When Chief Joseph Sanusi, erstwhile Central Bank of Nigeria governor was looking for someone to occupy a vacant seat on the board of Standard Chartered Bank where he was then chairman, his mind went straight to Sir Remi Omotoso, the man who eventually succeeded him as the chairman of the bank. Omotoso is one of the boardroom leaders featured in our forthcoming book 50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—Lessons On Corporate Governance and Strategy. His contribution is among the best. As a veteran of boards from Lever Brothers where he was groomed for the No.1 position to the Group MD of Odu’a Investment Co. to the chairmanship of Standard Chartered Bank, he defines boardroom leadership with verve and authority. Currently, Omotoso is the chair of Greenwich Trust Ltd board, an investment banking company with very vibrant subsidiaries, all growing aggressively. He also serves as the chair of a few upstart companies as a way of transferring knowledge and skills. In these 7 points, we distill Omotoso’s essence of boardroom leadership. By the time you are through, you will discover what Sanusi saw in Omotoso as an exemplary board leader and a humorist.
1. Boardrooms come in different shapes and sizes depending on the type of company. They have a common character however: a room containing members of diverse backgrounds, diverse experience, diverse knowledge, diverse character traits. In some instances, when you assess the aggregate experience sitting in that room, the combined time the directors had spent in management, the time spent in their professions, the varied experience they have had, you might be talking of close to a thousand years of experience put together which the company is tapping into. Some of the members are from financial background, some technical, some legal, some environmental, some marketing, all pooled at the board to produce good strategic plans.
2.The board’s centre of gravity is the chairman, a member who knows his onions in bringing people to reason together in a positive manner and in coagulating ideas of different people. He must be someone who can get the best out of everybody. He should be the one who can build synergy and cohesion. If there is somebody who is totally out of tune with others, the chairman has to identify such, counsel or find a way of easing the fellow out before he becomes a spoiler. A strong board is that where there is a spate of diverse opinions, but the chairman being able to reconcile and tuning them to the direction of achieving the goals and aspirations of the company. That is an effective board.
3. My years in the boardroom have taught me some lessons. The boardroom is another school, a school as strong as Harvard. In fact, there are certain things in the boardroom that are not taught in Harvard. In the boardroom, you learn prudence, humility, firmness, focus, results-orientation, management of diversity of people and a host of other qualifications that a good leader must have anywhere. You get strengthened if you are lucky to have gone through one or two boards.
4. A board chairman must not see himself as God. After all, he is first a director before he was elected chairman. What would they have seen in him to say he should be a better chairman than any of them? One, he must have a respectable level of experience. Two, he must be a fantastic listener. A great coordinator. A psychologist of a kind. A fair-minded fellow who is prepared to not to dominate the board but is prepared to get other people to contribute and is able to synthesize the contributions of those people to form a decision that others will key into and take ownership of. He must be firm, but not overbearing. He must have transparent integrity. Integrity of thought, words and action. He must be seen as a personification of the organisation itself. A man who earns and keep respect. Let it not be expected that the chairman would be master of all subjects. He cannot be. He cannot be an expert in finance, marketing, supply-chain management and even law. But he must be able to learn quickly and learn how to tap into the knowledge of others, so that the goals of the board can be achieved. He must not see himself as a taskmaster of the board. He must see himself as the leader of the board instead.
5. His role is basically that of coordination. In other words, effective leadership: managing meetings to be productive, managing time in meetings so that it doesn’t degenerate to a beer parlour kind of gathering, ensuring that members focus on the subject of discussion. It is part of his role to work with appointment and governance committee to ensure that the board is refreshed in line with the Article of Association. He is a bridge between the board and management through the CEO and the company secretary. Because the boardroom is his principal constituency, he must have demonstrable knack for managing meetings. I chair board meetings. Nobody notices that my phone has been set to show me the time. So, coming into the meeting, I have already set the number of hours, all other things being favourable, that we will spend in the meeting, so that the session will not be boring and tiring. I am mindful that we will get to stages in the meeting where discussions can spark argument. It is my role to pour oil on what looks like troubled water. If you are straight-faced, no-nonsense, straight-talking chairman, you are not going to succeed much. There must be a point in the meeting when you will bring in relevant jokes that will make people feel that they are just starting the meeting, and the fellow who feels a little heated up relaxes. You must have some sense of humour, but not to the extent of turning into a comedian.
6. “As chairman, I place a lot of emphasis on availability of board papers to members early enough as part of ensuring informed discussions and good decisions. I encourage periodic rotation of board committee membership to sharpen skills of board members and attempt to create breadth of knowledge. I pay attention to training of board members including myself for knowledge and skills upgrade. I ensure that remuneration of board members and management gets adequate attention.”
7. A chairman must have a tremendous knowledge of certain areas, but don’t turn yourself into a “professor” in the boardroom. Just bring out the salient points of that knowledge to guide the meeting forward. You don’t have to turn the boardroom into a classroom. The people sitting with you are no novice. Don’t make it a history class where you tell stories of what happened in 1843. There will be occasion when one or two such inferences can be made but not to the point of becoming the main feature of a board meeting.
A chairman does not dominate. You are like the conductor of an orchestra harmonizing and bringing the best in everyone. Don’t go through a board meeting without every member making one contribution or the other. You must persevere. Don’t be a chairman who goes in and out of the meeting, say 10 times. You must regulate your bladder. Go to toilet before you come to the meeting. It is not good for the chairman to be the one to say: “I want to quickly use the toilet.” The chairman is not the one that will eat most of the snack. Have self-control. The chairman must take the board meeting as a job for that day and see to it that he harnesses the contribution of everybody, bearing in mind that we gather to be wise, we don’t gather to be foolish.