154: Charles Humphreys Mbale

 

Charles Mbale’s career experience has been predominantly in the NGO sector but in 2019 he established his own accounting practice and shares valuable insight for other finance professionals considering the same route.

MATTHIEU RIVART: 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. I am joined today by Nicolaas van Wyk, who is the CEO of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. Today it is a great pleasure to welcome Charles Mbale, who has more than 25 years of experience as a senior finance executive, much of that time spent with [unclear] USAID, the UK Department for International Development, the European Union, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and foundations including Bill and Melinda Gates, Virgin Unite, Open Society and Skoll. Since 2019, Charles is a director at accounting firm, Sedumane & Co., where he has been involved in providing independent tax, accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and advisory services to medium and small businesses. Prior to that, he was finance and admin manager at the Graça Machel Trust. Charles is a proud owner of the CFO (SA) designation issued by SAIBA and has run teams as large as 50 people. He has an MBA from the University of Derby in the UK and he’s also a member of CIMA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. First of all, welcome, Charles, where are we talking to you from, are you in Johannesburg?

CHARLES MBALE: I am in Johannesburg.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, fantastic, it’s a pleasure to have you here today online. Can we start off with CFO (SA) designation, what has been the benefit to your career in having the CFO (SA) designation?

CHARLES MBALE: Thanks very much, let me first of all thank SAIBA for giving me this opportunity to share my experience and tell my story as an accountant and to share what I have gone through to get to this stage. With regard to the CFO (SA) designation, what I would say is that the designation has provided a lot of benefits to me. Some of the advantages are that it’s internationally recognised in terms of accreditation. In South Africa it’s also officially recognised, which is an advantage to us over others who don’t have the CFO designation, and the initiatives that SAIBA is putting into place lately, for example, the CFO World Congress, where it’s giving us exposure to the international platform. So all those are the benefits of having the CFO (SA) designation that I have personally benefitted from. But above all, it sets me apart from the rest of the finance people who do not have the designation. So, to me, those are really the benefits. I also have access to the CFO material, which really is expanding my knowledge in terms of the finance world. So there are so many advantages that I have already benefitted from.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Great, thank you, Charles, I think it’s a good reminder of all the benefits of the CFO (SA) designation. As we have Nicolaas online, can you remind us about SAIBA’s role in the development of CFOs in South Africa.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you, Matthieu, and thank you, Charles, it’s nice speaking with you. We identified in about 2016, there was research done that indicated the large number of CFOs in listed companies who didn’t have accounting designations. Then when we investigated this, we saw that the world of the CFO has changed so much that the professionals entering that profession, come from a wide background, including accounting, but also law, engineering and even actuaries are entering this profession that we call CFOs. Then we did some international comparisons and saw that in South Africa there wasn’t actually a professional body catering for the needs of the modern CFO. Together with our international partners and some research that we did, we adopted a competency framework that the CFOs in South Africa can now use or aspiring CFOs, how do they progress from accountant to financial manager and then to CFO, there should be a career path and there should be certain skills that you attain on this journey. So we compiled all of that into an application to the South African Qualifications Authority, where we registered our designation based on these competencies. Since then, we have launched it in South Africa, and we have really made some good inroads. But it also talks to the diverse role of accountants these days generally and all the new skills that accountants need, whether it’s from technology, AI and robotics, whether it’s HR management or strategic management, and how do you use all of that to be a better partner to your board. That is what we’re trying to establish with all our designations but specifically with CFO (SA). One of the things then that we need to deliver to our CFOs is international interaction and that’s why we organised a World Conference, together with our Mexican partners, IMEF, and IAFEI, which is the global body for CFOs. We do this every year, except in 2020 when we couldn’t, but this year we are going to Mexico in November, and Charles is accompanying us on that. There we then meet with North American CFOs and business leaders, and that assists the CFOs in expanding their career profile but also, possible connections with business partners that can be developed. So we’re quite excited about the future of CFOs, it’s a new development and we’re happy to be part of that.

As an accountant, you basically fit in any type of organisation.’

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Nicolaas. I would say myself, as a CFO, I really see CFOs as business partners to the other teams, so I can only emphasise your message and go in the same direction. Charles, back to your career journey, as I was saying in the introduction, you’ve been through and unusual and interesting professional path, could you please tell us a bit more about yourself and this journey.

CHARLES MBALE: Well, my journey has mainly been in the NGO sector. For some reason that’s where I have been and mostly, I have been dealing with the donor-funded projects or international development agencies. Initially it wasn’t by design, but I guess what happens most of the time is when you start a career in a particular route, the second one follows because most of these adverts will say, for example, experience in a non-governmental organisations or international development agencies. So that’s how you end up following a similar path. But as you are aware, as an accountant, you basically fit in any type of organisation. But I have had luck in having done most of my trade in international development agencies. So that’s quite unusual, yes, but also that it’s presented a different challenge to the usual and it’s also given me a different perspective, I have learnt different things. While in other corporate life the focus is possibly on profits and other targets, the international development agencies or the NGO is quite different, so it has given me added exposure. Most of my career I have spent in donor-funded organisations, although after 2019, and well before that, not on a fulltime basis, I have been dealing with the corporate environment. So I have had the opportunity of experiencing both lives, so to say.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, I was wondering how did you end up in accounting and how did you end up working for NGOs or for donor-funded agencies because it’s quite a unique path that you took.

