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Why the Chief Finance Officer is likely to be a CEO

Rashid Khalani, chief executive officer Aga Khan University Hospital. [File, Standard]

Their offices are usually hidden away from the view of the rest of the employees.

Traffic to the finance department is close to none, and they rarely mingle with the rest of the staff unless one has issues with their payslip that the human resource department cannot handle.

Even in staff meetings, they will only speak when the chief executive asks them to explain the company’s decision not to pay bonuses or why it cannot give employees a pay rise.  

But more and more people with a finance background are now being considered for the top positions in companies such as chief executive officers (CEOs).  

Nephat Njengwa, the chief executive at Autosprings East Africa (PLC), a leading automotive parts manufacturer in the region has walked this beaten path.

He ascended to the CEO’s position in April 2020.

Before then, he was the firm’s commercial director. His resume shows he has also worked as group finance manager at Kenya Wines Agencies Ltd and as an audit manager at Longhorn Publishers.

Karanja Ndegwa, chief executive officer and managing director of the low-cost carrier, Jambojet is another example.

He rose to the position in April 2020 from that of the airline’s Chief Finance Officer (CFO), having previously worked as revenue accounting manager at Jambojet’s parent company - Kenya Airways.

Rashid Khalani, The Aga Khan University Hospital chief executive, is also a finance person.

Before his appointment in March last year, he was the hospital’s CFO.

Mr Khalani, who holds an MBA and has certification in adaptive leadership, business administration and general management from Harvard Kennedy School, says anyone who holds a C-suite office wears two hats - that of their technical skills and a business leader.

As a business leader, he says, you need to understand the market dynamics, principles and ethos of the institution.

“And if you understand this, and you can move, I think it is easy for you to marry the two roles,” says Mr Khalani.

“But if you are just focused on your technical skills and your domain and forgot about the business side of it, then it becomes a challenge.”

Technical skills

Mr Khalani insists that no matter how good your technical skills are; the approach has to be different at the CEO level. “The optics are different,” he said. “As a CFO, part of our job is to focus purely on the financials. But as a CEO, financials are important, but other things like infrastructure, people and quality of service are important as well.”

Mr Khalani admits balancing the two is always a challenge. “For me, I understand the business dynamics, which makes it easier,” he says. Having a CFO as a CEO is usually strategic.

Monicah Karanja, head of human resource (HR) and administration at Octagon Africa, explains that two perspectives drive a business - operational and growth. “You find that when an organisation is just concerned about growing their market share, in such instances, they tend to go for people who are more business development market-oriented,” says Ms Karanja.

However, when the plan is to make an organisation leaner, then you look inwards, and CFOs are prime candidates for top positions. “Remember CFOs are oriented towards processes, not the market share,” she notes.

Ms Karanja says in an instance where a company’s market share has already been saturated and there is no more room for growth, a CFO is better suited for the top job.

“When there is no more room for growth, the remaining option is to start looking inwards so that you start generating a return on investments for your shareholders,” says Ms Karanja.

“You would be looking into: how do we cut our expenses? How do we make our operations leaner? And of course, with Covid, that is exactly what happened,” she adds, noting that this was because the market environment was not conducive for growth.

“Previously, organisations were about ‘how do we grow the business,’ but then with what happened, everyone halted and became introspective,” says Ms Karanja.

Corporate strategy

Jim DeLoach, managing director of Protiviti, a global leasing firm, shares in an article published by Forbes how multifaceted the role of the CFO is.

They are not only finance leaders but are also involved in corporate strategy and organisational culture.

Mr Deloach adds that CFOs play a growing role in right-sizing the organisation’s talent and technology investments, strengthening supply chain resilience and wading into less tangible but highly consequential matters such as the ability of the post-pandemic workforce model to deliver on strategic objectives.

“And at the same time, they still have to drive their organisations to close the books, report results and deliver forecasts—all of these new points of focus are additive to that baseline responsibility,” he notes in the January 2022 article titled The CFO’s Gambit: A Multidimensional Strategic Role.

At the same time, the CEO’s role is changing as detailed in a more recent article published this month by Forbes on why CFOs are increasingly becoming the best fit for the position.

Titled, The CEO’s Role Is Changing. What It Takes To Get the Top Job Now, the article notes that in the last 20 years, according to a report by Spencer Stuart, a US-based consulting firm, some CEOs have leapfrogged from last mile roles like CFOs and chief operating officers.
 “The most successful CEOs were those promoted from a few levels down; the least were CEOs who came from the CFO function. While the latter group knew how to turn a profit, the study found they weren’t as strong at driving top-line growth,” says the article.

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