‘Emotional intelligence is key.’
Kulani Caroline Thuketane highlights the importance of soft skills, something that she finds is becoming essential for the modern finance executive, as this dynamic role is no longer defined by technical skills only.
CIARAN RYAN: Today’s podcast is sponsored by Draftworx, which provides automated drafting and working paper financial software to more than 8000 accounting and auditing firms and corporations. CFO Talks is a brand of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. It’s my great pleasure this afternoon to introduce to you Kulani Thuketane, who is financial manager at an international law firm called Allen & Overy. Some of you may be familiar with the name, some of you may not. We previously spoke to Averen Deonanan, who is finance manager at Allen & Overy. Today we are speaking to Kulani Thuketane, she is finance manager since 2016 and maybe Kulani can get into the difference or the separation of duties and responsibilities there. Now, Kulani is a CA, she also has an MBA, which she studied through the Henley Business School. She articled through PwC, where she got a first-hand view of audit in the financial and other sectors. There’s a growing number of people in senior financial positions who continue to acquire qualifications long after graduating as professional accountants, as we now know. So I am quite keen to find out from Kulani how she got where she is today. But, Kulani, first of all, welcome to CFO Talks, it’s good to have you on and just tell us where are we talking to you from?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Thank you for the opportunity to be interviewed and to find out more about me, I’m honoured. I’m chatting to you from Pretoria East, Silver Lakes.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, maybe you can start by telling us a little bit about Allen & Overy, when it started, where it operates, I know it’s a multinational organisation, and when did it arrive in South Africa?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: As you said, Allen & Overy was founded in London in 1930, it is a global law firm or international law firm. It is part of the Magic Circle law firms, which are five of the prestigious law firms, headquartered in the UK. It is part of the top ten largest law firms globally, ranked by revenue. It helps the world’s leading businesses to grow, innovate and thrive. Just in terms of some stats, Allen & Overy has around plus-minus 40 offices around the world, the South Africa office one of the offices. Globally it has plus-minus 5650 people that is inclusive of lawyers and support staff. Allen & Overy opened an office in South Africa in 2014, the South African office was opened as part of the group’s plan to bolster presence in Africa and as part of a targeted investment in Africa. So it was just about following the transactions, there was an increase in FDI into Africa, so the firm decided to open an office in South Africa so that they could service the needs of the clients on the ground, and the South African office being used as a gateway into the rest of Africa to penetrate the African market. I joined the South African office in 2016 in its infancy stages and I have been with the firm since then.
CIARAN RYAN: Is the South African office based in Pretoria or Johannesburg or are you operating remotely now?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: The South African office is based in Johannesburg, in Sandton. So we are for the time being, working from home due to the impact of Covid-19, but we should slowly make our way to the office in the near future.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, that will be interesting. I’m sure, what, towards the end of the year maybe the whole Covid pandemic thing would have quietened down a bit and it will allow you to start going back into the office safely, I guess?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, but I have been following the new quite a bit, reading the papers and I saw that there is talk of a fourth wave. So hopefully most of the population in South Africa should have vaccinated by then. I also saw that one of the big financial services companies in South Africa, actually looked to increase their provisions to provide for fatalities due to Covid-19. So we are all hoping for the best scenario, where we won’t see a surge in cases and fatalities in the end.
CIARAN RYAN: Tell us a bit about your career journey, where were you born, where did you grow up, where did you go to school, tell us a little bit about that.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: I grew up in Tzaneen, a small town in Limpopo, which was formerly called the Northern Province. I am a middle child with two brothers, so I am the rose amongst the thorns, so to speak. I was raised by both parents, who were teachers, and I completed my primary school and high school in Limpopo. I came up to Johannesburg in 2007 to study at the University of Johannesburg, where I enrolled for a BCom accounting degree. I completed my CTA in 2010, thereafter I joined PricewaterhouseCoopers in the Sunninghill office in the PCS department. The PCS department serviced small private companies. However, for my second year of articles, due to the demand in financial services, I was seconded to the financial services department and more specifically, to Momentum, which was one of the biggest clients for PricewaterhouseCoopers at the time. So I would spend about six months on the Momentum audit in a given year and that is where I harnessed my knowledge within financial services. This paved the way for me to join Liberty as a finance manager in 2014, whilst I completed my articles. So just to clarify, at Liberty I was the finance manager for ‘Own Your Life’ rewards, which was a separate, standalone entity within the Liberty Group. I’m sure you are familiar with Vitality, which is the rewards programme offered by Discovery, so ‘Own Your Life’ rewards was a similar offering in that it was a rewards programme that was offered to members who had policies with Liberty at their election. Our anchor benefit was the Virgin Active rewards, where we rewarded clients for their gym visits. I was the finance manager, as I mentioned, and I reported to the head of finance. It was certainly an excellent opportunity, especially coming out of articles, as I had the responsibility of overseeing the full finance function. At first, I felt like I had been thrown into the deep end but looking back, it was definitely an opportunity that I cherish. Sadly, business decided that the programme would no longer continue due to decreasing demand in the market and the programme wasn’t performing so well, they decided that the programme would be terminated in 2017. So I stayed effectively up until July 2016. Thereafter the opportunity to join Allen & Overy came up and, as you mentioned, I report to the head of finance at Allen & Overy. I also oversee a team of revenue controllers there. In terms of my responsibilities at Allen & Overy, it’s still the full finance function. I also completed my MBA in 2017 through Henley Business School. So in summary, in a nutshell, that is the summary of my journey and career history.
