Banking finance leader: A skills balance is key in 2021

The head of finance operations and transformation program for a pan-African bank considers perseverance, vulnerability, and tech savvy as essential to success.

Editor’s note: This article is part of the “Top Finance Skills” series featuring insights from finance leaders across industries on skills finance professionals need to have to be competitive in the future. To receive weekly updates on this series, sign up for our CGMA Advantage newsletter.

Sameer Joneja, the South Africa-based head of finance operations and transformation programme at Absa Group

Finance professionals looking to navigate their careers through uncertainty and rapid technological change need an open mind, a willingness to innovate, a global view, and an eye towards technological evolution to succeed, according Sameer Joneja, the South Africa-based head of finance operations and transformation programme at Absa Group.

Joneja, who has worked in finance for two decades in London, Dubai, India, and South Africa, manages the finance operations within the group financial control vertical, and also plays an active role in organisational finance transformation programmes across Absa Group, a pan-African financial services and banking organisation with operations in 12 countries and about 40,000 employees with $5.92 billion in 2020 revenues.

FM recently spoke to Joneja about how he sees the skills necessary to succeed in today’s finance job market, what organisations are looking for out of the talent pool, and how he’s preparing his team for the future.

If you were starting your career in 2021, which skills would you be focusing on right now?

Sameer Joneja: If I were starting my career in 2021, I would be fully glued on to the fact that the trajectory within the finance function and the larger business has shifted. Technology has become highly integral in the way we do business, and it has become the life and blood for any finance professional and part of the DNA for every finance function.

As a finance professional, it is imperative to stay close to the changes from a statutory and regulatory standpoint. In addition, it is important for both new entrants to the profession as well as experienced cadre to build their expertise on the available technological platforms and their passion for digital. This doesn’t mean accountants need to become technology specialists themselves. However, having an understanding would be key to embracing as well as leading the change.

How important is a global mindset and understanding of the global economy’s complexity for upcoming and current finance professionals?

Joneja: Absolutely, that is very important. For an organisation with global footprint, movement in the global and local economy has a direct impact on the performance and profitability. In that sense, accountants need a clear view about where the economy is going, collaborate with the businesses, and be agile to gain maximum impetus from both the headwinds and tailwinds.

In looking for new talent now and over the next five years, what are the most important skills and experiences that you're looking for?

Joneja: What we really look out for, beyond technical skills, is a passion for finance, perseverance, soft skills, and vulnerability.

Vulnerability for me personally is an important leadership trait. Being vulnerable is not being afraid to say you don’t know but that you want to learn and not being afraid of bringing emotion into the workplace.

Where are the skills gaps in your current team, and how are you encouraging upskilling?

Joneja: Skills is an ever-evolving trajectory. You need to look at upskilling yourself and your team members in ensuring success to the strategic priorities.

That's been a very clear focus area for us and a definitive investment arena. At Absa we believe in investing in our people and empowering them with the necessary skills to achieve their full potential. Supporting the countries in which we operate to build strong, dynamic skill and knowledge bases that will underpin Africa’s economic growth and global competitiveness by:

  • Funding access to quality tertiary education, including an Absa Fellowship programme and innovative education financing solutions;
  • Advancing digital, technical, and vocational skills development through alternative qualification and skills development pathways, specialised academies, and sector cross-skilling;
  • Promoting women and youth entrepreneurship; and
  • Supporting institutional capacity building and teacher training.

If the last 12 to 18 months have taught us anything, it's that uncertainty now seems to be a permanent feature of the global economy. Do you see a skillset that's more effective at dealing with uncertainty? And what's your advice for management accountants to help develop skills to deal with uncertainty?

Joneja: Uncertainty, alongside the other elements of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity), has been extremely prevalent over the last few years. For me personally, it presents a challenge as well as an opportunity towards a better tomorrow. Challenging more in the short term and immediate, while the opportunity is more long-term and enduring. It has already catalysed the adoption of technology and digitisation.

For management accountants, navigating through is to both embrace the change and continuously challenge themselves in driving value for the finance function and business they serve.

What are some of the weaknesses and skills gaps that you see in the talent pool right now?

Joneja: The challenge is in identifying talent which presents the right blend of technical and soft skills. An area where we are actively investing is to grow the soft skills within our teams on aspects covering problem-solving, design thinking, attention to detail, and communication skills.

In light of all this rapid upheaval, how have your key metrics for measuring employee performance changed?

Joneja: The principles embedded on pillars of continuous engagement, feedback, and coaching are key in collaborating to a successful outcome.

Employee performance starts with defining the measurable, time-bound objectives, which have a clear alignment with the strategic agenda of the function and the organisation, and the role the employee is expected to perform and the skills required in achieving the goal.

Rapid fire questions

What's the No. 1 skill, in your mind, that a finance professional should have in 2021?

Joneja: Partner effectively with the business in driving collective and sustainable value for the organisation, customer, and society.

Which are more important, soft skills or tech skills?

Joneja: Definitive balance is key.

What's the most important action finance professionals can take to advance their careers?

Joneja: Be vulnerable, persevere, and collaborate.

Visit the Global Career Hub from AICPA & CIMA for help with finding a job or recruiting.

Drew Adamek ( is an FM magazine senior editor.