Joseph Ndisya weighs in on the change from CFO to COO

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Joseph Nzou Ndisya, who has worked for PwC Kenya for his entire 22-year career, believes it is important to never lose the personal touch with employees no matter how many there are. As part of this approach, he has instituted a Next-Gen council, so younger professionals have a forum to suggest ideas and drive transformation.

Joseph Nzou Ndisya has worked at PwC Kenya for his entire 22 year career. As COO, he is responsible for finance and operations in the PwC East Market Area. In this Q&A, he shares the highs and lows of his leadership journey and the principles by which he stands.

How did you get into PwC and why have you stayed so long?
While still an accounting student at the University of Nairobi, I was privileged to intern at PwC working under the then CFO, Dinesh Kotecha, and professional mentor, Matata Munyeke. The firm was going through a transition from manual systems to automated processes after the merger of legacy firms Pricewaterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand. Upon completion of my undergraduate studies in July 2001, I was offered full time employment on an immediate basis due to my exemplary work as an intern.

I have risen through the ranks primarily in the firm’s finance department and every day I’m reminded of why I enjoy working at PwC. We work in a very dynamic environment with leaders who challenge us to solve important problems in innovative ways. I am captivated by the fact that we work with different generations, which presents opportunities for growth and brings a fresh set of perspectives to how we work and evolve. I work with 22 year olds for instance whose thinking and motivation is quite different with generational changes.

What would you say is the difference between a 22-year-old today and you when you were the same age?
If I look at a 22-year-old now, they have what I may call an overload of information and available answers. This is one of the aspects that leaders at my level must be continuously aware of. When we were growing up, our main source of information was a newspaper, radio and national TV stations that operated for a few hours in the day. The unlimited access to information can be overwhelming at times, which leads them to struggle with such things as focus, loyalty to jobs, relationships, but on the other side brings new ideas and innovations that help drive us all into the digital era.

During my time, the boss was the only source of truth. Today, younger colleagues in the profession can challenge various aspects at the workplace because it is easy for them to research and benchmark themselves against peers all over the world.

Again, I see the abundance of information as an opportunity. I am able to pick new ideas from a team of curious individuals who are seeking as many answers as I am. For example, a trained accountant can experiment and suggest work tools on how information can be presented visually which is a great value add, despite the fact that this was not taught to them at school.

How does transitioning from a pure finance role to COO impacted you?
As finance lead, I was leading a smaller team of about 20 people. As a COO, that number has grown over tenfold that I manage directly or indirectly. There is a difference in terms of how you structure a bigger team than a small one. At PwC, we have team leaders who oversee our different business units.

That said, it is critical to never lose personal touch with your people no matter how many there are. In addition, you need to let everyone feel like they are part of the bigger mission we are all aiming to achieve – to solve important problems and deliver sustained outcomes. In this regard, I instituted a Next-Gen council at PwC Kenya where younger professionals have a forum to suggest different ideas and drive transformation in the organisation.

Operations is interesting given the fact that there are many unknowns and people only notice when things break. You do not think about the chair you are sitting on until it gives way. IT platforms are simply expected to work when staff come in the morning, it is a bare minimum expectation that is taken for granted until something like a cyber event happens and people look at operations to solve the problem.

In operations, the ability to be able to detect business disruption is critical to a business. When I was in finance, I used to ask other functions to attach a financial value to what they do. So for instance, our tech team should be able to quantify how much money we would lose if our systems were down for one percent of the time. This helps give a sense of what is important and what risks to manage.

I think working in finance prior to taking over operations or the COO role is an advantage because you see the business from all angles. The ability to connect data and driver-based activities is key to linking topline and bottomline ambitions of the business. So now that I am in operations, I can apply a financial lens to partner and drive value for our stakeholders.

What are the pros and cons of working in a partnership?
Unlike large private entities, Partnerships are largely owner-managed businesses. I have the benefit of working with professionals in the same field, and execution of strategy and decision-making is done with ease as a visionary. The ability to propose new initiatives is also taken in quick succession due to proximity of working with decision makers. The reverse can also work to some disadvantage.

What do you think are critical factors for success in leading a business today?
You need to first understand the money making process of your organisation to lead that process. Secondly, you need to have a global view of things. Many businesses in Kenya today are struggling, not because of what is happening locally but because of happenings in the international arena.

Businesses don’t operate in isolation and good leaders take the time to understand micro and macro economic matters to better lead their businesses. Lastly, we must leverage technology to digitalise and optimise efficiency so that the business is sustainable and future-proof.

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