CHARLES MBALE: The major breakthrough was my role as project finance manager for the UK Department for International Development, DFID, which was a project in Malawi. DFID, as you are aware, is a British development agency, it’s a project by the British government. So they had projects that they were funding in Malawi to deliver specific services and products. So that’s really where it started and from there it looked like I just attracted similar organisations. The second major institution that I worked for was the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, IAVI, which is a New York-based organisation that does the vaccine research globally. They are funded by various donors including USAID, a lot of global organisations fund Aids vaccine research. IAVI is like an organisation that consolidates the Aids vaccine research and because of my experience in donor-funded organisations from DFID, I was picked up for that role and I represented IAVI in Southern Africa with an office based in South Africa. From there that just carried on and my next one was based on the same experience at Graça Machel Trust, which is an NGO based in South Africa and it was formed by Mrs Mandela, the previous first lady. So she has an NGO that focuses on children’s rights and women’s rights. It’s also donor funded by various funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. So my experience in donor-funded projects qualified me as an ideal candidate and that just rolled on, it wasn’t really by design because, as you are aware, as accountants, we really fit in any institution. However, as I said, it’s given me quite valuable experience because the donor-funded environment is quite different from corporate life, which I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to if I had stuck to corporate life, as is normally expected with accountants. It’s also common in any organisation, whether non-profit or a for-profit organisation, will have a finance section. The other thing is that through these organisations I have also been exposed to other roles, which I have taken on, being head of finance in these organisations, CFO position, you are also in charge of administration, human resources, so it’s been quite a journey.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Fascinating because we speak more and more in today’s world about NGOs and how we can all have an impact on the environment and on social issues, so it’s very interesting to hear your feedback. About your comments on corporate life, you were mentioning to us about the similarities between NGOs and corporate life, and I assume that most of the finance population who are listening to us today comes from corporate life. So according to you, what would be the difference between working for NGOs or donor-funded agencies like USAID and the corporate life? Do we look at things in a different way, do we have different KPIs, what is the main difference for you between those two worlds?

CHARLES MBALE: It’s very different in that in donor-funded agencies it’s mainly projects, so the focus is on project management, unlike corporate life where the focus is on operational management, which is ongoing and repetitive. In project management the whole idea is to create a unique service or a product, so it has a life cycle. For example, if the project is to get out of school children back to school, we have a target to say if we are looking at a region like Johannesburg, theoretically, these are not confirmed numbers but just as an example, if there’s a survey that has been conducted and they find that there are actually maybe 50 000 kids who are at the age where they are supposed to be going to school but they are not, and the project is to get these kids into school, then you have a target to say out of the numbers that have been identified, out of the survey that has happened, maybe by various organisations. I know UNICEF does that a lot. Once you have that data to say that in a particular region in Johannesburg there are 50 000 kids and the project is set up to say, okay, we are targeting 30 000 kids. So your goal or the result there is to get those 30 000 out of school children back into school, and you have a time to say we aim to do this in two years or in one year. Once that is done that project is complete and anything that happens within the project is targeted towards achieving that goal. Unlike in corporate life, for example, where you have an insurance company, it’s repetitive because you’re doing the same things, there the focus for the finance is really about managing costs of operations. But in a project set up the idea is to make sure that the resources are allocated appropriately to achieve the goal, to say if we do this, what do we require. So the outcome is not actually a profit, so the measurement of success is not how much you’ve made out of the total investment. Rather, like in the example I have given, how many kids have we managed to bring back to school. So the difference is really on the measurement of success and the whole aim of the project, in project management it’s really about creating that service, while in corporate the operations are ongoing, so it has all types of different KPIs and what is supposed to be achieved at the end. So the results are really the difference.

There are a lot of things in the finance executive environment that you don’t learn in class.’

MATTHIEU RIVART: This is really insightful because I am used to talking about CFOs as a CVO, a chief value officer, where as a finance executive you are in charge of creating value within the organization. But listening to you, now I understand that value also means values because you’re talking about all these human dimensions, you say you’ve been working in the field where people who suffer from Aids are the core of the concerns and the core of the business. So from your experience, are there some things that you believe that one can only learn through hard-won experience?

