13 November 2023

Congratulations to Freeman for receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from ABASA

What was your reaction when you learned you were nominated this year?

It was mixed feelings, really, a degree of excitement and wonder. Excitement because I have never done any of the work I had the privilege to do with an expectation of recognition except ensuring it is done successfully. So, to learn that somebody is taking note of one’s humble efforts at making a difference is gratifying and inspiring. Wonder because I had never stopped to reflect on the journey traversed thus far and evaluate it, excitedly wondering what ABASA noticed. I am humbled.

What does success mean to you?

It’s about making an impact that is enduring. So sustainability is key as that is the stuff legacy is made of. The fleeting impact is fine as it may generate momentum for a more fundamental and lasting change. It takes time to realise, thus requiring optimism and realism simultaneously. So, randomly meeting people who come up to you and say, “Thank you, had it not been because of you, I wouldn’t be here. You have made a difference in my life.” That is gratifying, and I am blessed to have experienced it.

What have been your biggest mistakes while in a leadership position, and how can the next generation learn from them?

The biggest mistake has been thinking every problem I face is a technical problem
– in that it already has an answer, and my duty is to find that answer. This makes it difficult to create distance from or to the issue, allowing better perspective and enabling a better understanding of what is going on and thus enabling a more effective search for answers. Some problems, familiar-looking as they may be, require a learning and discovery process and experimentation. The next generation needs to understand that some problems reveal the interconnectedness of issues and thus require a deliberate diagnostic process before jumping in to resolve them. As my friend Marty Linsky would say, “Change is incremental in time and radical over time.” Patience is a necessary ingredient to success.

What has been your biggest contribution to SAICA?

I guess it’s got to be the recognition in the 2023 Edelman Trust survey where, as an institute and the profession in South Africa, we regained our top spot globally. This survey reveals that, in the last 5 years, the trust in the CA(SA) designation improved from 81% to 96% and the trust in SAICA as an institute from 78% to 90%. Contesting the top spot has got to include transformation within the profession. This year, 63% of the qualifying candidates come from African, Coloured, and Indian communities, up from 53% five years ago. SAICA’s B-BBEE status has moved to level 2, improving from level 6 in 2019. The digitisation project was limping a few years ago, and now it is on course and will be delivered at significant cost savings. This, of course, is the outcome not just delivered by me but by all at SAICA who daily fly the flag of the profession, including SAICA members.

What do you think the future of SAICA holds after you’ve passed on the baton?

I really think it bodes well for the institute and the members. Having achieved this feat of being the most trusted designation and institute serves to lay the foundation on which to build. It should help us absorb the reputational shocks that may visit us downstream.

How do you think your leadership style has influenced your personal growth?

I don’t know if the “leadership style” has anything to do with my growth more than my outlook in life generally. But being as optimistic as I am and also accepting that I don’t know everything has really ensured that I leverage the capacity around me. It has also emboldened my belief in others and their capacity to contribute to a common change project. Open-mindedness ensures that you bring others in the search for answers but, most importantly, reduce their potential to undermine the common goal.

How have you approached leadership in your professional setting?

Leadership is about doing. Taking time to understand the phenomenon one is dealing with and being realistic about what it would take to make progress. While allowing inclusivity in the search for answers, also realising that intractable problems are seldom resolved through consensus. Pain, conflict, or loss is an essential part of the revelation process and must be embraced rather than shunned. It helps eliminate blind spots and enhances the options you identify for the solution. As you can tell, this suggests that solutions lie with the people you are mobilising for change, and therefore how they experience you is critical to how they respond to the issues at hand. Recognising the humanity of your colleagues, members, and other stakeholders provided a fertile ground for this mobilisation. Call it the leadership approach; I simply call it the mindset for generating essential change.

What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your job?

The thrill of undertaking a difficult task and seeing it to its successful delivery, drawing from the capacities of various stakeholders to achieve it. Testing one’s assumptions about life and human behaviour, regularly failing until you figure out a winning formula is exhilarating.

How do you ensure transparency and accountability in your work?

If you approach your work ethically, it enables you to be transparent and accountable. Ensuring you work for the greater good of all makes this much simpler than it would otherwise. It is such a comforting feeling to know that your actions can be subjected to scrutiny and pass because your whole orientation has little to do with you as it is with a bigger purpose.

In a few sentences, how your family, friends, and community would describe you?
Perhaps words rather than sentences are: stubborn, resilient, confident, humble, resolute, sometimes controlling, innovative, have foresight, courageous, kind-hearted, inspirational, respectful, and patient.

How do you see African economies evolving, and what role do accountants play?

I think the discussion around free trade in the continent is an important one. Africa has so much by way of resources but doesn’t yet exploit this for its own development. Policymakers have got to shift the dial in this regard. The professions must collaborate across geographical boundaries to ensure the integrity of the capital and thus enable the flow of investment into the African continent.

What do you think has been your biggest challenge in your career, and how did you overcome that?

Reporting to authorities that fail to see the bigger picture and are more concerned with their self-interest, often demanding recognition of their authority than promoting the interest of the organisation they represent. In my long career, I have seen this, which is frustrating and undermines the purpose as well as the vision of the organisation. It takes being optimistic about the possibility of change, realistic about what it would take to bring it about, and being patient about it all.

What is your greatest memory from your career?

Interacting with the students and trainees aspiring to be chartered accountants, the groups of people in most of the organisations I have worked for who, for some reason, are relegated to the periphery and realise their commitment to an organisation bent on marginalising them. Being seen by them as part of the collective rather than the boss.