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20: Jo-Ann Pohl

CFO : Bowmans
A charted accountant’s life-long curiosity and determination led her to become CFO of one of South Africa’s most renowned law firms.
3 July 2019

CIARAN RYAN: This is CFO Talks and today we are very excited to welcome Jo-Ann Pohl, the chief financial officer of one of the biggest law firms in the country, Bowmans, which has a long history in South Africa. Jo has had an amazing career, before joining Bowmans in 2017 she was involved in many types of businesses from start-ups to listed companies. She previously consulted to Texton Property Fund on strategy and prior to this was executive director and group chief financial officer for Telesure Investment Holdings, this put her in charge of group finance, treasury and risk teams, and she played a pivotal role in implementing the group restructure, which was both local and international. Her role at Telesure also involved embedding the risk and governance culture and function and establishing the group treasury. Over her career, Jo has held leadership positions at Standard Chartered Bank and as the chief financial officer for Africa and executive member on regional Africa and that involved 15 countries and four listed companies.

JO-ANN POHL: Yes, in their various jurisdictions, so listed in their relevant countries.

CIARAN RYAN: Okay and you’re a qualified chartered accountant and a member of ACCA and a professional banker of the Institute of Bankers in South Africa, with a post-graduate diploma in business administration from the University of Wales, and more recently completed a GDPR Practitioner programme. You must have spent your whole life studying, what’s been going on?

JO-ANN POHL: I think a big chunk of my life was probably spent studying but I am genuinely curious and I get a lot of energy from that. So the technical pieces and being able to spend some time understanding what’s relevant in the market at any point in time I think gets me going, to be quite frank. If I am tired, then a little bit of time in a good book with a technical challenge gets me going. 

CIARAN RYAN: I’m quite interested to learn why as a trained accountant and charted accountant you chose to go from banking and stock exchange listed companies to a law firm, Bowmans, being where you are now, what was the attraction behind that?

JO-ANN POHL: I think two things, purpose and impact. The one thing about the move from articles into financial services and banking was because it really helps countries grow. So from a GDP perspective, banking should grow two-and-a-half times that and ideally keep households going. I say that around them almost being noble professions, so both banking and insurance, so the purpose and impact was very much there for me and, particularly, because I worked across the African continent. So the move to a law firm was quite deliberate, one, one that operated across the region and Bowmans was SA Law Firm of the Year last year, as well as African Law Firm of the Year, and we have offices in four different countries. So that, for me, was one of the initial appeals. Secondly, I do believe that the ability for professional services, so lawyers, bankers, to work together with policymakers across the region really makes a difference around how you enable transaction flow, whether it’s intra-Africa and so on and growth. So for me the purpose component was very relevant. What we do from an ethics and integrity perspective at Bowmans actually does impact the wellbeing of society. So those two things have driven me to the shift because it is quite a big change. I do sit on the MMI lending board and that’s why I stayed on the Standard Chartered board for a while because I enjoy the technical challenge that banking offers, given the regulatory complexity but the ability for law to enable that is what is attractive to me. 

CIARAN RYAN: Did you say you still sit on the MMI lending board? 

JO-ANN POHL: Yes, I am part of that board at the moment 

CIARAN RYAN: That’s the MMI Group?

JO-ANN POHL: No, that’s a joint venture that we’re busy working on with African Bank, as well as MMI Holdings and we are busy looking at the product set, where over time that will obviously change. You’ll notice that there was an announcement to market that that particular space is going to be unwound but it’s been really an interesting journey to do that with them 

CIARAN RYAN: Alright, so you’re on the lending board, don’t they normally call this like a credit committee if it’s a bank?

JO-ANN POHL: No, not quite because it’s an external board membership.

CIARAN RYAN: I see, okay, so they are not asking you to sign off on loans, hey, we want to lend this amount of money, that’s not what you’re doing?

JO-ANN POHL: Not at all, it’s a strategic component. 