CHARLES MBALE: Yes, there are a lot of things in the finance executive environment that you don’t learn in class. You, basically, have to experience it and it doesn’t come through academic, it comes through experience. But I strongly believe that your academic background helps in making the right decisions in that experience. For example, one thing that is not mentioned a lot through our training as finance people, is that when we go to a company or an organisation, given the seniority that we are exposed to or the positions that we get, we mainly end up…even in my own experience, in most organisations where I have worked, I have also ended up managing people as in the head of human resources, so there would be a human resources person who would be reporting to me, but I would also be responsible for the administration for the organisation. So there would be, for example, administrators who are reporting to me. So as a CFO in an organisation, I am basically looking at three units, which would be finance, administration and human resources. The focus in terms of our learning is mostly in accounting but when it comes to issues like human resources, I know this is also something that we gather through subjects in our role, but decisions from there are based on experience because when someone walks into your office with a dynamic problem, these problems are unique, every situation is unique, every person has their unique circumstances, and you have to make decisions, and these decisions are really based on your experience in terms of how you can handle or resolve that issue. It cannot be an academic printout because not any situation is written in academic books. So you learn a lot through experience and experience becomes the driver for your future engagements in similar situations. There are certainly issues, for example, where you’ve been approached with a problem, it might be an admin or a human resources issue where you have made a mistake, but if a similar thing happens next time, then based on the experience from the previous decisions that you had made and that did go quite well, you now know that if I do this or if the decision is like this, the implications will be based on the experience you’ve had. So there is a lot that one learns through experience than through training and that has been my experience.

MATTHIEU RIVART: You’re talking about understanding and actually, your feedback reminds me about an article that I recently read on LinkedIn about leadership because we all wonder what leadership is about, is it about sharing values, is it about motivating teams, and the article I read was telling us that leadership is about empathy. When I am listening to you, that’s exactly what I am hearing, understanding the problems of the people and I believe that empathy is, as you say, one of the main criteria to succeed as a leader. But maybe, Charles, through your experience, maybe you can give us some more feedback on what was your most challenging assignment that you’ve had in your career because you’re dealing with people, with sickness, with education and so on, so it’s very different from what we are used to dealing with. What would be the main challenges that you’ve been through?

CHARLES MBALE: There have been a lot of challenges through my experience, my working experience runs over 25 years, so obviously I have had a lot of experience in dealing with different scenarios and different challenges. But one of the things that is quite critical is, for example, the issue that you highlighted and that’s people, human resources. I think it’s one of the most important resources in an organisation, it’s people, and how people are handled or managed really affects what the company results will be, success or failure depends on its people. Sometimes in corporate life, people think that the moment that there’s capital invested, then the results are guaranteed, ignoring that there’s a human component, which is an important factor. That aside, from my experience, especially in the international development agency world, I think the biggest challenged I have seen has been…we finance people do get a lot of responsibilities over and above what we go in for. Like I just mentioned, you are engaged as head of finance in an organisation, the CFO, the reality is and in my experience, and I think I share this with a couple of friends because I have friends in the same role, is that you end up having, like I said, human resources, admin, we do get a lot of responsibilities than what we thought we would. Secondly, the other challenge is ensuring the wellbeing of employees. Like I say, employees are quite an important resource. But you also have to plan for the unknown in an organisation. The other issue is, obviously, maintaining liquidity and ensuring that resources are available. But also, remember, the role of finance is evolving, it’s no longer about crunching numbers and bookkeeping, nowadays the CFOs or the financial people have to use data to influence the decision-making and the strategy and that has to really be based on solid [unclear] to support or influence an operational decision without the basis. So it’s also about how the role of the CFO is evolving. So those are some of the challenges that we face, we plan for the unknown, there’s a lot of expectation on the CFO to provide guidelines in all challenging times. For example, when it comes to, like I said, human resources, everyone in an organisation, even the CEO, expects the CFO to have a plan in terms of managing planning for them. As I have mentioned, it’s really about how the role is evolving and that has presented a challenge in addition to the routine roles that we have. So I have faced those challenges myself.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Exactly and when I hear you, we come back to my point when I was describing CFOs and finance population as business partners. Charles, from what you’ve been sharing with us, your activity has been having a direct impact on people’s lives, so what would you like your legacy to be?

CHARLES MBALE: Well, my legacy I hope is really to have a positive impact on performance and to have what I have shown or demonstrated to have a strong influence on the future success of organisations that I have worked for. Also, to be seen as an inspiration for value creation and operation effectiveness. But I also want my legacy to be that when I leave an organisation, the people I am leaving behind, to recognise that what I have done to develop them, the people who worked under me or who I worked with, that I have developed their talent development but also, the small practice that I do, I would like to have that company as a strong partner to business by developing quite a high functioning company. So it’s in two parts, for organisations that I have worked with and then what I look forward to my future private practice.

SAIBA WhatsApp groups

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Charles. Nicolaas, maybe you can comment on what Charles was sharing with us.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thanks, Charles, what you just mentioned made me think about how many CFOs these days, after or during their lifetime they work in corporate or they work in the NGO sector but sometimes, and we see this happening more and more, they opt for private practice and then they position themselves as outsource CFOs, and then they bring this wealth of experience at large enterprises, and they make this available now for smaller companies. So what made you decide to start your own practice, maybe just explain to CFOs who are thinking of doing the same, how that process works?

