A conversation with Dr Ernie Asimenu – Head Private Banking Standard Bank Ghana
Your life story encapsulates the full meaning of African liberation and leadership. Is Africa truly liberated?
The colonial system was brutal, evil and dehumanizing to Africans, and we must always pay tribute to the heroes and heroines who stood up and fought for independence and freedom. These freedoms were through the sacrifice of thousands of patriots who put themselves in harm’s way for a brighter future for others. Those at the helm of these liberation movements were largely regarded as being selfless, visionary, courageous and inspiring.
The great post-independence era was marred by the massive looting of the continent’s precious natural resources by political and economic elites. This scramble for access to and control of natural resources saw wars and conflicts; displacement of thousands from their homes; exodus of intellectuals out of Africa; curtailing of freedoms by repressive regimes. In addition to this, poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment has limited the through potential of Africa and its people.
We are, however, experiencing a new thirst for meaningful, genuine and more sustainable freedom across the continent. Young people bearing the brunt of underdevelopment; new leaders who are unencumbered by the past; the advent of new technologies; the pervasiveness of the internet, the return of those from the Diaspora, and the boldness of new entrepreneurs are fuelling a drive for greater freedom.
In a nutshell, Africa cannot be truly liberated when we still have such disparities within countries; underdevelopment and unemployment among its youth; horrible treatment of women; abject poverty driving people to cross the Mediterranean and the denial of educational opportunities to young people. It is our responsibility to strive for Africa’s rebirth – to become the midwives for Africa’s rebirth.
Your longevity affords the younger crop of African leaders the opportunity to pick some valuable lessons from your leadership style. What legacy would you want to bequeath Africa’s young emerging leaders.
I guess I may feel that I’m still too young (by African standards) to be either considered an elder or someone who can think about a legacy. I am, however, someone who is passionate about young and aspirant leaders. I have learnt a lot of valuable lessons in my leadership journey – I hope to share these through this medium. For the purpose of this conversation I would like to highlight a few:
- It is important for all leaders to be clear as to why they want to lead. This is so because those reasons have a huge impact on your behaviour, decision making and overall approach to leadership. If the motivation is more narrow reasons such as power, prestige, money, material riches and status – these will heavily impact your style. I was brought up not to pursue these, and I have very low respect for leaders who are motivated by these narrow interests. I have found their style to have elements of arrogance, pompousness, hubris, ego, selfishness, unethical conduct and bullying tendencies. The Leaders I have admired and tried to emulate are driven by a higher purpose or by noble intentions. These leaders’ styles are characterized by selfishness, probity, courage, inspiration, integrity and vision. I have tried to model my style on these leaders, and through that approach it is possible to bring out the best in others.
- The second lesson has been to treat everybody with respect and dignity regardless of their status in life. This has made it easier for me to relate to people from different countries, cultures, languages, religions, gender and outlook. This approach has enabled me to build more lasting and enduring relationships across the African continent with people of all persuasions.
- The third lesson is the importance of lifelong learning. I have sought to continuously develop myself as a person, as a leader and as a professional. The humility to accept that you do not have all the answers has made it easier for me to work with and learn from different styles. My style is to become less of an expert but more of a student. This approach allows you to have your perspective broadened, your assumptions challenged; your theories examined; your intentions to be questioned and your decisions to be challenged. Through such a process you learn so much more and become a much more better person and a more rounded leader.
- The fourth lesson is the value and importance of receiving regular feedback from your team, clients, colleagues and other stakeholders. This feedback is important to validate your views and assumptions but critically, it’s also important to highlight your blind spots, uncover your unconscious biases and highlight your areas of development. My life, both personal and professional, has developed through these interventions at home, at work, among my friends and within my community. Leaders with an open-eyed view of the world, who only listen to a coterie of sympathizers and hangers eventually crash. I’m my own life, and career, I constantly seek for that feedback- some of it comes from my friends, teams and my wife and children, solicited or unsolicited. I learn from it and I grow from it.
- I leant at an early age that leadership is not a title held, but an influence felt. This meant that I started to eschew all the trappings of power and titles and made it my mission to persuade people through influence rather than through the power and status of my office. Learning the art of persuasion and influence has been a humbling yet very rich experience. During my leadership journey I realized that leadership is not only about influencing others, but it’s, in equal measure, about being influenced. For those who are leading through their positional power, or who are distant from those whom they lead or those with a command and control culture – being influenced is near impossible. This is a huge leadership limitation, and I wish young leaders would learn that true leadership is about influencing and being influenced.
