Three CFO career paths: different routes to the finance throne

At this year’s Finance Indaba Network, leading CFOs discussed three ways to qualify for the top finance job.

Choosing the qualification to support your finance career is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make. There are many different learning paths and certifications to choose from. Then, once qualified, you need the right combination of experience, personal attributes and ambition to become a CFO.

In love with the numbers
Mikateko Tshetshe, vice president for finance in Africa for Unilever, started working straight out of school. She was fortunate to be selected for a two-year apprenticeship programme at Bayer where she gained cross-disciplinary experience in marketing, sales, HR, admin and finance. She “fell in love” with finance and accounting, and decided to complete her BCom Accounting through Unisa.

Mikateko wanted a professional accounting accreditation and settled on the Charted Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). “Getting a qualification that recognised my work experience was important to me. I also wanted a qualification that that was locally recognised to ensure my employability,” she said.

Balancing work, home and studying is never easy but CIMA offered evening classes, intensive exam preparation and computer-based, on-demand exams. Mikateko also enjoyed connecting with other students and building her confidence in both finance and business. She spent eight years at Bayer, of which six were in accounting roles.

The chartered accountant route
Zaf Mahomed, Cell C’s CFO, grew up near the then Louis Botha Airport in KwaZulu-Natal. Being under a flight path had Zaf dreaming of becoming a pilot, but he spent three unhappy years studying medicine before he traded it in for a B.Com Accounting degree.

Zaf served articles at small accounting firm with six partners. This meant that he was exposed to a lot of smaller companies’ accounting work including PAYE, UIF and Worksman’s Compensation. He then joined Tongaat Hulett as an internal auditor, despite not enjoying auditing. “Sometimes your path is not clear. Don’t try and plan a perfect career. My first role at Tongaat Hulett was the beginning of a 10-year career at the company,” says Zaf.

He qualified as a chartered accountant, inspired by the many South African business leaders who hold this qualification: “The CA route was a no-brainer for me. Many of the CEOs and CFOs of JSE-listed companies are CAs.”

An unexpected path
Joe Ndala, CFO of Zutari, was on his way to qualifying as an electrician before switching to a career in finance. He completed a BCom Accounting degree, where he enjoyed how learning the numbers helped him to understand business better.

A mentor encouraged Joe to study for a certification through the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA). “I was working for an international firm at the time with a mentor who was ACCA qualified. I was attracted by the global nature of the qualification with the right credentials for an international career,” said Joe. He now has more than 20 years’ experience in executive finance positions, most of which is with international listed firms.

Advice for ambitious finance professionals
For Joe success means cultivating the soft skills alongside technical capabilities. “It’s difficult to acquire soft skills. Sometimes this is knowing when to lead and when you need to manage people. As a finance professional you need to be client-focussed and really enjoy working with people,” he said.

Joe recommended that young finance professionals make the time to study while working and be part of a professional body. “It is important to balance academics with real work experience. Belonging to a professional accountancy body will guide you as you develop your career. These bodies open networks and provide reading materials to keep you informed. If you can go global, then go for it. This will give you the experience to become a well-rounded individual,” said Joe.

Mikateko became a CFO in her early 30s. She was conscious of being a young, black South African in an important position. “As a young member of the board, I had the courage to bring my best self to all conversations. This included being the bearer of bad news when the performance and results didn’t meet local and international stakeholder expectations. I encourage all young professionals to have a voice – that one thought that you’re holding back could improve decision-making for the company,” she said.

Mikateko believes that great leaders create “psychological safety” for their teams. This is defined as “being able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career”. In other words, team members feel accepted and respected within their current roles.

For Zaf, career success means loving what you do and committing to going beyond the prescribed curriculum. “You have got to have a passion for life-long learning, he said. “Soft skills are so important. You need to know how to communicate, relate to others and solve problems. Listening skills are also vital. Most importantly, people must learn how to fail. I’ve learnt more from my failures than my successes.”