‘We are very intentional about being compliant and getting a clean audit’
Welcome to the CFO Club Africa podcast, where we interview leading CFOs from Africa and beyond. CFO Club Africa is a division of the Chartered Institute of Business Accountants, the professional body for business accountants, financial managers and chief financial officers. Go to www.cfoclub.co.za and join our community of accounting and finance executives.
Welcome to this CFO Club Africa podcast, in this podcast series I speak to leading financial professionals and CFOs about their professional journeys, their perspectives on the industry and their perceptions regarding the skills modern financial professionals must have to lead a successful organisation.
My guest today is Shené Groep, she’s currently the Head of Finance of the City of Cape Town’s Directorate of Safety and Security and she’s been working for the metro since 2012 in various financial and managerial positions. She’s currently studying towards her MBA through Regenesys, she has completed the Municipal Minimum Competency Levels Training Programme at the School of Public Leadership at the University of Stellenbosch and she holds a BCom Honours degree in business management through Unisa.
Shené, tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an accountant?
I grew up in Fort Beaufort, a very small town in the Eastern Cape, and I completed my schooling there. I had a very good accounting teacher and that is when I leaned towards accounting. After that, I moved to Port Elizabeth, where I did my undergrad at Nelson Mandela Bay University. Right after graduation, I moved to Cape Town, where I did my articles. Thereafter I was approached by a company called Crossroads Distribution, I worked there for four years in the head office and then subsequent to that I started at the City of Cape Town, and I have spent the last ten years here.
Why did you decide to go from Crossroads to the metro, which is a move from the private sector to the civil service?
At the time, we went through a recession, and I thought maybe it’s a good time to also see what the public sector is about. I had gained a lot of experience in the private sector, it’s knowledge and skills that I still use today. So I moved to the public sector and as you’ll see in my CV, I moved through various departments to find out how they operate, what do they do. It was very interesting.
You are currently the Head of Finance of the City of Cape Town’s Directorate of Safety and Security, tell us about this directorate and what are your main responsibilities?
Safety and security has various departments, a directorate is just a cluster of departments under us, and the departments are Metro Police, law enforcement, traffic services, VIP security, the investigations unit, the events department, disaster risk management. All of that forms the directorate and we have thousands of people within that, it is massive.
What are your core responsibilities?
We’re in the strategic support office, we’re under the executive director and we ensure compliance. So we look at the budgeting of the various departments, see if it’s aligned with the strategic direction of the directorate and then that feeds into the integrated development plan of the city, which is the longer-term plan.
Our office is there to ensure that we are compliant, that we can deliver on pledges made by political parties, and we make sure that the budget and expenditure is aligned with that.
What are the biggest challenges that you face every day?
With all the departments that I have mentioned it’s quite a diverse directorate, it is one of the busiest directorates in the city. The challenges would basically be problem solving, coming up with solutions, understanding the business, understanding how everyone operates, what the requirements are and how to support that. Also, the city being an innovator or trying to improve processes all the time, it impacts systems and procedures, and you have to have the right change management implementation programme to effect that because we’re over 30 000 employees in the city.
Within the public sector there are very strict rules and processes that the accounting teams must follow, how much room do you have to be innovative, to become more efficient, if you work within such a rigid and prescriptive environment?
There’s a lot of structure, there’s a lot of regulation, there’s red tape and you have to work within that to streamline processes and that can be anything from a supply chain process to a demand plan process, the city is open to listen to what will work for you. They are open and want to know what innovation there is. When it comes to financial innovation, yes, we have deadlines but within those deadlines you can identify the weaknesses, how can we improve and there’s always room for improvement.
You’ve been with the city for more than a decade, has the role of an accountant in the civil service changed over the last decade?
Yes, definitely, when I started off it was financial roles, reporting, monitoring but it’s definitely more business related, you have to understand the operations, you have to understand the business to make informed decisions. Operations impact finance and if you do not spend time to at least understand that component, then you will not be successful, that is one of the requirements definitely. Finance doesn’t always come with business subjects and that’s why I’m studying my MBA so that I have an overall view of a business. It just opens your mindset up to other possibilities and ways of doing things.
Do you as an accountant have the room to become strategically involved in the management of the directorate?
Our office deals with the whole budget of our directorate, so all the budgets of the departments I mentioned earlier comes via us, we screen it and make sure it’s aligned with the strategic direction and the IDP of the city. So there is room for that discussion there to make sure that is in line with what has been promised to society.
What would your advice be to young accountants and what skills they need to acquire to become really excellent accounting professionals?
I think you have to be solution-orientated, you have to solve problems, that is a daily task that we deal with.
The other one is being a great communicator, then you have to deal with corporate budgets, with treasury, there are a whole lot of stakeholders involved when you’re an accountant and it’s not just the financial side to it. So being fluent, being clear, so that staff or other people understand what you communicated and how you communicated. Then, obviously, to lead ethically because that influences the culture of the organisation.
How many of these skills can you actually learn and how many only come with experience? Let’s take communication for example.
It is a skill and not a lot of people understand the impact of that. So when we have deadlines and you don’t communicate it properly, you will miss your deadline because someone didn’t understand what has been tasked to them to complete. It is a skill that can be learned, and it is a very vital skill to lead.
Ethics is also pretty important, we’ve had some big accounting scandals in South Africa such as Steinhoff, Tongaat Hulett, state capture and the like, and financial professionals have come under significant pressure, and they’ve been criticised because there seems to be some ethical challenges in the industry. Is that a skill or do you think that’s maybe a trait, something that should be entrenched in your DNA?
It should be something that’s entrenched in your DNA, it goes back to morals and values and how you grew up and what decisions you’ve made. But it’s never too late to make the right decision, I’m sure you can be changed if for whatever reasons there are that would motivate that person not to have that engraved in them. I think ethics is a very important one, it’s sometimes understated, and it does form the shape of the company and how people view the organisation. It’s one of the most important traits, I would say, a successful leader should have.
CFO Club Africa is affiliated with associations of finance executives in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia and Namibia, and annually hosts an international CFO summit. You have done the work and achieved the CFO title, now join the CFO Club Africa as a finance executive.