 

How the role of CFO has changed in the banking sector 

 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, banking, of course, is a highly regulated and compliance-driven activity, it’s probably one of the biggest headaches that you have in that sector. Perhaps you can give us a sense of how, from your perspective, the role of the chief financial officer has changed over the years in that sector?

JO-ANN POHL: I think from a banking perspective the ability to be creatively compliant has become more and more important because compliance is not negotiable, everyone has to do it and, as a consequence, the reality is that each bank faces the same sort of constraints. What’s changed from a CFO perspective is the amount of time and money you have to invest just ticking the boxes from a regulation perspective. Also, the relationship piece, so your stakeholder map is bigger and more important. So whether it’s with regulators, whether it’s with revenue authorities, policymakers, how you report, actively going to work with them and also to engage with them on your strategy has become more and more important. So I think the opportunity to influence what some of that regulation might look like and to ensure that your stakeholders are up to date on where you are likely to go has been quite key. So the depth of the CFO relationship around being able to frame and shape the credibility of the institution you work with, market sentiment, when you’re looking at consensus on results and structure, as well as Plan B in terms of discussing with the regulators what you’re doing now, what you might do later and how it influences what you do is quite key. How our team operates is also different, the regulatory piece is your licence to trade, it’s not the niggly bits that you’ve put in and the routine stuff, it really is important that you bed that down properly and the pace of change means that sometimes you need to get ahead of the curve. So being truly interested in why the regulation is relevant I think is key for a CFO.

CIARAN RYAN: We’re also joined in the studio by Nicolaas van Wyk, who’s the chief executive officer for the South African Institute of Business Accountants, and I see you are jumping up and down in your chair, did you want to say something, Nicolaas?

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: Ja, I found your comments quite interesting in a number of areas, first you worked in banking and then you moved to law but the law firm, they chose you because you come from banking because in their dealings with their banking clients you can add a valuable contribution, it’s not just being the CFO and doing the books. That’s also what you described just now, your intricate involvement in many, many things at Bowmans and with the regulators and managing the relationships. So there’s a clear distinction for me from your training, your classical training as a CA, to that which you are doing now and there’s a big gap between the two, how did you fill that? 

JO-ANN POHL: I think what’s quite interesting is that your qualification is critical, your technical ability is important in terms of demonstrated and proven track record and the one thing that actually is constant, other than change, is that generally you are dealing with people, so we are human first. I think to fill that gap has been around, for me, putting my hand up, I was absolutely curios in the process. I didn’t rely on hope, I think curiosity fuels hope but hope needs a strategy. So I was quite deliberate in the projects that I got involved in and the businesses that I worked with, so that was Barclays, Standard Chartered, Ubank, coming back into the South African context and building a relationship with a regulator here, and then in insurance. That experience, which doesn’t necessarily come with age, but rather time in the trenches, has helped close some of that gap. To be frank, there were some really hard lessons learned, I remember arriving in Kenya on a Monday morning and 18 years ago that’s not a mean feat to get into the country with my South African agenda to have a conversation and everyone asked me about my family, what I do and I thought I actually don’t have time to do these pieces but it did teach me about [the fact that] people work with you, as opposed to necessarily around you. The reality is that we are very tactile across the continent, so actually FaceTime, time with individuals and genuine curiosity has helped close that gap because it shouldn’t be that you are a finance professional at a fast-moving consumer goods company, a listed entity or at a bank and believe that a balance sheet is a balance sheet and an income statement is an income statement. You need to understand the business of the business, the people in the business, the relationship pieces and how the business operates. So the culture is important and does it work with you. I also learnt a long time ago that work-life balance is a fallacy, so I rather chose work-life choice, to love what I did where I was, which meant that the hours didn’t encroach on my levels of energy, so to speak, when I got home. 

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: So what I hear you saying is that there’s a whole bunch of competencies that you added into your career by putting your hand up and being willing to do various and diverse projects, other than your classical accounting training. Were there also specific management courses that assisted you in this development route?

