Transunion CFO Sharon Naidoo disrupting with heart

Sharon Naidoo shares how she has made her role as Transunion’s CFO her own by tapping into her superpowers.

TransUnion’s CFO, Sharon Naidoo, grew up in a small community in KwaZulu-Natal, where schools were small but education was celebrated. A self-confessed disruptor, Sharon has always been intellectually curious, had a passion for problem solving and was always asking questions, even as a child.

Giving her career its own flavour
With a 22-year career in finance under her belt, Sharon admits there are many routine recurrences, for instance there’s month-end every month, quarterly forecast, budget every year, three-year strategy, etc. But she says what makes her work exciting are the dynamic elements such as the people she has encountered on the journey, adding that, “The different industries I have been exposed to, tackling challenges in the economy and markets we play in are what have made for interesting times.”

Sharon has been intentional about making her career stimulating by tapping into her superpowers and notes that what often goes awry is that people become so lost in textbooks, leadership frameworks, in coaching processes, and trying to fit in other people’s moulds that the very thing that makes them shine and stand out gets lost.

Having been in CFO roles for the last 12 years, she is led by her top daily priority, which is impacting the culture of all the spaces she occupies, whether that’s the office or home.

She is equally passionate about leading teams which have a positive authentic culture where people are themselves, can find their place and bring their whole being into the office and play to their strengths while being very conscious of development areas and individual triggers.

She says this approach has been imperative to her leading productive, high performance teams. “I believe that if you show up as your best self, you won’t compete in an unhealthy way because you don’t need to dim someone’s light for yours to shine. You can also collaborate as a team, respect and trust each other and collectively take all the wins and losses together. For that reason, I invest a significant amount of my time in people.”

Another area she focuses on for excellence is performance, saying that, “people need to have a sense of purpose and it needs to be measurable in a tangible way. So, I always reflect on the wins of the day, whether it is collecting a big payment, structuring a deal or hitting and exceeding targets.”

These principles have served her well and she says, “Even after all these years, I feel blessed to be in a profession I love. Which is as natural as breathing and every morning I wake up excited to do what I do and make an impact in my work.”

Evolution of leadership style
Sharon’s leadership consists of various potent traits including leading bravely, co-ordinating others, rallying people around a cause and a solid dose of inquisitiveness.

Her natural leadership ability shined from a young age. She says, “I always took the lead in everything, from arranging overnight trips, being spokesperson of class or representing school in the debate team. At 12 years old, I started a feeding scheme because we lived in a small community where I saw many kids living at subsistence level. So, I took the initiative to approach local businesses for support and we were able to provide school lunches for those who needed them.”

Sharon’s family would say that she’s always been revolutionary and never accepted the traditional norms or defined predisposition of gender roles. “The biggest gift I have given myself is that of curiosity and giving myself permission to ask questions. My family will tell you that even as a child, I questioned and debated everything that was asked of me and was relentless until the answers made sense or landed with me.” That curiosity hasn’t gone away, and Sharon says she still has a mindset of learning and interrogating dominating ideas and always being open to new ideas.

From being an empathetic teen to mentoring others throughout her career, impacting people’s lives has always been important to Sharon. She believes that to be a great leader you need to have a big heart, saying that “Having talents and abilities is not just about you, but who you serve by using them.”

She says she’s driven by the three Ps, which are, “To have pride in what you do, have a passion for what you do and you will naturally exceed your performance.”

Using technology in the right way
Though she’s heart-centred, Sharon thrives within the technical elements of finance, such as IFRS, formulating strategy, optimising areas where the company is winning and highlighting any risks on the horizon. She aptly says, “Live in the future and act in the present.”

Having worked across various industries, from petrochemicals, FMCG, pharma, printing, and now financial services across the continent she says, “These wide-ranging experiences have helped shape my understanding of people, diverse cultures and to see different approaches taken to achieve growth in various settings, how to extract value in the value chain, how to stay connected to consumers and get your pricing product portfolio right, and so many other elements.”

As a CFO, she finds any waste of resources is a challenge and is always finding ways to find efficiencies, and she believes technology offers plenty of opportunity for that. “When you hire smart people, you want to get the best out of them, tap into their talents and allow them to disrupt norms and have the space to think about things and challenge the norm. One of the ways is by automating mundane tasks.

Technology frees up human investment, which is a resource. You want smart people to be engaged with customers, firing up new ideas and crafting new strategies.”

She adds that externally, customers increasingly want a seamless onboarding process and solution that fits into their lifestyle. She believes in investing in smart tools, but says, “Technology is a strategic lever – you have to be intentional to make sure it achieves the impact you have envisioned. It’s important that you don’t take a big sweep approach but be clear about where you are as a company and how any technology will impact your results.

“As organisations, we don’t have an unlimited pool of investment resources, and as leaders we have to make smart investment choices. We need to invest in cohesive solutions, make sure integrations make sense and measure the success of them.”

She says technology has been instrumental in success, having joined the organisation during the Covid-19 lockdowns and working virtually from the onset. She says, “I was very intentional in using technology to connect with people and having one-on-one conversations that had meaning and helped me connect with people I was only able to meet in person months later. “

Finding new opportunities
Looking forward, she notes that the last two years have been an incredible lesson that the only constant in life is change, and that being adaptable, resilient and fluid is critical to both individuals and organisations.

She says looking at the year ahead Africa is on the rebound for growth. IMF forecasts GDP growth at about 3.7 percent and closer to home, around 2.2 percent for 2022, with high unemployment and rising tariffs across the board. “In this environment, we must simplify to grow. Our core, which is the reason we do what we do, what we are known for, what we excel at with our eyes closed, must be solid, leading the market growth through share capture in both volume and price. Then grow either organically or inorganically through a targeted and laser focused approach. This approach will bring innovation, geographical expansion or M&As, and we can navigate the external risks by making smart investment choices that will deliver growth.”

She says we achieve this with out-of-the-box thinking. “Africa is a continent ripe for growth, and filled with whitespace opportunities,” she says. She explains that according to the latest UN estimates, the continent has roughly 1.3 billion people with a median age of 19.7 years, where largely informal markets thrive and where cash is king. It is also characterised by a youth generation that has skipped computers and laptops and gone straight to the internet via mobile.

“So what we need to do with this is focus on targeted growth and build and invest in brands with a flavour of our own, that appeal to the aspirations of the continent.”