A conversation with Nana Yaw Nketia – Portfolio Officer, Structured Products in Ghana
How will you maintain an effective balance as a leader between achieving organisational goals and maintaining a high standard of ethics in your organisation?
In the words of Mark Sanborn: “Headlines regularly inform us of the public downfall of leaders from every area of endeavour – business, politics, religion and even sports. One day they are on top of the heap, the next, the heap is on top of them.”
We have seen idols fall from grace in spectacular ways. Just think of names such as Bernard Ebbers, Greg Blank, Jeff Skilling, Bernie Madoff, Jordan Belfort, Raj Rajaratnam, Jeff Levenstein, Peter Gardner, Rod Mitchell, Arthur Brown, Bashir Awale and Brett Kebble.
The stories behind each of these falls from grace, and many more, reveal how people in positions of power or influence; people who are skilled and talented; or people who were admired and idolised, lost their way. As you can see, these cases span the developed to the developing world – corruption and ethical violation have neither geographic boundary nor cultural identity.
At the same time, some iconic corporate names have been mired in scandals across the world, and have tainted once great brands and reputations. These include KPMG; Bain; Mackinsey; Wells Fargo, Toshiba, VW, SAP and other local names that have attained infamy.
All of these people and these companies inspired respect at some point – So what happened? I would challenge you to go and read about each of these cases and examples I have referred to. These court documents, reports, submissions, legal arguments etc. runs into millions of pages, but you owe it to yourself as a young leader to read these in order to draw valuable lessons for yourself.
Beyond the headlines, accusations and counter accusations, there are lifelong lessons for each of us, and I hope you will be inquisitive to learn more about these cases.
Here are the key lessons I would love to impart to young and aspirant leaders:
- Unethical behaviour is not only embarrassing from a public relations standpoint, it can also be unprofitable for firms and their investors.
- Unethical behaviour may generate short term profits and advantages, but the fallout may be long term and fatal for companies (Enron, Worldcom; Ernest Young)
Thomas Friedman wrote in his New York Times column: “We don’t just need a financial bailout; we need an ethical bailout. We need to re-establish the core balance between our markets, ethics, and regulations.” Simply put, this means that it’s no longer just enough to focus on what a company does, but equally important on how it does it.
In a speech I made at our Harvard AMP graduation, I argued that I truly believe in, and remain inspired by, that timeless business theme, “making a decent profit, decently”.
I think it’s our responsibility Nana, to act in such a manner that we turn around the
negative perception about business leaders and link our business objectives to our personal values and to the needs of society.
Corporate leaders and all conscientious young leaders must advocate for a new business model where making profit through unethical means should be rejected. We need new leaders and companies that seek a much more balanced score card. Lastly, we need champions who shine the light on all abuse of resources, corruption, nepotism, Fraud, money laundering, tax evasion, environmental degradation, tender fraud, price fixing, and all other unethical practices.
What experiences have shaped your world view as a leader. How can we make the world a better place?
I have had a very eventful life with a wide range of experiences, if I could highlight some negative ones and positive ones I would say;
- I have experienced first-hand, the oppression of one group of people by another during the apartheid system;
- I have also suffered at the hands of a brutal and evil system that denied people basic freedoms and human rights.
- I have seen the excesses of rampant capitalism and the devastating effects of an unequal society characterized by high levels of poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment living side by side with opulence;
- I have seen the conflicts and violence perpetuated by one group of people to other people because of religion, culture, nationality, resources, language, and politics; and
- I have seen the impact on the environment of human actions and fear what we may bequeath to future generations.
- I have built amazingly deep, personal and longstanding relationships across the African continent;
- I have seen the new energy, passion, intellect, innovation and new ideas and innovation from young African entrepreneurs and leaders, this augurs well for Africa’s future;
- I have built great connections with friends and colleagues across the world, they are important allies in the creation of a new world order;
- I have seen and experienced new innovations – through the smart use of technology, we may solve or alleviate Africa’s intractable problems; and
- I’ve experienced a growing consensus that I’ve experienced on the need to promote Intra-Africa trade.