CHARLES MBALE: From my own experience, what I have seen is there is a lot of experience that ought to be shared, that is gained through a long time in working. For example, I am in the SAIBA WhatsApp groups, where we do share information, and through those groups you can see that we are, as finance people, at different levels. I think the experience that we gain in working, if you take it to private practice it helps a lot because there’s a lot that you can share, there’s a lot that you can do to develop a high-functioning team to deliver. It’s something that is not easy, I know of people who have started a practice straight away after their training or after school, I would consider that as a bit of – let me not use the word – I wouldn’t recommend that. I would recommend working first because there’s a lot that you learn just be interacting with stakeholders that are key to the finance function, like SARS and other bodies. Secondly, in the chat that we have had, I have just mentioned that the role of the CFO has evolved because of so many accounting packages that do most of the bookkeeping, our role is not punching in numbers. So it’s really strategic and that requires a bit of experience, which you learn either through working or spending time in the environment. Starting a practice is a challenge but at the moment there is a lot of potential in terms of market, targeting small and medium enterprises because that’s where the work is. But to do that you have to be effective, you have to make sure that you know your story because when a company gives you an assignment or you engage a client, they rely on you in terms of your expertise and that expertise is not gained just through academic but also through experience. It’s not an easy journey but it’s something that I would recommend for any person who wants to venture into private practice. Once you’ve gained enough experience, it’s something that you can really look at but it is a challenge. The other thing that I have done when I started the business, I was ready to work with others who are experts in certain areas. For example, when we look at the private practice where you are offering accounting services, advisory and tax, there will be certain elements, for example, on tax or a certain element where you are not experienced in, you must be ready to approach others. So when people are facing challenges, they ask others, that should be the way. It’s not possible to have one person as an expert in all. If you want to start a private practice, you must be willing to ask others within the industry who have expertise in particular areas, so that they share those ideas. SAIBA has done that very well by creating these WhatsApp groups in various areas. I know of the one in Fourways, where I am, and people share a lot of information. People don’t realise how much value those groups provide. But it also shows one thing, not one person can be an expert and if you’re establishing this private practice, you must be willing to ask for help from others, whether it means sub-contracting some of the work that your clients require at the time, you must be prepared to do that. Some of the [skills] required in that work, I might not have, but I must be willing to engage another accounting practitioner who is an expert in that. That’s how your practice grows because from that one engagement, you also gain experience and the next time you’re faced with a similar challenge, you either do it using what you had learnt from the previous help that you sought from another practitioner or if it’s even more challenging, you seek for more help, but you must be ready to sub-contract, you must be ready to seek because then what that means is you are maintaining the client within your practice. So the client gets the help from you but while you are putting together the various resources and knowledge that you’re tapping into from the groups that you have. My recommendation now is that SAIBA has provided the platform and one of the best platforms that SAIBA has done at the moment is actually create those groups and the webinars that happen, those help us a lot to interact. I don’t know if you are in one of the groups, but you must have seen the kinds of questions and help that people are providing to each other. I would highly recommend for anyone venturing into practice to join those groups and participate because you get valuable help from the groups.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Charles, for your feedback and for sharing with us about your experience and all the support you got from SAIBA. We are reaching the conclusion of our interview soon but before we go, I’d like to ask you a personal question because I guess you have been terribly busy with long hours but what do you do in your downtime, what keeps you passionate and motivated outside of business hours?

CHARLES MBALE: I play golf, I don’t play golf in the course but on the range and I have deliberately not gone beyond that because it allows me to control my time. I also play squash and I read a lot. But now since Covid, I’ve been doing a lot of private practice and that keeps me quite busy. Through the Covid pandemic we have seen a lot of companies with a lot of challenges that have really needed our help as finance people, so that has also kept me quite busy. So during my downtime it’s mostly golf but I also play 5-a-side football, I put that on the calendar, I do that Monday evenings and Thursday evenings, just to keep me out of the books and out of work. I also like travelling but travelling hasn’t been happening due to the pandemic, so that’s also one of the things that I do on my downtime.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, so we share a lot in common actually, you were talking about reading, which a passion that I share, do you have any books that you can recommend for us, whether it’s a novel or a business book, something that you really enjoyed.

CHARLES MBALE: I like books by Stephen Covey, there’s First Things First, then there’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I have basically read all the books by Stephen Covey. I find his books very inspiring and very practical, in my opinion.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, great, thank you, Charles. Thank you for the tips, you mentioned The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a big classic that I’m sure a lot of us have read. Charles, I wanted to thank you for your time today and for sharing your experience and feedback, I really enjoyed it. Thank you again for joining us today and thank you, Nicolaas, for being with us every week.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you, Matthieu, thank you, Charles.

CHARLES MBALE: Thank you very much for, like I said at first, I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share my experience with you and colleagues. I appreciate that.

11 October 2021

CFO Talks – Charles Mbale – Director – Sedumane & Co.

