I have always been intrigued by ‘strategy’, the thing that ultimately sets a company apart from the next, and probably, together with strong leadership, the main driver behind sustained value creation. In a series of interviews, I explore the approaches of different business leaders (all chartered accountants) to strategy. This month I had the privilege of being in conversation with Michelle Olckers, Co-CEO of Mazars South Africa and Managing Partner of Mazars Cape Town.
To illustrate some of the core themes that came up during the interview, it is best to view them within the Mazars context:
Operating within a global context
From a global perspective, Mazars South Africa ensure that they contribute to the development of Mazars’ global strategy, resulting in the global strategy being more fit for purpose for South Africa.
In the South African context, Mazars drew on global strategic elements and purpose. ‘We are part of the global strategy − we have access to it, we have the ability to contribute to it, and then we adapt it for our local environment. In South Africa there are a lot of aspects that have to be part of our strategy that wouldn’t be necessarily relevant from a global perspective, things that are very key to our transformation and growth in South Africa,’ said Michelle.
Mazars recently relaunched its brand globally. ‘We spent a lot of time looking at and redefining our purpose to suit the whole business. Our purpose globally now is to help build the economic foundations of a fair and prosperous world by caring for the success of our people and clients, the health of our financial markets and the integrity of our industry. It is now really important for us to take this purpose and embed it into the South African business.’
Partners and clients
‘As a business we check in with our strategic objectives every year, but on a four yearly basis we redefine the strategy. One often talks about shareholder value and in a partnership the shareholders are the partners.’ Emphasising the partners’ importance, Michelle added: ‘Our strategy has to be very inclusive − you have a lot of minds that want to contribute to the direction of the business, a lot of insights into what works and what doesn’t work. Even though our offices do function separately, we spend a lot of time talking about purpose for our business − a strong sense of purpose will make it much easier to work together towards a common goal.’
Michelle highlighted the importance of clients: ‘We specifically need to understand the expectations of our clients. We are in a profession where it is very important that we maintain our independence on the one hand and we ensure that the services we offer are the right ones, and that the client can access them on the other. Clients ultimately want a firm that can offer them their audit and the other things they expect of us. To match that you need to consider it in your strategy, otherwise you are going to bring in clients and not be able to deliver to their expectations.’
Organisational buy-in: ‘One Team approach’
On the topic of getting organisational buy-in, Michelle elaborated: ‘The support of the partners and people in the business is very important to drive our strategy. We implement our strategy with what we call the ‘One Team approach’. The One Team approach is about making sure that the strategy is aligned with our behaviours and values and making sure all staff understand and know what the purpose and strategy is. We evaluate how our strategy impacts on our people and ultimately the environment we operate in.
‘The culture that you create around a business ultimately helps define how your staff contribute to that strategy. Our “one team behavioural charter” which encompasses our values and defines our expected behaviours, aligns us with our purpose and embeds it into our people. When a new employee comes into Mazars we explain our purpose, how we do business, where their value fits into the business and how their behaviour fits in with that.’
On buy-in she added that constant engagement is required. ‘The only way to keep your staff coming with you and being aligned is to have constant engagement around strategy. It can easily get forgotten − you want to get feedback on what is happening within the business and you don’t necessarily pause and explain how it fits in strategically and how they can contribute.’
Our conversation veered to the importance of operational implementation. ‘Operational implementation is where we get our biggest challenges as leaders of the business. A matrix approach − mapping your strategic objectives with what you want to achieve and aligning that with your goals and ambitions is essential. In turn, strategy has to land up on somebody’s KPIs through specific measurable objectives − otherwise it is never going to be achievable.’
Returning to the importance of partner input, Michelle added: ‘The partner team need to be mobilised to meet and measure the strategic objectives. In turn, that feedback is then used to refine and rethink our approaches in order to meet the strategic objectives bottom-up.’
The importance of sustainability within Mazars
In 2019 Mazars South Africa issued, in addition to their integrated report, a sustainability report. ‘We felt as a business that if we don’t reflect on our sustainability and our impact on the environment in which we operate, we can’t advise our clients on sustainability. We are now challenging our business on how we engage with our stakeholders and mapping ourselves against the GRI standards. In 2019 we started internal stakeholder engagement and this year we are going to include an external focus to get input of what the impression is, from a sustainability perspective, of us from outside − identifying our shortfalls and gaps.’
Michelle elaborated: ‘Engaging with clients around sustainability brings the strategic conversation back to the table again. Some clients lose focus on the impact their actions have on the achievement of their strategy. It is not just about the environmental aspects, sustainability is about businesses operational sustainability, the environment and about people − it is everything altogether.’
Dealing with crisis is also a mindset
Our conversation inevitable touched on strategy in a time of crisis. ‘In a crisis it is clear that you have to slow down, you have to be a little more conservative about what you do, but you can’t let that inhibit your business completely. You need to be in a position where you are going to consider the opportunities that present themselves, because there will still be many opportunities. You have to ask: how can I continue to ensure long-term growth and sustainability for my business? At Mazars we have been very clear that we don’t let ourselves get into a place where we don’t take on new opportunities − we have to maintain the balance between risk and potential reward.’
People development is key
We ended our conversation discussing the development of young professionals in relation to strategy. ‘We need to build strategic thinking in people. The inhibitor of people who don’t think strategically is that they just focus on what they do and they don’t or can’t see the bigger picture. The more people you get in your business to see the bigger picture the more chance you have of success. At Mazars we also focus a lot on mentorship in our business −if someone shows an interest in strategy, we strive to let that person see and have insight into the whole strategic process. In the same way we will involve people in our sustainability division. The support from everyone and creating ambassadors of strategy will ultimately help you grow the business.’
My key takeaway from the interview is the clear iterative nature of stakeholder, employee and client engagement within the strategic narrative.
AUTHOR | Christiaan Vorster CA(SA), SAICA Regional Executive