CEO Joseph Sheffu sees CFOs as catalysts for change

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Joseph Sheffu, managing partner at EY Tanzania, details his leadership perspectives, his support of the CFO community and his perception of the business landscape in Tanzania.

Joseph Sheffu is the country managing partner at EY Tanzania, a position he has held since 2010. He has decades of experience, including roles at PwC and the Ministry of Finance. His robust educational background encompasses auditing, management consultancy and leadership. He holds an MBA from the Saïd Business School at the University of Oxford, supplemented by participation in the HP Leadership Programme at Harvard Business School and an MSc in auditing & management consultancy from Birmingham City University.

Joseph spoke to CFO East Africa about his leadership perspectives, his support of the CFO community and his perception of the business landscape in Tanzania.

You were appointed country leader of a big 4 firm at the relatively young age of 38. How did you accomplish this feat?
I have always been keen on setting personal goals and working towards them. I credit the teams that I worked with for enabling me to get to this position and the environment at EY that encourages career growth. I worked hard to grab the opportunities that the firm presented as it is an organisation that is hungry for talent, innovation and dynamism. I have also been fortunate to have supportive parents growing up and my wife has also been a pillar for my career.

What have been the highs and lows of your career?
Progressing through the ranks at a rapid rate has been a significant high. There were others who I expected to be promoted before me but was surprised to be afforded the opportunity to lead ahead of them.

One significant low was having to be involved in retrenching staff early on in my career, as a result of a difficult business environment. It was something that I was not emotionally prepared for and had to seek counselling to mentally cope with the idea that hard-working colleagues lost their jobs and source of income for their families.

Unfortunately, in partnerships, each partner is like a divisional head who often focuses on just their segment. As managing partner, I have to ensure that each segment is operating perfectly so that we do not find ourselves in a situation where we have to let go of our staff.

How is the business landscape in Tanzania at the moment and what challenges are you facing as a professional services firm?
The landscape is improving as we continue our growth trajectory. There was a time when things were not as good, given that we had policy issues particularly during the pandemic. The business environment is now opening up and there has been steady growth and optimism. We are seeing expansion of the economy and increases in foreign direct investment.

One challenge we are facing as professional services firms is human capital. We spend a lot of money developing staff because they, unfortunately, do not come out of our universities ready for industry. Our educational institutions are not yet that dynamic as a consequence of our “ujamaa” past and lack of linkage with business. Previously, the government made it very difficult for businesses to hire skilled foreigners, but that policy is now shifting as there is a good understanding that skilled foreigners will be of benefit to the economy through training of local staff.

Another challenge we face is that of lack of access to finance. Because our main asset as a professional services firm is our people and their knowledge, we do not have tangible assets to put up as security. Lenders consequently shy away from giving us access to capital. Thankfully, other finance and venture capital firms are now coming into our market which has resulted in a shift in thinking.

Why is EY supporting CFO East Africa?
Because of the work we do, we have a direct relationship with CFOs. They are the ones who create awareness of the objective of finance in an organisation. CFOs have a deep understanding of industry and surveys conducted among them show that they have intimate knowledge of the issues affecting their organisations.

CFOs are catalysts for change and as right-hand executives to CEOs, they are one of the most important people when compared to other functions or positions in the C-suite. As a consulting firm, we speak the same language as them and therefore participating as partners to CFO East Africa will enable us to continue relevant conversations around such topics as financial reporting, technology and government policy and indeed current topical issues such as AI and sustainability.

How does EY support CFOs in achieving the objectives set for their roles?
We support CFOs in different ways including enrolling them into our platform for thought leadership on emerging issues. We host events that provide key information on various changes including updates on International Financial Reporting Standards and Basel 3, which is scheduled for adoption in the financial services sector. We periodically host breakfast sessions and one-on-one interactions through which we offer advice on implementation of regulatory changes, among other industry issues.

What is your leadership style?
I try to empower my staff by delegating as much as possible. That said, I am also firm. My leadership style has evolved over the years; when I started off, I was very hands on and a bit authoritative. As a result, I got my fingers burnt as some staff reported me to the then managing partner who advised me to tone it down. I have since learnt to manage my emotions and take a step back to let others get things done with my support.

Is there a particular event that has changed your perspective in life?
There was a time we lost a staff member and the response of staff members was amazing. It was overpowering to see our people pull together support in a show of absolute love that went far beyond our basic obligations, as an employer and fellow employee, during bereavement. They rallied together to pool funds to support the education of the children right up to university. We took cognisance of this effort as a firm, noting that the workman’s compensation scheme was not sufficient for bereaved families. Since then, we have set up a voluntary structure where the firm will match contributions made by any staff towards a private life policy.

What is your view of success and what do you do outside of the office?
I view success from a big picture perspective; as long as the organisation is performing well, our staff and clients are happy, then we can say we are successful. It is definitely something that goes beyond our financial KPIs. We are successful when we are able to support the career ambitions of our people.

Outside of work, I volunteer my time to student organisations at the University of Dar es Salaam where I teach them financial matters. I am also a keen golfer and a father of a 16-year-old daughter, Alexandra, who needs my support as she prepares for her IGCSE examinations.

Finally, what advice do you have for younger finance professionals?
I believe leaders are made, not born. To aspire to leadership, you need to observe the fundamentals, which includes taking the time to learn. Seek inspiration from various sources including reading material. Young finance professionals and CFOs alike should invest in their soft skills because it is very easy to get into the trap of relying on your technical expertise to get ahead while forgetting that it is your ability to lead people that will make or break you as the leader of a finance team.

Finally, we are living in the technological age and therefore you cannot thrive as a professional if you are not open to understanding and using technology.

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