Ajen Sita (EY Africa CEO) has cast his shadow over virtually every aspect of the Big Four firm’s business model since assuming the helm in July 2010, but nowhere more so than in its redefining of its Africa business. Demonstrating where Sita’s passion truly lies, he explains what he foresees himself doing should he ever leave EY (not something he has any plans to do): “The two areas I will always be involved in during my lifetime are promoting the African continent, and transformation.”
A bold step he took on being appointed CEO – and one that has not been replicated by any other professional services firm – was to re-engineer its 33-country African operations into an integrated business unit, styled EY Africa. The move has opened doors for staff throughout those 33 franchises to gain greater training and experience, and to be seconded to wherever the workload was heaviest.
This vision had come to Sita while in his then role as Head of Assurance. He already had a deep personal interest in Africa and had used that time to expand the business throughout Africa. However, he realised that the skills shortage across Africa and the demand expressed by international businesses establishing new operations in Africa for a uniform standard of professional services in all countries called for integration.
“It was clear to me when I became CEO that we could not achieve this uniform service level through the various franchise operations, which themselves had uneven skills levels. We needed to be able to move our scarce skills to wherever they were most needed and to invest our own capital in upgrading those skills,” he says.
Just as this was his personal project, so too has Sita donned the mantle of thought leadership for Africa, constantly hosting and attending international conferences to boost inward investment into Africa. He convinced the Global EY firm to invest US$100 million in the Africa operation, opening new offices, recruiting people and acquiring existing firms. “Of course, this was not just because Africa was my personal hobby-horse – it was quite obvious that Africa was attracting a lot of global interest as an emerging market and this interest is only going to grow over time. For instance, most South African businesses that are not already there are looking to expand into the rest of Africa in the coming years.
“It has become my personal passion and I spend two weeks of every month travelling throughout the continent. That’s also where EY is putting a lot of its energy and developing talent.”
Sita looks back on the last 15 months with a great deal of satisfaction, citing the African integration as his biggest achievement and an adventure, without diminishing the other major accomplishments that have simultaneously happened. He has overseen the local repositioning of the EY brand, developed a new purpose statement for the firm to clearly differentiate itself, and also moved the business into new premises that are the last word in the ‘Workplace of the Future’ concept.
As to how he arrived at this point in his career, Sita attributes much of it to his family background where his father inspired the entire family to a deep involvement in community activities. Social upliftment and giving back to the community was inculcated in him and his four brothers from the earliest age.
His father ran his own retail business, but having been forcibly relocated under apartheid he become a convert to the need for education to rise above the uncertainty that comes with racial politics in this part of the world.
“My father was very involved in everything from serious community issues through to every local fundraising initiative. He was a leader and through this evolved into a worldly intellectual, even though he wasn’t himself highly educated. But underlying all this – he was an entrepreneur. I settled on accounting – and a CA(SA) qualification – as the one discipline that could bridge all these issues and my personal interests,” says Sita.
This (1989) was also a time of great change in South Africa, which served only to more deeply inspire in Sita the need for community involvement. Consequently he did not foresee a career with any Big Four firm, all of which at that time were seen as completely untransformed. Not only that, it seemed out of reach for a person of colour, he explains.
However, things were already changing fast. A close family friend had a favourable experience with then Ernst & Young and recommended it, and with good grades and a high work ethic the interview proved a formality for Sita.
His advancement was rapid to an unheard-of degree, but also reflected his contribution to the business: he was made a manager while still doing his traineeship, he became the youngest ever EY partner in 1999 at the age of 27, fittingly heading Entrepreneurial Services which he grew strongly, and was lead partner for the successful international listing of Telkom, the then-biggest listing on the New York Stock Exchange of an African company. In 2005 he was offered the leadership of Assurance, the largest division of EY, which position he held until he became CEO EY Africa. He also sits on the board for the EY EMEIA (Europe, Middle East, India and Africa) zone.
In line with the firm’s Africa focus, he personally champions the Africa Report, a strategic Africa growth forum that highlights the achievement of the continent in a positive light. “Its purpose is to workshop how to help businesses success in investing in Africa rather than to regurgitate existing problems.”
Transformation and empowerment is another great passion of Sita, and he holds the highest office in this regard – the chair of Thuthuka, currently the largest single influence on the transformation of the accounting profession and an organisation which Sita explains “is having a fantastic impact”.
He similarly leads the process of transformation at the South African offices of EY. To this end the firm devoted a considerable amount of effort to clearly defining its purpose – not something many companies do other than for show.
“Look, each of the Big Four is an excellent firm but we wanted to identify what we do differently and to stick our necks out that this was our fundamental purpose, and so we identified ‘Building a Better Working World’. This reflects our ambition within auditing to bring greater integrity to that role.”
