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Aarti Takoordeen - The Recipe To Success

It takes more than a qualification to be a CFO. We sit down with Aarti Takoordeen, the woman who seems to have it all, to gain some insight into her successful career.

Helene Cilliers | Business Accounting Review

“When we sit around the table at exco meetings, we don’t sit there as experts of our binary portfolios. We sit there as generalists and almost as an extension of the CEO.”

Articulate, confident and brilliant. Not all of these characteristics are necessarily required of CFOs, but they can all be attributed to Aarti Takoordeen, the JSE’s 34-year-old CFO – and these traits have stood her in good stead throughout her career. And to top it all, she’s beautiful too!

The fact that Aarti had been exposed to large multinational companies – including Hewlett-Packard where she worked as Finance Manager and Johnson Controls, where she was the Finance Director – has groomed her for her current role at JSE Limited, where she’s been working since 2013, and where she honed her skills to speak confidently in front of large audiences.

She believes that these and other soft skills will be in growing demand of finance professionals, especially CFOs, as the changing and uncertain global economic environment requires them to play a much more prominent role in strategic decision-making.

“Universities may even have to add a lot of softer dimensions to the syllabus, including those that contribute to authentic leadership,” she said in an interview with Business Accounting Review.

This may include EQ (Emotional-Intelligence Quotient) and influencing skills which all work hand in hand to better equip professionals in the workforce, in more ways than just theoretical book knowledge, she says.

In the meantime CFOs will have to acquire these skills in other ways.

Aarti says her team at the JSE, for example, need to have certain basic skills, including business writing skills which don’t always come naturally.

“Those are the basic entry level skills.

“But then there are other skills such as strategic influencing and insight into prospective business climates, which also encompass business intelligence.”

She emphasises that CFOs should enable their teams to generate commercial intelligence: converting data into information and information into insight, and then sharing that insight with the rest of the business and with peers in the industry.

As keynote speaker at the launch of CFOTalks held at the JSE in November 2016, Aarti said she is very passionate about harnessing the power of big data, as long as it is relevant.

She believes that insight is not just reporting on figures. Data should be used to unlock value, which is what customers are willing to pay for, especially the business’ internal customers.

One of the elements of insight is rolling forecasts versus budgets, since there is a need to be agile and relevant at all times in the fast-changing business environment where uncertainty has come to stay. “Otherwise all those drivers will be irrelevant or obsolete by the time the budget is signed off.”

In fact, these days businesses demand that the CFO evolves. They demand very different business insights from CFOs than in the past.

“CFOs are now empowered more than before. They are moving from the back office to the front office to provide meaningful and valuable insights.”

CFOs are no longer judged by their corporate governance and financial acumen only, but also by their ability to thrive in today’s complex operating environment.

“Your success is also dependent on your counterparts and being able to influence your counterparts to be a little more risk-taking, adventurous and innovative, because that’s what’s going to unlock value.”

She says there are a number of finance transformation tools that can be applied to unlock value, such as operational efficiencies, automation, standardising and business partner influencing, including not to say “no” all the time.

Aarti involves the finance professionals and commercial counterparts in her team in all business decision-making at the JSE.

Going forward, she sees a world where financial professionals will be competing with those skilled in marketing and IT, and not only with finance professionals, to secure jobs.

“Businesses should also be receptive to and supportive of this evolution. They should support the finance teams to move out of the back office space into a business partnering space”, believes Aarti.

As much as finance people can share with the business, they also need to learn from the business, even if it requires time and resources from the business to teach them how the business actually functions.

Aarti says she is very keen on exposing her team and prospective CFOs to activities outside of the business to empower them, to broaden their horizons and to get global relevance thinking into the local space – which is not always possible, due to cost constraints. “But we can make use of technology and knowledge sharing forums.”

In her case, and because she expects her head of commercial to be very relevant and to have insight into similar businesses’ operations, she gained budget approval to send her head of commercial to the Ibovespa stock exchange in Brazil, which is the closest business model to the JSE with a similar level of maturity in an emerging market.

“She came back motivated and enriched with knowledge,” said Aarti, who believes that part of a business’ employee value proposition should be to retain its talent in a world where there is global competition for top talent.

As part of her team’s three year training and development plan, courses such as EQ training, thought leadership and executive leadership training, as well as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) are included.

Although NLP is not normally associated with finance skills, Aarti believes it is definitely required.

She is also trying to make inroads with the marketing division at the JSE.

For example, she has taken her results presentation to them to ascertain whether it was punchy enough, as she believes marketing people have the knack to reduce a whole lot of information into a catchy slogan or headline or insight that she would not have necessarily been able to come up with herself.

She also encourages her finance team to collaborate with the marketing team when it comes to their monthly reporting.

Where the monthly management accounting reporting is concerned, Aarti includes a lot of non-financial information to make it a well-rounded management pack, including input from HR such as attrition, transformation and gender statistics.

“We also have an investor relation slide which includes who our shareholders are, who’s selling and who’s buying, and whether they are foreign or South African.”

Although the JSE is the only exchange in South Africa at the moment, Aarti says they believe they are in competition with a number of capital raisers. “We also compete on listings with the London stock exchange as well as other exchanges, and we definitely don’t run this business as though we are forever going to be the only incumbent.”

The finance team’s role in trying to find new business is a critical part of how the JSE is run.

“When we sit around the table at exco meetings, we don’t sit there as experts of our binary portfolios. We sit there as generalists and almost as an extension of the CEO.”

As CFO, Aarti believes it is her duty to interrogate strategies and to be the voice of not just governance, but also of realism to determine the correct extent of the scope of their ambition, which currently includes conversations with the directors and CEO on planning where growth will be coming from in the next five years.

She also believes that CFOs should be exposed to their counterparts in other businesses through, for example, the CFOTalks, a platform which facilitates insightful and powerful talks relevant to CFOs, an initiative between IAFEI, UNISA SBL, CIMA, and SAIBA.

She says this type of platform should be used to hone leadership skills, and as a forum where matters such as business partnering and strategy can be discussed.

“This is where organisations like CFOTalks is important to us, because it generates awareness and offers a platform to cross pollinate and share knowledge at a practical level. I’ve been in forums like this and I feel it is important to have a community at a practical leadership level.”