JO-ANN POHL: I think one thing that did happen is I took a slight detour at one point, so when I went from KPMG, where I did articles, into Barclays, where I joined their talent and training team, partly to demystify treasury training and do consultative selling skills across the region, which required engagement with regulators because regulation didn’t always tie into the banking products we were trying to sell, training investment bankers, who asked me nicely to bring my HR tissues, which I think taught me resilience and grit because I’m equally smart, and in that particular space then having to take up the courses on consultative selling, so truly listening to what the client wants, questioning what you do, being interested, so the “why factor” came out through that, which would probably not be a normal trajectory in terms of what you would study and pick up from a course perspective. So facilitation skills came into that, coaching skills came into that piece and the relationship-building piece around understanding what your client wants and in our case, particularly as finance professionals, our clients are internal and external, and being able to adapt your style depending on who you were working with and what your outcome was. Also, the pyramid principle, so I learnt how to communicate with different people, some people like a summary, some people need more detail and some people need all the detail, and being able to better understand when to apply what approach. So yes, supplemented the technical pieces with some soft skills training that possibly when I first started out I thought I had but you realise as you grow up, so to speak, in business that there are some skills and tools you genuinely actually need to navigate that landscape.

 

Groomed into corruption 

 

NICOLAAS VAN WYK: What you are now describing from a practical perspective we also recently found in research that was done by a university in Canada and the title of the research was moving from CA to CFO and they identified exactly these competencies, they grouped them into 34 and they said these are the competencies that the CFO needs. In response, we, as an organisation, decided let’s register a designation for CFO (SA), addressing those competencies and it’s something that CFO Talks is about, how do we get that information out. A hypothesis that I just want to test with you is we’ve seen these corporate scandals in Steinhoff, Tongaat Hulett, African Bank, Bosasa and the Bosasa CFO made an interesting comment, saying that he was groomed into corruption. In other words, there was an influence on him from either the board or the CEO, and the hypothesis is that maybe his technical knowledge didn’t attune him to the fact that he’s going to be manipulated and he was actually open for manipulation. Whereas what you are describing, your experience in the trenches, you won’t fall for that because you’ll have this internal knowledge. What are your comments on that?

JO-ANN POHL: So maybe two things and a very good example is Enron. So Andy Fastow, who was the CFO at the time, got CFO of the Year Award in the same year that he got his prison card, for the same thing, for off-balance sheet financing. I think what’s quite interesting is businesses almost didn’t have a morality factor, so no one stopped to ask was it right. It’s were you doing it before the next person had done it or what did the accounting standards or legislation allow in terms of loopholes. I think the reality now is that people are asking ethically and from an integrity perspective is it the right thing to do is important. I think being able to ask that, which talks to some of the experience I have had in my career, is also the fact that wherever I am, I am by choice. So if I’m working for you by choice, my opportunity to leave is quite different and my opportunity to stand my ground when things are not right is a lot more obvious to me because if I am with you by choice, I am working there by choice, then you make the right decisions. I’m not beholden to you, my livelihood is not dependent on you. I’ve been really, really deliberate about those choice factors. Even with my own team now, once a month we do a coffee club with various key people in the sector and beyond the sector, partly so that they can think out of the box differently. Secondly, for them to build a network and, also, if they work where they are working and for me by choice, discretionary effort is obvious, people give just that much more. So I think choice is a very important factor and we don’t realise that we actually have that opportunity to say this is the no and why, and why? Because you have to live with it and often we say will the auditors accept it, does it seem reasonable and my view of that is slightly different. Good conduct is important and good conduct has no materiality level, so if you are cheating, you are cheating, no matter how big or small it is. My perspective then is not the four-eyes principle or what did the audit firm say but, rather, if I had to respond to any one of my children, did I do the right thing, and actually that counts because the level of disappointment you see in the current scenario and the environment around corruption from the people who care about you the most and can’t understand it, I think is something that is very hard to live with.

