CFO Kevin Nyakeri stands by the principle of inverted thinking

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Having been fascinated by planes from a young age, ICEA LION Life Assurance CFO Kevin Nyakeri’s desire growing up was to be a pilot.

Having been fascinated by planes from a young age, ICEA LION Life Assurance CFO Kevin Nyakeri’s desire growing up was to be a pilot. This is the reason he chose to join Mangu High School, which offered an aviation elective. After completing school, Kevin's father promised to pay for his pilot certification, but only after he had obtained a degree.

“I chose to pursue a BCom in Finance at the University of Nairobi. After studying for four years and graduating in 2005, I became immersed in the world of finance and that’s how my dream to become a pilot ebbed away, although my love for planes endures,” he said.

“After completing my degree, I joined EY as an audit associate. I knew I was not keen to be an audit partner and I left to join First Chartered Securities Limited (FCSL) as the group internal auditor,” he added.

Kevin is both a CPA(KA) and a chartered financial analyst. After two years in his role at FCSL, he was asked to take up the position of head of audit in one of the group’s subsidiary companies, ICEA LION General Insurance.

He was promoted to CFO of the life assurance business six years later.

Successful strategy
As CFO, Kevin is a critical player in crafting strategies and work plans for the organisation.

“A key element of a successful strategy is execution. Many big companies have well written strategies which are poorly executed. Conversely, you may find a smaller entrepreneurial outfit that is disciplined in action doing better because they are purposely executing their plans. You also need to be dynamic; for instance, we had to change our five-year strategy drastically when COVID-19 struck,” Kevin explained.

The experience with the pandemic is something Kevin counts as a highlight of his career.

“The pandemic occurred a few months after I was appointed CFO. This meant that I had to learn very quickly. We immediately embarked on conserving cashflow and safeguarding livelihoods coupled with business process reengineering and strategising. As a key member of the management team at the centre of budgeting and corporate planning, I learnt a lot within a short period of time,” he said.

The company strategy has also been impacted by the current tax environment in Kenya. The government has changed the collection frequency such that certain taxes, which needed to be remitted monthly, are now payable every five days.

"This has forced us to change our systems and to train staff on what to do. The government has also stepped up a push to increase revenues by instituting heavy penalties. In addition, the tax law is very dynamic and inconsistent. As a result, tax implications are one of the main things we have to think about when designing new products or entering new markets," he said.

The whole self

Kevin has a team of more than 20 people and he believes in understanding their interests beyond the office as part of his leadership style.

“The whole self comes to the office. It is not simply an accountant who walks through the door but a father, a brother and a husband. If the person has a sick child, you need to ask them about the child and demonstrate genuine empathy. Furthermore, you need to know the child’s name and ask about them by name,” he said.

“The people who work with us are human beings and not just factors of production. They have other things that occupy their minds and it is important to understand what these are. If someone is a football fan, it helps to connect with them by asking about their team before diving into the demands you have of them,” he added.

Kevin is passionate about human behaviour and is fascinated by how people approach life. He has lately encountered the inverted thinking ideal which he finds worthwhile in both personal and professional life.

“People think that to be successful in life they should determine where they want to be and then do a number of things to get there. Inverted thinking focuses on the roadblocks to avoid in life as the route to success,” Kevin explained.

Headwinds and tailwinds

Outside of the office, Kevin likes to enjoy a round of golf at his local country club. He enjoys spending time with his wife and two children. He is also an avid reader.

"One of my favourite books is The Art of War by Sun Tzu, which has a lot of essential lessons for business strategy such as the ultimate victory is achieved by outsmarting and outmanoeuvring the competition without direct confrontation whenever possible. The other book I love is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie which has inspired the leadership style that I have adopted for my finance team and in dealing with other stakeholders," Kevin said.

Inspired by his love of planes, he added, "Business leadership is akin to being part of a cockpit team. It involves confronting business turbulence, navigating through headwinds, capitalising on tailwinds, while steadfastly staying on course and safely landing by accomplishing the predetermined commercial targets within the specified timeframe.”

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