SAIBA Platforms Provide Benefits to Finance Professionals

Charles Mbale’s career experience has been predominantly in the NGO sector but in 2019 he established his own accounting practice and shares valuable insight for other finance professionals considering the same route.

MATTHIEU RIVART: 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. I am joined today by Nicolaas van Wyk, who is the CEO of the South African Institute of Business Accountants. Today it is a great pleasure to welcome Charles Mbale, who has more than 25 years of experience as a senior finance executive, much of that time spent with [unclear] USAID, the UK Department for International Development, the European Union, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, and foundations including Bill and Melinda Gates, Virgin Unite, Open Society and Skoll. Since 2019, Charles is a director at accounting firm, Sedumane & Co., where he has been involved in providing independent tax, accounting, bookkeeping, payroll and advisory services to medium and small businesses. Prior to that, he was finance and admin manager at the Graça Machel Trust. Charles is a proud owner of the CFO (SA) designation issued by SAIBA and has run teams as large as 50 people. He has an MBA from the University of Derby in the UK and he’s also a member of CIMA, the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. First of all, welcome, Charles, where are we talking to you from, are you in Johannesburg?

CHARLES MBALE: I am in Johannesburg.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, fantastic, it’s a pleasure to have you here today online. Can we start off with CFO (SA) designation, what has been the benefit to your career in having the CFO (SA) designation?

CHARLES MBALE: Thanks very much, let me first of all thank SAIBA for giving me this opportunity to share my experience and tell my story as an accountant and to share what I have gone through to get to this stage. With regard to the CFO (SA) designation, what I would say is that the designation has provided a lot of benefits to me. Some of the advantages are that it’s internationally recognised in terms of accreditation. In South Africa it’s also officially recognised, which is an advantage to us over others who don’t have the CFO designation, and the initiatives that SAIBA is putting into place lately, for example, the CFO World Congress, where it’s giving us exposure to the international platform. So all those are the benefits of having the CFO (SA) designation that I have personally benefitted from. But above all, it sets me apart from the rest of the finance people who do not have the designation. So, to me, those are really the benefits. I also have access to the CFO material, which really is expanding my knowledge in terms of the finance world. So there are so many advantages that I have already benefitted from.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Great, thank you, Charles, I think it’s a good reminder of all the benefits of the CFO (SA) designation. As we have Nicolaas online, can you remind us about SAIBA’s role in the development of CFOs in South Africa.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you, Matthieu, and thank you, Charles, it’s nice speaking with you. We identified in about 2016, there was research done that indicated the large number of CFOs in listed companies who didn’t have accounting designations. Then when we investigated this, we saw that the world of the CFO has changed so much that the professionals entering that profession, come from a wide background, including accounting, but also law, engineering and even actuaries are entering this profession that we call CFOs. Then we did some international comparisons and saw that in South Africa there wasn’t actually a professional body catering for the needs of the modern CFO. Together with our international partners and some research that we did, we adopted a competency framework that the CFOs in South Africa can now use or aspiring CFOs, how do they progress from accountant to financial manager and then to CFO, there should be a career path and there should be certain skills that you attain on this journey. So we compiled all of that into an application to the South African Qualifications Authority, where we registered our designation based on these competencies. Since then, we have launched it in South Africa, and we have really made some good inroads. But it also talks to the diverse role of accountants these days generally and all the new skills that accountants need, whether it’s from technology, AI and robotics, whether it’s HR management or strategic management, and how do you use all of that to be a better partner to your board. That is what we’re trying to establish with all our designations but specifically with CFO (SA). One of the things then that we need to deliver to our CFOs is international interaction and that’s why we organised a World Conference, together with our Mexican partners, IMEF, and IAFEI, which is the global body for CFOs. We do this every year, except in 2020 when we couldn’t, but this year we are going to Mexico in November, and Charles is accompanying us on that. There we then meet with North American CFOs and business leaders, and that assists the CFOs in expanding their career profile but also, possible connections with business partners that can be developed. So we’re quite excited about the future of CFOs, it’s a new development and we’re happy to be part of that.

As an accountant, you basically fit in any type of organisation.’

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Nicolaas. I would say myself, as a CFO, I really see CFOs as business partners to the other teams, so I can only emphasise your message and go in the same direction. Charles, back to your career journey, as I was saying in the introduction, you’ve been through and unusual and interesting professional path, could you please tell us a bit more about yourself and this journey.

CHARLES MBALE: Well, my journey has mainly been in the NGO sector. For some reason that’s where I have been and mostly, I have been dealing with the donor-funded projects or international development agencies. Initially it wasn’t by design, but I guess what happens most of the time is when you start a career in a particular route, the second one follows because most of these adverts will say, for example, experience in a non-governmental organisations or international development agencies. So that’s how you end up following a similar path. But as you are aware, as an accountant, you basically fit in any type of organisation. But I have had luck in having done most of my trade in international development agencies. So that’s quite unusual, yes, but also that it’s presented a different challenge to the usual and it’s also given me a different perspective, I have learnt different things. While in other corporate life the focus is possibly on profits and other targets, the international development agencies or the NGO is quite different, so it has given me added exposure. Most of my career I have spent in donor-funded organisations, although after 2019, and well before that, not on a fulltime basis, I have been dealing with the corporate environment. So I have had the opportunity of experiencing both lives, so to say.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, I was wondering how did you end up in accounting and how did you end up working for NGOs or for donor-funded agencies because it’s quite a unique path that you took.

