA board exams.
Having always been academically strong, after failing her exams the first time she figured she hadn’t been ready. After the second attempt, she felt the jab of failure but picked herself up. “When I didn’t pass the third time, I was devastated! I had given it my all and was really shaken.”
After a few months of distance and a little perspective, she decided to ask for her scripts back, and the truth was glaring at her in the face.
“I realised that I failed because of my exam technique, not because I did not understand the content. I went to work, testing myself with old question papers and understanding how to answer to get full marks. By the time I sat for the exam, I knew that I had passed.”
The lesson she learned for that experience is that you can’t fix what you don’t know. “I had rushed from one sitting to the next without properly reviewing where I may have gone wrong. This is a common mistake: making decisions without investing time to dissect what the problem is, before swooping in to fix it. I’m a big believer that often the more you invest in understanding the problem statement, the better your solution.”
Now faced with the challenges of operating in the era of Covid-19, as the CFO of Avis Fleet, Thobeka is sharply assessing events as they roll out, to have the most thorough understanding of all the moving parts.
She admits that it would be premature to give an accurate assessment of the long term view on Covid-19, but in the immediate context, she is committed to keeping the wheels of the business turning. “The goal is to maintain the pace because momentum keeps you in the game. If you stand still to re-start is much harder.”
She is also keenly aware of the need to lead with empathy during this time. The team has performed well and even with remote working. Having said that, she can’t escape the legacy of her upbringing and also believes in giving a human touch when interacting with the team. I know that with so much happening, it’s important to check in on people, not as colleagues, but on a human level. Accessibility is important for me as a leader, it allows me to have a pulse on what is going on with the business and people.”
Thobeka knows the value of a healthy culture and says in her case that is part of why she has thrived. As a mother, she has seen first-hand the difference the leadership of an organisation one works for makes. She gives an example of when she was carrying the twins and the company she was working for demonstrated a family-friendly culture by making the necessary logistical and personal adjustments to support her transition to motherhood.
In turn, she looks for opportunities to support others because she knows that when people feel like they matter and are supported, that’s when they go the extra mile to deliver at an even higher level. Outside of work, her family’s support allows her to flourish. It is an extra bonus that her husband is a financial director of a railway engineering company and because he is in the field, appreciates the pressures of her work. “Having a family that supports me and understands the demands of my job allows me to invest the time and effort I need to excel," she says.