His Royal Majesty Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha (Agbogidi), chairman, Unilever Nigeria, ex-chairman, Diamond Bank is a man you cannot forget in a hurry.
Long after you have interviewed him, his words of wisdom ring in your ears, filling you with awe and deep respect for the man and the dual institutions he represents. He is a man of two worlds: a traditional ruler who sits on the board of a multinational company as chairman.
As readers of this column know, I am writing a book on “Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria,” a book about Nigeria’s boardroom leaders sharing their thoughts and experiences in the boardroom. I started by sending the Obi a manuscript of the book featuring an array of boardroom chairs interviewed so far—icons like Dr. Michael Omolayole, Dr. Christopher Kolade, Olusegun Osunkeye, Felix Ohiwerei, Hayford Alile, Mrs. Ibukun Awosika (FirstBank chair), Prof. Joe Irukwu, Sir Remi Omotosho, Mrs. Osaretin Demuren (GT Bank chair), Biodun Shobanjo (Troyka Holdings), Mrs. Mosun Belo-Olusoga (Access Bank chair), Steve Omojafor (former Zenith chair), Sir Ogala Osoka, David Ifezulike (Nestle), Adedotun Sulaiman, Gbenga Oyebode (former Access Bank chair), Chief Ephraim Faloughi, Chief Dele Fajemirokun, Mohammed Hayatu-deen, Dr. Chris Ogbechie (Diamond Bank) and a few more big names. He was impressed enough to have invited me to his grand palace in Onitsha.
I met a tall, gallant, handsome, bespectacled 75-year-old man with a professorial air and a gladiator’s mien. He had come with some jottings but he soon discards them and speaks off the cuff with the confidence of a man who knows the boardroom so well that he needs no such prompter. His boardroom journey and tutelage started at Shell Nigeria where he worked for 30 years after graduating with a degree in chemistry. He talks nostalgically about his mentors at Shell. People like Brian Anderson, his last MD at Shell Nigeria and David Welham, also managing director of Shell Nigeria who ultimately moved on to become the group managing director and the overall finance director for The Royal Dutch Shell Group. These are the people who prepared him for leadership, who taught him to think strategically and to “look at the broader picture and position situations such that in the end, you don’t get too many mistakes.”
Outside Shell, another great mentor “is Felix Ohiwerei, who was my chairman at Unilever Nigeria Plc. Aside the fact that he was my senior at Government Secondary School, Owerri, Imo State, Ohiwerei is a natural leader, a quality he manifested since our secondary school days. There is a human feel about whatever he does. Fairness, transparency, integrity. He doesn’t overbear you. As your leader, he carries you along. At the board meeting, he elicits contributions from everybody.”
Born May 14, 1941, Igwe Achebe ascended the throne on May 14, 2002. His father worked with the UAC all through his life and on that score, Igwe Achebe sees himself as having UAC in his DNA.
“I am a UAC child in a way,” he says. “I followed the career of several UAC people by mostly reading about them, someone like Christopher Abebe, who was very highly respected. There is a UAC culture, and Chris Abebe rose to the height of that. He ran the company for several years and left a legacy that was continued by those who took over from him, the likes of Chief Ernest Shonekan and Bassey Ndiokho. Abebe left a legacy of sustainable leadership culture at UAC. I never had the privilege of working with Chris Abebe, but his achievements resonate well with me.”
In 2005, Achebe was minding his business as a traditional ruler when his friend and founder of Diamond Bank, Paschal Dozie came begging for a favour. Would he mind joining the board of Diamond Bank, if his role as traditional ruler will permit? The Igwe was alarmed. “What do I know about banking?” he asked. But he was calmed down and told:
“You have a lot of experience, knowledge and integrity you can bring onto the board.”
“I asked him to let me sleep over it and call him the next day,” Igwe Achebe recalls. “I joined the board. Within a year, he called again: ‘Igwe, I have a problem again.’ What is it? ‘I want you to become chairman of the bank, I want to step down.’”
And that was how he succeeded Dozie as chairman of Diamond Bank. From Diamond Bank, he became the chairman of Unilever Nigeria board which he currently leads. Based on his two experiences, I asked what it takes to be a good board leader.
“I have not found an ideal definition, but everybody knows what to look for,” he replies, adding that “A good chairman has to be an effective leader of people. An effective leader of people, in my own view, is somebody who regardless of the group of people he found himself leading, can do the following quickly: One, understand the purpose of the organisation, or the business. Two, understand the qualities of people he has to work with. Three, get a feel for the strength and weaknesses of your co-directors, harness the strengths and minimise their weaknesses, not by ignoring or hiding the deficits but by allowing them to gradually work on and improve them. Four, be able to draw the best out of people. Five, be able to integrate what you get. Six, make your co-directors appreciate that you are leading them for the best. And seven, earn their respect, especially by the way you push issues. Occasionally sensitive issues come up and by the time it is done and your co-directors are saying ‘Thank you very much Chairman for guiding us through it because it was really a tough one,’ you know you have ticked the box in this department. All intents and purposes of the board should be in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders, from personnel to shareholders to customers and even the community where the business is established and the government who reserve the rights to taxes and provides the regulating environment of the business. That requires that the chairman has the highest integrity and transparency, even in his own personal relationships.”
How do you figure the right person to lead a board? What criteria are best employed?
“Experience in the particular line of business will always be an advantage, but sometimes, it might pose a difficulty also,” the Obi says. “A dedicated banker as chairman of a bank, say somebody who has had 25 years career as a banker, might begin to get in the way of management led by the managing director. He may not be able to define where the role of the chairman stops and where that of the managing director and his team begins. And sometimes, he may not be completely up-to-date ––‘Oh, 25 years ago when I was a young man, we did it this way.’ We are in today, yet he cleaves to the past, forgetting that time has changed. My view: When there is an option between depth of knowledge of that particular business and leadership quality of an individual, the latter supersedes. This I say on good authority. I am a good example, someone who went into the board of a bank a layman, a complete outsider to the banking industry. If you are coming from an altogether different background, being on top of your act requires you being perceptive, asking questions, asking questions, asking questions, from management, from your colleagues on the board who have been there before you and therefore have extra knowledge, and also from resourceful others outside. In the end, you would lead the organisation effectively.
“A chairman leads the board just like a head of state, or head of parliament, or head of a school, leads an entity. A board chairman has to understand the nature of the business, and the people he is working with, and harness all of them into what is in the best interest of the company and its stakeholders.”
NEXT WEEK: LEADING AND MANAGING A CEREBRAL UNILEVER BOARD