A conversation with Farihan Alhassan – Head of Business and Commercial Banking, Stanbic Ghana
FA: Good morning my leader and mentor and thank you for making time to have this conversation with me. There are always new things to learn with every interaction that I have with you. I have no doubts I will a leave this conversation richer in my thoughts and better at how I lead
LM: I look forward to our conversation, I hope it can illuminate the personal and professional path of many young leaders across our beloved continent.
FA: Who do you call a leader?
LM: A leader is someone with great influence; someone who inspires others, someone who motivates people to be better, and someone who is committed to giving of themselves for the betterment of others. You see Farihan, my Leader, it’s important to understand that leadership
Is not a title held but it’s an influence felt. We must never confuse formal leadership roles with leadership; we must not confine leadership only to those who hold office or find themselves in formal leadership roles. In many instances, across our beloved continent, we have many unsung heroes and heroines who, daily, lead and make a difference, without recognition, nor a desire to be elevated. That’s true leadership; it’s real, impactful, significant and resonates with those that are led.
FA: How does one identify a leader?
LM: I sometimes think in many ways leaders identify themselves to those who have the right lens. This is so because they are able to exhibit the qualities one would look for in a leader. Such qualities include:
- probity ;
- empathy ;
- integrity and
- resilience and tenacity.
Many leaders are buried deep in the hierarchy of organisations, they are suffocated by corporate bureaucracy and are outplayed by those who seek political office for self-enrichment. So, when I look for talent, for leaders, for future talent, I look through these layers, and I am always able to spot these amazing people. What shines through them, what glitters, is not their ego and what blinds you is not their positioning. What attracts you to them is their work, energy, purpose, drive and sense of mission. Some may come from the wrong side of the tracks, they may not be polished, they may lack the corporate mannerisms, but they have amazing potential and can develop into some of the finest leaders Africa has produced. I have been fortunate to see and meet these gems and they have left an indelible mark in my heart and in my memory across Africa, may we discover more of such gems. These leaders are exemplary in their values, inspiring in their actions and much admired by those they lead. These are true change agents.
FA: What do you wish you knew 10 years ago?
LM: I think the most important lesson I wish I knew was that leadership was my calling, it was my purpose, my mission and an integral part of my life journey. I was woken up to this reality by a profound and deep question asked by Professor Clay Christensen in a lecture he gave us at the Harvard Business school in 2013. His question was, “how will you measure your life”. This lecture really captured my imagination and challenged me to do more in the area of leadership and social impact. Over the last five years, in particular, I have devoted more of my time to grooming young leaders, investing in young people, to growing young leaders, to investing in my community much more because of those stinging words from Prof Christensen.
FA: The morale in your team is always at the apex, can you talk me through the principles that you follow to achieve this?
LM: There is actually no magic formula my brother Farihan. I think back to the famous words of President Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid”. He was stating the most obvious, but most people did not understand nor accept that. In the area of leadership, the answer is also so simple, it’s the “PEOPLE”.
I have learnt to lead from the front with a flag rather than behind with a whip. The response, in all situations, across many countries has been the same throughout my career, people have responded greatly and have achieved phenomenal growth for themselves and amazing results for the organisation. There is no rocket science in this, it’s not novel nor a great discovery, almost all leaders know the answers to this open book examination – but unfortunately still so many fail it. The reason they fail is that their EGO cannot allow them to do what is needed, even though they know how successful it has been.
In the words of Simon Sinek, “customers will never love a company until the employees love it first. Only when a critical mass of employees feel like their leaders are working to help defend them from dangers outside, can the company invite customers into the circle too. It is usually the people at the edges, the infantry, so to speak, who are the most vulnerable to external dangers. They are also the ones who tend to have more contact with clients and customers. If they feel protected, they will do all they can to serve the customers without fear of repercussions from the company’s leaders.”
Working with you, Nana Benneh, Andani Alhassan and other wonderful leaders, I tried to connect to those people in Ghana, to all our staff, to show them how much I loved, appreciated, respected and trusted them every day. Travelling with you and other leaders, we went to the closest and furthest branches and connected with people at a human level. Touching them, engaging them, inspiring them and making them see the vision was my goal. In the words of Sheryl Sanberg, “ Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence, and making sure that impact lasts in your absence”.
Let me illustrate this with a story you as familiar with:
Wa branch in Northern Ghana had performed very well and we promised to visit them. Unfortunately, because of Harmattan, the planes could not fly out of Accra that day. I asked how far Wa was and you told me it’s about 10 hours drive, and normally people don’t drive to Wa. I asked if there are any people who do drive from Accra to Wa and you said yes. “Then we shall drive to Wa!”, was my retort. We switched off our phones until we were way out of Accra so that nobody would stop us and we proceeded to Wa. I can never fully describe the joy of the team Wa, and the shock from them when they realized that we drove. We had a beautiful evening with them celebrating and spent the next day with them until we drove back to Accra. Last year I saw Sammy, who was the branch manager at that time, he was now a successful businessman, and we could talk and reminisce about that day and the impact and lasting impression it left on him as a leader.
