Transitioning from a South African CFO to a CEO in the Philippines in 2020

The former inQuba CFO shares her insights from transitioning to Cartrack Asia CEO during Covid-19.

I have been a finance professional for 14 years. The past seven years I have served as a very hands-on operational CFO responsible for transforming businesses. My natural progression from an operational CFO has always been to eventually transition into a CEO role.

On 14 October 2019, I had just returned from a magical trip to Morocco and was ready to return to my job as the CFO of inQuba. I was having a cup of tea with Zak Calisto, the founder of Cartrack. He offered me the opportunity to become the CEO of the Cartrack business in the Philippines.

The opportunity excited and scared me at the time. I was excited to grow, learn and transition into a CEO role, but the thought of moving to South East Asia scared me. In my life, I have travelled to 42 countries, but moving and working abroad was always a distant thought. However, joining Cartrack, which is a well-known listed South African company with a global presence, gave me some psychological safety. So in November 2019, I decided to take the opportunity.

Arriving in the Philippines
On 10 January 2020, I had wrapped up my life in South Africa and was ready to board the plane that would take me to the Philippines. The flight was delayed by 12 hours because the UAE had flooded for the first time in 25 years. I knew then that 2020 was going to be an unusual, interesting year.

When I finally arrived in the Philippines, I had no long-term visa. The company’s governance was not in order, which meant no bank account, no paid salary, I and couldn’t even rent a property. But I decided to be agile and entrepreneurial, and to do what it takes to be successful in my new role, even if it meant countless visa runs.

The company has had poor in-country leadership and has not gained the momentum of its big brothers in the other Asian countries and South Africa. After analysing the entire business, I came up with a plan – a 100-day strategy.

In February, we started to gain momentum – sales increased, processes were streamlined, the current staff was retained, and we onboarded some new staff. As a team, we started to move in the right direction.

When Covid-19 hit
On 12 March 2020, I was working in my hotel room when President Rodrigo Duterte announced a complete hard military lockdown. My phone was ringing off the hook, as colleagues sent me messages of disbelief, despair and uncertainty. I wanted to scream, and thought: “I am a foreigner. You are from here, figure it out.” But that’s not what leaders do.

So instead, I calmly told everyone to be in the office the next morning so that I could communicate the way forward. What surprised me was that our head office had zero guidance – no disaster recovery plan. I think Covid-19 caught most companies, even those with well thought through paper strategies, off guard.
The next day, I made sure that everyone had a laptop and the tools and technology they needed to work from home. In the Philippines, the internet is a problem, so I made sure everyone either had a company cell phone or a data device. Then I prayed for the best.

At the same time, my short-term visa was about to expire and I had to fly to Singapore to get it renewed. A lockdown in Singapore seemed highly unlikely at the time and my plan was to work with the head office team in Singapore for two to three weeks. But on 7 April 2020, Singapore went into lockdown.

I was living in a hotel where all their facilities were closed. We had to stay in our rooms and were only allowed to go and buy groceries.

On 1 June 2020, Singapore slowly started reopening again, but I wasn’t able to return back to the Philippines.

A new world of work
Covid-19 forced me to lead my company remotely from 16 March 2020. I had met 50 percent of my management team face-to-face and built new offices via Whatsapp, all while living like a gypsy – with one suitcase, moving to new accommodation on a monthly basis.

I spent 90 percent of my days on digital devices, managing the company, engaging via video conferencing, phone calls and messaging.

Despite the challenges that 2020 threw at me, I not only survived, but thrived. Here are the eight insights I had along the way:

1. Adaptive intelligence (AQ) puts you ahead
Adaptive or adaptability intelligence measures your ability to go through a crisis and come out without losing your mind. It tells us how well a person reacts to the inevitability of change.

AQ became increasingly important pre-Covid-19 as the world was speeding up. With the rate that technology changes accelerated, we had to navigate changing job conditions and shifting geopolitics in a globalised world of work. Then Covid-19 came along and we had a change in family and work dynamics. Everyone was forced to deal with change more than ever in human history.

Leaders have been forced to adapt at a rapid pace to ever-changing environments. If you find yourself resisting, focus on obtaining a growth mindset and spend time on this skill actively, otherwise you will be left behind.

2. Let go
It has been hard to lead during Covid-19, building a business and office remotely. But, as a leader, you need to step up, make decisions, figure out what your remote leadership style is, experiment with what works, adapt what doesn’t work, and repeat.

The biggest learning I had during this time, was to let go. You can’t manage a company and every single employee on a day-to-day basis by being 100 percent in control. Focus on what is important, ensure that it gets done and entrust your team with the rest. Give people greater responsibility and believe that they will reach their goals.

