Articulate, confident, beautiful and very, very clever. Not all of these characteristics are necessarily required of CFOs, but they can all be attributed to Aarti Takoordeen, the JSE’s 36 year old CFO, and which have stood her in good stead throughout her career.
The fact that she had been exposed to large multinational companies including as Finance Manager at Hewlett-Packard and Finance Director at Johnson Controls before joining the JSE Limited in 2013, is where Aarti honed her skills to speak confidently in front of large audiences. She believes that these and other soft skills will be in growing demand of finance professionals, especially CFOs, as the changing and uncertain global economic environment demands from them to play a much more prominent role in strategic decision making. “Universities may even have to add a lot of softer dimensions to the syllabus, including those that contribute to authentic leadership,” she said in an interview with CFO Talks.
This may include EQ and influencing skills which all work hand in hand and to equip professionals much better in the workforce than just theoretical book knowledge, she says. In the mean time CFOs will have to acquire these skills in other ways.
Aarti says her team at the JSE for example, need to have certain basic skills, including business writing skills which don’t always come naturally. Communication skills and presentation skills are needed to enable able CFOs to present and communicate to an audience effectively. When customers inside the business require something, being able to manage expectations and give feedback are all very important, she says. “Those are the basic entry level skills.
“But then there are other skills such as strategic influencing and insight into prospective business climates, which also encompass business intelligence.” She emphasizes that CFOs should enable their teams to generate commercial intelligence: converting data into information and information into insight, and then sharing that insight with the rest of the business and with peers in the industry.
Aarti is very passionate about harnessing the power of big data, as long as it is relevant. She believes that insight is not just reporting on figures. Data should be used to unlock value, which is what customers are willing to pay for, especially the business’ internal customers. One of the elements of insight is rolling forecasts versus budgets, since there is a need to be agile and relevant at all times in the fast changing business environment where uncertainty has come to stay. “Otherwise all those drivers will be irrelevant or obsolete by the time the budget is signed off.” In fact, these days businesses demand that the CFO evolves. They demand very different business insights from CFOs than in the past.
“CFOs are now empowered more than before. They are moving from the back office to the front office to provide meaningful and valuable insights.” CFOs are no longer judged by their corporate governance and financial acumen only, but also by their ability to thrive in today’s complex operating environment.
“CFOs are now empowered more than before. They are moving from the back office to the front office to provide meaningful and valuable insights.”
“Your success is also dependent on your counterparts and being able to influence your counterparts to be a little more risk taking and a little bit more adventurous and innovative, because that’s what’s going to unlock value.” She says there are a number of finance transformation tools that can be applied to unlock value, such as operational efficiencies, automation, standardizing and business partner influencing, including not to say “no” all the time.
Aarti involves the finance professionals and commercial counterparts in her team in all business decision making at the JSE. Going forward, she sees a world where financial professionals will be competing with marketing skills and IT people, and not only with finance professionals, to secure jobs. Businesses should also be receptive to and supportive of this evolution.
“Your success is also dependent on your counterparts and being able to influence your counterparts to be a little more risk taking and a little bit more adventurous and innovative, because that’s what’s going to unlock value.”
They should support the finance teams to move out of the back office space into a business partnering space, believes Aarti. As much as what finance people can share with the business, they also need to learn from the business even if it requires time and resources from the business to teach them how the business functions.
Aarti says she is very keen on exposing her team and prospective CFOs to activities outside of the business to empower them, to broaden their horizons and to get global relevance thinking into the local space – which is not always possible, due to cost constraints.
“But we can make use of technology and knowledge sharing forums.” In her case, and because she expects her head of commercial to be very relevant and to have insight into similar businesses operations, she managed to get budget approval to send her head of commercial to the Ibovespa stock exchange in Brazil, which is the closet business model to the JSE with a similar level of maturity in an emerging market. “She came back motivated and enriched with knowledge,” said Aarti, who believes that part of a business’ employee value proposition should be to retain its talent in a world where there is global competition for top talent.
As part of her teams’ three year training and development plan, courses such as EQ training, thought leadership and executive leadership training, as well as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) are included. Although NLP is not normally associated with finance skills, Aarti believes it is definitely required. She is also trying to make inroads with the marketing division at the JSE. For example, she has taken her results presentation to them to ascertain whether it was punchy enough, as she believes marketing people have the knack to reduce a whole lot of information into a catchy slogan or headline or insight that she would not have necessarily been able to come up with herself. She also encourages her finance team to collaborate with the marketing team when it comes to their monthly reporting.
Where the monthly management accounting reporting is concerned, Aarti includes a lot of non financial information to make it a well rounded management pack, including input from HR such as attrition, transformation and gender statistics.
“We also have an investor relation slide which includes who our shareholders are, who’s selling and who’s buying, and whether they are foreign or South African.” Although the JSE is the only exchange in South Africa for now, Aarti says they believe they are in competition with a number of capital raisers. “We also compete on listings with the London stock exchange as well as other exchanges and we definitely don’t run this business as though we are forever going to be the only incumbent.
“The finance team’s role in trying to find new business is a critical part of how the JSE is run. When we sit around the table at exco meetings, we don’t sit there as experts of our binary portfolios. We sit there as generalists and almost as an extension of the CEO.” As CFO, Aarti believes it is definitely her place to interrogate strategies and to be the voice of not just governance, but also of realism to determine the correct extent of the scope of their ambition, which currently includes conversations with the directors and CEO on planning where growth will be coming from in the next five years.
She also believes that CFOs should be exposed to their counterparts in other businesses through, for example, the CFO Talks, a platform, which facilitates insightful and powerful talks relevant to CFOs. She says this type of platform should be used to hone leadership skills and as a forum where matters such as business partnering and strategy can be discussed. “This is where organizations like CFO Talks is important to us because it generates awareness and offers a platform to cross pollinate and share some knowledge at a practical level. I’ve been in forums like this and I feel it is important to have a community at a practical leadership level.”