- Finally, I always work to discover, nurture and development people’s strengths and help them manage their weaknesses. I have learnt at the feet of some amazing leaders, who accepted me for who I am and gave me a lot of opportunities in spite of obvious and glaring weaknesses. My intention is to repay such confidence by doing that many times over for so many people. My style and approach is lighten a room, lift a spirit, inspire a team, move a performance, bring energy and passion to an environment. This is the job of leaders, to be the catalyst, the conductor of the orchestra, the willing team mascot and the passionate cheerleaders. This is only possible because a leader has to humbly realize that it’s less about them, but more about the team. In these situations, the team, and the individuals within it, become more creative, innovative, productive, and perform at a higher level. In addition to this, when you visit as a leader, people look forward to your visit and such a memory lasts much longer after you leave. You carry those memories with you as a leader and you have a lifetime connection with the team and the individual team members.
These are some of the leadership lessons I can share with young leaders. I have to warn them, however, that style, is the exception than the norm. The dominant style is aptly described by Liz Wiseman in her book, Multipliers, “Some leaders seem to drain intelligence and capability out of the people around them. Their focus on their own intelligence and their resolve to be the smartest person in the room had a diminishing effect on everyone else.”
Liz Wiseman concludes by describing these type of leaders as ideas killers and energy destroyers, but I would go further to say, that many of their actions of bullying and demeaning others result in negative impacts on people’s careers, health and even family life.
I would hope that young leaders will build others rather than destroy them; encourage debate rather than stifle it; invite new ideas rather than kill them; and finally, always remember that it’s always about the larger purpose and the team, and not about their personal ego.
Certainly, your great success must have come at great cost and sacrifice. Tell us how you bounced back after a very difficult setback?
Throughout my life I have faced adversity in different forms. I have been through difficult and painful moments where my faith is tested, my resolve shaken, and my passion put to the test – in all those times, I could draw on key things, namely:
- A strong set of values ingrained in me from an early age, by my father and the village which raised me;
- A strong faith in a God that has never failed me;
- A right circle of lifetime advisors, led by my wife, Sva, which holds me to a higher standard;
- An inner fire in my belly that is able to tackle any challenge and wills me on into battle, regardless of my fears and feeling of being inadequate.
The loss of my father, 8 years ago, was the most painful experience of my life. I did not just lose a father, I lost an advisor, role model, teacher, fierce critic, cheer leader, friend and hero. Through the support of my wife, my family and friends I emerged from a deep depression to live my life as he taught me and to champion his causes. As I look back after 8 years, the pain is still there, the loss is greater every day, but I know he had prepared me, from the earliest age to lead others towards greater goals and objectives. In those dark days, I could draw on the elements I referred to and I find that my father’s voice and influence is even more stronger and powerful in his absence than it was when he was alive.
They sometimes say it’s a man’s world. What’s your take on women in senior leadership especially in Africa.? What should be the role of all stakeholders to give women voice, choice and control.
I owe my personal and professional success to the amazing women who have been part of my journey. My mum, great aunt and grandmothers were strong and powerful praying women who instilled a set of values in me. My wife, Sva, through 20 years of marriage and 28 years of a loving and mutually supportive relationship, has taught me how to be an equal partner. My two daughters have also had a profound impact on me. The leaders of South Africa’s liberation movement taught us about the principle of non-sexism and the importance of a gender conscious leadership. Finally, my colleagues, who are women at Standard bank, with whom I’ve shared an amazing 17 years, have taught me so much about the role of women in leadership positions. These are all the influences that shape my views and outlook on the role of women in leadership roles in both the private and public sector. Here are my fundamental principles on this matter:
- I have worked for and been led by some of the most amazing leaders in my career, and they have done as great a job and sometimes even better than most man; there is therefore no reason why Africa should lag the world in women leadership;
- Across many countries, young women are doing better at universities, this has a created a huge pool of talent;
- The main reason why the progress of women in leadership has been painfully slow, has more to do with the attitude of men in positions of power and influence rather than the lack of abilities;
- Those companies or organisations that have invested in women leaders have benefited from the diversity dividend that they derive from the elevation of women to top jobs;
- There are still a lot of instances on the continent where we still use culture and religion to deny women opportunities due to them and finally;
- Women in general, and women in leadership in particular, seek no favours, all they want is to be given the opportunity to prove themselves or they want their experience and expertise to be recognized and not to be denied simply because of their gender.
What Africa needs are three key things:
- Leaders must create a conducive, supportive and enabling environment for women to succeed;
- Male leaders must proactively confront the unconscious biases; patriarchal tendencies; and those practices and behaviours that reflect a male dominated workplace; and
- Women leaders should use their positions to promote a more nuanced gender sensitive policy agenda; encourage and groom young women for success; and be genuine role models to young people.
