Becoming CEO of PKF South Africa at 34 : Candice Unsworth CA(SA) shares how being flexible in her career plan worked in her favour

  • In March 2021, PKF South Africa entrusted Candice Unsworth with the great responsibility of being the CEO of PKF South Africa at the tender age of 34.  
  • For our Finance: 2022 and Beyond Series powered by Qapita – a CapTable & ESOP management platform, Candice Unsworth shares how she feels about her appointment, what it is like to manage people senior in age to her, how the pandemic has changed her perspective, as well as her take on technologies like cryptocurrency and blockchain.
  • Excerpts from the interview. 

How did you start your journey as a CA(SA)? How did you feel when you received the news that you were going to be the CEO at PKF South Africa - even better, at the age of 34?

I qualified as a CA(SA) in 2013 and soon after took a break from the accounting profession by working and travelling through the USA and Australia for a year.

Thereafter, I returned to the PKF family where I had completed my articles, working at PKF Durban as an Audit Supervisor.

Subsequently, I took up the role of Technical & Training Supervisor and then Technical & Training Manager at PKF International.

Unlike other CAs, I wanted to break out of what was, in title at least, a specialist technical role. 

I approached PKF Durban about the Chief Operating Officer (COO) role, which the firm had been considering. In early 2018, I joined PKF Durban as their COO and I was involved in all spheres of firm-level management with a focus on People, Quality & Technology.

At the end of 2020, PKF South Africa elected me as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO), effective from 1 March 2021

When I received the call from PKF stating that I had been elected for the role, I was in a session with my Executive Coach and the news made me ecstatic yet a little terrified.

Why terrified? PKF is one of the largest mid-tier accounting firms in South Africa and internationally. PKF South Africa owns and manages 9 individual member firms, all of which elected me as the CEO of PKF South Africa which is a great honour but also a huge responsibility. 

Frankly, in an instant, I realized what was going to be on my plate going forward.

I took a few months for a self-congratulatory pat on the back, but I had to cut it short after remembering how much trust and responsibility PKF has placed upon me.

Apart from managing the firm, you also manage senior staff. How did you get accustomed to that?

During the interview, the interviewing panel of managing partners asked me that question.

PKF South Africa owns and manages 9 independent member firms in 6 provinces with over 65 partners, 650+ staff, and 100+ trainee accountants. Managing so many stakeholders is quite a task on its own.

Honestly, I have never been nervous to share my opinion. When one manages or leads older people, it all comes down to acknowledging the truth that older people are not automatically right or wrong because they are older than the manager or leader.

I think managing and leading people older than you is exactly the same way you do it with younger people.

It has always been about understanding their background, what they believe to be true as well as what they fear.

If you, as the leader or the manager, have a very clear idea, you can speak that idea into existence. You can combine and take the best of both and move forward.

How did COVID-19 affect you and PKF South Africa, if at all? What new measures did you take as a leader to ensure that everything runs smoothly?

There are probably better-qualified people in our network to answer this question, but some of our member firms shared that COVID-19 has not necessarily been as financially damaging as many people thought it would be.

However, the pandemic pushed people’s work and private lives together instantaneously.

With Work-from-Home, as a leader, one could not expect that their employees went to their desk or their bedroom leaving everything at the door before starting their work the way we asked people to do traditionally.

Telling workers to leave everything at the door while entering the office was not right and COVID-19 educated everybody that we could not do that. After all, leadership is service, right?

As someone who gets on with things (maybe to the detriment of my mental health), I used to ignore stressors outside of work. However, I learnt to get to grips with people’s concerns that were outside of work.

So, did COVID-19 change us? Definitely! It certainly changed the way we relate to people. It remodelled our roles and the way we looked after our people.

We began to understand our employees’ lives outside of work and considered them before we, as a firm, made important decisions.

In the corporate world, one needs proper preparation and mental hard work to survive. What advice would you give to young finance professionals?

In any situation, some people are fortunate and disciplined enough to know what they want and they pursue it, but it was not the case with me.

After finishing school, I wanted to become Radio DJ, so becoming the CEO of an accounting and auditing network was never the plan.

Even in my career, I did not know exactly what I wanted to do and I think that worked too. Instead, what mattered was showing up as myself and allowing destiny to take its course.

As I kept moving forward in my career, I realized that I wanted to lead people and grow the firm’s network rather than to advise clients on mergers and acquisition (M&A) transactions.

Nowadays, I know there is pressure to know exactly what you want to do, find a niche where you can specialize in but my advice would be not to give in to that pressure. Over time, you would be able to make the right decisions and figure out your true calling.

Be open to learn new things - work and play hard because life is all about connections, for me at least.

Then ask the ultimate questions; “Am I enjoying this?” and “Which parts of this am I truly enjoying?” Then, follow that path with passion.

The emergence of Blockchain and artificial intelligence (AI) is certainly changing the finance sector. Do you think finance professionals have to understand these concepts thoroughly?

Nearly 5 years ago when I was at PKF International, people were talking about AI.

I can clearly remember that they were concerned that technological advancement was going to put us all to shame and out of business very soon. But here we are hiring a lot more professionals inspite of AI and various other automation. 

Therefore, I think that if you are a financial professional, it is crucial to understand emerging technologies and watch it, but I do not think it will put you out of business tomorrow.

Now when it comes to the point of “technology replacing humans”, I believe the idea of computers and the human working together is the best outcome.

Organisations will have to train their employees regarding technology.

We cannot ask them to come up with a solution that requires the usage of a certain type of technology that they do not know that well.

For instance, somebody might not know how to use Microsoft Office. Thus, we should start from the ground up and get people more comfortable with that technology. Then, they will be able to bring solutions forward.

As a leader and as an organization we are working on upskilling our team members in various technologies.

People often ask my opinion concerning cryptocurrency and I think what is actually interesting is the technology behind crypto – Blockchain. 

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