Why not global – CFO Alistair Roman explains the benefits of bringing international experience home


South African Alistair Roman has been in the UK since 2009, building the skills needed to be a well-rounded and highly successful leader in a global community. Speaking with CFO South Africa, he talks about how he broadened his horizons across the pond, and why he is eager to bring it back to his home country.

Based in London, I’ve mainly taken the route of interim CFO/FD roles, helping clients such as VirginMediaO2, John Lewis Partnership, Post Office, BAT and BP deliver on their ambitions. The interim market is considerably more mature than in South Africa, so comes with loads of great opportunities.

There is however, an expectation that, in addition to your finance leadership expertise, leading on strategy, transformation and change is equally critical in driving organisational success. Examples of these include enterprise resource planning (ERP) implementations, cost reduction initiatives, business strategy and development, and global or regional expansion opportunities.

These experiences take the typical chartered accountant outside of their comfort zone of GAAP, IFRS, tax, etc, and require a whole new set of skills in order to be successful when working in a developed economy where markets are considerably larger, more mature, complex and more competitive.

My view is that, if we are truly going to put South Africa back on the global map as a serious player, it will need leaders who bring that global knowledge and experience to the table as well.

This has become even more important as we see the increase of globalisation, where the world is becoming a more connected and interdependent place.

Why take the plunge?

I moved overseas for a few reasons in addition to professional development as a finance leader. After having left the audit profession and spending nearly seven years working for VeriSign, a NASDAQ-listed global company, it became obvious I needed to seek opportunities abroad to fulfil my career ambitions.

South Africa is very much a part of the global community, so leaders gaining overseas working experience can only support this narrative. On a personal and professional level, working internationally develops and enhances your EQ, which, as a leader, is a priceless attribute to have.

It also provides you with different challenges and a great platform to learn from and develop, which sharpens your IQ as well. In addition, working across different cultures, social norms, languages, and countries is not as daunting as it sounds, but rather rich and fulfilling in many respects.

A case in point is the larger, more complex and developed sectors. These fuel the UK’s gross domestic product which stood at $3.1 trillion (around R57.7 trillion) in 2022, according to official data from the World Bank. In 2022, South Africa’s economy was $405 billion (about R7.5 trillion). The entire African continent’s GDP for 2023 is estimated at roughly $3.1 trillion (around R57.7 trillion) and puts into context what developed economy experience offers.

Developed countries are clearly doing something right, so it’s about leveraging this experience in support of both the South African and African agendas. A successful South Africa being one of the top economies on the continent sends a message of ‘Africa can and has a bright future ahead!’.

Learning experiences

I’ve had my fair share of challenges, including navigating a post-pandemic world, facing global supply chain issues, cost pressures, changing consumer behaviours, unprecedented inflation (CPI +RPI), high-interest rates and geopolitical unrest among others at a macro level.

Closer to my desk, aspects I need to overcome include bringing environment, social and governance (ESG) to life by showing tangible progress across all three domains, unifying and embracing big data and understanding the technology landscape such as artificial intelligence and what it means to the organisation.

These issues do not paint a pretty picture by any stretch of the imagination, but they are some of the challenges we face as leaders.

Yet, there is value to be had from what could be seen as obstacles as when they are seen as opportunities; they provide CFOs with the prospect of further growth and development. The current macro- and micro-environments are tough regardless of your industry sector. However, I see these as opportunities to better equip businesses for the journey ahead.

A strong ESG proposition can safeguard a company’s long-term success if done in a sustainable manner. In a McKinsey Global Survey on valuing ESG programmes conducted in 2020, it suggested that 83% of C-suite leaders and investment professionals say they expect that ESG programmes will contribute more shareholder value in five years than today.

The respondents also indicated that they would be willing to pay about a 10 percent median premium to acquire a company with a positive record for ESG issues over one with a negative record.

Ultimately, it’s about bolstering enterprise resilience to support achieving long-term strategies and growth ambitions in a sustainable manner. There is no one-size-fits-all, so going about addressing these challenges in driving optimal business outcomes means thinking ‘out of the box’ and not being afraid to make the hard calls along the way. The role of the CFO is critical to this as he or she needs to be a change agent for the organisation.

Whichever way you put it, international experience for finance leaders can be turned into a wealth of benefits for our beautiful country.

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