Take every opportunity available to you, says Waseem Carrim, NYDA CFO

Never underestimate the value of relationships, says Waseem Carrim, CFO of the NYDA.

The National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) is a schedule three entity of government responsible for youth development in South Africa. "Take as many opportunities as are available to you, whether that's going to an event you're invited to or setting up a meeting with someone you don't know. And take the opportunity to talk to people – you'll find doors you didn't know where there open up to you. I would never have thought I'd one day work in public service. But one thing lead to another and here I am," says Waseem. The young CFO feels strongly about South Africa’s future prospects, youth and transformation: "South Africa's democracy today is very different to the one we had 20 years ago. Where we fought for democratic freedom all those years ago, we now fight for economic freedom. We have a lot of inequalities in our society."

Where does the agency fit into a transformed South Africa? 
"Young people make up the majority of South Africa's population – approximately 40% is under the age of 35. So, we have a very youthful populace. But young people also bear the brunt of challenges such as poverty, inequality and unemployment. The NYDA focuses on policy measures and interventions that government can make to have a productive youth society and a non-racial South Africa where all of the members of the population can participate in the economy."

What role do you think the youth plays in South Africa's future?
"South Africa's democracy today is very different to the one we had 20 years ago. Where we fought for democratic freedom all those years ago, we now fight for economic freedom. We have a lot of inequalities in our society. A non-racial, non-sexist society is what we fight for. The national development plan says we mustn't only be able to see the rainbow, it must be reflected in each of us. It's about equal opportunities for all."

What are your thoughts on the calibre of young South African CAs these days?
"I think definitely CAs are at the forefront of business leaders. If you look at things like SAICA's Top-35-under-35 it shows that many of these individuals are excelling in the profession. I also think business is increasingly beginning to focus more on ability than on age, so I see a changing philosophy. That said, I think a lot of CAs do get lost in the system. It would be interesting to see reports coming out of SAICA showing where CAs position themselves in the market, maybe 10 years into the market."

Your two previous posts were in a large corporate, KPMG. How did you make the mindset change from that to public sector?
"A corporate environment is very professional and very learning and development focussed. That is almost the benchmark. When I came into the public service that wasn't the benchmark at all. In fact, the working culture was very different. But in government it is easy to sell the 'why' to employees and to drive the change, because you really see the impact of your work on a daily basis. With the NYDA you see the difference in a young person's life when they get a business grant, for example. I would say the real difference between corporate and public sector is the working culture."

How did you come to make the move from corporate to public sector?
"While I was at KPMG I was responsible for the audit of the NYDA. Through that I got to know the executive team and the nature of the business. When the post became available they offered it to me on an acting basis, and later it became formalised. It was a big opportunity at a young age for me to do something. Also, I thought it was an agency going places; an entity which had a purpose. You could really take it to the next level."

What do you hope to achieve in this role?
"We come from a very poor background with bad media coverage and years of non-compliance and irregular expenditure. The first step was restoring stability, which we did by achieving a clean audit for the agency. We were also battling with a high salary bill, and our HR was not where it should have been. We went through a corporate restructuring and change management process, and we also reduced the salary bill."

"Where we really need to take the business now is to say, while it's all well and good complying with legislation, what's the impact you have on society and your customer? So it's creating a customer service experience for the organisation. People must feel empowered working for the NYDA."

"I'm also working on improving processes and getting the business more focussed from an ICT perspective. I do think government could better focus on that – our services need to be more accessible and more technology focussed."

You've been CFO since October 2014. Was there anything you changed – a procedure or process for instance – that was implemented in the company before you were appointed CFO?
"Yes. With our grant programme, which gives grants to startups and small businesses, the process used to take about three months. We've managed to reduce it to 21 days. That means a business can start sooner and loses less on profit."

You've seen several successes at the NYDA, including achieving the agency's first-ever clean audit. Tell us about this.
"Initially the audit report had 11 matters of non-compliance and over R100 million in irregular expenditure. It was not a good scenario. It took a lot of redesigning processes and implementing proper controls to get to where we are now. We had targeted two or three years to achieve it but managed to do it in one year."

"We also implemented a successful restructuring. I don't think there are many that have been done in the public sector, so that was good on the part of the agency. I advised from a financial perspective and was part of the discussions with the labour organisations. I worked on the design of new organograms, shifting employees into different roles and formulating new job descriptions."

How does change happen at the agency? Is it easy to effect?
"It's not easy to implement change because these are people's livelihoods you are dealing with. I think what's important is that you have to get proper buy-in. Ultimately you have to get employees to buy into the fact that what you're doing is for their long-term benefit and is best for the business. I remember during the restructuring one of the lawyers said what he sees in all restructurings is that the people he meets after the process always seem better off than before. So it's a difficult process to go through but it forces you to grow as a person and to really look at your life. It forces you out of your comfort zone."

What is the toughest business decision you've ever had to make?
"Probably making the decision to come to the NYDA. I had a lot of people tell me the public sector is the worst environment you could go work in. You hear stories every day of public officials being suspended. So it was a difficult decision to take. But I saw the strategy and vision and political support for the organisation and all of those were factors that influenced my decision."

CFOs in the public sector sometimes have to deal with unusual requests. How do you handle requests that aren't entirely within the law?
"You do get situations where, especially around procurement, there are slight issues. What's important is that our work is guided by legislation and policies and procedures. Those controls in place are there to protect you. If you relate that back to achieving a clean audit – it wasn't one thing, or a magic bullet, it was implementing policies and keeping to them on a daily basis. Falling back onto policy makes your job fundamentally easier. Also we have a very disciplined and committed team here, and everyone is on the same page. So you find less instances of unethical behaviour."

In your opinion, how important is peer-to-peer learning?
"I think it's very important. For all the CFO events I've attended, you take a wealth of knowledge away from your peers. You can take those things back and apply them to your position. I think there has to be a commitment to lifelong learning, regardless of your industry. We get to a point in our lives where we think we know it all, but you have to have introspection and say you can learn more – the smartest person in the room is often the one asking all the questions. I also think it's important to create a mentorship role, to learn from older peers and take away the experience that other people have."

So you think there's a place for mentoring in business?
"Definitely. I think where mentorship is really useful is, sometimes you need a space to vent, someone to talk to or lean on, but also someone to challenge you. Especially in a position of leadership, you don't always have someone challenging you. I think mentorship is critical, especially if we want to see growth of SMEs. We really need business people to mentor young entrepreneurs to see businesses success. That's one area where we can really take mentorship to the next level. "

"I had two mentors at KPMG, and I still keep in good contact with them. Articles is a real networking space for you. You meet so many different people and have exposure to so many different clients. The CEO of NYDA is a strong mentor to me. We work very closely together and there's always been that mentorship aspect."

What advice do you have for aspirant CFOs?
"Take as many opportunities as are available to you, whether that's going to an event you're invited to or setting up a meeting with someone you don't know. And take the opportunity to talk to people – you'll find doors you didn't know where there open up to you. I would never have thought I'd one day work in public service. But one thing lead to another and here I am. Also, build relationships; these are what will take you places. A lot of the time when you apply for positions, having knowledge of a place or having worked with people before gives you a distinct advantage. That relationship-building exercise must never be underestimated."

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