Leadership is one of the biggest challenges not only to the accounting profession but to the world in general. And after COVID-19 hit in 2020, leadership has taken on a whole new dimension. To be an effective and engaging leaders today you need to develop skills and make an intentional effort to connect with your people to enable them to deliver at their best. It’s a skill worth investing in because at the end of the day both parties will reap the rewards. Here is advice from four dynamic leaders.
True and efficacious leadership is much more than authority and recognition from the outside world.
It is about breaking down barriers and leading others through the uncertainty and changeability of the future. It is also about helping others reach their full potential while guiding, motivating and inspiring the team to get where they need to be to achieve the organisation’s goals. A leader, therefore, inspires others to act while simultaneously directing the way that they act.
The impact of COVID-19 on leadership
Also known as The Unconventional CA, Hiten Keshave CA(SA) explains his own leadership role changed during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic towards a more outputs-based perspective rather than focused on time and attendance. ‘One has to be wary of employee well-being for events such as burnout where people do not manage their time effectively in regard to personal lifestyle balance and work life,’ he warns.
Marilise de Villiers Basson CA(SA), founder and CEO of ROAR! Coaching and Consulting (based in the United Kingdom), has also changed the way she defines leadership during the past few years. ‘Before COVID-19 I was heavily focused on career success. The pandemic made me realise what life is really about. Now I focus on life success – on making my whole life work.’Onke Mkiva CA(SA), RMB’s co-lead for the Africa Debt and Trade Solutions business, admits COVID-19 has challenged and stretched him as a leader for the better. ‘First, to reimagine how the world could be because if I am not inspired to, change will be forced upon me,’ he explains.
Lauren Berrington CA(SA) chief audit executive at Bidvest, says before the pandemic, she already had a hybrid work situation. ‘We were always out and about and working from where it made sense. But we always used to reconnect and regroup at the office and that was lost so quickly during the pandemic.’ As a leader, Lauren had to make an intentional effort to connect with her people. ‘The watercooler discussions and fireside jokes that would fly around the office were not there anymore. That natural connectivity between the team was lost.’
Hiten Keshave CA(SA)
Founder of TheUnconventionalCA
Overcoming leadership challenges
Hiten knows from experience that resistance to change when working in a completely new environment with limited knowledge is a challenge to leadership. ‘Ensuring effective, constructive results are achieved, one has to balance this carefully to get the desired company results whilst not losing employee morale.’
For him, it is important that, as leaders, CAs(SA) need to strive towards legitimacy in order to build on a position of trust and lead on future challenges. ‘Authenticity in what we do is crucial in regard to our work. Unfortunately, incidences have happened in the past which have blurred the lines but that doesn’t necessarily demark all CAs(SA),’ he concludes.
Marilise de Villiers Basson CA(SA)
Founder and CEO of ROAR!
Coaching and Consulting
In a complex ever-changing world and economy, ethical and committed leaders have never been more highly valued. As leaders in the country, CA(SA)s need to be in a position of trust and lead on future challenges. ‘I love the position of chartered accountants as leaders in South Africa. Firstly, it’s important that we step into this role (leaders in the country) and to recognise the personal responsibility we have – every moment of every day to show up fully – for ourselves, our people and our country. Secondly, simply do the right thing. The right thing is what you do when no one else is watching,’ explains Marilise.
Visit YouTube https://youtu.be/IjnG9W4usKM to view Marilise’s Liberating Leadership podcast interview with Ali Stewart.
Be a disruptive leader
Hiten‘s approach to empowering people is what sets him apart as a disruptive leader. Hiten described his leadership style as “bottom-up leadership focused on empowering and uplifting people,’ even before the ructions caused by the pandemic. It is important to challenge the boundaries and find new ways of doing things.
As a leader, Hiten keeps his employees motivated and engaged through consistent feedback. ‘Celebrations of small wins are crucial. Employee acknowledgement of the work they do is key as well,’ he explains.
Onke encourages his employees by listening, empathising and acting. ‘People are motivated by different things. Some people are motivated by opportunity, others by being heard and seen, and some by recognition. To achieve results, you have to treat each person as an individual and respond to what drives them. Equally, every team has different fears that leaders need to talk to and give a level of assurance. My job is to unearth these and try and help the team to get to a better position.’
For Hiten, focusing on an output-based approach whilst equipping staff with the right tools and systems to deliver effectively and efficiently became paramount. He quickly realised the danger of underestimating the impact of the pandemic and how important risk preparation is.
Learn from your mistakes
During the pandemic, Marilise realised the fatal mistake of putting all her organisational eggs in one basket and the importance of being agile and adaptable. ‘As a small company with one main client, when my contract was not renewed, I had no other income streams to fall back on. There were still lots of opportunities, but none of them converted due to the impact of COVID on organisations’ budgets. I’ve had to pivot – building my online knowledge business and I am diversifying my income streams.’
One of the mistakes Onke made during the pandemic was over-compensating with regard to working from home, especially at the expense of his family. ‘The second one would be spending too much time in conversations that I didn’t necessarily need to be in, simply because the virtual world made it convenient to join a discussion. But it wasn’t an efficient use of my time.’ For him, both mistakes required awareness and setting boundaries for himself.
Something that Lauren learnt very quickly was to never waste a crisis. ‘You need to pivot quickly. You need to innovate on the fly,’ she explains.
She also admits that they may have underestimated the mental hurdles people were experiencing. ‘I didn’t anticipate the loneliness, fear and anxiety that some people were feeling and had to pivot and deal with that very quickly.’