If you lead this way, the morale and great results outlast the presence of a leader, and those you have touched stay committed and passionate even if they leave the company; that’s impact and that’s leadership that is sustainable.
How does one do it you may ask, I would say, it’s a number of key things, but to highlight a few:
- Treat everybody with respect and dignity regardless of their position or status;
- Get to understand everybody in the team who they are where they are from, what motivates them, what frustrates them, what are their goals and what are their aspirations?;
- Ensure that everybody knows that their role and contribution is highly appreciated ;
- Ensure that everybody has a sense of belonging and that their culture, religion, language and identity is respected, appreciated and understood;
- That we (the company) have a very objective, transparent and engaging performance management culture which is aligned to rewards and remuneration;
- Lastly, make people feel empowered to make decisions, to do their work and then celebrate them for the work that they’ve done.
As you know Farihan I’ve always tried to bring a sense of fun and joy and happiness within the team. It also helps to create an environment where there is great support when any one of us is going through difficulties. Creating a family culture and supportive culture is not the opposite to performance, in fact, it boosts performance.
FA: Can you please share with me some of the lessons you’ve learned when you have occasionally lost your way (on your journey in life)?
LM: There have been many lessons and I have appreciated all of them but if I could tease out a few for the benefit of this conversation:
- I would say the first one is to always be humble enough to accept that on your appointment as a leader you are illegitimate in the eyes of your team. The team may be neutral, or hostile about your appointment when you assume your role as their leader. This is so because there are no elections in a corporate setting; you are appointed by the leaders and the team is just given the name of the leader and asked to follow him/her. Humility, dear Farihan, requires that you accept that you as a leader have to go the extra mile to get the people you are meant to lead to accept and embrace you. It’s your duty to get to know them, understand the business and get to know their fears and anxieties and their goals and ambitions.
- The second I would say is what leaders need to do at the start of their term leading a team. I find that leadership topic books and business school lectures and sometimes business leaders all talk about the magic 100 days in office, but do they really understand what that hundred days mean for the people that will be led? In many instances, those first hundred days are full of uncertainty, fear and anxiety from the people you lead. I found what has worked for me is the intensity of listening intently to the human heart of the people I will work with, understand them, and through them understand the business and the nuances. During this time, I get them to fully understand me as a person, my strengths, my weakness and my style of work
- The last thing I have learnt is to avoid, as much as it’s humanly possible, having any preconceived ideas about what needs to be done, who the team members are, what the problems of the area are and what my predecessors did or did not do.
When I look back to many leaders who failed, I trace many of the seeds of destruction as being planted at the beginning of the relationship. I find in many instances leaders who:
- arrogantly assume leadership positions and expect to be followed;
- showed little time understanding the individuals in the team or the team dynamics;
- rubbished the past strategy and made disparaging comments about their predecessors;
- never get to be vulnerable and get the team to understand them as being human;
Unless it’s an emergency or a failing business, it’s not wise to be racing against the clock to implement what sometimes were preconceived ideas.
FA: How do you maintain your authenticity as a leader?
LM: The Oracle of Delphi has the most important lessons for all of us which is “know thy self”. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to understand who I am, and in a manner, where I am my own harshest critic. I know my biggest strength and my areas of development. Staying true to my authentic yet flawed self is better than a great replica of someone else.
The ability to receive regular feedback from the people I work with has always allowed me to work on learning and development on the areas of weakness.
That whole process, particularly of regular feedback, more engagement with people, not allowing oneself to be surrounded by “yes men/women” and spending time in the coalface with the people you work with allows you to be grounded, to be humble and to stay real all the time.
This allows you to always be your authentic self with all its challenges rather than be a perfect replica of somebody else. As people get to know you better the level and quality of feedback, constructive criticism and, the regular suggestions, come to you more unprompted, and more regularly.
You must always remember, Farihan, we are human and that, many of us, myself included, have different levels of vanity about us, it is that vanity that one should regularly attack and work on, it is that ego that one should suppress and lastly it is that sense of self-importance that we must always try and address so that we can attend to the calling of leadership.
FA: I am yet to know of a leader who loves his people as you do. How do you achieve this?
LM: In the words of Rick Warren, “ The first job of leadership is to love people. Leadership without love is manipulation”.
Leadership is a calling, a choice and a decision to lead others towards a noble goal. You get to know the people and there is absolutely no way you can’t admire them, appreciate their work and be respectful of their sacrifices and contribution. In the process of getting to know them, you get to know what motivates them.