CIARAN RYAN: Having both parents as teachers, I’m sure that had an impact on you. I’m really curious to find out what drew you towards accounting?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: My parents differed in terms of personality, my mom is more reserved, my dad is late now, but my dad was mostly the outspoken one, he was more of the affirmer. I suppose he just had high expectations of me at the end of the day. As you have said, growing up in a small town, I didn’t really meet any accountants or chartered accountants, so to say. But I just had this inherent drive from a young age, this passion to do more, this passion to upskill myself and to leave this small town. I suppose what lit the fire in me to pursue accounting was my accounting teacher. He was a bit different in that he came from practice, so we worked at a small firm of accountants. So when he explained accounting, he explained it in a way where I already pictured myself as a chartered accountant, although I had never met an accountant. We also had a career expo, I think I was in grade eleven or so when universities visited our school and they explained the different career options, and then from then on I knew that this is something that I wanted to pursue.
‘I would say emotional intelligence is key.’
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, just changing gear here, a bit, some of the skills required of the modern CFO or a senior finance executive, they’re different, and there are a lot of non-accounting skills in there. What kind of skills did you pick up from your MBA and also your experience along the way that would not necessarily be pure accounting?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: As you have said, at the core for any accountant or finance executive would be the inherent technical accounting skills. But based on my experience and looking forward in terms of the modern CFO or senior finance executive, I would say emotional intelligence is key, there’s so much emphasis on IQ, but emotional intelligence is key. So the ability for one to, especially as a leader, to perceive your own emotions and those of your team and react accordingly, and that is where the different leadership styles come in, where you find a leader as a coach. I believe that that is the leadership style that often works because when you have emotional intelligence you can see the factors that drive performance, you can see how to navigate around your environment and also to lead your team successfully. So emotional intelligence is key and that is not a hard skill, that is a soft skill. I would also say that the modern CFO would need to be a strategist, so not just looking at short-term wins but having a big picture view, looking at the long-term view. The modern CFO should be more involved in strategy, so they should be more of a business leader and not see finance as operating in a silo, where they are boxed in, they should be able to interact with the other heads in the other departments because ultimately, the strategies in the different departments should support the overall strategy of the organisation. The modern CFO should also be an innovator, looking to continuously improve processes and systems, and not just accept the status quo. Another thing that is key to also succeed is as a modern CFO is to have commercial awareness and that is where one sits back and analyses how the external environment and how the industry in which they operate affects their organisation. So that is where one would then devise a plan to react to the external environment. That is where factors such as performing a SWOT analysis comes in, in order to identify what strengths that the organisation has that they can leverage on to outperform their competitors or where their weaknesses lie, in order to improve those. At the end of the day, it’s about understanding or identifying what is the sweet spot of the organisation, what is that one thing that we can do best in a highly competitive environment, in a highly competitive market. So it would be those four things for me, emotional intelligence, strategist, innovator and commercial awareness.
CIARAN RYAN: Interesting. What would you say was the most challenging assignment of your career?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: I wouldn’t pin it down to one assignment. As I highlighted earlier, in my role as the finance manager at ‘Own Your Life’ rewards, it was a fairly challenging role, also in terms of the nature of the business or the nature of the entity that I worked for, we continuously had to do a lot of modelling, analyses because the programme wasn’t doing well. So we constantly had to go back to the board to ask for more money and substantiate the reasons for that. So it was certainly a high-paced environment, full of pressure but at the end of the day, I believe that experience shaped me and shaped who I am today.
