Christian Van Niekerk is passionate about business innovation. The Grant Thornton director – who commenced with the company in 2003 and quickly worked his way up the ranks – has recently been recognised as a Performance Inspiring Awards finalist by the company for his work on a reporting model he created.
Christian says his work with Kiikstart led to the development of reporting templates that are changing the way the company presents to its private advisory clients across Australia. We asked him to share more about his journey to a Grant Thornton directorship, and his views on leadership.
Kiikstart: Congratulations on your award nomination for creating a new approach to reporting at Grant Thornton. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt about leadership during your career?
Christian: Thank you. Probably that true leaders need to stand up and make tough decisions. You don’t get into a leadership position because you’re friends with everybody. Sometimes difficult things need to be done and said. I’ve had to make a few tough decisions along the way. If you don’t make them, you can’t truly be a leader.
And the other lesson is around the importance of looking after yourself. Leaders tend to just go on and on and not stop and look after themselves – and we should. You need to have your own time and preserve your own mental and physical wellbeing in order to be an effective leader. I have three children under five at home, so balancing it all is important.
Did you always aspire to a leadership role or end up here by chance?
I like to think I’m your traditional introvert who doesn’t go looking for attention. At school I was the kid who’d rather get an F than stand up and do an oral presentation. Having said that, I ended up being school captain in year 12 and chose accounting because I thought I could be in the corner and do numbers and not interact with people. I didn’t go looking for a leadership role, but as I got more responsibility and started training the junior guys, I kind of fell into leadership.
What do you love most about your role?
I enjoy the responsibility that it brings; and feeling like you’re making a difference to people’s lives – whether it’s the client you’re looking after, or your staff. I’ve trained and mentored so many staff through the CA program. You become a go-to person to give them advice about where their careers end up going. I enjoy the challenge of helping them through that.
Who do you look up to in business?
Leaders who inspire me include Richard Branson. I’m inspired by where he came from, how he built his empire, and the way he views life. His philosophy around caring for your employees because they look after your customers is so true. I really align myself with that thinking.
How important is it to be passionate about what you do? And how do you maintain that enthusiasm for your work?
If you’re not passionate about what you do, then you shouldn’t be doing it. I think people can see through you if you don’t believe in what you’re delivering. At times it can be difficult to maintain your enthusiasm. I’ve often found my enthusiasm rejuvenated by the younger people coming through; their passion tends to rub off on you. It’s fantastic sitting down with them to discuss their own career trajectory, and how I can support them in that journey.
In the last five years I’ve been given more free reign in terms of what I want to do, and how I want to do it – including interacting with clients at a different level, and presenting to them differently. I’m extremely passionate about innovation.
How has Kiikstart supported your work at Grant Thornton?
I engaged Ali personally one year ago in an informal mentoring role. We went through a 10-week one-on-one training program, which pushed me out of my comfort zone, and I’m so glad I went through it.
From there, we developed a program called GT Grow in Adelaide to help our staff understand what it is to have a career and grow it. Ali has been a key part of that. Her sessions around owning your career and what that means are designed to stop people from expecting their employer to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to their training and development. The underlying premise is that your learning journey belongs to you.
What are some of the key takeaways from your work with Kiikstart?
The work I’ve done with Ali has been amazing, and resulted in some great changes. One of the key takeaways for me is around doing things differently for clients. Working with Ali challenged me to consider how tax results delivery should change for the client. The reporting model we’ve moved to as a result ensures that we don’t get bogged down in technical language. We used to deliver results to our clients by going through financials page by page, and pulling up detailed excel spreadsheets. Now, we explain the outcomes, and don’t get so caught up looking at the financials. It’s very visually driven. We started by rolling this out in the Adelaide office, and it’s since been rolled out nationally.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
I think I’ll still be a partner in an accounting firm, continuing to focus on self-improvement, and looking at the ways we develop and deliver results to our clients, ensuring we’re continuing to innovate. For me, a focus on work/life balance and family is key. At the start of my career it was all about the corporate tree, and I never really appreciated having a family, and that’s certainly changed in the last few years. I want to make sure that balance is maintained.