How CFO Zipporah Chege deals with pressure, and the power of the pause

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ICEA LION General Insurance CFO Zipporah Chege’s journey to leading a finance function was undoubtedly shaped by her upbringing.

ICEA LION General Insurance CFO Zipporah Chege’s journey to leading a finance function was undoubtedly shaped by her upbringing.

Her father believed that accounting was a good job from a financial perspective - and her proficiency in mathematics made the choice easier. As a result, she left her village in Limuru, Kenya to attend Strathmore University (then Strathmore College). Once her studies were completed, she joined Deloitte and rose to the position of senior audit manager.

“I am the eldest child in my family and my dad was so proud to have his child at university. And, while at university the big four audit firms would come around and pick the top students to work for them. So, I was lucky enough to be picked by Deloitte,” she said.

“My first station at Deloitte was actually in their Mombasa office and I was there for seven years. I then returned to the Nairobi office, where I rose up the ranks to senior audit manager,” she added.

At the time, Zipporah’s audit client’s base included the Nairobi Securities Exchange, Africa Reinsurance Corporation and a few banks - and ICEA LION (then Insurance Company of East Africa).

“One day I heard that the ICEA LION was looking for a CFO for the general business and I just walked up to my audit partner and said ‘can I try this out?’ I still recall doing my interviews while on vacation in the US,” she said.

Strong bonds
Seven years later, Zipporah’s portfolio at one of East Africa’s leading insurance companies includes General Insurance finance operations in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

ICEA LION General Insurance Company is part of ICEA LION Insurance Holdings, which encompasses life assurance, general insurance, asset management, and the trust business.

With her open and empathetic management approach, based on forming strong bonds with her team, it’s no surprise that Zipporah has achieved considerable success in her career.

“When I joined ICEA LION, we started the journey of transitioning to Integrated Reporting and we also began to participate in the Financial Reporting Excellence Awards (FiRe). For the last six years, every year, without fail, ICEA LION General Insurance has secured a FiRe Award,” she said.

In addition, Zipporah counts being appointed as a non-executive director at two non ICEA LION companies and serving as chair of the Finance, Audit and Risk Committee in one of the companies, among her achievements.

“The massive experience and the responsibility in these appointments have been most rewarding and I think it's added quite some level of colour in my career as well,” she said.

However, she acknowledges that there have been challenges which have tested her resilience.

“Doing business is tougher in some markets, more so than others. In all the three countries we operate in, we are faced with insurance and tax regulations”.

Adapting
Zipporah is au fait with the goings-on in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya as her role as CFO extends beyond traditional financial reporting and works within a matrix structure. She attends by invitation various boards and board committees across the three countries, thereby ensuring alignment between group reporting and the operations of the general business.

She also notes that being a CFO comes with huge responsibility, and although having the title and accountability is great, it also means sometimes conveying information that people don't want to hear.

“There have been moments where I have had to go against the grain and say that although a project or investment is interesting, it doesn’t make financial sense. In this role as CFO, you can’t always share all the information with people and that can be challenging,” she explained.

Zipporah recalled an incident when she had to swim against the tide.

“There was an event that had been planned in such a rush. There were names on that list who I knew had not even been called to be told about the event, but we were supposed to approve it. And I was like, no, we need to plan better. As a result, there was a “showdown” at the management meeting,” she said.

“I literally walked out of the management meeting, went to the bathroom, cried myself silly, then picked my bags and went to a restaurant. You know those type of incidents, where you have to show up the next day looking strong and keep going,” she added.

A key lesson learnt, however, was to adapt her style of engagement, to understand that there were more appropriate ways to communicate even when you don't agree with someone.

Doing the right thing
Another good lesson learnt involved the fairly recent resignation of a valued team member, Robert Gathage.

“I never saw his resignation coming. He's the person who, when he tells you something is going to get done, you don't have to call and find out whether it has been done. We had just completed filing our 2022 annual returns and I was planning to take a two-week break, when I received his resignation letter,” she said.

“I was so devastated, I actually broke down right there. That was one of the most difficult days. I asked him whether there was anything I could do to convince him to stay, but there were extenuating personal circumstances beyond my control,” she added.

It was as a result of going through this scenario that Zipporah is a big proponent of not taking any employee for granted.

“Employees are not fixed assets, who have no plans of their own. It’s a good idea to have upfront conversations and find out what their plans are. In this way, changes don’t come as a big surprise.

It is also important to build teams, not depend on one individual. Luckily for me, I was grooming two other people for the same role,” she added.

Fortunately, such experiences places Zipporah in a unique position to advise newcomers into the CFO role.

“I advise all those who are new to the CFO role to always do the right thing and stand your ground. Sometimes there will be a lot of pressure, even though you’re convinced that the financial case is not solid. It is ok to go against the grain,” she said.

“I'd also encourage them to lift their heads off the desk. I think as accountants quite often, we are so immersed in the work and we forget about what's going on. However, it is important to get involved in more strategic issues of the business. It’s also critical to grow the team, a team that can get the work done just as great as you do - even better than you do. In this way, you give yourself room to blossom in other areas within the organisation,” she added.

Inspirations
Zipporah is currently reading The Power of the Pause by Michael Chernow.

“I'm at a point in life where I believe that networking and relationships are critical and important for success, and this book is talking about the importance of words. When we find ourselves in situations and you need to react to something, if you just paused and responded to that particular situation, it would make a huge difference. He also has an interesting concept about how to overcome resentment, again using pause as a tool. I found it most intriguing in the last few weeks when I've been listening to it and I plan to just go over it another time,” she said.

She counts Amazon founder Jeff Bezos as one of her icons, noting that he started off from a very humble beginning.  “I love his fearless approach and what he has achieved despite the many challenges that he has had,” she said.

Closer to home, Zipporah is inspired by Anne Muraya, Deloitte East Africa’s first female CEO. “She’s showing other women like myself that it's possible to lead organisations,”  she concluded.

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