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5 CEOs Transforming Business Leadership in Africa

By Anderson Uvie-Emegbo

Ultimately, transformational leaders have one thing in common: they have integrity before their boards, before customers, and very importantly, integrity before their employees. This is one good start towards unlocking discretionary efforts within any workforce.

“For brands that transcend generations, what is the secret staying power that sustains them?”

I received this question in the form of a tweet at the February 2017 edition of the Harvesters Entrepreneurs Forum, where I spoke on “Crafting a Winning Business Strategy”. Luckily, Akin Akinfemiwa, Group CEO of Forte Oil got into the conversation. He opined that “sound business ethics, entrenched strong corporate values and culture, solid succession planning and the discipline of execution” were some of the key reasons why some brands become transgenerational and iconic. In two words, he was talking about transformational leadership and that is the crux of this article.

Since I stepped aside from a career in medicine and surgery about 10 years ago, I have become a student of the discipline of transformational business leadership. I strongly believe that to get out of the rut our nations and businesses are in, we must develop our “leadershiping muscles” – a term used by Dr. Akin Oparison, my colleague at the Lagos Business School in his bestselling book, Get in Shape for Your Leadership Brand.

Leadership is tough but transforming a business is even tougher. What does it take to develop our “leadershiping muscles”? First, the business leader has to “transform into the leaders he is capable of becoming”. Thereafter, s/he must cause the leadership team and a critical mass of the organisation’s workforce to transform. The job of transformation is never complete as it is always work in progress. Long lasting brands are constantly in a state of transformation. They are able to adjust and navigate through each wave of disruptive innovation.

Here is my shortlist of five African CEOs of companies headquartered in Africa, whose struggles, challenges and triumphs I have followed through the years. It is a subjective and inexhaustive list of CEOs I have met, worked with and/or interacted closely with. The names are arranged in no particular order. They manage or have managed organisations that are technology-focused, operate in multiple countries and are relatively more people-centric than their peers. These CEOs are also big on employee engagement.

Mitchell Elegbe, Group Managing Director/CEO, Interswitch (Nigeria)

Quiet, unassuming Mitchell needs no introduction. Very few companies in Nigeria can boast of their products and services permeating almost every household. Since 2002, Interswitch has been a thriving multi-product, multi-sector and multi-country business, with multiple distribution channels and consistent growth in revenues and profits. Through the various stages of its business growth, Mitchell and the two deputy CEOs, Akeem Lawal and Charles Ifedi have stayed the course and remained people-centric.

As a bigger brother, friend and mentor, I have experienced Mitchell’s personal touch and influence with the average Adaobi, Tunde, and Zainab at Interswitch. He is given to leading initiatives that increase employee morale and bonding and has even acted in a social impact documentary series. Among the many awards he has garnered is the 2012 CNBC/Forbes All African Business Leader (AABLA) for West Africa – an award I am glad I nominated him for. Transformational leaders are big on engagement.

“One of its many successful employee engagement initiatives is an internal portal through which all employees engage with each other (including Michael) socially and professionally – irrespective of grade, status, age, etc. Having seen it in action, I can understand why and how this is such an effective tool for building sustainable competitive advantage.”

 

Mike Macharia, Founder and Group CEO, Seven Seas Technologies (Kenya)

Michael has shared his inspirational story in my class on Business Opportunities in Emerging Markets at the Strathmore Business School, Kenya. He is an award-winning and visionary serial entrepreneur who founded Seven Seas Technologies (SST) in 1999. SST grew from being a software vendor with a single customer (Safaricom) to become a leading provider of integrated business and technology solutions to customers, spanning the healthcare, homeland security and social services spaces. It’s social innovation labs are curating some of the most exciting ideas coming out of Kenya.

SST worked with the Kenyan government to set up and run the government’s Public Service Delivery centres. Known as “Huduma Centres”, these are “one stop shops” where Kenyan citizens promptly get most of the popular government services (such as the renewal of driver’s licenses, registration for national identity card, registration of business names, etc.). Surely, federal and state governments across Africa can adopt this playbook.

One of its many successful employee engagement initiatives is an internal portal through which all employees engage with each other (including Michael) socially and professionally – irrespective of grade, status, age, etc. Having seen it in action, I can understand why and how this is such an effective tool for building sustainable competitive advantage. Every voice within the organisation counts and must be counted…little wonder the official name for the portal is “Voice”. Do your employees count?

Chris Kirubi – Chairman, Capital FM (Kenya)

In his mid-seventies, CK is a leading Kenyan industrialist, entrepreneur, multiple board leader and philanthropist. He is one of the most active African business leaders on Twitter. Very flamboyant, Chris is a Disc Jockey (DJ) in his own radio station (Capital FM Kenya), earning him the nickname – DJ CK.

He also runs a very engaging weekly tweet chat using the hashtag #AskKirubi and a blog targeting young African entrepreneurs. In DJ CK’s own words, “Every Thursday for a period of three hours, I am able to interact with young people using the hashtag #AskKirubi on Twitter. I honestly did not know what I was getting myself into but I was determined. The amount of questions I get proves how much young people are yearning for information and advice to move in the right direction”. If you need someone that can challenge the status quo, DJ CK is your man.