That’s a good ethical test and I, often confronted with an ethical conundrum, will pose the same question to myself, would I be happy for my children to know about this and that really is a check. Tell us about Bowmans because this may be going out to people overseas, who don’t know Bowmans, give us a very brief, thumbnail description of the firm.  

JO-ANN POHL: We’ve been on the continent for 105 years, so we have deep relationships from that perspective, we have four different offices, as I mentioned, we operate across a number of sectors, as well as various specialist areas. We have three key departments being our banking and finance, our corporate department, which covers mergers and acquisitions, tax and those kinds of areas of speciality, competition law and then we’ve also got a disputes resolution practice. We operate with multi-national clients in the government sector, as well as key individuals, and generally focus on top end work. So we do boardroom level from a focus perspective, we have our latest partner, which is Kira, an AI bot, as part of our due diligence…

CIARAN RYAN: Sorry, I missed that, say that again. 

JO-ANN POHL: One of our newest partners last year was Kira, which is artificial intelligence that actually works as part of our due diligence, document review process, we’ve got document automation. So we ourselves are on part of a digital journey across the region to make sure that we are more efficient and effective for our clients, as a law firm, so that the focus really is on the specialist areas that require judgement, impact, review, thought leadership. So from that side I think it’s been a great transition around understanding what the legal practice can do across each of the offices. We work very closely with a number of international law firms, we have best friend relationships across the region and we’re very deliberate about not just the type of work we take on but also the type of client we work with. Our value proposition is really key, so the value of knowing is what our underpinning principle is but the reality there is knowing the law, knowing the client, knowing the lay of the land and enablement, so we genuinely help our clients achieve their objectives. I think, for me, that’s been one of the key pieces that every day I actually see that and someone had asked me how is the “honeymoon phase”, so to speak, going from financial services into professional services, and now, almost two years into the space, I can genuinely say that it’s the right place to be at the right time for me. 

CIARAN RYAN: You have offices in Africa, where are they?

JO-ANN POHL: Uganda, Kenya and in Tanzania we have offices. Our Kenyan operation is just over ten years old, Uganda is just under five and Tanzania is three years old, so very deliberate relationships in East Africa, given what we see at the moment both from infrastructure, oil and gas and so on is really a key play but we’ve grown up in those markets and quite proudly Bowmans. 

CIARAN RYAN: And in South Africa, where are your offices? 

JO-ANN POHL: In South Africa we have an office in Cape Town, as well as a satellite in Stellenbosch, we also have offices in Durban…

CIARAN RYAN: Stellenbosch is quite handy for what’s going on there right now… [laughing].

JO-ANN POHL: At the moment, yes [laughing]. We opened that very recently and then we’ve also got offices in Sandton and Pretoria. 

CIARAN RYAN: Okay, very good, are these difficult times for law firms? I’m hearing that the revenue is under pressure but, on the other hand, I hear arguments both ways, that you have far greater levels of regulation and compliance for which you need highly specialised legal skills. On the other hand, you are hearing that law firms aren’t doing as well as they did some years ago, largely due to the sluggish economy, what’s the truth there?

JO-ANN POHL: A couple of things, one, we are an investment firm, so we take a long-term view, which makes quite a big difference around how we do right now this year and how we actually spend our money in the process and because of that we invest in our tech, in our people, in our legal infrastructure that helps keep us ahead of the curve, so to speak. Secondly, we have a basket of goods, so because we operate across four different countries and any one of them is in a different space, either from a socioeconomic perspective, politically or what’s happening in that market, we do have the ability to weather a storm when it’s tougher in one versus the other. But across the pieces, and I think the world at large, it’s a tough environment at the moment, so more and more our clients as they become more sophisticated, the pricing is not just the number of hours times your rate and bum-in-seat kind of structure but value-based pricing, what is valuable to me, what has an impact. So how we price, how we engage, how we socialise and that kind of piece and understand what our clients’ needs are is becoming more and more important. So the level of engagement I think is quite crucial and a lot is very deliberate in the conflict environment that you currently see in the advisory firms, even in our space, is the type of work that we get paid for and the type of work that we do needs to resonate with who we are from a longevity perspective. But it’s not an easy market out there, work doesn’t just walk through the door, so being a thought leader and recognised as that is important, making sure in tough times that our brand is recognised at out there is important, recruiting the right people and constantly assessing our resources is key.

