A conversation with Habib Suleiman Branch Manager Shauchi Branch, Kano Nigeria Stanbic IBTC

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HS:

As a leader who rose through middle management to now the Executive, how do you stimulate conversation in a team with the view to illuminate and create enthusiasm among team members?

LM:

Throughout my career, I have always sought to put myself in position of those I lead, to try and walk in their shoes, to understand their views, their fears, expectations and anxieties. Through that I develop individual relationships with each staff member, about the things that matter to them. One person might be more into politics, another might be football, another might be religion, whilst another may just live for their children. In an authentic and consistent manner, I would relate to the person on any of these beyond just the work issues. 

Through these discussions I am able to create an environment where conversations would be similar whether I’m around or I’m absent. Critically you get to observe the formal and informal members within the team and you are able to build on the leadership style of the other informal leaders. The more conversations I have with the team, the more I connect with them at a Human level and the more open the environment becomes, the more enthusiasm and participation I observe. 

Practically speaking, I have made sure that the following things are in place in my teams: 

  • The team and it’s individuals can always feel comfortable to raise issues with me, to criticize, come up with new ideas and to set the overall team agenda; 
  • I always make sure that my tone, my voice, my body language etc create an inviting environment for participation and dialogue; 
  • I come from a long line of story tellers, I’m always interested in telling stories to discuss matters in such a way that there is a jovial mood while we discuss serious matters; 
  • I have always made sure that I reprimand privately whilst I celebrate publicly; 
  • I make sure that I share all Leadership and business developments with the team in a manner that makes them always feel they are at the centre of all developments; 
  • I also try and get feedback from the team about my conduct, my behaviours and my areas of development; 
  • I have also challenged different members of the team to run meetings both during my presence or in my absence; and finally 
  • I try and make sure that the team owns our meetings, make them to be theirs and not become spectators to our meetings and programmes. 

Ultimately Habib, we as leaders are no different from musicians with an audience or football players with a crowd – failure to please the crowd, move the audience or create enthusiasm will result in loss of support. Each one of us must keep trying to get our staff more engaged, involved and motivated about the business. 

HS: 

One of the dilemmas of leadership is in striking a balance between a happy workplace and a non-complacent one which delivers the results. What would be your views on how to balance these two?

LM:

I have a very controversial view on this, throughout my career, I have always given people the benefit of the doubt- I have found that the vast majority of people regardless of race, religion, culture or gender, go to work to do their very best for themselves and their children. This majority is committed, passionate, willing to learn and ready to perform at the right level, every day. These are the people I always focus on to make sure that: 

  • They understand the goals or objectives we have; 
  • What success looks like; 
  • The role they have in attaining our goals and objectives, as individuals and as a team; 
  • The tools and equipment required to do the task; 
  • The environment in which they would like to work; 
  • Their expectations on remuneration, reward and promotional opportunities; 
  • The learning and development opportunities that they may look to as part of their growth and 
  • An environment in which we can measure and monitor progress. 

The vast majority of people have responded very well to all these factors, because most people want to be part of something big, want to know that their contribution matters, and that they will get a fair remuneration and reward for their efforts. 

In those cases where there has been poor performance, I have found out that the factors range from: 

  • Failure by management to set clear objectives and expectations upfront; or 
  • Employing people who are either not suited for the role or who do not have the skills or the attitude to learn; or 
  • The mood or leadership environment created is toxic and counterproductive to the objectives or 
  • There are people who are complacent and do not take things seriously. 

If one accepts that mostly people are committed, passionate, diligent and hardworking, then you must devise specific interventions only for those instances and not cloud our thinking and approach for all employees. So, my starting point is always to create a fun and passionate environment for my teams, and will only address those instances of complacency or non-performance as isolated incidents unless it’s a deep-seated problem in a team. This approach has really worked for me and all my teams have been fun, vibrant, participative and high performing. This will become even more needed as More millennials enter the working environment. They love more open, fun, participative and engaging environments. 

Keep leading in the new ways My Leader, you will certainly reap the benefits. 

HS:

Delegation is often a means through which Leaders boost their trust in the team members. Yet the Leader is accountable for the failures that may arise from delegated responsibilities. How do you delegate with autonomy and still hold you colleague responsible knowing that overall, the accountability lies with you the leadership?

LM:

My dear Habib, those are the true joys of leadership, you can delegate all your responsibilities, but cannot delegate your ultimate accountability. 

I have found that Leaders approach this as a binary choice; they either do not empower their staff through delegation because of the fear of still being accountable; or delegate liberally to their staff but want to be exempt from the accountability. I believe there is a better way, that way has the following key elements: 

  • Leaders or managers always accept that they are always ultimately accountable for what happens in their areas of responsibility; 
  • Leaders accept that the old command and control style is outdated, ineffective and undesirable; 
  • The work place of tomorrow requires self-managed teams working in a collaborative manner towards what matters to clients/customers;
  • In order for these teams to succeed, we as leaders must create an empowering and enabling environment for the teams to take decisions closer to the work or closer to the client/Customer; 
  • The level of empowerment will vary depending on experience, expertise, complexity; impact, level of risk etc – and these should always be a direction more towards empowerment rather than less. 

All of us can empathize with a colleague who is subjected to mind numbing micromanagement- this is not conducive to excellent results nor growth.  We must work towards a more empowerment workforce- the results are lots of drive, energy and passion as people feel they are part of the decision making. 