CIARAN RYAN: You mentioned before that your decision to pursue a career in accounting was in large part because of your teacher who came from practice and obviously he brought some practical knowledge of accounting, and he was able to impart to you the purpose and the beauty around numbers. Is that what drew you to accounting?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, I think at the end of the day, accounting came naturally to me. So it would be key to pursue a career where it feels natural, it feels comfortable, where it is not forced. Yes, definitely, I was drawn to the numbers but when they explained at the career expo as well, what it is that an accountant actually does because at the end of the day, an accountant shouldn’t just be a numbers person, they should be well rounded, they should be a business leader. So that is what drew me to the accounting profession.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay and how much of what you do every day is accounting related? How much would you say is people related? We’ve already discussed that there are these other disciplines involved but how much of it has got to do with people?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: I would say it’s almost like an even split. Yes, there’s accounting, there’s reporting, there’s month end, there’s year end but in between that I need to work with people in order to obtain the information that enables me to do my job. So I interact with internal and external stakeholders. An example of external stakeholders would be auditors and the banks, and internally I interact with our management accountants and also the team that I manage. So I would say it’s almost like an even spilt because I need people to provide me with the information that enables me to do my work.
CIARAN RYAN: I guess you’ve got external auditors, being a multinational group you’ve got to standardize on this across the planet, so you would presumably have one firm that is able to do 40 different offices around the world, is that correct?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, that’s correct, we use one audit firm that audits 40-plus offices around the world.
‘The client feels more comfortable when you are able to build a relationship.’
CIARAN RYAN: You’ve got experience of audit yourself, you mentioned that you spent six months of your life at Momentum every year. There’s a question that often comes up, do you not get Stockholm syndrome, where you get so close to the client that you almost feel like a staff member and there can be a line there that can be compromised, you get too comfortable. What do you say to that?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Is this from the auditor’s perspective?
CIARAN RYAN: From the auditor’s perspective, yes, generally.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: For me, I think what is key at the end of the day is building relationships because often enough the client feels more comfortable when you are able to build a relationship with them and when you are able to explain what it is that you are trying to do. As you said, there is a fine line and at the end of the day, it’s just about keeping it professional but also being approachable as an auditor because often enough, people view auditors as people who police. But it actually goes beyond that and I believe that’s where most audit firms can add value because beyond just doing the audit, as an auditor you should also be able to spot the gaps, places where the client can improve. I believe that clients value that, where they can see that you’re not just looking at the processes to find mistakes but your looking at the processes to also provide an advisory function and not just an audit function.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s interesting that the CFOs and the kinds of tasks and disciplines and responsibilities they’re expected to take on has changed quite radically in the last few years. There’s been a study out of Canada called From CA to CFO, we’ve mentioned that several times on CFO Talks but it’s worth repeating because this is why the South African Institute of Business Accountants launched the CFO designation to recognize those disciplines that you’re not going to learn in the classroom. You mentioned strategy, communication and some of the softer skills. This is why I’m asking you these questions to see how much of your work is related to what is expected at the very top level. By the way, one of the most important skills that is coming out is communication, can you tell the story of the business in numbers in a way that it can be understood by people on the factory floor, all the way up to your external stakeholders, including your auditors. What do you think of that?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Definitely you are spot on because we as accountants understand the numbers, but we need to be aware that we do not work with people who have a background and training in accounting. Another top skill for a CFO is the ability to influence, so that is the ability to put numbers in front of people who have no idea but be able to convince them of the facts and this is what we need to do, this is the direction that we need to take. So certainly it doesn’t come easily but it’s certainly a skill that is worth practicing because CFOs interact with top management, people on the board. You could find someone there who is in HR, someone who is in business development, they are captains of their own industry, they know their skill set but we can’t make the assumption that they understand the numbers. It is certainly something worth noting, as you have pointed out.
CIARAN RYAN: What would you say is the best lesson you learned in your career? I guess it’s a bit of a follow on to the question I asked you earlier about the most challenging things, but everything is a lesson in a way, but for you, what was that defining moment?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: The best lesson that I learned in my career is that inherently people are not difficult. Most often enough, people come across as being difficult, but I have found that people come across as being difficult due to an unmet need and mostly for top management that unmet need is a need for information, which will enable them to make key decisions at the right time. For me, that is what I have found because most often enough, people will say top management is difficult, the board is difficult or even as an auditor we could say that the client is difficult. But I think it all comes down to the other person having a need for understanding or for information and at that stage most often enough, that need has not been met. So information is crucial and also the need to provide information in a timely manner because what is viewed as being relevant today could very well be irrelevant in the next few days.
