Time waits for no one, so don’t wait to make the tough decisions

Leaders tell Finance Indaba Conversation that leaving difficult decisions until the last minute can be detrimental.

Unicus Tax SA is a tax dispute specialist with a 100 percent success rate, mediating disagreements between taxpayers and the South African Revenue Services (SARS). For most taxpayers, this is a time-consuming and frustrating process with extremely long deadlines. The biggest issue for taxpayers is that they believe SARS is not listening to them, and as a result, taxpayers inadvertently allow themselves to dance to SARS’s tune, which does not have to be the case, said Nico Theron, the company’s founder, who was speaking at the Finance Indaba Conversations on making difficult decisions and making them work.

Jo Mitchell-Marais, restructuring services leader at Deloitte, told participants the audit firm is typically parachuted into crises and this is because these crises are often left to late, in a “two minutes to midnight situation. Managing stakeholders, bringing trust, long-term strategic objectives and calm back into the conversation is what we primarily do at Deloitte,” she said.

Jo pointed out that determining what the key warning signs are in your business that something is wrong should be the primary focus for businesses during a crisis, and if you allow the situation to get to a point where the lenders dictate the process, it can put you in a tough position.

“The biggest issue is that management does not want to be seen as those who were on the lookout when the crisis occurred. In order to manage a crisis, early detection is critical, as is bringing in specialists when you don’t know what you’re doing,” she explained.

According to Bongi Ngoma, head of audit at the Auditor General of South Africa (AGSA), the past 18 months have provided organisations with opportunities to learn. “We led the crisis nerve centre, where we had to make difficult decisions, and we decided to prioritise our people, because people are critical to our mandate. We benchmarked against companies that had previously faced similar challenges and took those lessons on board,” she explained.

The AGSA implemented a hybrid model in which employees could work from home and in the office, which their employees greatly appreciated. “This meant that we had to trust our staff even more, because we weren’t all in the same place,” she explained. “But as people worked from home, it added up to working longer hours and we had to pay attention to things we didn’t have to prioritise before the pandemic hit, like employee mental health.”

When Omnia was experiencing financial difficulties, it had to make some difficult decisions and focus on stabilising the organisation, finding strategies to sustainably fund the business, reducing costs, and generating returns for shareholders, all while weathering a perfect storm. Things got even worse when they were targeted by a cyber-attack. “It was a huge challenge in the environment, but we made it,” said Stephan Serfontein, FD.

Stephan also shared some key learnings that stood out, focusing on people, trust, purpose, and culture. “We were able to build trust by getting to know our people and understanding their challenges. Leaning into difficult discussions rather than avoiding them builds trust, which allowed us to build effective teams to manage the difficult times we faced,” he said.

In the breakout room
During the breakout room discussions, panellists mentioned that while working remotely gave people the opportunity to take up job opportunities overseas, it did eventually cause a skills shortage for South African firms.

According to Derick Truscott, CFO at SnapScan, working remotely has created a demand for people with strong digital skills and capabilities in the tech space. “Remote working has given people more options and encouraged them to pursue work opportunities overseas, resulting in a talent shortage in the South African tech space,” he explained. “Overseas firms are paying more, and we simply cannot compete.”

“We are now aggressively hiring and encouraging people to join, buy into our cause, and emphasise that SnapScan is a great place to learn and grow,” Derick added.

Wikus Swart, tax manager at Unicus Tax Specialists SA, agreed with Nico that SARS was the most difficult obstacle a tax consultancy had to overcome.

“During the pandemic, our biggest challenge has been dealing with disputes and dealing with SARS.” We do, however, have a recipe for dealing with disputes, but it is a balancing act; you must stand your ground while also understanding where SARS is coming from,” he explained.

Panellists agreed that when making difficult decisions, you must approach them with humility; humble yourself, accept when you’re wrong, let go of assumptions, and involve everyone in the decision-making process.