Throughout my career, I have operated on what I call 70/20/10, this means that: 

  • 70% of the time, the team or individuals have a job to do and decisions to make, they must go on and do it, they are empowered and trusted; 
  • 20% of the time, the team or individual must consult with me so that we can share thoughts, ensure that we have looked at all angles and test each other’s perspectives – sometimes in this conversation I would have a different view but allow a team member to proceed; 
  • 10% of the time, the staff member has to ask for permission as it may be that neither I or she or he may have authority to deal with such a matter. 

This gives people a huge sense of empowerment and ensures that people also empower their own teams. In over 20 years of leadership experience and practice, I have not regretted my empowerment philosophy. 

Finally, we hire the best people, we promote them because they are good, but when it comes to them doing their job, or making decisions, we develop mistrust and subject them to micro management. I don’t believe this is right, I have always been trusted and empowered by my leaders/managers, I found this to be fulfilling and liberating- I would love everybody to experience the same feeling. 

HS:

Reward and Recognition is arguably not the best tools for motivation. In fact, some argue that they don’t motivate at all. What would you say have worked for you in managing people into doing more than is expected of them?

LM:

I have found that my task is always to inspire and motivate people towards a higher ideal and goal.

This is done through linking people’s own ambitions and dreams with the objectives of the organisation. This make sure that people are proud of the work they do; the value they give to customers; the power of the brand they belong to and the role they can play in the Organisation. In return I have always offered people a number of things that are additional to the points I’ve made: 

  • Fair and transparent remuneration; 
  • performance bonuses based on the performance of the Organisation, the team and theirs as individuals; 
  • Learning and development opportunities to advance themselves; 
  • Promotional opportunities as part of growth and development; 
  • Regular recognition in front of their peers; recognition within their region; within their zones and ultimate to be chosen as the best through Africa; and 
  • Exposure to leadership forums, conferences and to other environments. 

A holistic view of reward and recognition is more forward looking, team based and is grounded in a mutually beneficial relationship. This is much more better than a narrow focus on money, such a narrow approach can drive the wrong behaviours as people do everything, including unethical and illegal acts just to make money – we cannot afford such a mercenary approach. 

I have used this approach and it’s also been used to me and I have greatly benefited from it. 

HS:

Now coming to Africa, this is one continent with huge leadership deficit especially in managing public space. This could create low confidence in foreign investors who would want to directly invest in critical sectors such as transport, energy, health care etc across Africa. What continent-specific values and mechanism do you think we need to drive in order to improve quality leadership for future generations?

LM:

Whether a leader is appointed, elected, anointed, or inherits a leadership role, they have to ensure that what is foremost in their mind is the welfare of those he or she leads. 

I came across a story of a Barotse King shared between two eminent African elders, Eric Mafuna and Thabo Mbeki, sitting under the African sky in Maputo, Mozambique:

“Once upon a time, a Barotse or Lozi leader was elevated to the position of a king or a Litunga. He was brought from his village to the capital, whereupon the great tidings were conveyed to him.  What did he do in response? He did not pump the air with his fist, he did not puff up his chest with pride nor did he recline on his throne with a self-satisfied smile.

Instead, he sighed deeply and declared: “Now you’ve gone and killed me.” What he meant by that, was that the “me” in him, his sense of self, had been surrendered, and had been sacrificed, for the greater good of the people over whom he would now rule.” 

This raises some intriguing questions- 

  • Who, in their right mind, would kill themselves for the so-called greater good when power, glory, riches and fame beckon? 
  • Who would simply surrender their individual freedom to the people they would now rule.

The answer is that many are doing that daily, far from the media spotlight, the selfie culture and the constant quest for recognition and honours. As I travel on this beautiful continent of ours, far from the capital cities, in places that you won’t find in the weather reports, I have discovered that this beautiful continent works in spite of those who claim to be its leaders. It works because of men and women who have, like the Barotse leader, surrendered their personal ambitions and aligned their futures to those of the people they lead. I regularly meet and learn about these amazing people, who daily make a difference in the lives of many.

Each one of their words, gestures, visits, chats, speeches, decisions, plans and meetings helps this continent to move forward. As they do all this, they face many problems and stumbling blocks along the way. No matter what obstacles they encounter, something deep inside them drives them on past the challenges. Their students, community, constituency, supporters or team may believe this is a step too far, but their innate ability to influence, to inspire, to motivate, to cajole, to persuade and to drive people forward enables them to get the group to see beyond the obstacle ahead towards the ultimate goal or objective. Some of the words, gestures or speeches they employ during these trying times are immortalised and passed on from generation to generation.

Each one of us has come across such leaders in our lives, in our homes, schools, universities, sports teams, places of worship, community forums, the public service, civil society groups or the corporate world. 

We have fond memories of their influence on us; we vividly recall their words to us during dark times and we remember their life lessons. They, in words or deeds, inspired us, drove us, pushed us, motivated us to achieve much more than we thought we could. Some of them were there in our hour of need; some helped us regain our self-worth.

Through it all, it was never about them; it was about us. They did not seek the limelight; they wanted us to succeed. What they did was not for their personal gain, but for a higher and nobler ideal. As Kouzes & Posner put it, their joy was not in “how exalted they may be; how elevated their positions are, how much wealth they can amass, and how much power they can have…. it came from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because of their actions”.

I strongly believe that it is these values of service, selflessness, probity, fairness, faith based values, and humility – that were passed on through generations, that are daily being practiced by Africans across the continent that must be the content of curriculum at universities; training institutes for public servants and manifestos of political and business leaders. Maybe and just maybe, we may avoid the current corporate scandals; political corruption, violent conflicts and restore the trust in leaders across Africa. 

This leadership platform is a small contribution towards this goal, it aims to give young and aspirant leaders an alternative leadership voice to the current discredited leadership narrative of power, greed and unethical conduct. 

Regards

Lincoln

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