 

A day in the life of the Bowmans CFO 

 

CIARAN RYAN: As a CFO, take us through a typical day in your life and while you are doing that, explain how an accountant fits into the culture of a law firm because they are two very different personality types. 

JO-ANN POHL: I’ll start with part two, I want someone to give me a clear definition of a typical accountant and typical lawyer?

CIARAN RYAN: Oh, okay, let me help you out there, first of all the way you dress as an accountant is different from the way you dress as a lawyer [laughing].

JO-ANN POHL: Okay, that’s all relative and I say that because if you’re a banking accountant you dress the same as a lawyer, so definitely suits and ties. I remember when they introduced “Casual Friday” in banking we were like, we can’t think properly…

CIARAN RYAN: Casual Friday in banking? Yes, I remember Hawaiian shirt day…

JO-ANN POHL: It’s very hard and I don’t like to see my colleagues’ kneecaps, it’s all relative…

CIARAN RYAN: [Laughing].

JO-ANN POHL: But they are not so different, the reality is that lawyers are very relational, they are relationship-driven and what’s been fantastic about lawyers in a law firm is they actually play the ball and not the man, by the nature of the beast they are quite specific about facts, what the letter of the law says and how the process goes and, for me, that’s actually a great place to work because it’s not about tackling an individual. They are the first ones to say well done and thank you but also to call you out if the behavior is inappropriate, not right or doesn’t speak to what you’ve committed to doing. So that’s where I think there’s a really big plus around lawyers and accountants working together because we should be professionally sceptical, we should be holding up the mirror, we should be saying actually, this behavior doesn’t work or this particular process is outside of governance and so, for me, there’s a really good gelling space. Also, I spent probably five years of my career in retail banking, the balance was in investment banking, so I am quite used to really smart, really busy, really active A-type personalities and working with them in the process and I think I enjoy the intellectual stimulation that banking and financial services offers, as well as from the legal profession. We really are quite blessed to be able to have good conversations, robust conversations and be in a space where everyone is recognised for their area of speciality around the table.

CIARAN RYAN: Right, so what about your typical day.