We can do so much to create a much more better world; the following foundations would help us build a better world:
- We must advocate for a much more humane, equitable, sustainable economic system where more benefit rather than less;
- I would strongly advocate for a society where there is more gender equality, better opportunities for women, greater protection for women and children in both the family and the workplace;
- Africa’s leaders must create a conducive environment for investment, trade and development in order to accelerate Africa’s rebirth;
- We must build connections and relationships among people to ensure that our children will not be divided along racial, ethnicity, cultural, religious, sexual orientation and language lines;
- We must ensure that the new technologies are used to bridge the digital divide, promote development and access; and link populations and people across Africa and the world; and
- We need to unearth, develop, and nurture a corps of young and aspirant leaders and entrepreneurs ready to be at the forefront of Africa’s rebirth.
I am very optimistic about the world, and I know that the youth will give us hope for a more humane, equitable, peaceful and prosperous world.
What in your view is the greatest legacy a leader can leave and why?
I have argued before that we have all been exposed to various theories, standards and definitions of leadership. The one that resonates with me more, the one that daily inspires me and the one I ultimately hope to achieve and sustain is aptly captured by Kouzen&Posner. It is very simple in its definition, yet deeply profound in its implications:
“Each leader or potential leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. This requires us, as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behaviour and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be in how exalted we may be; how elevated our positions are, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we can have…. it must come from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because of our actions…that’s true leadership.”
This definition not only captures the exemplary behaviours expected of us as leaders but also the pure motives we have to have. It sets a standard by which we can benchmark ourselves, but most importantly, by which our followers can judge us as leaders. This dynamic standard can objectively be used on a daily basis to evaluate our suitability to lead –every speech, gesture, comment, visit, and interaction with our constituency is a test of our suitability to lead.
Our legacy should be judged on whether we led in a manner that placed people at the centre, were responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and were accountable to them. In addition to this, we need to be selfless in our contributions, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behaviours and inspiring in our actions.
Our legacy as leaders will ultimately lie with those we have been blessed enough to lead; those who were in our spheres of influence and those who were close or distant observers of our actions. As you can well imagine, all these are beyond a leader’s control or influence- all a leader can and should do is to focus on doing the right thing, doing it right, and doing it consistently and humanely. History will be the best judge of any leader’s legacy – in my specific case, I would only hope that I can pass the stringent test set out by Kouzes&Posner.
What in your view is the best way to start a leadership journey?
I firmly believe that way to start any leadership journey is to self -examine in a cold, sober and dispassionate manner the real reason why you want to lead. This is not what you have told others or might have put in some job application or political manifesto.
What is the real attraction to leadership- Is it the power, the perks, the riches, the adulation, the potential wealth or the prestige that comes with such a position? The alternative view, one that I firmly subscribe to, believes we must aspire to lead towards a higher ideal or greater purpose. The world is divided between these two leadership paradigms. Starting your leadership journey should be based on knowing where you stand on this divide.
For me personally, the true essence of leadership lies in a higher ideal, a challenge to be confronted, a goal to be achieved or a mission to be accomplished. I believe that anyone who takes on a leadership role driven only by personal reasons, motivated by possible gain, enticed by the benefits that may accrue or excited by the possibility of being in charge is likely to fail dismally as a leader.
In the words of Prof Bill George: “Before anyone takes on a leadership role, they should ask themselves, ‘Why do I want to lead?’ and ‘What’s the purpose of my leadership?’ These questions are simple to ask but finding the real answers may take decades. If the honest answers are power, prestige, and money, such leaders are at risk of relying on external gratification for fulfilment. There is nothing wrong with desiring these outward symbols as long as they are combined with a deeper desire to serve something greater than oneself.”
Unfortunately, across our beloved continent, many of our leaders are motivated by more narrow and selfish interests, easily succumb to greed, to negative influences and to these vices. This leads them to use their position of trust for personal gain or enrichment. This leads to corruption, embezzlement of funds, fraud, collusion, price fixing and the use of public, community or corporate resources for personal gain.
I hope that more young and aspirant leaders can take on the leadership task motivated by higher goals, noble ideals, daunting challenges and by a burning desire to make a positive difference.
What are the obstacles to effective leadership?
