CEO Shital Shah advises CFOs to go beyond the numbers

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Growing up in Voi Town, Kenya, Adili Group CEO Shital Shah had a bit of an unconventional upbringing: the Tsavo National Park was her weekend visit and the family had a baby elephant for a pet!

Growing up in Voi Town, Kenya, Adili Group CEO Shital Shah had a bit of an unconventional upbringing: the Tsavo National Park was her weekend visit and the family had a baby elephant for a pet!

“The park called for sponsors and we adopted an elephant called Helena whose care we paid for while she was being taken care of in the sanctuary. We frequently visited her until she was big enough to be released into the wild,” Shital reminisces.

Her father owned a wholesale business in the town, which was unfortunately razed down in an unexpected fire. He was underinsured and the insurance company paid out only 20 percent of the value of what was lost. He could have used underhand tactics to get more but as a man of integrity, he took responsibility and worked his way back up.

“It is a lesson I have carried with me throughout my life. Integrity is non-negotiable. For instance when I was the COO of Anjarwalla and Khana, there were attempts by suppliers to entice me with possible favours or kickbacks for contracts and any such suggestion would permanently disqualify the supplier from doing business with us,” Shital explains.

When it was time to retire, her father was adamant that he would only sell his business to a member of the local community. He sold his business on generous credit terms to a local Taita businessperson, despite offers of double the amount from entrepreneurs from the Indian community. The spirit of philanthropy persists in the family as today Shital and her family are major contributors and support three children's homes in Nairobi.

Diversity of skills

While at Aga Khan for high school and Oshwal high school for A levels, Shital had a love for numbers which inspired her to pursue accounting. She graduated with a qualification as a chartered certified accountant (FCCA) from Emile Woolf College in the UK in 1993 and joined Coopers and Lybrand (now PwC) in Nairobi a year later.

“In 2006, I met a humble, dynamic and visionary person, Karim Anjarwalla, with whom I immediately hit it off and he invited me to join Anjarwalla and Khanna Advocates (A&K) as a practice manager. I decided to take up the job for a two-year stint because I was not sure about my future plans or my career and I wanted to diversify my skills in other fields and, hence, wanted a taste of what the role offered. Karim told me I would be here much longer than two years and he was damn right as we worked together for many years!” she recalls.

Part of the reason why Shital has stayed with the group is the supportive culture of the leadership. Sadly, Shital’s husband passed away in 2012, due to a brain tumour. During his treatment in the UK, the firm allowed Shital to work remotely at a time when such work arrangements were unheard of.

“The company is very understanding of employee circumstances. They are very generous with maternity leave, allowing six months time away, and flexible work times until the child is nine months. Additionally, the leadership is diverse with a majority of the partners being women,” she says.

High standards

Shital played a pivotal role in creating the Africa Legal Network (ALN), which has a presence in 15 countries and a regional office in the UAE. Working with the ALN board, Shital has helped to craft the operational standards that must be achieved by current and potential member firms to join the alliance and the benefits that would accrue from joining ALN.

Adili group is a leading Pan-African corporate advisory firm that provides corporate, outsourcing, risk advisory and fiduciary services and is affiliated with A&K. Shital was appointed CEO of the company in January 2023 after serving A&K in various capacities, including COO and CFO, for 16 years.

“Having worked with CFOs in practice and served as one, my most important piece of advice for them is that they should not restrict themselves to financial reporting and the numbers. They need to see themselves as partners to the CEOs in running the business through pondering strategies and growth,” she says.

“They should avoid the trap of speaking about the past and pure budgeting and get involved in the business. To do this, they need to have a very good understanding of the business and contribute ideas on how the company can exploit opportunities,” she adds.

Design thinking

Shital further counsels young professionals to have passion and enjoy what they do. Her X factor for success is adaptability which she finds is lacking with many of the young people in practice today.

“They are too focused on one thing rather than having an inquisitive mind and the flexibility to do different things. Careers will not always be linear so you should not be afraid to try different arenas even if you end up making mistakes. In my view, making mistakes is what makes you successful because you learn never to repeat them,” she adds.

A book that changed Shital’s life is Designing Your Life by Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. It centres around how one’s personal and professional life can be shaped using the same design thinking that is responsible for all the great technology, spaces and products available today.

Design thinking permeates Shital's life - her daughter Darshi is a design engineer. Reflecting on their dynamic, she says, "Darshi and I are inseparable, yet people are continually intrigued by her quiet, analytical nature, juxtaposed with my often-loud demeanour."

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