CHARLES MBALE: The major breakthrough was my role as project finance manager for the UK Department for International Development, DFID, which was a project in Malawi. DFID, as you are aware, is a British development agency, it’s a project by the British government. So they had projects that they were funding in Malawi to deliver specific services and products. So that’s really where it started and from there it looked like I just attracted similar organisations. The second major institution that I worked for was the International Aids Vaccine Initiative, IAVI, which is a New York-based organisation that does the vaccine research globally. They are funded by various donors including USAID, a lot of global organisations fund Aids vaccine research. IAVI is like an organisation that consolidates the Aids vaccine research and because of my experience in donor-funded organisations from DFID, I was picked up for that role and I represented IAVI in Southern Africa with an office based in South Africa. From there that just carried on and my next one was based on the same experience at Graça Machel Trust, which is an NGO based in South Africa and it was formed by Mrs Mandela, the previous first lady. So she has an NGO that focuses on children’s rights and women’s rights. It’s also donor funded by various funders, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. So my experience in donor-funded projects qualified me as an ideal candidate and that just rolled on, it wasn’t really by design because, as you are aware, as accountants, we really fit in any institution. However, as I said, it’s given me quite valuable experience because the donor-funded environment is quite different from corporate life, which I wouldn’t otherwise have been exposed to if I had stuck to corporate life, as is normally expected with accountants. It’s also common in any organisation, whether non-profit or a for-profit organisation, will have a finance section. The other thing is that through these organisations I have also been exposed to other roles, which I have taken on, being head of finance in these organisations, CFO position, you are also in charge of administration, human resources, so it’s been quite a journey.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Fascinating because we speak more and more in today’s world about NGOs and how we can all have an impact on the environment and on social issues, so it’s very interesting to hear your feedback. About your comments on corporate life, you were mentioning to us about the similarities between NGOs and corporate life, and I assume that most of the finance population who are listening to us today comes from corporate life. So according to you, what would be the difference between working for NGOs or donor-funded agencies like USAID and the corporate life? Do we look at things in a different way, do we have different KPIs, what is the main difference for you between those two worlds?

CHARLES MBALE: It’s very different in that in donor-funded agencies it’s mainly projects, so the focus is on project management, unlike corporate life where the focus is on operational management, which is ongoing and repetitive. In project management the whole idea is to create a unique service or a product, so it has a life cycle. For example, if the project is to get out of school children back to school, we have a target to say if we are looking at a region like Johannesburg, theoretically, these are not confirmed numbers but just as an example, if there’s a survey that has been conducted and they find that there are actually maybe 50 000 kids who are at the age where they are supposed to be going to school but they are not, and the project is to get these kids into school, then you have a target to say out of the numbers that have been identified, out of the survey that has happened, maybe by various organisations. I know UNICEF does that a lot. Once you have that data to say that in a particular region in Johannesburg there are 50 000 kids and the project is set up to say, okay, we are targeting 30 000 kids. So your goal or the result there is to get those 30 000 out of school children back into school, and you have a time to say we aim to do this in two years or in one year. Once that is done that project is complete and anything that happens within the project is targeted towards achieving that goal. Unlike in corporate life, for example, where you have an insurance company, it’s repetitive because you’re doing the same things, there the focus for the finance is really about managing costs of operations. But in a project set up the idea is to make sure that the resources are allocated appropriately to achieve the goal, to say if we do this, what do we require. So the outcome is not actually a profit, so the measurement of success is not how much you’ve made out of the total investment. Rather, like in the example I have given, how many kids have we managed to bring back to school. So the difference is really on the measurement of success and the whole aim of the project, in project management it’s really about creating that service, while in corporate the operations are ongoing, so it has all types of different KPIs and what is supposed to be achieved at the end. So the results are really the difference.

There are a lot of things in the finance executive environment that you don’t learn in class.’

MATTHIEU RIVART: This is really insightful because I am used to talking about CFOs as a CVO, a chief value officer, where as a finance executive you are in charge of creating value within the organization. But listening to you, now I understand that value also means values because you’re talking about all these human dimensions, you say you’ve been working in the field where people who suffer from Aids are the core of the concerns and the core of the business. So from your experience, are there some things that you believe that one can only learn through hard-won experience?