CIARAN RYAN: It’s so interesting, yes. There are obviously some things you feel that you’re not going to learn in a classroom, you’re only going to get through experience. You’ve touched on some of these like EQ, dealing with difficult personality types, that kind of thing, what do you say to that, are these the things you’re only going to learn through experience?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, definitely, as you’ve touched on, these are some of the things that you are not necessarily taught at university or during articles. In university you are obviously taught accounting, you’re taught tax and how to audit. But there is no module to say once you have actually qualified or once you’re in the working world, this is how you should carry yourself, there’s no training for that. Also, during articles, I feel that often enough, trainees need to navigate for themselves, they need to find that out for themselves. But certainly, soft skills are crucial. In the market environment where there are so many chartered accountants with the same technical skills, I certainly believe that soft skills will set one chartered accountant apart from another. So it’s definitely something that each accountant should look to harness and work on. You can always go for training to brush up on the technical skills but soft skills are often overlooked, and it’s just as crucial, if not more important, I must say, especially as one advances in their career to more senior roles. At the top it’s more about making decisions, it’s about building relationships, it’s about managing the team and all those factors that I mentioned earlier, emotional intelligence, being innovative, those play a bigger role in success, more than the technical skills at some point.
CIARAN RYAN: Yes, fascinating. I’ve got a few more questions as we wind down here. What do you do in your downtime, do you have a family, what do you do for fun?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, I definitely do have a family, I have a daughter and I have a partner who I have been with for a very long time now. I just spend as much time with them as I can in my spare time. I also spend time with my extended family but it’s a bit difficult now with Covid-19 to spend time with family, but I do definitely try and spend as much time as I can with the family. I also get some exercise in there every now and then, it’s not always possible but I do try and keep fit, and also for the mental agility with the work that we do, one needs to be sharp, one needs to be quick on their toes mentally, for lack of a better word.
CIARAN RYAN: Do you still have family up in the Tzaneen area?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, my mother is in Tzaneen, my two brothers are also here in Pretoria and, as I mentioned, my dad is now late.
CIARAN RYAN: Tzaneen, of course, for people outside of South Africa, it’s a very beautiful part of the country, it’s got mountains and forests and rivers. It’s really quite stunning, right?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, quite stunning, very green, very leafy, very warm, very quiet and calm. Unlike the city, where we find ourselves. So I do try and go home every so often, just to reconnect with nature and the quiet. We also have a lot of fruit…
CIARAN RYAN: You certainly do, it’s the citrus capital of South Africa.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, it is.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, great. Here’s the final question, you have to give us a book recommendation before we let you go.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: I’m not much of an avid reader, I think I was tormented enough by the MBA. But I am currently reading a book by Rick Warren, which is called What on Earth Am I Here For? It’s about leading a purpose-driven life, about finding purpose, especially in a busy world, where everyone is very busy chasing this or that, chasing so many materialist things but at the end of the day, I believe that every person on earth should know their purpose because their purpose should drive what they do on a daily basis. So that is the book that I am currently reading.
CIARAN RYAN: It sounds fascinating because I think a lot of people in the senior levels of business…everybody is trying to figure out their purpose, what am I sent here to do. I think a lot of times it interfaces with spiritual goals, there’s so much material goals being pursued but what about the spiritual goals, how do you satisfy them and what exactly are they.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, that is true, definitely.
CIARAN RYAN: That sounds like a book that we should definitely have a look at. Were there any other books that you wanted to recommend or is that it?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: No, that’s what I’m currently reading at the moment.
CIARAN RYAN: Otherwise, apart from that, I presume you are a consumer of online content because as part of your job you’ve got to know what’s going on in the economy, you’ve got to know what’s going on in terms of regulations, laws and politics and that sort of thing.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, I definitely need to keep abreast of the changes, whether it’s IFRS or changes in the VAT rules or the tax rules, so that also keeps me busy.
CIARAN RYAN: Okay, Kulani, we are going to leave it there, thank you so much for coming on and joining us, I really enjoyed this conversation, finding out about you and also about Allen & Overy, and the challenges of trying to operate through these very difficult and strange times. I do hope that you end up going back to the office and interacting with your team again, which I am sure is going to happen, right?
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Yes, that is what we are hoping for, that is the best scenario. Hopefully we do not see any further increases in the Covid-19 cases.
CIARAN RYAN: Absolutely. Well, we wish you the very best of luck and thanks very much for coming on to CFO Talks, it was an absolute pleasure to have you.
KULANI CAROLINE THUKETANE: Thank you so much for having me. I definitely enjoyed my time and I hope it was a fruitful and enlightening discussion.