I am currently reading Biodun Shobanjo’s exciting biography ‘The Will To Win’ written by Dotun Adekanmbi. From this interesting book, I bring you Shobanjo’s experience as the CEO of The Apprentice Africa TV programme which triggered a debate as to whether he would be another Donald Trump. Thank God, he rejected the comparison with Trump as far back as 2007 when The Apprentice Africa was unveiled. Below is a slightly edited extract from this book on the advertising legend who played himself instead of mimicking Donald Trump, the lame duck American President:
Shobanjo’s unveiling as CEO of The Apprentice Africa in October 2007 was straight out of a movie-making manual. He carried himself the way an accomplished CEO should whilst Bank PHB talked big like a typical big-budget sponsor. The publicity shots showed him in a no-nonsense mood. Radio and television commercials created the hype needed to create a box office stampede…
Worldwide anchors of the The Apprentice programme are seen mainly from the prism of Donald Trump, who is the face of the show. Practically everyone knows the story of his life by rote: how he came into great wealth; went into great debt and made a great comeback. Against all odds, the businessman decisively beat several established politicians to clinch the ticket to fly the flag of the Republican Party with which he surprisingly, yet roundly defeated former First Lady of the United States and former Secretary of State, Mrs. Hillary Clinton, in the November 9, 2016 presidential polls to emerge as the President of the United States. Trump lived the lifestyle that many cannot imagine, much less live. He gave the programme a distinct personality, one that shot up its approval ratings everywhere it aired. It became inevitable that Shobanjo be compared with the American billionaire. Both men had quality pedigrees, and, by whatever standard, they are successful; have extraordinary media management skills and are men that many would love to hate.
However, whilst Trump’s lifestyle is more in-your-face-and-loving-it, Shobanjo’s is somewhat understated, even if considered loud by many of his contemporaries…Regardless of the unavoidable comparison on lifestyle issues, Shobanjo refused to be drawn into any debate on whether he would be ‘another’ Donald Trump in his capacity as CEO, saying: “I do not know that one of the criteria for being CEO is that you must be Donald Trump; I am Biodun Shobanjo, CEO of The Apprentice Africa. What you will see is my interpretation of how a CEO should manage crucial challenges for optimal results, having successfully run businesses myself. Take me the way I am.”
In accepting to be CEO of The Apprentice Africa, his key objective was to demonstrate to Africa’s aspiring entrepreneurs that “It is better to look for the ‘open’ door rather than cry over the ‘closed’ door.” The show thus became a platform for him to share the secrets of his success over the years. The Apprentice Africa was also an opportunity to align his worldview—that failure is never an option—with the corporate philosophy of Bank PHB that there is no such word as ‘impossible’. “I really do not have to celebrate failure in my life; if you are used to failing, you don’t even contemplate failure.”
Being CEO of The Apprentice Africa required that Shobanjo took 18 apprentices under his wings for a period of 16 weeks, during which he would subject them to physical and mental exercises to hire the best in class as his ‘apprentice’ for one year. Nigeria had the highest number of contestants, seven; Ghana, three; Uganda, three; Kenya, three; Guinea, one and Cameroon, one. In this regard, providence played out its very rich sense of humour. Twenty-seven years earlier, Shobanjo had launched Nigeria’s boldest marketing communications enterprise with 18 real life ‘apprentices’. In all those years, he had had cause to directly fire only a handful of employees—from a group workforce that has exceeded 17,000 employees—on grounds of ethical conflicts in the workplace. In The Apprentice Africa he would need to rapidly fire 17 apprentices, no matter how good or bad they were, in a space of five months in order to hire just one.
He easily rationalized his low headcount for firing in real life: “I hire people that I do not have to fire; but when I need to fire anyone, I do not think twice about it. A CEO must demonstrate that a right decision had been taken.”
None of the 18 contestants had had any close encounter with him before the show but they had read his profile and were sufficiently impressed. Although they eagerly looked forward to meeting him, none of them knew precisely what to expect. When, eventually, they met Shobanjo, their perception of him varied. Many of the contestants declined to discuss the subject of their first impression of the CEO. The few that did requested anonymity. This, understandably, was because none wanted to start out on a ‘wrong’ footing with the boss so as not to jeopardize their chances of winning the ultimate prize of $200,000 plus one-year employment. The sum of what the contestants said of the CEO was as interesting as they were revealing. Broadly, they saw a man who could not readily be type-cast but who came across as a confident go-getter.
A contestant said: “I expected somebody who was older but very much in touch with the kid in him; (one) that is very serious but at the same time down-to-earth and playful.” Another noted that: “He first came across as a no-nonsense person and I felt for sure he was not someone I would love to work with because he seemed stuffy.” Another quipped: “He is humble, knowledgeable businessman with a good soul.” Yet another said: “He is a hard-working entrepreneur; a little bit traditional in his thinking.” For another: “I initially thought that he was an all-business guy with no-time-to-play.”
When the show began to air on February 26, 2008, it became an instant hit and it lived up to its billing as ‘Live MBA on TV’. Viewers focused on the content of the programme and paid attention to the performance of the CEO. Task after task, the contestants were exposed to what Shobanjo, whilst resting the Trump/Shobanjo comparison, had earlier described as ‘separate and unique circumstances’ of doing business in an unstructured economy such as Africa’s. He also shared his global perspective of doing business. The tasks ranged from hawking to presentation skill; from developing financial products to developing special fast food menu and from developing a TV commercial to creating and selling works of art. More than anything else, the tasks that were undertaken by the contestants gave viewers a chance to think through some of the solutions that emerged on the show.
Hard-hitting TV critic, Onoshe Nwabuikwu wrote: “On the show, Shobanjo comes across as shrewd, tough, but fair…willing to give you a chance to defend yourself (and he) does not preach anything he is not willing to practise himself.”