JO-ANN POHL: A typical day I would love to say is nine-to-five but no longer does that exist from a real perspective. From my side, ideally, to be energised it takes 90 minutes of deep work, so early in the morning I generally try and sit down or late at night and carve out time to write the proposal we’re supposed to be doing, finalise a report, do a technical discussion around SME’s and leasing or work on, for example, an RFP together with what we see in the business development team. So that 90 minutes I carve out in my own time because it’s a lot easier, versus the distractions that come in and out of your office. We’ve tried to regularise day-to-day pieces, whether that’s approving payments, working with our bankers in terms of our banking structures and so on. So probably first thing in the morning it’s about sitting with my team, checking-in, good morning, how are you, there are a couple of happy birthdays in that space, well done, you’ve written an exam, you were sick and that check-in, and it might take me 30 minutes to walk the floor, just sets the tone for the day. One, I have an open-door policy, two, please flag anything that is an issue right now, together we are more effective at solving challenges, as opposed to on your own, and then we can manage expectations. So the next part after the check-in is where we need to manage an upset lawyer or an upset client, focusing on that and generally I think often accountants like things in writing but email is not the most effective way to deal with the situation. So it’s either a quick face-to-face or a call. Then in the middle of the day we schedule our meetings, so most of them would start after ten, either client meetings where it’s about a new process or whether it’s about billing and regulation or in some cases the institute fees committee, where we look at payment plans in difficult times. Then in the afternoon we do a lot of our technical finance stuff, so making sure that we report on what our capacity is for the day, what our current metrics are that we measure by lawyer. So we do that and then we do a lot of training because one of the key things that is different to banking is that business acumen and understanding numbers is not something that comes naturally to everyone and so spending time around making sure that everyone understands what lever drives what and the relevance of the business strategy, the client management, the financials linked to that, our working capital cycle and our actual numbers on the ground and how those translate into performance becomes quite a big part of the afternoon because a lot of our lawyers would have done their client meetings in the morning and a lot of my team would have addressed the financial pieces. So in the afternoon it really is about them closing out those gaps. I would like to say that generally my day starts with a to-do list but that moves and fluxes as ad hoc requests come up and then at the end of the day we close out on any key critical outstanding items. I check in at least once a week with the office managing partners and our teams on the ground across each of the countries, which makes quite a big difference and that interaction means that we know about things that are problematic ahead of them finding themselves in the general ledger, where it’s a bit like being the goalkeeper in a soccer match, it’s hard to fix then, you can fix it but it just takes so much longer. Also, a lot of big decisions happen in the carpark, at the coffee machine and so on. So making time to have those conversations and understand the lay of the land and the culture I think is particularly important because you make decisions, as Robert Cooper said, with three things, your head, your heart and your gut, and each of those three brains requires time on the floor and time with people and clients.

CIARAN RYAN: Do you believe in a structured or an unstructured day?

JO-ANN POHL: I believe in creating structure in ambiguity and I say that because the new normal means things change every day. But I am also conscious that within my team there are various pillars that we look at and some individuals need complete structure, which is why we have the processes, procedures and so on that help them function at their best in their spaces. But in my role it’s probably got a framework of structure but I need to be agile and optionality is important.

CIARAN RYAN: We’re running out of time and I want quick answers to these questions, I see that you are married to an ex-Zimbabwean entrepreneur, you have four children and you ride motorbikes, what bike? 

JO-ANN POHL: Harley Davidson but having the fourth child, I now have to resign myself to riding pillion, which I am not loving but I do really, really love bikes. My husband builds classic bikes with my boys, which I think keeps them safe and sound in the garage, and my daughter at the first snap of the fingers will join me on the back of the bike with her helmet and her boots. I’ve got a family who quite like their bikes. 

CIARAN RYAN: Where did your husband go to school?

JO-ANN POHL: Pretoria Boys High School.

CIARAN RYAN: He didn’t go to school in Zimbabwe?

JO-ANN POHL: No, he came here when he was younger. 

 

‘We want financial statements to be more transparent’

 

CIARAN RYAN: What are some of the big concerns you have as an accountant and chief financial officer looking towards the future? Is there any particular piece of legislation that gives you cause for concern?

JO-ANN POHL: I think more and more that there’s a requirement for transparency and so, as a consequence, the Protection of Personal Information Act is important and the reason that it’s important is that we want financial statements to be more transparent, we want to be able to disclose our results more and more, whether you’re a private company or a close corporation and so on, where people can understand them, whether they’re users, your debtors and so on. We’ve seen that now in the subjects that you’ve asked around, the corruption, the issues around why didn’t our financials tell us that. So I think understanding the protection of our own information, understanding the demands, either through society and so on, on wanting more information means that we need to be quite deliberate about our messaging and understanding how it’s received and I think making it a little bit more simpler for the layperson to understand. So understanding accounting and the speed at which accounting standards change, as well as marrying that to regulation and then what we need to share with our various stakeholders I think is really important, it must be relevant. Instead of accountants being rear-view-focused, so this is what happened in the past and I report on it, it’s to move from being a reporter to a little bit like you, to being a journalist, to being able to predict where we are going, show people Plan A versus Plan B and be really articulate and confident that this is what we think it’s likely to look like. So I think that, from a regulatory perspective, will start to shape and frame the level of transparency. So more and more we have seen that regulation will drive behaviour to some degree but actually being able to ensure that your counterparts, there’s a lot more regulatory pieces that come out of peers saying this is what you did and it doesn’t seem like it’s right, so you are governed partly by your peer group. So that is important and then accountants who can think, I think is really deliberate, like have you created enough space in your day job to think about whether what you are doing is right or wrong, to understand what the industry looks like outside of the little slice you sit in because if we compare ourselves to ourselves we’ll never notice when we look like we are doing particularly well in a sector that’s doing really poorly and flag things that don’t look right. So that piece for me is really important, I’m not sure that that’s taught or if that is experience that is required but there’s something about being taught to think and question and ask why.

