Tony O. Elumelu
In different fora when asked to reflect on my work experience, I always mention the tenacity and entrepreneurial orientation that Tony Elumelu’s leadership of Standard Trust Bank (STB) several years ago taught me. I recently watched a live event of Tony (as he insisted we called him) on Facebook during the recent Tony Elumelu Foundation 2017 entrepreneurial forum. Tony was looking at the different products and services on display and the element of surprise he showed when he saw the quality of the leather shoes and sandals made by a lady was fascinating. The live event was symbolic to me in many ways but predominantly from the prism of management and leadership, and I have chosen to highlight 9 qualities that are relevant to current and aspiring managers that Tony’s tutelage at STB taught me.
Art of Delegation
We cling to our jobs and refuse to pass down knowledge as our way of showing continued relevance in our place of work. We are intimidated by our subordinates who show promise and ability. We frustrate them, dampen their morale and their sense of worth because of our own selfish motives. One of my managers asked me some weeks ago: “Aren’t you nervous that your job will become redundant with all the delegation you do,”? Insecurity has an ugly face in the workplace. I explained the general notion of developing my team to take on more senior roles and creating an opportunity for them to take over my position in the event my role becomes vacant. It will be a sense of pride for me that somebody I managed has ascended to greater responsibilities. I also explained crucially that if my manager’s position becomes available, I would love to be considered for his role. One of the reasons that would be considered in such eventuality is if there is somebody competent to take over my own role. You don’t want to be in a situation that your organisation feels you are too indispensable in your current role to move you to other roles.
Remember, one of your key responsibilities as an effective manager is to develop your team. If you aren’t doing this, you are simply a manager in title.
Chika Mordi took charge as Acting MD/CEO for two months when Tony went to Harvard Business School for his Advanced Management Programme. It was a crucial period for STB as we just launched our initial public offering (IPO). It was the time you expected your CEO to be around but Tony trusted his team. He had perfected delegation as his absence didn’t have to negatively impact the organisation. The result was that the IPO was oversubscribed. You have to build trust in the ability of your team to deliver. Part of this trust-building involves the effective art of delegation and spending quality time with your subordinates to improve their competence and capabilities.
Tony created a culture where you can confidently challenge your managers on issues without fear of intimidation but yet, it was a culture of respect. Even though it was a pressurised environment, there was a sense of family, pride, unity, fun and laughter. Culture shapes behaviour in organisations. Many of us had offers to move to other banks with improved pay and guaranteed promotion, but we knew we will be stifled by the new culture we were invited to. We stuck with the culture that bettered us.
Culture is a significant competitive advantage that many organisations don’t pay credence to.
Organisations must look for ways to create a positive and enduring culture. Culture was the greatest competitive advantage of STB and the bank leveraged on it significantly. I remember a colleague, who joined us from one of the first generation banks and couldn’t withstand some of our challenges to his business development initiatives. The said colleague tried to use seniority in grade and age to intimidate some of us, but that made it worse. STB was a different culture, those things didn’t matter. It was a wake-up call for him. Behaviours that aren’t in line with your organisation’s culture must be challenged.
One of the senior managers in my branch didn’t attend one of our weekly Assets and Liabilities Committee meeting and even though he was more senior to us, he was written a query to explain his absence. Guts! The next and subsequent meetings, he was never absent again.
That you are boss doesn’t mean company rules shouldn’t apply to you.
Tony never came late to work, he always displayed his ID card around his neck, always wore STB colours and he never talked down on managers in the presence of their subordinates.
One rule for one and one rule for another is prevalent within our organisations, and you cannot build success on such a foundation.
Sometime in 2003, Tony was in the heart of Lagos street market in Benin City to support us in our attempt to win a new business client. This was a massive morale boost to us as our commander-in-chief was willing to take arms with us to battle irrespective of where the warfront was. It didn’t matter to Tony that the client wasn’t a multi-millionaire and it didn’t matter the location we were headed. As managers, once we have a title with all the perks that come with it, humility tends to fall apart. I recall an experience in 2006 whilst working at the Royal Bank of Scotland. One of our cashiers was struggling to reconcile her transactions for the day and despite our help, there wasn’t a solution in sight. Our manager came to the cashiers section, emptied all the cash balance and cheques on the floor. She sat on the floor with her suit and meticulously tried to find where the error was. She wasn’t angry that it was past her home time. Her team needed her help and time, and she presented herself without hesitation and without blaming anyone. She took her responsibility seriously.
