Tony Elumelu is one the most influential business leaders on the planet, with a net worth of over $700M according to Forbes(2015). Five young professionals from the United Bank for Africa had an opportunity to be invited to lunch and ask him various career questions over the weekend – and he was generous with his insights.
As I answered their questions around my childhood, my days as a young banker, the merger experience between STB and UBA, and how I balance work, family, faith, exercise and my love-hate relationship with food 😂, I recognized in their eager faces myself thirty years ago, keen on beginning my career and buying my very first car. That familiar streak of ambition and passion to succeed against all odds. Spending this time with these young ones is always worth it. Leaders who do not do so are failing in Leadership 101.
I thought to share a few points from our interaction, particularly useful tips for other young professionals hungry for success.
1. Starting Out Right
Whether you are an aspiring entrepreneur, or you prefer to climb the corporate ladder, the importance of structure and working in a structured environment cannot be overestimated. It helps to cultivate discipline which is directly correlated with your productivity and ability to produce results. While the corporate structure is beneficial in helping to instill certain work ethics, your work environment should be one that is conducive for learning, growth, and opportunity. The best organizations for young people are those that:
- Recruit objectively and transparently (not based on who you know or who put in a phone call)
- Train and build the capacities of young professionals
- Place round pegs in round holes, i.e. deploy talent to where it is best suited
- Give people access to the right tools to execute their tasks
- Keep them challenged, measure and appraise staff fairly, and finally,
- Reward and commend results and sanction failures.
Any organization that follows this merit-driven chain will give you a great career start.
As a leader at the highest level, I often worry about hiring the right people, the induction process – whether it is comprehensive enough – and training and development mechanisms across associated companies. But meeting and interacting with these five young people, I am proud of the job that the UBA’s GMD, Kennedy Uzoka, and his HR team led by the Group Head, Patricia Aderibigbe have done. The recruitment team certainly identified some of Nigeria’s brightest talent, and the deployment and job posting was spot-on. I commend the UBA leadership for paying attention to the career progression of its young people and making sure that the next generation is being focused on and prioritized.
2. Your Dreams Are Valid
Your aspirations and yearnings are normal. As a young analyst, I still remember my own feelings of anxiety — itching to know when I would rise through the corporate ranks and finally earn my first N100,000.
It’s okay to want more. But you must remember that you must deserve more to desire more. You must put in the hours, the long nights, the sacrifice, and the diligence. While it is okay to yearn for more, you must work hard enough to earn the promotion, the pay rise, the title change, the salary increases etc. Have a clear picture of the destination you desire but instead of letting frustration set in, let those desires become the fuel that drives you to attain your goals. In a merit-driven system; people are rewarded for their hard-earned results, and leaders never take credit for the work of their subordinates. You will rise according to your productivity, advance in your career, and be exposed to even more responsibilities. As you climb the ladder, remember that you owe it to those coming after you to train, teach and inspire them as well.
3. Strive To Be The Best Version of Yourself
The best-spent money is that which is spent on your self-improvement.
With the rising digitization in today’s world and the ubiquity of the internet, ignorance is no longer acceptable. Your generation has unhindered access to quality information, much more than those before you, so you should take advantage of it and develop yourself.
Read, learn, feed your intellect, and strive to expand the horizons of your mind. Learning is a long-term investment and it never stops rewarding. I like to hear about leaders who walk this talk, and unsurprisingly, whose intellect and boundless knowledge fascinate their team members. For instance, the case of Muyiwa Akinyemi, one of our pillars at UBA. One of the young staff from my lunch meeting, Nnamdi, works with Muyiwa. When I asked about his manager, his face lit up as he exclaimed “Muyiwa!”. Muyiwa recently won an excellence award at this year’s UBA CEO Awards, so I was interested in hearing more. I commented that I had heard stories of Muyiwa likened to being an athlete on steroids, and before I could complete my sentence, Nnamdi chimed in, “steroids!”. The room burst into laughter as he continued, “Muyiwa is amazing. I have learned so much working with him in such a short time. He has taught me everything I know in corporate banking so far. He is a motivator and eager to train us. The breadth of his knowledge and his skill set continue to inspire me.” This is leadership. This is staying true to your craft and becoming the best version of yourself.
4. The People Factor
One question I’m often asked is how we got it right at UBA post the merger. And my response remains that we managed our people well. The people issue is extremely important and as Leadership 101 dictates, “if you hire the right people in an organization, they will fire the organization on to scale all targets.” In the same way, prioritize the people you work with. Never take others for granted. Nurture your relationships.
I was fortunate in my career to have a network of people who identified my potential early-on and created the right pipeline of opportunities for my growth. In the same way, as you start out in your career, build your relationships, seek to learn, don’t be afraid to understudy the experts, reach out to potential mentors and learn from them.
I shared with them how a former manager once wrote in my appraisal, “Tony can walk on waters.” Till this day, I have not forgotten and will never forget that. He wrote that because he recognized my interest in learning and getting things done.
Develop these relationships with managers and mentors while leveraging them as a springboard for more opportunities. And at the same time, don’t neglect your peers. Needless rivalry, cliques, office gang-ups and gossip in the workplace do not benefit anybody. Stay away from these distractions.
5. On leaving Nigeria (Africa) for Overseas Pastures – You Don’t Have to Check Out
You don’t have to travel out of your country to become successful.
I hear of many young people traveling abroad as a way to escape the economic challenges. What I often say to them is that yes, challenges are real on the continent, but so are the opportunities. Of course, I did not always think so. As a young teenager, I also wanted to ‘checkout’ to America in pursuit of what was sold to us as “a better life”. Luckily for me, but unluckily for me at the time, my parents could not afford it. That seeming lack of opportunity opened me up to a future in Africa that I could not have had anywhere else. This is not to say there is anything wrong with aspiring to live abroad or relocating for studies, but never forget that there are immense opportunities available to you right here on the continent. If someone like me, from an ordinary background, could make it, what makes you think you can’t?
Final words… It’s all about balance
While it is true that you can have it all – a thriving career, robust relationships, a sense of purpose, a rewarding career and so on – you may not have it all at the same time. Life comes in phases and seasons. As a young professional, this is your season to sow. This is the time to toil to build the right foundation; to learn voraciously; to work hard and gain all the experience that you can. Now’s the time to put in the work! Reaping and harvesting will come at a later time. Some others may call it to balance, I call it prioritization. It means doing things step-by-step because, indeed, there is a time for everything.
Sequence things well. What is most important to you at this time?
However, your health should remain a constant priority, and any respectable workplace will give you time to refresh and recuperate.
Good luck in your career sojourn!!