Most of us as leaders would dearly love to be effective and successful. There are, however, a number of obstacles to effective leadership that leaders have to confront and overcome. These are:
- Poor execution: Leaders who are great on strategy but poor on execution are less effective. This is so because many leaders have grown up mastering strategy at business schools or through working with consulting companies but are very limited in execution and implementing skills. There are also thousands of books and journals on strategy, but very little on execution. McChesney, Covey and Hulling in their book, The 4 Disciplines of Execution, have successfully increased the importance of execution as a key pillar of effectiveness. They advocate for a focus on 1. Wildly important Goals; 2. Act on the Lead Measures; 3. Keep a compelling scoreboard and 4. Create a cadence of accountability.
- Micromanagement- is a huge obstacle to effective leadership. This is so because mind numbing micromanagement sucks the life out of employees resulting in reduced innovation; reduced productivity; lower morale, high staff turnover and loss of trust.
- Lack of leadership visibility and communication- In the words of Louis Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, who was involved in a huge turnaround of that company: “Great CEOs roll up their sleeves and tackle problems personally. They don’t hide behind staff. They never simply preside over the work of others. They are visible every day with customers, suppliers, and business partners. Personal leadership is about communication, openness and a willingness to speak often and honestly, and with respect for the intelligence of the reader or listener. Leaders don’t hide behind corporate double-speak. They don’t leave to others the delivery of bad news. They treat every employee as someone who deserves to understand what is going on in the enterprise.” These are the key elements for being effective as a leader.
To what extent do you think a person’s belief systems and core values shape their leadership thinking?
On the Oracle of Delphi are inscribed the evergreen words, “Know Thyself” It is very difficult to lead anybody if one cannot lead themselves and knowing yourself is a key prerequisite for leading yourself and others. Having a set of strong values and core principles enables a leader to align his or her principles to those of a larger cause or an organization. In my specific case, I have always strongly believed that I can only represent organisations or causes that rightly align with my principles and values. A few years ago, I accepted a leadership award from My Alma Mater, Rhodes University, and pointed out the following,
“In accepting this award and the difficult task of being a role model, I have to embrace the harsh reality that leadership is not only what I do, but also fundamentally who I am as a person. To be an effective and influential role model, I have to always ensure that there is alignment between who I am and what I do as a leader. This can only be possible if I…
- Ensure alignment of my words with my actions;
- Sacrifice my personal ambitions for the benefits of the greater good;
- Have the humility and good sense to accept that I have weaknesses and frailties;
- Ensure that my social behaviour and conduct does not place the good name of the university, my family and my country into disrepute;
- Resist the temptation to use any resources entrusted to me for personal gain or self-enrichment;
- Promote diversity and tolerance;
- Develop, support and groom future leaders, particularly women,
- Treat everybody with respect and dignity regardless of their status;
- Resist the seductions of conspicuous consumption, flaunting of material wealth, corruption and greed;
- Grow and develop in my personal and professional capacity through continuous learning;
- Aim for the highest level of professional excellence, hold myself to a higher standard of probity, integrity, values, ethics and morality; and
- Use my skills, talents and resources to contribute to the development of my community, country and continent.
These are high ideals, to stay true to them is not easy, as I’m not a god or saint, but a mere mortal with flaws and contradictions. Sometimes I will fail, disappoint, and not be up to the required standard, but I will not give up, I will strive to always be, “The Man in the Arena” identified by Theodore Roosevelt in his seminal speech in Sorbonne in 1910.
What is the best way a leader can manage diversity in an organisation.
Diversity Management is a key Leadership strength as it enables a leader to have the widest range of views, perspectives and insights. This is so rewarding and enlightening for a leader as it challenges accepted norms, reveals unconscious biases; widens outlooks and broadens perspectives of all players in a diverse team. Those leaders who embrace diversity, who promote tolerance and builds understanding will always reap the benefit far better than those leaders who believe in a narrower worldview.
In order to truly promote diversity, to get its full benefits, each one of us as leaders must;
- Respect the diversity of a people they lead in terms of culture, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, and age;
- Create an environment where they are seen as a leader of ALL the people and not a mere representative of the group they originally come from;
- Allow for an environment where different views, perspectives and ideas will thrive and not be an environment where the leader’s voice is dominant; and
- Ensure that in both words and deeds you respect and promote the languages, cultures, religions and gender differences in your teams.