CHARLES MBALE: Yes, there are a lot of things in the finance executive environment that you don’t learn in class. You, basically, have to experience it and it doesn’t come through academic, it comes through experience. But I strongly believe that your academic background helps in making the right decisions in that experience. For example, one thing that is not mentioned a lot through our training as finance people, is that when we go to a company or an organisation, given the seniority that we are exposed to or the positions that we get, we mainly end up…even in my own experience, in most organisations where I have worked, I have also ended up managing people as in the head of human resources, so there would be a human resources person who would be reporting to me, but I would also be responsible for the administration for the organisation. So there would be, for example, administrators who are reporting to me. So as a CFO in an organisation, I am basically looking at three units, which would be finance, administration and human resources. The focus in terms of our learning is mostly in accounting but when it comes to issues like human resources, I know this is also something that we gather through subjects in our role, but decisions from there are based on experience because when someone walks into your office with a dynamic problem, these problems are unique, every situation is unique, every person has their unique circumstances, and you have to make decisions, and these decisions are really based on your experience in terms of how you can handle or resolve that issue. It cannot be an academic printout because not any situation is written in academic books. So you learn a lot through experience and experience becomes the driver for your future engagements in similar situations. There are certainly issues, for example, where you’ve been approached with a problem, it might be an admin or a human resources issue where you have made a mistake, but if a similar thing happens next time, then based on the experience from the previous decisions that you had made and that did go quite well, you now know that if I do this or if the decision is like this, the implications will be based on the experience you’ve had. So there is a lot that one learns through experience than through training and that has been my experience.

MATTHIEU RIVART: You’re talking about understanding and actually, your feedback reminds me about an article that I recently read on LinkedIn about leadership because we all wonder what leadership is about, is it about sharing values, is it about motivating teams, and the article I read was telling us that leadership is about empathy. When I am listening to you, that’s exactly what I am hearing, understanding the problems of the people and I believe that empathy is, as you say, one of the main criteria to succeed as a leader. But maybe, Charles, through your experience, maybe you can give us some more feedback on what was your most challenging assignment that you’ve had in your career because you’re dealing with people, with sickness, with education and so on, so it’s very different from what we are used to dealing with. What would be the main challenges that you’ve been through?

CHARLES MBALE: There have been a lot of challenges through my experience, my working experience runs over 25 years, so obviously I have had a lot of experience in dealing with different scenarios and different challenges. But one of the things that is quite critical is, for example, the issue that you highlighted and that’s people, human resources. I think it’s one of the most important resources in an organisation, it’s people, and how people are handled or managed really affects what the company results will be, success or failure depends on its people. Sometimes in corporate life, people think that the moment that there’s capital invested, then the results are guaranteed, ignoring that there’s a human component, which is an important factor. That aside, from my experience, especially in the international development agency world, I think the biggest challenged I have seen has been…we finance people do get a lot of responsibilities over and above what we go in for. Like I just mentioned, you are engaged as head of finance in an organisation, the CFO, the reality is and in my experience, and I think I share this with a couple of friends because I have friends in the same role, is that you end up having, like I said, human resources, admin, we do get a lot of responsibilities than what we thought we would. Secondly, the other challenge is ensuring the wellbeing of employees. Like I say, employees are quite an important resource. But you also have to plan for the unknown in an organisation. The other issue is, obviously, maintaining liquidity and ensuring that resources are available. But also, remember, the role of finance is evolving, it’s no longer about crunching numbers and bookkeeping, nowadays the CFOs or the financial people have to use data to influence the decision-making and the strategy and that has to really be based on solid [unclear] to support or influence an operational decision without the basis. So it’s also about how the role of the CFO is evolving. So those are some of the challenges that we face, we plan for the unknown, there’s a lot of expectation on the CFO to provide guidelines in all challenging times. For example, when it comes to, like I said, human resources, everyone in an organisation, even the CEO, expects the CFO to have a plan in terms of managing planning for them. As I have mentioned, it’s really about how the role is evolving and that has presented a challenge in addition to the routine roles that we have. So I have faced those challenges myself.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Exactly and when I hear you, we come back to my point when I was describing CFOs and finance population as business partners. Charles, from what you’ve been sharing with us, your activity has been having a direct impact on people’s lives, so what would you like your legacy to be?

CHARLES MBALE: Well, my legacy I hope is really to have a positive impact on performance and to have what I have shown or demonstrated to have a strong influence on the future success of organisations that I have worked for. Also, to be seen as an inspiration for value creation and operation effectiveness. But I also want my legacy to be that when I leave an organisation, the people I am leaving behind, to recognise that what I have done to develop them, the people who worked under me or who I worked with, that I have developed their talent development but also, the small practice that I do, I would like to have that company as a strong partner to business by developing quite a high functioning company. So it’s in two parts, for organisations that I have worked with and then what I look forward to my future private practice.

SAIBA WhatsApp groups

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Charles. Nicolaas, maybe you can comment on what Charles was sharing with us.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thanks, Charles, what you just mentioned made me think about how many CFOs these days, after or during their lifetime they work in corporate or they work in the NGO sector but sometimes, and we see this happening more and more, they opt for private practice and then they position themselves as outsource CFOs, and then they bring this wealth of experience at large enterprises, and they make this available now for smaller companies. So what made you decide to start your own practice, maybe just explain to CFOs who are thinking of doing the same, how that process works?