Perhaps my biggest takeaways from the times we spent together was how insatiable he is about learning even at his age and how willing he is to give young people a platform to express their talents. At Capital FM, he encourages staff to take up other roles in the firm if they felt they have the competencies. One of the specialists in the Information Technology team was also a popular DJ in Capital FM and had his own show. There were journalists that also doubled as multimedia editors. Reach for the people’s hearts and then they will follow you anywhere.

“My biggest takeaway from Michael is his business mantra, “Go Big or Go Home”. He was big on employee engagement. If you need a case study on the correlation between employee engagement and profitability, this is it. If Michael is not a transformational business leader, who is?”

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Michael Jordaan – Former CEO, First National Bank (South Africa)

Having served as the bank’s CEO between 2004 and 2014, Michael is the only one on this list who is not currently a CEO in the organisation under which his name appears. He took over the leadership of the oldest bank in South Africa at a time when it was celebrating about 160 years of existence. During that period, customer dissatisfaction and attrition among the banking public was high.

One of his first actions was to reach out to the over 30,000 employees of the bank with a bold vision – “to get FNB a top four placing among banks in South Africa based on innovation (technology) and customer centricity”. He followed this up by launching one of the most successful employee engagement and rewards programme ever seen in Africa – the “FNB Internal Innovation Awards”, where four million rands were awarded annually to employees who had submitted ideas with strong business impact. As at 2012, more than 34,000 ideas had been received and over 9,000 ideas with real business benefit had been fully implemented. FNB had the highest mobile and Internet banking customer base in South Africa.

In 2012, FNB was named the World’s Most Innovative Bank at the BAI-Finacle Global Banking Innovation Awards. How did Michael celebrate? He posted a video on the FNB YouTube channel where he dedicated the award to all FNB employees and thanked them for making it happen. My biggest takeaway from Michael is his business mantra, “Go Big or Go Home”. He was big on employee engagement. If you need a case study on the correlation between employee engagement and profitability, this is it. If Michael is not a transformational business leader, who is?

Sola Adeduntan, Managing Director/CEO, First Bank of Nigeria Limited and Subsidiaries (Nigeria)

Like FNB, First Bank of Nigeria is the oldest bank in its country of origin. It has survived colonialism, military rule and multiple democratic and economic transitions. Through the years, the elephant (the bank’s icon) has shed some of its excess weight, and while still large (the bank’s scale and reach), the elephant is now forward facing (forward looking). Its right foot is raised signifying that the bank strives to put its best foot forward for its customers (the “You First” philosophy). The bank has become more nimble and youthful, which has earned it a grudging acknowledgment from competitors and customers that “this elephant can dance”.

One of the most important ingredients of transgenerational brands like FNB and First Bank of Nigeria is that succession planning is deeply embedded in their culture. In January 2016 when Sola took over the mantle of leadership, like Michael Jordaan, he was taking charge of an iconic brand at a time of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).

To become “the partner of first choice” in building the future its stakeholders desire would require Sola and his team to have the courage to “go big or go home” and push towards greater employee engagement.

Every year, thousands of individuals sit in my classes and it is rare to find a chief executive devote the amount of time Sola did to junior employees, especially in a training. I witnessed a dramatic change of attitudes before my very eyes. The participants felt management was now more empathetic and that the voices of junior employees matter.

Over a three-week period in December 2016, I led a groundbreaking training programme for three streams of junior employees of the bank. Participants kept talking about the management style of Sola – his insistence on being addressed by all his colleagues (including junior staff) as Sola. I was piqued – was this the bank I knew like the back of my hands?

Interestingly, I didn’t have to wait too long to find out. Over a four-hour period within two out of those three weeks, Sola came over to the training venue and had two heart-to-heart town hall meetings with participants. Many were able to vent, share their frustrations, and seek clarification and understanding of ongoing organisational changes in the bank. It was so surreal. That’s a lot of executive time devoted to people at that level. Every year, thousands of individuals sit in my classes and it is rare to find a chief executive devote the amount of time Sola did to junior employees, especially in a training. I witnessed a dramatic change of attitudes before my very eyes. The participants felt management was now more empathetic and that the voices of junior employees matter. There are always difficult conversations that should happen in every organisation. By taking a refreshing new approach towards employee engagement, this might just be the way to build a better and more profitable brand.

When the Leadership newspaper awarded its Leadership Banker of the Year 2016 Award to Sola, the citation was apt, “for refusing to go with the flow” even when the temptation was high and the reward substantial and for reminding the colleagues that banking is nothing without integrity”. Yes, like Michael Jordaan, I have seen Sola refuse to go with the flow. The flow is to treat employees as a means to an end, mere tools and resources to be used and dumped.

Ultimately, transformational leaders have one thing in common: they have integrity before their boards, before customers, and very importantly, integrity before their employees. This is one good start towards unlocking discretionary efforts within any workforce.

That’s a wrap on my shortlist. In your experience, which African business leaders are transformational? Care to share your own list? You can email me@andyemegbo.com.

Anderson Uvie-Emegbo is a global business teacher, leader, mentor, speaker and consultant.

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