As a man of unshakeable resolve and courage, your story is as remarkable as South Africa itself. Where do you derive the strength and courage to venture into unfamiliar ventures making massive investment in people across the continent.
My father was a great teacher and inspiration, I learnt about my African identity at a much early age. His encouragement was always for me to have an inquisitive mind, to explore ideas from a wide variety of sources and to always learn about different people and their culture. I would read newspapers, history books and listen to television documentaries with him. By the time I was a teenager, I was already further ahead in my knowledge and he would always test, stretch and challenge me. Hanging on my wall were no music idols, no tv or movie stars nor Sports icons – although I loved all these, on my walls were maps of Africa and pictures of iconic leaders. On my walls I had Kwame Nkrumah; Julius Nyerere; Kenneth Kaunda; Samora Machel; Robert Mugabe; Oliver Tambo and others.
When I started to work outside South Africa, 17 years ago, I already felt at home and was comfortable traveling through the length and breadth of Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi. In later years, I’ve done the same in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, DRC, Angola and other countries.
Let me illustrate this through a short story:
During my work in Ghana, I had promised to visit our branch in WA in the northern part of Ghana. Unfortunately, it was during Harmattan season, this is usually characterized by dry and dusty trade winds that blow from the Sahara Desert. This makes it difficult for aircraft to fly safely during this season. After a number of delays, I asked my colleague Farihan Alhassan, that we should drive to WA. His response was that it’s too far, that it’s a 14-15-hour drive and that most people do not drive to WA. I persuaded him that we should drive, and off we went, and we were able to get to WA and to celebrate with the team.
It was possible to do this as I had no fear, I felt at home in all the countries where I have worked. The bonds you build during these visits last a lifetime and the people remember such visits long after the visit.
Finally, I have always argued that a desk is a very dangerous place from which to run a business. I am a firm believer in being present and engaged with my colleagues, my clients and stakeholders across the continent.
As one who has faced extreme resistance on many fronts citing your association with the ANC as a terrorist group etc, what do you tell African entrepreneurs who seek global recognition?
One of the most distinguished features of those who were involved in the liberation struggle were, the passion, drive, commitment and courage to take on adversity regardless of the odds. They were driven by high ideals and believed in the nobility of their cause. No amount of challenges, obstacles and setbacks would deter them from their chosen path. They were very resourceful and could galvanize resources and support from audiences near and far.
Our entrepreneurs face daunting obstacles that some of their Western counterparts may not face. These include poor infrastructure, inadequate power supply, costs of doing business, weak legal systems, costly taxes and challenges of civil strife and unrest. Through all of this, some amazing young entrepreneurs are emerging, and they are taking on the world.
Looking at the latest 30 Forbes young African entrepreneurs across real estate, financial services, manufacturing, media, tech, green tech, agriculture and fashion, these entrepreneurs are impatient to change Africa. They represent the entrepreneurial, innovative and intellectual best of their generation.
My message to them and thousands of other entrepreneurs is:
- Take on the world, your time has arrived;
- You represent our highest hope for Africa’s renewal;
- Use your intellect, capital, resources and technology to solve Africa’s intractable problems;
- Hold on to your dreams during the difficult times;
- Persevere and learn to be resilient – you will be greatly rewarded.
Africa stands as the world’s fastest growing economy. What should be the role of the various stakeholders particularly government in maintaining and increasing this trajectory? Question remains young talent in Africa are leaving the shores of Africa for greener pastures.
This is a huge leadership challenge- a leadership that cannot harness the total human capacity at its disposal is short-sighted. In this battle for talent, countries have to create an environment for talent to not only to be retained but to thrive and excel. From a government point of view, it is to start to breathe new energy and purpose into the public service- to allow new ideas, new innovations and new technologies to accelerate the delivery of service to the population; for entrepreneurs is to hire the very best talent available, trust it with the innovation and lastly public -private partnerships must enable young people and talented individuals to shine through the bureaucratic layers of inefficiency. Finally, we have new energy from millennials – they are unencumbered by the past and will use technology to change the world.
My central message to fellow leaders, let us hold on to these precious assets, let us give them room to prosper and develop. Our future destiny is tied to them – we dare not fail them.
Africa is being talked about as the new frontier. What should be the role of government and society in building capacity for the next generation of leaders.
