CEO Dion Shango highlights the challenges of leading audit firms today

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Financial Minds: Dion Shango

CEO Dion Shango highlights the challenges of leading audit firms today

Dec 11, 2023 | Strategy & Leadership

‘Leading PwC has revealed to me how incredibly precious and valuable a brand can be,’ CEO Dion Shango says.  ‘Our new equation is about building trust and delivering sustained outcomes. Trust is an incredibly precious and fragile thing. It takes decades to earn it but you can destroy it in an instant. PwC is a brand representative of all things trust and it is important for all of us to remember that. It is a brand that has been built for 160 years and we have been entrusted for a limited time to look after it for a short period of time and make sure that we bequeath it to the next generation in a better and more trusted position than we found it.’

PwC has three main business lines including Risk Assurance which is the bedrock of the company. There is also the Taxation division which is also a steady income earner. The third offering is Advisory which comprises corporate finance, forensic investigations, mergers and acquisitions and disputes resolution.

Partner connection

‘Advisory is trickier due to the nature of that game in the sense that you compete with multiple organisations, even those that are dissimilar to you,’ Dion explains. ‘Our challenge has been finding our niche and making a success of it at the right price point.  I have been working with the leader of that business to try and stabilize it making sure that partners in the business remain engaged’

A further difficulty Dion has faced is in relation to the South Africa business where the implementation of a new system did not go according to plan. This resulted in a negative impact on the partners which necessitated finding a way of getting partners to believe in the practice and its future again. A key part of that was finding new ways of communicating with them which Dion pioneered by creating a weekly newsletter.

‘This had never been done before,’ he states. ‘It made sure that we stay connected to our partners and they kept informed and up to date as to the journey we were on in restoring some of the instability in our business. This continues today with Shirley Machaba (new PwC Southern Africa CEO) doing it every two weeks and I do it monthly for our Africa practice. The newsletters keep partners informed of what our focus areas are and what aspects of our strategy we need to pay attention to.’

Running a professional services firm is different from running other types of business such as manufacturing, retail or mining. This is a people business where culture is critical and people need to do work that they find fulfilling. They need to feel valued which underscores the importance of one of PwC’s values; that of care which speaks to keeping their employees engaged while attracting and retaining the best talent.

Strategy

‘When we formulated a strategy, it was clear to me that it needs to be long-term and not just one that would serve our stint as the leadership team,’ Dion recalls. ‘Secondly, the strategy needed to be clear, simple, coherent and easy to remember. A strategy shouldn’t be a document of many pages but rather a picture on one page. People should be able to understand the page, engage with its message and resonate with the objective. The proof of a good strategy is in its execution and it can only be successfully executed if it is easily understood.’

A strategy encompasses what will guide the organisation’s decision making. For Dion, you cannot be an effective leader if you cannot be decisive.

‘You would rather make the wrong decision than none at all; procrastination is never the answer. Decision making is difficult because of the impact that it has on people’s lives. For example, we took the conscious decision at the beginning of the pandemic that we would not retrench our staff even though we knew that there would be a negative financial impact on our bottom-line. We were able to stick to that decision for two years.’

The company did restructure and lay off staff thereafter, but Dion says this was already in the works even before the pandemic. He counts the restructuring and the fact that he has been unable to travel and engage with other teams across the continent as the low points in his career as Africa CEO.

CEO of CEOs

Incidentally, Dion did not set out to become the CEO of one of Africa’s largest consulting firms. He is by his own admission quite shy and gets extremely nervous when he has to address a large group of people. This surprises many people who think he is quite a natural at public speaking.

‘Becoming a partner was already a significant milestone in my career,’ he says. ‘The additional layer of leadership was interesting because as CEO of a partnership you are a CEO of other CEOs because each partner essentially has his own business comprising a portfolio of clients and a team of managers.  To become a CEO, one needs to recognise that many people have the technical skills, but it is the emotional intelligence that distinguishes leaders from followers.’

The ability to demonstrate empathy and to interact with others appropriately is what sets leaders apart. These skills are difficult to teach and replicate. Depending on the personality type, future CEOs need to continually think of developing their soft skills which is considerably harder than advancing technical skills. Attributes such as effective communication, being a team player, engaging new clients and managing difficult ones are things that are learnt over time.

‘Furthermore, it is the digital age which has redefined how we engage as human beings and therefore there is the additional challenge of remaining an effective leader when human connections are not what they used to be. Leadership is about knowing what’s important to your people, understanding what inspires them and knowing which buttons to press.’

Dion views success as a state of mind and something that has to be more than just oneself. It goes beyond financial prosperity to seeing growth in other people. For instance, he is excited that the appointment of new partners in July 2022 will result in lifting the firm percentage of partners from previously disadvantaged communities to forty percent in South Africa.

‘Across the continent, we have also been successful in increasing our diversity by lifting our proportion of female partners to 28%. We have not done everything well but that is fine because our failures beget success. It is by learning from our mistakes that we will build authenticity and character,’ he concludes.

This article is an extract from the book THE CEO X FACTOR – available here https://www.takealot.com/the-ceo-x-factor/PLID92980382

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