Executive Day: The tripartite alliance of CIOs, CFOs and CHROs

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Executives discussed creating value across the board, aligned objectives, and situational awareness.

On 11 October, CFO Enterprises hosted its biggest event yet, the first edition of Executive Day. A community trifecta, where more than 100 formidable CIOs, CFOs, and CHROs gathered at Rosebank’s trendy Marble restaurant for an important dialogue titled “Boardroom IQ – the conversation today’s C-suite needs to have”. One guest referred to having IT, HR and finance professionals in one room as the tripartite alliance.

This event would not have been possible without the support of our respective communities' key partners, including Entelect, EOH, Liquid Intelligent Technologies, Makwa IT, OneStream Software, PwC South Africa, Sanlam, Workday, BCX, and BDO South Africa.


CIO South Africa managing director Joël Roerig kicked off the day by welcoming attendees, and a special guest all the way from the US, chairman and global CEO of Cisco, Chuck Robbins. Chuck sits on the Business Roundtable, an association of more than 200 CEOs of America’s leading companies, representing every sector of the US. Chuck shared some insights and observations around CIOs, CFOs, and CHROs.

He noted that the upcoming roundtable will be interesting leading up to the elections. They have a committee structure much like an exco, but highlighted the importance of having a voice and a willing ear within those structures. “You can have great ideas, but if you don’t have an administration that cares, you’re just talking to yourself,” Chuck said.

 

He also spoke on some of the qualities that people look for in a leader today. “People want to see humble leaders, and when a crisis hits, they need a superman. But the number one thing is being authentic, transparent and an overall great human being,” he said.

Chuck noted that CIOs are viewed as not doing enough, CFOs are considered too tight with their purses, and CHROs simply don’t care enough. He also touched on another perception, that IT is the biggest cost to the business, but advised CFOs to look at it a little differently.

“If you as the CFO think that IT is a cost centre and continue in that vein, that’ll be problematic,” he said. “Technology is at the heart of an organisation’s strategy today, and it’s not about money being wasted on IT projects, but rather how you allocate those resources that’s important.”

Situational awareness

Brenden Pienaar, founder of Lowveld Trials Company, hit the stage next. He reflected and shared a story about his chilling encounter with a Cape Buffalo bull while in the bush. It attacked Brenden and his friend, and it injured his legs in the process. The story was to essentially drive home the point to attendees that they have to become more aware of their surroundings, not only in the outside environment, but also in the organisational environment.

“Most people don’t know that they also have a buffalo waiting for them too,” he said. “These are your blind spots: different scenarios thrown at you that might throw you off your path, such as a global or economic crisis. Brenden compared that to being confronted by a buffalo and only having one shot to save your life, but what happens if you miss that shot – who will back you up?

He suggested that exercising composure, responsiveness, and teamwork would be important in the situation, in the bush or in the corporate world. “My encounter with a buffalo was a stark reminder to be aware of your awareness. It not only applies in the savannah, but the corporate ecosystem as well,” Brenden highlighted.

“If you want to stay ahead in a wild ecosystem, you’ll need to smell while you’re ahead, see while you’re ahead ,and effective communication in a team is crucial. Encourage active dialogue and collaboration,” he advised.

Reflection and a debrief

Joël used the occasion to reflect on the poll results gathered during CIO Day in July. CIOs responded to the statement: The HR Director/CFO (or equivalent) in my company is... blocking progress and slowing our company down, with only nine percent agreeing. Joël invited Matimba Mbungela, CHRO of Vodacom, Unathi Thosago, CTO of Adcorp Group, and Dayalan Govender, Partner at PwC, to the stage to discuss this.

“CFOs tend to be easily inherent to cost control. Even Chuck said that companies are sometimes run from a spreadsheet – and where there are cost or budget cuts, IT is usually the first victim or target,” said Unathi. “However, those investments are really important: for example, cloud costs can really ramp up, you need to invest in the team when you migrate into the cloud, which also have cost implications, and we sometimes don’t speak the same language as well.”

From a talent perspective, Unathi added that things have moved towards a bigger focus on skills rather than qualifications in IT. Skills like coding and software development are rare and have become sought after, she said, more than the BSc in computer science we’ve all been accustomed to.

On relationship management and tricks to manage them, Unathi kept it simple, “if you want to go quick, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together,” she said. “Collaboration is key, as the relationship between the CIO, CFO, and CHRO is symbiotic.

“Look at it from a ‘jobs to be done’ approach, and that’s across the board. This will help you meet your customer needs, invest in technology and in value creation, speak their language as a CIO (numbers), and that’s how you get their buy-in as far as IT investment is concerned.”

During the Q&A session, one guest referred to the three speakers on stage as the tripartite alliance, and asked about the important role that the CEO plays in this alliance.

“CEOs must create a safe space, and avoid creating an environment of competition between the rest of the C-suite. That’s when the cracks will surface,” Unathi commented.

After a lot of food of thought, attendees had a chance to enjoy a five-star meal from Marble’s world-class restaurant. Guests had a selection of grilled yellowfin or grilled octopus as a starter, coal-fried rib-eye or open fire grilled sea bass as a main, and cookies and cream to hit that sweet spot.

The next special guest was Dieter Veldsman, chief scientist at the Academy of Innovate HR. He tackled skills across the board, but with particular focus on skills in the realm of IT, Dieter noted that technology will play a critical role addressing the skills crisis, but it’s not about automating everything.

Abdullah Verachia, global strategist and keynote speaker then kicked off the most interactive part of the afternoon, The Global Cafe, and called on attendees to exchange tables and move from where they were originally seated. They were also required to answer some questions, including: How do the main priorities and challenges of my role intersect with those of the other roles (CIO, CFO, CHRO), and how can you collectively leverage these intersections for the benefit of the organisation?

“The Global Cafe is about reflection, it’s about inquiry, who they are beyond your title, using all of our senses, connecting the dots and bringing your best self into the room,” Abdullah said.

“The exercise was a reminder that we tend to jump quickly on titles, which must change. Let’s drop the labels – that way, we’ll have empathy for one another,” Aveena Mothilall, CIO at Engen, said about the seat exchange experiment.

“People need to put their egos aside and not live in an echo chamber,” Yasvanth Singh, CIO at Discover Digital commented.

Guest speaker Nikos Angelopoulos, group CIO at MTN, highlighted that there needs to be alignment of objectives: if they’re not aligned you will not get the same value across the board. Nikos also took the opportunity to lighten the mood and said he is not a fan of the phrase ‘budget cuts’. “There’s no such thing as a budget cut, because you cannot cut what you don’t have,” he joked. “It’s merely a hallucination that we have budgets.” In fact, he believed, the words ‘budget cut’ have a negative connotation.

Nikos added that the language we use becomes important and it impacts how we think, but for as long as we are speaking the same language, objectives are aligned. “We have a duty as an organisation and leaders of those organisations to establish clarity – what are we doing – who is doing and why are we doing it. That’s what you call direction with clarity.”

For Unathi, it’s not about speaking her language (IT), but about speaking in a broader business language, and understanding the bigger picture of the business. “ROI in the grand scheme of things cannot be about implementing systems to save us money,” she said. “But bear in mind that there’s a cost to not doing certain things, and that’s the balance that needs to be struck going forward: not merely implementing systems for digitalisation’s sake and saving money, but more about understanding the value we lose by not implementing certain things. For example, things that drive employee safety and enhance employee experience.

“It’s about what the organisation needs to be effective, sustainable, and profitable – that’s the bigger picture,” she concluded.

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