One of the most important prerequisites for any change is the recognition about what went wrong. Africa, like other parts of the world has a leadership crisis- people are losing trust and confidence in the kind of leaders we have in the public, private and civil society sectors across Africa. So many of our leaders abuse the resources entrusted to them, have friends and family that benefit from resources meant for a greater good and use their positions for personal gain. We require a new type of leader, one who is sincere, committed, diligent, selfless, humble, has a strong moral fibre, is driven by core values and is highly ethical. All stakeholders, including our universities, must ensure that the curriculum, the training and the coaching and mentoring is aimed at producing these new leaders.
What advice would you give to young African leaders in the diaspora wanting to come back to Africa but are worried about the bureaucracies they read and learn about Africa each day.
There is a confluence of factors that may just help Young Africans to make the final choice to come home. These are:
- Africa is changing at an amazing pace, now is the time to return to take the opportunities that are emerging across the continent, those who stayed behind are preparing themselves for such opportunities;
- The African consumer has changed the game and because of his or her appetite for new competitive products and services. Local, broader African and multinational companies are all scrambling for this opportunity;
- The advent of new mobile and communication technologies has made the world more smaller and has made Africa to be more accessible. As these continue to develop, it will be more easier for young people in the diaspora to start new business; get to know the environment and to offer competitive products and services;
- There are a lot of young people from the diaspora who have returned, they are using their educational advantage to gain an advantage over their locally based colleagues;
- Democracy is on the rise across Africa, populations are demanding change and want their governments to be more responsive, efficient and effective. At the same time, public – private partnerships are helping governments to overcome their challenges.
- Lastly, the sweeping tide of nationalism is creating a difficult environment for young leaders in the diaspora- opportunities in these markets will become more difficult as locals demand more jobs for themselves and their children and the hostility towards foreigners increases. As the situation deteriorates, there may prospects for going home sooner.
Africa has to roll out the red carpet for our young leaders, it has to set up mechanisms to communicate with them using its diplomats and advertise the opportunities that each country offers.
As Africa makes conscious efforts to achieve sustainable development, what should be the role of government and the private sector in achieving this collective goal.
Africa is characterized by inequality, poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment. With a growingly restless young population, we all have to find ways to attract investment to help develop our continent, create jobs, build our infrastructure, develop our human capacity and promote commerce and trade. These investors, who are largely entrusted with the surplus savings of people from mostly outside Africa, have a huge responsibility to these savers to give them back an adequate return for their investment. Whilst the governments across Africa have to go out of their way to create an enabling investment climate for investors, they also have to be sensitive to Africa’s precious environment. This means that our leaders have to champion truly sustainable development for us to bequeath this precious treasure to the next generation. At the same time, corporates, across Africa and beyond, are under a piercing searchlight about the role they play in environmental degradation. Those of us who are leaders in such corporates, have to influence corporate environmental policy to pursue environmentally friendly policies. The last and key group are the communities, they have to find a way to balance their real and urgent needs with the needs of future generations. In my simple language, all stakeholders have to drive the sustainable development agenda in a sensitive, balanced, transparent and fair manner.
In the end, true sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the present population without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
Have you considered mainstream politics? You have made great strides in the corporate world and I dare say that could be described as the training ground for preparing you for mainstream politics. Young African leaders want to relate to people like you. Share your thoughts.
During the time we fought for liberation, joining the liberation movement was largely a choice made out of conviction and a commitment to fight for a higher ideal. During those times, there were no promises of high office, nor enticement of benefits and perks of such high office. The reality was most people faced harassment, jail, violence, and sometimes death. One of the highest honours I received was when my name was suggested to a Cabinet Minister and I joined his office as a spokesperson, media advisor and speech writer during the time of President Mandela. When I left the public service, I was looking for new challenges where I could add value and make a difference. I look back fondly to my time in the public service.
With regards to mainstream, it is unfortunately not an option at all for me for three specific reasons:
- Leadership contests in political parties are now brutal, it’s a fierce contest involving money, lobbying and runners for candidates – this is not for me, I have been brought up to see leadership as service and sacrifice.
- The 17 years I have spent on the continent has challenged me to drive a change agenda through young and aspirant leaders across the continent, I would rather do that than being immersed in party politics;
- I am very independent in mind and spirit and have been blessed to work for and with leaders who allow me to be my authentic self. The current political set up is more aligned to following the personality of a leader, or to belong to a faction – this would limit me greatly. I would never sacrifice my independent thoughts for any reasons;
- Lastly, I think that there is space for public office or involvement in politics, but I think there should be more other avenues for leaders to contribute. In my specific case, I’ve chosen to use this pan African leadership platform as a vehicle of engagement with young leaders across the continent.