I have been blessed to know and work with thousands of people across the African continent from many religious, cultural, linguistic and national backgrounds – what brought us together was our common humanity. In Ghana, I walked that journey with you, travelling through the length and breadth of Ghana – Accra, Takoradi, Wa, Kumasi, Tamale, Tema, Obuasi, Sunyani, Bolgatanga, Tarkwa and Madina. I got to know the people and became part of their journey.
It’s also important to understand Farihan that many a time, I join these teams as a stranger, and through a journey of engagement I become a member of the team, later I became a member of the family. This is a very special feeling, when people and their leaders are united, aligned, and focused towards a common goal, there is magic, magic you can’t quantify.
FA: You are an Afro-optimist and I’m sure you are concerned about the seeming lack of leadership on the continent. How do you think this can be addressed?
LM: Those of us who seek to be the midwives of an African Renaissance beyond the “easy headline”, the “catchy soundbite” or social media activism, must accept the responsibility to create the conditions necessary for Africa to rise. Our inaction will inevitably result in Africa faltering. That means we must, in the words of Al Gore, “come to believe in hope over despair, striving over resignation and faith over cynicism.”
A great Ivorian proverb says: “The outsider doesn’t know the path through the calabash trees.” In other words, we know our continent better than others; it is our responsibility to be the primary movers in the rebirth of our continent, with help and support from others. The future we create must and should be a future of our own making. The inescapable fact is that this is our responsibility and no one else’s.
This time, this moment in Africa’s history requires what Robert F Kennedy described in his seminal speech at a Nusas seminar in Cape Town in 1966:
“This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the love of ease.”
He went on to say: “‘There is,’ said an Italian philosopher, ‘nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.’ Yet this is the measure of the task of your generation, and the road is strewn with many dangers.”
Africa cries out for man and women of great promise, who are willing to take on the Herculean task of changing the fortunes of a continent, who are prepared to take steps, however small, to change our trajectory and who are willing to stand up for their ideals regardless of the difficulties they may face. There is no shortage of people who profess to have these qualities, who confess to a desire to bring about change, but fewer and fewer are taking any steps towards this noble goal.
Africa has amazing young leaders, some buried deep in the bowels of organisations, some numbed by excessive micromanagement while others are suppressed by dictatorial leaders. As I travel the length and breadth of this amazing continent, I am inspired by some wonderful young leaders who are making a positive difference in the lives of Africans across all walks of life.
Africa’s future lies in investing in young leaders, guiding them, motivating them towards reaching their full potential. If I just take someone like you, I have been amazed at the level of influence you command across Ghana and broader than Ghana. We must harness your skills, energy and expertise towards Africa’s rebirth.
It is these young leaders, like you, who could be able to make Africa to realise its potential and to take up its rightful place among the nations of the world. Our leaders are hidden in plain sight, we should be using the right lens through which to look at such leaders and not look at the roles they play or the positions they occupy, we should be looking at the impact they have on society and the influence they have in their own environments.
FA: Tell me your perception of change and how you’ve managed the change process?
LM: I am reminded of the words of Henry Kissinger, on foreign policy, “No foreign policy – no matter how ingenious – has any chance of success if it is borne in the minds of a few and carried in the hearts of none.” I think that the same principle applies to change because we have seen so many change efforts fail, I think they largely fail because most of this change is borne in the minds of a few and lives in the hearts of none.
We have to approach change differently, I think the following elements are key to a successful change effort, I have tried to use them in all the change efforts I have been involved in:
- The people I work with, or I lead, deserve to know and fully understand the direction we are taking, why we are taking it, their role on the journey. They also need to know and understand the advantages and benefits that lie ahead and what are some of the challenges that may await them.
- The people should not just know the strategy or change in strategy, they need to embrace and own the strategy or change.
- the role of the leader is to make sure that he or she walks side-by-side with the team on the journey of change, put him or herself in their shoes.
- Leaders should be change advocates, who spread the message, give people hope, create understanding and who give people courage in times of uncertainty and doubt.
- Lastly, most change initiatives are difficult and painful – it is the role of leaders to illuminate the path in times of darkness, to remove the obstacles to success and to give confidence about the future.
FA: Do you recall any single moment and accomplishment that shaped your choice in career?
LM: There have been many of these moments but if I could highlight one, for the purpose of this conversation, the career choice I made in 2005 to leave a head office role in South Africa to go and run a province for the bank. At the time I was a member of the Retail
executive team, I was one of the youngest members, and probably the only black member of that executive. There were many people that looked up to me who felt that I was destined for “greater things”.
The reality, Farihan, was that I was missing something in my life, and that was engagement with the people.
I received so many phone calls and emails from different people in the bank asking me why I was committing career suicide by leaving Exco to go and work in the frontline. That was probably one of the most consequential decisions I took in my career because it allowed me to leave the Head Office’s rarefied atmosphere to go and spend time in the field with ordinary men and women who are making a difference every day. I learnt so much from my time as the provincial head for the Gauteng province.