In fact, everything the firm does reflects a greater purpose. It is, for instance, to be seen in its recently opened Sandton offices. Traditional offices are done away with and employees are granted greater trust. There are lots of ‘collaboration areas’ where auditors and trainees can sit down, drink coffee and use WiFi to work. In the past, such a person could have been regarded as goofing off, but in today’s work environment this is regarded as normal work. “It results in a more dynamic environment and more effective use of space. We’re particularly proud that for three years running we’ve been rated the top employer in the professional services sector by Corporate Research Foundation, an international body,” explains Sita.
Sita notes there is a complete alignment between his personal values dating back to his childhood and those of EY. Of course, he has never worked for any other firm but explains he would not have ever joined EY had there not been such an alignment and it is inevitable that the values of the firm would increasingly reflect those of his leadership, and vice versa.
“For instance, my own value of giving back to the community is deeply reflected in EY, and one that I like to be intimately involved in. There is little that is more satisfying than empowering new generations of leaders both in EY and at school, as in the EY NextGen initiative.”
Sita is a hands-on manager, yet most of what he does directly is strategic thinking to set the direction of the firm. “My management philosophy is one of empowerment and developing people. I have created a highly diverse team and my role is selling the strategy to them, thereafter empowering them to deliver or execute that strategy. My role is a supportive one – enabling them to deliver and facilitating their success. My own success is a reflection of theirs. Over the past four years I have personally recruited more than 50% of the partners, and this is one of the respects in which I am highly hands on.”
He is an approachable manager and enjoys conversations with all echelons of staff and clients. “Young or old people, small or large clients, there is something to be learned from all of them and I like to think I leave some ideas with them too,” he says.
He’s in the right business for intelligent conversation – most of the staff have two degrees and have passed the board exams. The average age of the EY workforce is 37 and, excluding partners, is closer to 30. “We have smart people continually coming through the ranks and always suggesting new ideas. That creates a strong learning culture throughout the organisation and certainly makes for a vibrant atmosphere. We’re always challenging ourselves.
“It is important in a young, dynamic organisation to offer all people the opportunity to fulfil their ambitions and interests. Many of our trainees ultimately leave the firm but will have a lifelong relation with the EY brand, so we continually seek to leverage their diversity and outside interests to create a convivial work environment,” says Sita.
In fact, he counts his interactions with each new intake of graduates as a highlight of his job. “They are bristling with energy straight out of university though apprehensive about future challenges. This is an important phase where one can shape their thoughts and influence countless careers,” explains Sita.
“What I most try inculcate into new trainees is to make sure they enjoy what they are doing. If somebody is counting down the days to the weekend or their next vacation – they should be doing something else. Your work must be aligned with your personal values and sense of worth. Personally, I love the diversity of experience I get in my daily life at EY: there is always something different and something new to learn.”
Sita mentors and coaches a number of partners and employees, with the goal of having them assess their own purpose and career path and the rate at which they are achieving those. “I love seeing people become excited about their personal prospects, growing and learning. I’ve helped many people accelerate their careers and find I learn as much from the process as they do.”
The manner in which he achieves this is by having people set goals that are in alignment with their purpose and ideals, and if anyone has difficulty doing so, to start by setting short-term goals and gradually extending the time horizon to 5-, 10- and even 15-year goals. “The most important aspect of this process is ensuring the individual’s goal is aligned with his life’s purpose, because out of purpose comes passion for the job,” explains Sita.
The reason for long-term goals is to pace oneself – many people get frustrated when setting goals that they cannot accomplish immediately. Having each task aligned with the long-term goal ensures a sense of meaningful accomplishment, something also best achieved through teamwork. Sita points out that money scarcely features as a motivation – it is simply a natural by-product of successfully achieving one’s goals.
The Africa role that Sita has assumed for EY has forced him to drastically change his lifestyle to one lived largely on the road. He ensures that when he is at home he devotes as much time as possible to the family, regularly following his son’s soccer team and keeping his wife and two children intellectually challenged by exposing them to foreign cultures.
His own interests vary from astronomy (an amateur interest he acquired while navigating by the stars during camping and orienteering exercises as a youth) to philosophy. He relishes the ancient wisdom contained in the Hindu philosophical teachings, the Vedanta, finding it as applicable to modern business as it was thousands of years ago.
Sita says he feels fortunate in having pursued a CA(SA) career – as a result he has wanted for nothing. “I’m where I want to be and doing what I want to do – and I’m grateful for the CA(SA) designation in enabling that. It gives one all the attributes necessary to running a business whether small or large.” ❐
Author: Eamonn Ryan; Photography: BrightLiquidLight.