Former SA Accountant-General inspires future leaders

SEPTEMBER 14, 2016

For business leaders to navigate today’s complex environment, they should “create adaptable organisations”, “there should be no subject that is not discussed … no elephant in the room”, and the people they should be taking out to lunch, are those who disagree with them.

So said former National Treasury Accountant-General Freeman Nomvalo, guest speaker at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University’s third annual Prof Les Simpson Legacy Lecture, themed “Insights into being an effective leader in business, who drives sustainable, value-adding change”.

Nomvalo, who is also the former Chief Executive Officer of the State Information Technology Agency, is now an independent consultant and founding partner of Nomvalo Labson Consulting and Nia Leadership Associates.

The lecture, which took place in a question-and-answer format, led by Prof Johnathan Dillon, Division Head of Management Accounting and Finance at NMMU’s School of Accounting, was attended by accounting students, staff and business professionals.

“Being a leader is not easy. It is a difficult exercise because when you challenge the status quo, you ask people to let go of the way they’ve been doing things.  The issues you deal with are things that are close to people’s hearts, things people identify with strongly … People don’t resist change; they resist the losses they incur when change comes,” said Nomvalo, whose passion for leadership development saw him pioneering a leadership development programme for the National Treasury for all senior and executive managers. This was later extended to cover other national departments.

Nomvalo said leaders needed to have a good understanding not only of the issues inside their organisation, but global issues as well, from climate change to terrorism. “You need to understand what’s happening around you, and you need the ability to diagnose what’s happening in your organisation. You need to understand what’s at stake, and what are the real issues driving this.”

He said leaders should create a “shared responsibility for the success of the organisation”.

“They must continue to develop leaders and institutionalise learning. When there is a big failure, a big organisation has to deal with that. But they should see how it can be embedded in [the learning culture of] an organisation to ensure it never happens again.”

He said companies should value their staff. “Recognise that you have more than one person in your organisation for a reason. They are human beings. You should respect them as human beings … Design your organisation in order to recognise that.

“What is important are the types of relationships you have with people. In anything you do, there will be people who agree with you: understand them and appreciate them. There will be people who disagree with you. You also need to understand their point of view. The people you should be taking out to lunch are those who disagree with you. They will shape your interventions [as a leader].”

He said change doesn’t always require a major shift. “Sometimes a small shift leads to incredible results: 98% of our DNA is similar to chimpanzees. That 2% makes a huge difference … You don’t have to overhaul everything. We learn from evolution that small changes drive the biggest impact.”

Nomvalo encouraged the students to consider working in the public sector after graduation. “The public sector is expansive – there is a shortage of skills there. You will be able to occupy roles where people rely on your decisions. You will get broad exposure … Your country needs you; if you think there’s a gap, therein lies an opportunity for leadership. You could be the one that makes a difference.”

The lecture, hosted annually by NMMU’s School of Accounting, serves to honour the memory and legacy of the late Prof Simpson, who taught Management Accounting at the university for 26 years, during which time he taught scores of future chartered accountants, many of whom achieved significant business success.

“The purpose of the lecture is to bring in successful business leaders to help students realize that what they are learning is not irrelevant theory, but that it applies to the real business world. It opens their eyes, motivates them and gives greater meaning to their course content,” said Dillon.

 “This year’s legacy lecture focused on very important soft skills and strategic thinking. Freeman also encouraged the students to work hard and excel in their studies, as he believes a strong technical understanding is a crucial foundation for a professional accountant wanting to become a successful leader in business.”

The legacy lecture was initiated and anonymously funded by a former student of Simpson, who chairs a successful multi-national company in the United States.