CIARAN RYAN: There’s a book that recently came out called Life After Google by George Gilder, where he talks about the future of accountants and lawyers, and with blockchain technology a lot of these routine functions, you already mentioned that at Bowmans you have an artificial intelligence bot, which I guess is taking over some of the mundane work. This is going to become more and more a feature of day-to-day life and so, as a professional, and Nicolaas has been discussing this with his team for quite some time, you’re going to have to be more and more specialised, you’re not going to be operating as a typical bookkeeper, you’re going to be doing things that add value to your client’s business in whatever way, shape or form that is. Okay, moving on, who were your influences in life, who inspired you to take the path that you took in your career as a professional? 

JO-ANN POHL: I think it’s a couple of things, one is that I am privileged enough to be born on the same day as Nelson Mandela, which is July 18, and I matriculated in 1994, so I think a lot of what influenced me was who he was, his journey, his approach and specifically his approach to humility and people and influence and how he led. I think the fact that we are human first, which I have mentioned before, he has definitely shaped how I interact with people in terms of reading up what he did, the value of education and that person on the other side of the door, for example at Robben Island, they are influenced by what they know, as opposed to what you know, so how do you put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So with that it was always never believe the first story, there are three sides, yours, mine and the truth, and maybe another one in the process. My dad is an engineer who has worked across the region, he’s from Zambia, so he was always accepting of everyone, which is important, but very deliberately as we grew up he said never lose your awe for life. So almost that intrigue when you watch people see an aeroplane takeoff for the first time and you wonder how something that big can fly, don’t lose that wonder and awe, and always be curious. I think when I’ve lost a sense of curiosity that’s when I’ve gone to find somewhere different. 

CIARAN RYAN: I still find it staggering that a plane can take off.

JO-ANN POHL: It’s amazing and when you’re in the plane that’s a staggering feeling. My mom, who was very much about the fact that everyone is valued and before you question and judge someone, understand where they come from. She was quite deliberate like that and I think growing up I was a bit frustrated by the fact that she was almost everyone’s mom. But as I have grown up I have appreciated that more and more that everyone needs someone and no person is an island. I think from an individual perspective that opportunity to say that you can lean on someone or that you’ve got someone you can confide in and in the professional world that is a mentor, as you move up it’s a sponsor, that piece has been part of how I grew up. My husband, who’s an engineer, which is really interesting, which is how is started his career as an entrepreneur because that has influenced my risk appetite, how I approach logic and I remember writing my board exam and the question we had was around a pipeline carrying slurry from here to there and costing it, and he said to me you’d put it on a railway car because it would be too heavy for the pipeline. I thought okay, so simplicity came very much from how does that link in. Then my children, they have asked me often what I do and why, when my sons were eight they said dad helps build stuff, what do you do. I remember taking them into the bank with me and we opened a bank account and they were so upset that I wasn’t the teller, like when will I move to the frontline. I think what was interesting is it gave me perspective on the relevance of my role, it didn’t touch the ultimate client but if we were cost efficient, more cost effective, that ultimate client would feel some of the benefit of some of the stuff that my team did. Although, I must admit, my youngest did tell his teacher I’m a bank account, which is possibly not so wrong when it comes to your children. 

