OPINION | Why problem solvers, and not just qualifications, are driving today’s corporate leadership

MTN CEO, Ralph Mupita, is an engineer, but won CFO awards in his previous role (pic: CFO SA)

By Ngoni Makaha

Ralph Mupita, just another normal lad from Mutare, is a kingmaker in the corporate universe sitting at the helm of Africa’s largest mobile network operator, the MTN Group. An Engineer by training, Ralph has traversed several corporate functions including strategy and finance.

An engineer at the helm of corporate finance issues is aberrant to the conservative and conventional business statutes. In conservative dictates, financial issues are the preserve of the number-crunching Chartered Accountants who can aptly interpret earnings volatility and convert numbers into words.

So, how does Ralph an engineer by training, end up being a Chief Finance Officer and ultimately the President and Chief Executive of the MTN Group? Why is there an increasing number of CFOs who have basically “engineered” their way into a finance career? Why is Sim Tshabalala, a lawyer and the current Chief Executive of Standard Bank Group, leading in the financial services sector, yet “hard-nosed” conservative bankers are scattered everywhere? Why do we have a lot of non-finance professionals excelling so well in financial and business strategy roles?

Perhaps the answer lies in a constant called “change”.

Referring to bankers, the author Dileep Rao articulated his point very well when he opined that old school bankers will become new age dinosaurs. Business models across various industries have changed such that old school conservatism, where roles are defined only by training and qualifications, no longer applies.  

The world has changed, and business processes have significantly altered. Most businesses are facing constant threats at every turn. The climate is changing, consumer behaviours are becoming unpredictable, competition as a result of globalisation has grown, technology has fuelled unpredictability, pandemics have left a devastating effect and labour markets are changing. All these challenges put problem-solving, strategy and decision-making at the heart of corporate leadership.

Simnikiwe Tshabalala, a lawyer, became Standard Bank’s first black CEO in 2017 (Picture: Freddy Mavunda/BusinessDay)


What the modern investor wants

On the other hand, the modern investor is no longer interested in earnings calls peppered only with financial hyperbole, but now takes a significant interest in value preservation. Value preservation can only be attained when a business navigates problems and challenges in a low-cost and strategic manner.

As a result, problem solvers and strategic thinkers hold the key skills the wider industry is seeking and rewarding to occupy the upper echelons of the corporate ladder. With the current trend, it seems the corporate world is much more interested in one’s problem-solving skills before forte and training.

Whether problem solving is innate or acquired is just as complex as distinctly defining it as an art or a science. One acclaimed phenomenon, though, is that problem solving is an iterative process that requires innovative thinking, a structural approach, consultation, hypothesis and prewiring.  

Albert Einstein once said: “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it”. Most business executives are dealing with problems all the time – “How does the business grow? How do we respond to unfavourable legislation?”

The genesis of any problem-solving process is articulating the statement of the problem. This seemingly looks easy but corporate leaders will confess to the hospital visits they make when this task gets overwhelming.

The problem solver’s mind

The following hypothetical problem question is illustrative of the immense power of problem-solving in businesses today. Faced with investor unrest and changing demand, a CFO can conclusively come up with the following problem question:

What percentage of sales growth is required to reach the earnings target considering changing demand as a result of changing consumer tastes?

Just like a family set-up or political system, any approach to problem-solving within a business setting will always be a field of contestation. Great skill is required in the problem-solving process including hypothesis testing and predictive analysis.

To put this into perspective by looking at the sales growth question, imagine a company that would wrongfully diagnose low incomes as the primary determinant of falling demand – the opportunity to change the product offering to meet changing consumer tastes is missed and the ultimate target of improving earnings may never be reached.

The challenges of this day require a lot of creativity, analysis and predictive thinking. To succeed in the corporate world, given the dynamic challenges the world is facing, problem-solving is a fundamental skill now essential to any business function. 

According to McKinsey, problem solvers are not defined by training or title but have six mutually reinforcing mindsets that define them. They are curious, tolerant and humble, pursuant to occurrent behaviour, tap into collective intelligence, drive action and always widen the aperture.

Maybe the world needs lots of Ralphs and Sims who do not define themselves according to their specialties but cast themselves into uncharted woods with one goal in mind – problem-solving.


Ngonidzaishe is a finance professional with a keen interest in Alternative Investments and Corporate Finance. This article was inspired by his participation in the McKinsey Forward program.