Are most managers not more problems than solutions in creating a spirit of camaraderie in the work place? We must raise our shoulders, intimidate our subordinates and let the office quake because we are around.
How did STB become so successfully? Their strategy was disruption of the industry at the time. They challenged the prevailing perception of banking and went to meet the customer rather than wait for the customer to find them – what we called “arm-chair banking.” We must be willing to get our hands “dirty” as managers by getting involved rather than allowing the comfort of our jobs becloud our sense of duty to our customers and colleagues.
I recall Tony standing outside the gates of the Benin branch of STB at Akpakpava Road in the scorching heat, welcoming and shaking the hands of all customers that were entering and exiting the bank. He was thanking them for their custom.
Our air-conditioned offices are comfortable but an arm-chair approach to leadership is an arm-chair approach to failure.
Respect and dignity
We will all nod and say, “Yes, we do this?” But do we? There was a day, our salaries weren’t paid on the usual date of the month and was rather paid the next day. It was human error but I don’t recall the specific reason for the delay. Tony sent an email apologising to staff members and promised it will never happen again. He took responsibility for the oversight even though he wasn’t to blame. It never happened again. Payment of salaries at the due date is a social contract that must be respected. It is a right not a privilege. Even Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
“Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.”
Once you don’t remunerate those who work for you, you denigrate them.
At STB, I made a request for two weeks holiday and my Area Manager (late Elvis Meggison) said there was no one to do my job so I couldn’t go on holiday. As I was about to make my excuses, he started laughing. He said when Tony as CEO was in Harvard for two months, the bank didn’t collapse so my absence would be equally managed. If we are unable to allow our subordinates take holidays, we must accept failure on our part as managers. Many of us fail because we have refused to plan for contingencies, failed to build a robust and resilient team to withstand the impact of such key personnel leaving the business for a short period of time. Whilst in Barclays Bank, we had to take at least two weeks off in one go. Aside other operational/risk considerations that the policy assisted with, such long breaks boost morale and lower stress levels. Stress is a silent killer in Nigerian businesses that many have paid lip-service to. Stress in the work place is real. Whilst others may manage stress differently, managers must ensure consideration for all those who work with them to ensure they have a work-life balance. I reference Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.”
Recruitment processes should never be compromised. When the standards of your recruitment processes are compromised, your outputs will suffer.
The organisation suffers when people who are not competent or capable, are given jobs above more capable people.
Tony made sure he personally saw all those who were employed to work in STB. It was a Herculean task to interview all employees. He eventually stopped doing this for certain grades as STB became too big and decentralisation of recruitment had to happen. Even in decentralisation, processes must remain standardised otherwise the business suffers. As managers, we spend a lot of time during the recruitment process and even more time getting successful candidates trained. If we get it wrong at the recruitment phase, organisations and managers suffer the consequences. The interview process in STB for entry level graduates was intense – a GMAT test, a panel interview, a Branch Manager interview, a Regional Director interview, Human Resources interview and finally MD/CEO interview. The result of this was a standardised culture that led to the success of STB.
STB wanted to institute new telephone etiquette across the business. I once picked up the phone the day after this was introduced and guess who was at the other end of the phone – Tony himself. Luckily, I bought into the new etiquette and Tony was full of commendation. Your subordinates will follow you if you inspire them.
When we start coercing people to do things or carry out tasks, then we know we are failing in our responsibility to inspire our teams.
Often times, people stay in organisations or leave organisations because of the impact of the manager on them, and we must realise this as managers.
This is what STB employees were known for: never-say-die spirit. In fact, this was one of the key skills expected during interviews.