So throughout my career from this moment I always knew that the front line is the bottom line. I have never stayed away from the frontline, and I have always tried to stay connected with the frontlines in different countries as a key part of my leadership journey.
From this moment onwards, I knew I loved working with big teams, to work with them to conquer mountains and to help people achieve their personal goals whilst achieving organizational goals.
FA: How does it feel to be a CEO in the #MeToo era?
LM: Many women in South Africa and across Africa live in fear – fear of being robbed, raped, mugged, killed, harassed, mistreated, humiliated, discriminated against and even sold as a slave.
We hear daily of vicious and cruel attacks on women and children; high levels of violent crime including rape and murder; single mothers battling to make ends meet without support; and sexual harassment in the workplace by senior corporate executives and powerful politicians. We know of countless stories of physical and emotional abuse in relationships and marriages.
We, as men, are the source of that fear, we have made life unbearable for so many women – they feel less safe in their homes, places of worship, schools, universities, places of work, communities and even in places of fun and recreation. This fear knows no age, race, religion, nor geography- women are under siege everywhere in our country and on our continent. They are losing trust even to those of us who are meant to be the closest and most trustworthy – husbands, boyfriends, managers, religious leaders, teachers, coaches, tutors, brothers, uncles, fathers and even sons. We are the source of that fear.
To be a leader or a CEO in this era demands a new and bold approach. Our duty as leaders is to create a corporate and business environment where women will not only succeed but thrive because:
- Their voice is heard, loud and clear
- The work environment takes into account their family commitments
- We are brutal in taking action when there are incidents of sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, corporate bullying and abuse of positions by those in leadership positions
- There are clear career opportunities with visible progress and promotions into senior roles
- Women are paid in a fair, transparent and equitable manner and are not prejudiced because of their gender
- We are supportive when women are going through a divorce, are in an abusive relationship, can’t have children, have a child with disabilities and are balancing their work, home and studies
- Young women can see many role models in key positions in organisations
This is only part of the barometer by which we should judge our progress or lack thereof. Such a barometer must evaluate all of us from the highest levels of organisations, through to business units, to individual teams and to the lower levels of organisations.
This can only be done if this becomes a daily and regular focus and not something we focus on only during specific campaigns. Finally, although we have some pockets of progress in certain organisations, we are way behind where we need to be. We have to tackle women empowerment with the speed and urgency this deserves, beyond mere lip service and public relation exercises.
FA: You have told me several times that you do not intend to go into partisan politics, have you had a change of mind? If you haven’t, don’t you think that you are denying this continent your skills to ameliorate the suffering of the masses?
LM: Dear Farihan, we have discussed this matter a number of times, my position has not changed. I have no desire to be involved in partisan party politics. I joined the liberation struggle at a very young age in the quest for the liberation of South Africa from the apartheid system. When I joined the glorious liberation movement there were no rewards, positions or material gain, what was important was the overall objective of creating a democratic South Africa.
Later In 1994 I joined Nelson Mandela’s government as a civil
servant and spent time working in the education ministry. When I left the government, I joined the Banking Association of South Africa, and later journey the Standardbank Group. I have been at the Standardbank Group for close to 18 years, working in different divisions and across different markets.
I think that there are many ways in which I and many other Africans can contribute to Africa’s development. There are more options beyond being a politician or leading a political movement.
I do not judge or question those who have chosen the political route, but I think that there are many organisations like Standard Bank that can give me and other change advocates a platform and an opportunity to make a proud difference in our spheres of influence.
I do not, therefore, see myself going into the active party-political arena to achieve the high ideals I have. I always think that the objective has to always be bigger than the role, the ideal has to be bigger than the platform.
FA: Do you have any final words for those of us who look up to you?
LM: My plea is that you and many other young African leaders should know that Africa’s intractable problems do not need more political speeches, more rallies, and more slogans. They require the best brains from Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania, and many other countries to find creative and future-orientated solutions working with partners from across Africa and throughout the world.
This generation has an opportunity to use the latest technology on the most prolific communications platforms and the most connected global community to create these solutions for Africa’s challenges. We have enormous talent across the continent, we have to find a way to unleash the creative potential of millions of all young people to be part of these solutions. We must do so not as the recipients of some handouts but as active participants in the solutions we co-create for a better future.
FA: Waaaw, truly inspirational and thought provoking conversation. I appreciate the time to have this discussion knowing how busy you are. I hope we catch up some other time to continue the discussion. We will talk about Chelsea FC in the next conversation.
LM: It’s an absolute pleasure My Leader, I truly enjoyed this engagement, I hope our young leaders will benefit from it. As for Chelsea, I can only hope for better luck next season.