I have seen leaders default to micro-management when a full team is working from home. I believe that, now more than ever, leaders should set clear directions, expectations, deliverables and smart goals. Unfortunately, working remotely doesn’t work for everyone. Accept this and figure out a way to get the best out of your staff. A blanket approach doesn’t work and leaders need to put more energy into engaging with individual staff.

As a leader in Covid-19, I have led more with my heart while making data-driven decisions. I give people freedom in a framework and if they don’t deliver, I am quicker than ever to have the difficult conversations.

3. Feed your client focus
Client service and satisfaction are the most important things to focus on right now. Ensure that the client chooses you. They have options and time to explore, and companies are desperate for business. Happy clients don’t leave.

Ensure your clients pay you. It is hard to collect during these times – companies have cash flow constraints, signatories are situated all over the place, their businesses were idle, and few businesses were able to plan for times like these.

Sell to clients by actively listening to, identifying and solving their problems and their pain points. Go the extra mile, even if it means there is nothing in it for you. You will reap the benefits. Stand with your customers in their hard times, and they will stand by you.

4. It’s okay to not be okay
When the Philippines went into lockdown, as an expat and the newest employee in the company, I didn’t know how to respond. What I learned was that it’s okay to not be okay.

It’s okay to not know what to do. Ask your staff what they would do if they were you. I had input from the most unlikely people and formulated a plan based on their advice.

I executed this plan with confidence and a firm belief that it will all be good in the end. You need to be unweathering in your confidence.

You can’t afford your team to be anything other than focused. There are a lot of distractions at home. We maintained our focus by coming up with a weekly plan, weekly catch-up and deliverables set for each area of the business.

Never be hesitant. Instead, adapt. It’s like jumping off a cliff into the ocean – those who hesitate, get hurt. When the lockdown lifted, I wanted to be ready. I experimented with ideas, methods and adapted when they didn’t work.

Remember that your boss is human and doesn’t always have all the answers. The skills to navigate these unfamiliar waters can’t be taught: they are learned through trial and error. Support your management and team, accept if something doesn’t work, be part of the solution, and adapt.

5. The time to shine is now
If there has ever been a time to go the extra mile and do more than what is expected of you, that time is now! Don’t just do what you did before, at home. As finance professionals, there is so much value that you can add. Do those analyses that you never had time for. Analyse which areas of your business aren't adding any value, relook at value roles in your organisation and where improvement is necessary. Give your CEO and board the additional insights and support.

6. Communicate with clarity and direction
No person in an organisation should be confused about what is expected from them or what their role in the organisation is. Everyone needs to be clear on where they fit in, as well as what and when they need to deliver. Transparency is key in times like these.

There is no such thing as over-communication. Ensure the entire team understands the business priorities, are aligned and feel motivated enough to deliver. Celebrate small joys and wins more often.

I had a company-wide Whatsapp group to communicate directly to all staff and keep everyone abreast and informed all the time. I shared with the cleaner what I would share with the manager.

7. Your vibe attracts your thrive tribe
Business is all about the people. I am a great believer in energy and your energy as a leader is contagious. Ensure it is positive and uplifting. Radiate confidence, courage and an unstoppable attitude with humility.

Show empathy for your team and their wellbeing. Gone are in-person sessions where you can read body language and check in if someone is okay. Gone is office chit-chat about pets and hobbies. On Zoom it’s all business. Leaders need to make time to connect authentically with individuals.

Be aware of people’s personal situation at home. Some might not be able to work 100 percent productively during the day – they might have four kids, be a single mother, or have other circumstances you don’t understand. Have realistic expectations. Give people freedom in a framework. Those who parent during the day are the ones who deliver at night.

8. Rituals and routines are important
Humans need routine and structure to be productive and thriving. We are creatures of habit. Our brains like to autopilot, it’s how we conserve energy. Rituals and routines help us feel more in control, aid mental health, help us cope with change, form healthy habits and reduce our stress levels.

Burnout is very real in the world of remote work. Too much screen time, lack of boundaries between work and home, and endless video calls can lead to fatigue. Save yourself through rituals and routines.

Your commute to work used to be a routine that started and ended the working day. Those times when you got up to make coffee and ended up having a quick chat with a colleague served as good breaks. During these activities, you would gather your energy and get into the right headspace for the next task at hand. With remote working, this is gone.

Be intentional and build in these rituals and routines at home. Play music, have a quick chat with a friend, or walk around the house. Ensure you transition between work and home. I have suggested that you act like you are driving to work using a frisbee between the office and bedroom. Schedule downtime or recharge time, or you will end up working all the time.

I have built in an attitude of gratitude into my night routine. I find that in these times spending deliberate time appreciating what I have and what is going right gets me through the day. Often we spend so much time thinking of what should have been or could have been. We can quickly think ourselves into a negative state of mind. Negative minds cannot be creative and cannot think or dream of new concepts and new ideas of doing. Appreciate what you have and embrace and create change.