Be a strategic leader
At the top of Hiten’s list when it comes to strategy and leading in 2022 is moving to a full-time hybrid workplace and maintaining a culture and focus that incorporates the well-being of people and the business. ‘Some companies face the potential of moving backwards by believing that staff need to be present in an office to be productive or deemed to be working,’ he warns.
Lauren explains the landscape for Bidvest has changed because the skill set is no longer defined by geography. ‘Good skills in-country are being recruited worldwide while they are still working from their lounge in South Africa. We see competitors now that we would never have seen before. That also changes the affordability perspective.’
For her, one of the biggest leadership strategies for 2022 includes how to recruit and maintain talent. ‘Because there’s such a hunt and demand for talent, it’s about building your own talent. Without the necessary skills, our business can’t go anywhere. That is why we’ve started our own internship where we are training people from the ground up.’
During these high-stress, difficult times, the companies that are thriving are those who managed to find the ‘sweet spot’ between what Marilise calls ‘high challenge, high support. Too much support is far too comfortable for people – they are not pushed to be the best they can be. Too much challenge makes it far too stressful – too much high staff turnover and possibly toxic culture going on.’
During times of great change and uncertainty, leaders often find themselves in a low challenge / low support situation, which, according to Marilise, is very unhealthy.
‘This sweet spot of high challenge and high support in equal and powerful combination is where you get commitment and consistent high performance and development. This is where people can really thrive.’
When it comes to institutional leadership, purpose is at the top of Onke’s list. ‘Why do institutions exist and what societal problems are they prioritising as their business? I’m talking about developing business solutions that solve the most pertinent challenges being faced by the countries you operate in. This doesn’t have to be ending world hunger, it could be keeping the community fit and healthy, it could be ensuring a better-connected world, financing local entrepreneurs, and so on. Companies that deeply reflect on their purpose and drive product innovation towards these more often than not get it right. The opposite is also true.’
Onke Mkiva CA(SA)
RMB‘s co-lead for the Africa Debt and Trade Solutions business
Being a chartered accountant is an ideal pathway to leadership roles. ‘A good leader is someone who is a visionary and imagines the world to be different (for the better) than it is today, for their context. This is at the core of leadership. You also need the courage to lead through change, which often requires bold decision-making, garnering trust, vulnerability to face your fears and flexibility to change from your predispositions if required. Lastly, empathy is so important. To hear, feel, to see, and act. These three things (vision, courage, and empathy) make up a leader who people can trust and follow,’ says Onke.
Lauren Berrington CA(SA)
Chief audit executive at Bidvest Group Ltd
The changing role of CAs(SA)
Even before the disruptive role of the digital world, ever-developing technology and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, chartered accountants needed to think about their roles, purpose and positioning. ‘I found myself reinventing myself every quarter because you’ve got to stay relevant, insightful and foresightful,’ says Lauren. ‘As chartered accountants, we have to upskill, become tech-savvy and understand how technology can help us. You’ve got to be hungry for that knowledge, do a lot of research and development. If you’re not up to speed, it is because you’re not hungry enough for the knowledge,’ she warns. ‘Yes, you’ve got to pivot, change and upskill, but you’ve also got to do this on your existing skills and harness that contribution into a digital space. If you can nail that, you’ll be super successful in this space.’
Lead into the future
Hiten believes an effective leader looks beyond just numbers. ‘When you focus on people and ensure they are a part of the bigger vision, they will then deliver the financial results. Employees are an intangible asset not reflected on a company’s balance sheet asset base.’
Marilise knows although the way the world works has changed dramatically in recent times, the qualities of a good leader, are still the same. ‘I was struck recently by an article written by some of my ex-PwC colleagues – back in 2016 − about the 10 principles of strategic leadership. These are still very relevant today. The three that are personally most important to me are:
- Make it safe to fail – failure is feedback.
- Bring your whole, authentic self to work.
- Recognise leadership development as an ongoing practice – I always say: I am a student first, and a leader.’
Lauren feels when it comes to leadership, authenticity is paramount. ‘Wisdom, discernment and discretion are also important.’ As a leader, she has had to learn how to deal with criticism, become resilient and have the grit and perseverance to keep going and not give up. ‘Things never go as planned.
There are always critics. When your team is looking to you to carry on, you need to persevere. You have to be fearless and humble enough to be willing to lead people who are smarter than you. It’s key to being successful.’
What makes Lauren tick as a leader is seeing the dreams of others coming to fruition. ‘Empowering them to do what they do best and fulfil their purpose and goals excites me. For me, it’s all about the team.’
When it comes to effective leadership, Onke describes it as ‘chartering the people you lead through the unknown and connecting with their hearts and minds to achieve a common goal.’ He agrees that the basics of being a good leader haven’t changed just because the world has. ‘It’s never been about being an expert in what you do − that is management. From Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt to Mahatma Gandhi’s liberation of India to the 2015 Fees Must Fall movement driven by students in South Africa: where there is no change, there is no leadership, there’s management. The pandemic simply reminded us of that.’
Onke believes a good leader needs a clear vision, courage (to both be strong-willed and vulnerable) and empathy. For him, it is important to ensure his team shares a common goal. ‘My role is leading the team through uncertainty, being collaborative and empathetic.’
Efficacious leaders have great people skills, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, and a clear vision for the future of their organisation. They motivate and lead others to obtain goals. Developing these crucial and indispensable leadership skills can turn an efficient manager into a leader who will guide their organisations on the path to growth and success.