CHARLES MBALE: From my own experience, what I have seen is there is a lot of experience that ought to be shared, that is gained through a long time in working. For example, I am in the SAIBA WhatsApp groups, where we do share information, and through those groups you can see that we are, as finance people, at different levels. I think the experience that we gain in working, if you take it to private practice it helps a lot because there’s a lot that you can share, there’s a lot that you can do to develop a high-functioning team to deliver. It’s something that is not easy, I know of people who have started a practice straight away after their training or after school, I would consider that as a bit of – let me not use the word – I wouldn’t recommend that. I would recommend working first because there’s a lot that you learn just be interacting with stakeholders that are key to the finance function, like SARS and other bodies. Secondly, in the chat that we have had, I have just mentioned that the role of the CFO has evolved because of so many accounting packages that do most of the bookkeeping, our role is not punching in numbers. So it’s really strategic and that requires a bit of experience, which you learn either through working or spending time in the environment. Starting a practice is a challenge but at the moment there is a lot of potential in terms of market, targeting small and medium enterprises because that’s where the work is. But to do that you have to be effective, you have to make sure that you know your story because when a company gives you an assignment or you engage a client, they rely on you in terms of your expertise and that expertise is not gained just through academic but also through experience. It’s not an easy journey but it’s something that I would recommend for any person who wants to venture into private practice. Once you’ve gained enough experience, it’s something that you can really look at but it is a challenge. The other thing that I have done when I started the business, I was ready to work with others who are experts in certain areas. For example, when we look at the private practice where you are offering accounting services, advisory and tax, there will be certain elements, for example, on tax or a certain element where you are not experienced in, you must be ready to approach others. So when people are facing challenges, they ask others, that should be the way. It’s not possible to have one person as an expert in all. If you want to start a private practice, you must be willing to ask others within the industry who have expertise in particular areas, so that they share those ideas. SAIBA has done that very well by creating these WhatsApp groups in various areas. I know of the one in Fourways, where I am, and people share a lot of information. People don’t realise how much value those groups provide. But it also shows one thing, not one person can be an expert and if you’re establishing this private practice, you must be willing to ask for help from others, whether it means sub-contracting some of the work that your clients require at the time, you must be prepared to do that. Some of the [skills] required in that work, I might not have, but I must be willing to engage another accounting practitioner who is an expert in that. That’s how your practice grows because from that one engagement, you also gain experience and the next time you’re faced with a similar challenge, you either do it using what you had learnt from the previous help that you sought from another practitioner or if it’s even more challenging, you seek for more help, but you must be ready to sub-contract, you must be ready to seek because then what that means is you are maintaining the client within your practice. So the client gets the help from you but while you are putting together the various resources and knowledge that you’re tapping into from the groups that you have. My recommendation now is that SAIBA has provided the platform and one of the best platforms that SAIBA has done at the moment is actually create those groups and the webinars that happen, those help us a lot to interact. I don’t know if you are in one of the groups, but you must have seen the kinds of questions and help that people are providing to each other. I would highly recommend for anyone venturing into practice to join those groups and participate because you get valuable help from the groups.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Thank you, Charles, for your feedback and for sharing with us about your experience and all the support you got from SAIBA. We are reaching the conclusion of our interview soon but before we go, I’d like to ask you a personal question because I guess you have been terribly busy with long hours but what do you do in your downtime, what keeps you passionate and motivated outside of business hours?

CHARLES MBALE: I play golf, I don’t play golf in the course but on the range and I have deliberately not gone beyond that because it allows me to control my time. I also play squash and I read a lot. But now since Covid, I’ve been doing a lot of private practice and that keeps me quite busy. Through the Covid pandemic we have seen a lot of companies with a lot of challenges that have really needed our help as finance people, so that has also kept me quite busy. So during my downtime it’s mostly golf but I also play 5-a-side football, I put that on the calendar, I do that Monday evenings and Thursday evenings, just to keep me out of the books and out of work. I also like travelling but travelling hasn’t been happening due to the pandemic, so that’s also one of the things that I do on my downtime.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, so we share a lot in common actually, you were talking about reading, which a passion that I share, do you have any books that you can recommend for us, whether it’s a novel or a business book, something that you really enjoyed.

CHARLES MBALE: I like books by Stephen Covey, there’s First Things First, then there’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but I have basically read all the books by Stephen Covey. I find his books very inspiring and very practical, in my opinion.

MATTHIEU RIVART: Okay, great, thank you, Charles. Thank you for the tips, you mentioned The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a big classic that I’m sure a lot of us have read. Charles, I wanted to thank you for your time today and for sharing your experience and feedback, I really enjoyed it. Thank you again for joining us today and thank you, Nicolaas, for being with us every week.

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Thank you, Matthieu, thank you, Charles.

CHARLES MBALE: Thank you very much for, like I said at first, I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to share my experience with you and colleagues. I appreciate that.

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