His name “Ezeh” translates as “King.” On that score you can tag Dr. Christopher Ezeh as a boardroom king. But the legendary chairman of John Holt fame, former chairman of NAL Merchant Bank, former chairman of Fidelity Bank, a man who had in the past been on the boards of not less than 24 companies and who simultaneously held chairmanship positions in John Holt and Fidelity Bank, would tell you that in the boardroom, there is nothing like a king.
Instead, what you have is the doctrine of “primus inter pares” where a chairman is chosen as first among equals. To him, board leadership is not monarchical. “As chairman, you cannot lord it over others,” he says. “You have to work with other board directors in consensus. The title chairman is not something meant to intimidate people. If anything, it just means more work.”
We are at his Christopher University along Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, an educational legacy he founded specially for training future managers, business leaders and entrepreneurs. My mission: to interview him for our forthcoming book: “50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—Lessons on Corporate Governance and Strategy.” For over one hour, he shared his experiences as a boardroom leader from which I bring you 7 lessons.
1. Absence of board and corporate governance has killed many Nigerian companies. Most Nigerian entrepreneurs past and present run their businesses personally along a command structure that makes them the heart and soul of the enterprise. With all the power and authority concentrated in his hands, he finds it difficult to delegate, thereby running a system that makes it difficult for others to make significant contributions to the growth of the enterprise. Most of the times, the business owner is the sole signatory to the company’s accounts and that further makes the business roundly sole enterprise. That is one of the big problems in Nigerian business. The tragedy is that most businesses built on such foundations hardly survive their founders. From Abiola’s conglomerates to Odutola Tyres, there abound many examples of business empires that ground to a halt right after their owners’ death. No matter how successful those businesses were, they were essentially sole enterprises with a command structure where the person at the top gets things done by command. When that person is no longer around, it is natural for the business to lose its life force. With its heart gone, the business collapses. It will be good for Nigerian entrepreneurs to form companies and run them in accordance with good codes of corporate governance. To do that entails having a properly constituted board.
2. The board is a council of experienced and knowledgeable hands who are there to oversee the company, advise the management and ensure that policies and objectives for which the company was founded are achieved. The major function of the board is that of directing (ensuring that policies of the company are carried out) and formulating strategy (ensuring there are good strategies to move the company forward). Other oversights fall under these two broad functions.
3. To young managers aiming for the top, my advice is that you don’t start life preparing to be a member of a board. You start life with the mindset that “I will do well in what I know best.” With this orientation, you go out to get experience based on your educational and professional background. You try to enrich your knowledge by getting more exposure. You do your best to serve your company loyally to the point that people can’t help but notice that you are doing so well that the idea will begin to occur to them: “This man could be a good material for a board.” That is the path to follow.
4. A board must be diverse in its composition. Diversity is good for boards. When directors come from different professional backgrounds, it enriches the board. But equally important, diversity must have to be on another basis, not just professional varieties. For example, it is prudent for a company that has branches throughout the country, to search for directors who know a certain region. Sometimes, occasion may arise that someone has to go to that part of the country to do something on behalf of the company. Someone from that locality may be the best person to go and do that. That is why sometimes you find boards that have directors from all different ethnic groups. It is not mandatory to do that. But the fact of life and business sometimes force companies to think about diversity in that direction.
5. The same goes for gender diversity. It is important to have women on boards. You may ask: What do women bring to the boardroom? The same education and experience that men bring. And beyond that, the down-to-earth way of looking at issues. Nobody can talk about consumer banking better than a woman who has been involved in it. In banking, we have women who are all-rounders: good in IT, spectacular in consumer and corporate banking, extraordinary in sales. They contribute in their own right.
6. A lot depends on the leadership of the board. The boardroom could either be a place of in-fighting (especially if board members are mismatches) or a meeting of minds by a group of people formed into a cohesive team. It depends on how the chairman handles his job. It is important for the chairman to achieve rapport among directors, because if the directors are not working towards the same objective, the company the board serves will find it impossible to progress. To achieve the needed rapport among directors, thereby giving them a reason to work as one, it is essential that the chairman carries along the board. Directors can’t come out of the boardroom speaking different languages. Even if they have different ideas before going in for the meeting, by the time they come out, it is expected of them to come out with an idea, an agreement or a resolution as a body to the effect that “this is what we have agreed.”
7. To be an effective chairman, you need knowledge and experience. My training is that of an accountant. I have worked in various companies. I have worked in various boards. That prepared me. Having said that, it is important to say there is hardly a prototype of an ideal chairman. We don’t have ideal forms in chairmanship. I have known some good chairmen in the past and each has his peculiarities, his attributes. Being a good chairman is not really in the amount of business your company conducts or the amount of profit made, because companies have different objectives, some of which may not be profit-oriented. Rather, it is really the person and the way he carries the board, namely the other directors. That is what makes people speak of him as good or not so good a chairman.