I actually missed my Regional Director interview which was on a Friday in Enugu (where I did my National Youth Service programme). My youth service duty post was in the village and without mobile phones I didn’t know the date for the interview. The next Monday morning I dressed up in my suit and went to the bank asking for the Regional Director that I wanted to be interviewed. The current MD/CEO of United Bank for Africa (UBA), Kennedy Uzoka was the Regional Director at the time. His Personal Assistant started laughing, saying something like, “We invite people to be interviewed not people asking to be interviewed”. He went to speak to Kennedy and he said, “My RD likes your spirit and says you should come at 2pm for your interview”. After a brief chat, Kennedy said my MD will like you and said congratulations.
As a manager, your subordinates should know what makes you thick, let them into your thought-process, and they are able to judge for themselves what is right and what is acceptable. Let them make mistakes and learn from them.
Tony gave us confidence dealing with high-networth individuals when trying to win their businesses. There was an occasion when my manager and I met a high-networth customer for the first time after several attempts. The lady said we should tell Tony to come and see her, as we were too junior to speak to her. In her exact words, “Big man talk to big man”. We weren’t intimidated. Our immediate salvo was that we have been giving the mandate by Tony to commit the bank to any deal we agree with her. She smiled. We should never be frightened or scared of being told, No. Our persistence could turn a No to a Yes, and if it remains a No, so be it.
Being rejected shouldn’t define us.
Why is it that we avoid being told that what we are doing is wrong or unacceptable? We cannot assume as a manager that we always have the right answers or all of the answers. During a management retreat, Tony asked for feedback on his leadership of the bank. He asked managers to speak freely and without fear of reprimand. Elvis Meggison who attended the meeting told me it was a no-holds barred session as managers were frank with their opinions. It was a humbling experience for Tony as he was contrite and worked on the feedback, and some of the results were obvious to all employees.
We must give our people opportunities to challenge us.
Welcome such challenges and create an environment that continually supports it. What our people think about the manner the business is being run and the future direction of the business is immensely important. As managers, we must therefore consider ways of engaging with employees including use of engagement surveys. More importantly, feedback must be acted upon.
Responsibility and sense of ownership
One of our primary responsibilities as managers is to our team.
We cannot achieve company objectives without our team and so we must therefore create a supportive environment.
We cannot expose them to ridicule or umbrage them at every opportunity. We protect them within the ambit of the company’s processes and procedures. Of course, if there are performance related issues, it is also our responsibility to deal with those.
Tony had to announce that some staff members had to be disengaged. The tone of his email was a strong expression of regret. The staff members affected were good but the business needed to change. People are important and they deserve to be treated fairly, especially when they have inputted into the overall success of the organisation. Aside a generous compensation package, he took the extra-ordinary step of writing off all bank loans granted to these affected staff members. It was a heart-warming gesture. Many of my colleagues who weren’t affected immediately applied for loans, just in case!
Empower your people. Tony empowered us to take decisions and commit the business within certain parameters. Red tape kills business. It was an attempt to implement firm-level entrepreneurship – where managers are more inclined to take business-related risks, favour innovation and change initiatives in advancing the interest of STB.
Empowerment is a strong management tool we must embrace.
It brings out the best in your people and gives them a sense of ownership; and with ownership leads to a sense of possession; and with possession comes pride and protection. We defended the STB brand at any opportunity. It was our possession, our property and nobody else. As managers, we shouldn’t ascribe all responsibilities to ourselves in a bid for self-importance. Aside the risk of business continuity, you increase your stress levels unwittingly.
Tony was demanding, very demanding and his expectations of quality were not to be compromised. The tools and training to succeed were at our beck and call. Rewards and recognition accompanied our successes. I laughed hard during one of my MBA lectures at Warwick Business School as one of my cohorts who currently works in one of the banks in Nigeria took me through memory lane of “STB boys with their short red ties”. We were distinct, there was something about us other banks couldn’t replicate and will perhaps struggle to replicate. Tony may not necessarily appreciate the impact of his influence and the culture he created back then, but the memory never fails those of us who lived it and it continues to enrich us.