 

Recommended reading 

 

CIARAN RYAN: If there are any books that you could recommend what would they be?

JO-ANN POHL: Simon Sinek wrote a book called Start with Why, and I think more and more curious individuals in business are key. It’s a very worthwhile read, particularly around how to inspire people to take action that has purpose and that you are quite deliberate about where you are. That trust equation, and I am a numbers geek, is so important, understanding that the denominator in that is about self being last and really creating relationships is important in that space and I think more and more from a professional perspective, whether it’s assurance, advisory, finance or from a law piece, being trusted is becoming crucial and once you break it I think it’s very difficult to rebuild, so doing work that has purpose and that has action and that aligns to what’s the right thing to do is important.

CIARAN RYAN: Any other books?

JO-ANN POHL: No, that one I think is probably the right one for individuals to read if they’ve got time. From a personal perspective, what I did discover, I am busy reading The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley, and the reason I say that’s important is I have a book club and actually driving your imagination is so important. I think our brains are a bit like Tetris…

CIARAN RYAN: When you want to disengage from the whole corporate thing, I get that.

JO-ANN POHL: Yes and I would love people to genuinely read more. I have read Steinheist by Rob Rose but the reason I think reading is so important is your brain is a bit like Tetris, it files things into your working memory and then into your short term and long-term memory if you give it time to breathe and so I think reading is almost a gift we don’t do enough of. I do read a lot of articles, which I quite enjoy, and I find they steer me to technical pieces but my creativity and the opportunity to solve problems comes from when I read fiction.

CIARAN RYAN: Tell us very briefly in one sentence what does Bowmans do for corporate social investment?

JO-ANN POHL: We do quite a bit, first of all just to give you some context on numbers, we’ve done over 10 000 hours in the CSI space, that’s from a lawyers’ services perspective, which is nearly over R28 million. What we want to try and do is really make an impact under the umbrella around facilitating access to legal services. So we do a lot of work with new entrepreneurs, which I think is quite important around building a sustainable economy, with children in terms of their rights, as well as women in that space and generally anything that is subjected to discrimination. So we do a lot that speaks to what resonates with where society is right now in terms of making a difference.

CIARAN RYAN: Who is your big human rights lawyer?

JO-ANN POHL: It was John Brand for a while but he’s just retired. But across the space, if you look at the number of lawyers, it’s quite interesting because at Standard Charter we had to do three days of CSI as part of our leave entitlement. Here pro bono is part of the things we track, so actually being genuinely invested in making a difference in your relevant community and within the projects that we drive is part of the culture, it’s how you grow up, you set aside time for this. So we can see that in the passion of our lawyers who do this work and I can see that in the numbers around the type of work we do and often the conversation is that it’s the right thing to do and what that right thing looks like. We are busy with the silicosis case now, the big mining case, we’re helping facilitate and manage that process. So I do think we’ve done some really big pieces.

CIARAN RYAN: I think for people who don’t know, we probably should point out that the silicosis case was a case that was brought on behalf of thousands of South African and Southern African miners, who were suffering from silicosis as a result of working underground and I think the final settlement was about R5 billion, something like that, and now comes the big payout and they’ve got to find the miners and pay them out. 

JO-ANN POHL: That process is currently in progress and that kind of thing, you know when you walk around the building and those are the things we celebrate. I think by nature South African corporates don’t celebrate enough of our wins and successes. We think our work always speaks for itself. So internally this is one of the things where it’s that real feel-good factor, where we are very conscious around what we do and the impact that that has across the country. 

CIARAN RYAN: Jo-Ann Pohl, chief financial officer from Bowmans, thank you very much for coming in.

JO-ANN POHL: Thank you very much for having me, what a superb way to engage across the pieces, I am looking forward to more story-telling, to answer your question, Nicolaas, I think story-telling is part of closing that gap on the education piece. 

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