Whether in the boardroom of Unilever, Nigeria’s oldest manufacturing company or sitting among a board of wise elders called Obi-in-Council, Igwe Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha has the charisma and wisdom of King Solomon to be able to lead effectively, wearing two caps—the traditional and the corporate. And he performs those two roles seamlessly. Those aware of his background are too amazed at his impressive double life. In our forthcoming book, 50 NIGERIA’S BOARDROOM LEADERS—Lessons On Corporate Governance and Strategy the king sheds light on his boardroom life. From it we distill these 7 Habits of an Effective Board Leader.
1. There is no way you can run a business without a board. A modern business needs a board from day one or day zero. To start a business today requires having a concept of the business and the next logical thing is how to set up a board and appoint managers to run the business, guided by the board. My early experience on corporate boards started from Shell where I had my working life. Outside Shell, Felix Ohiwerei is one boardroom leader I have studied. He was my chairman at Unilever. 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. With Felix as chairman, you don’t get to vote. You get a consensus.
2. Having seen him in action in the boardroom, I can say a great deal about his leadership at the board. He does his homework. In the course of the meeting, you would discover that he had gone through all the file details thoroughly. He opens the meeting, looks at the agenda first, and asks if there are changes made or to be made on the agenda; he then takes up the issues and draws inputs from members. He can draw out the best in everybody and synthesizes it to say: “This is what our views are, this is where we are going, and this is where we should be going.” Michael Omolayole also has a tall reputation as a distinct leader in the boardroom.
3. I have not found an ideal definition of what it takes to be a good board chairman but everybody knows what to look for. A good chairman has to be an effective leader. An effective leader 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 the people he has to work with and many a time you don’t have too much choice to change that. I joined the board of Diamond Bank, and a year later, I became the chairman and I had no inputs on choosing my directors. I had to work with them. Three, get a feel for the strength and weakness of your co-directors, harness the strengths and weakness, 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.
4. How do you figure the right person to lead the 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. 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. I am a good example of 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.
5. A chairman leads the board just like the 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 for the company and its stakeholders.
6. Preparation is critical in boardroom leadership. Some of my colleagues demand to be given their notice of the board meeting 21 days ahead. Some prefer 14 days. Some of them want their board papers delivered to them pronto, together with the notice. I want all my board papers a few days before the meeting. Few days before the meeting, I devote uninterrupted time to all the materials at one go, get a full picture of what we are going in for, then speak with the MD and occasionally the executive directors. I can reach out directly to them to have clarifications so that there are no surprises.
7. On the day of the board meeting, I arrive early. I do not arrive five minutes before the start of the board meeting and then hurriedly call the meeting to order. I try to run as relaxed a system as possible. At Unilever, by the time we non-executive directors arrive, the executive directors are invariably in their offices. The non-executive directors sit in the MD’s office or in the boardroom and have cups of coffee. The MD is very good at that. He would sit with us and pick our brains about what is happening in the country—politics, economic, social issues, Boko Haram, exchange rate etc. Any company will pay attention to whatever is happening in the country. For the board, what is happening in the environment is as important as its core business. Given my responsibilities as the traditional ruler of Onitsha and my other corporate engagements as a corporate leader, the question you will probably ask is: How do I wear the two caps? It is not an issue at all. I could be anywhere and still be in touch. I have my iPad. There is Wi-Fi everywhere. If anyone needs to get in touch with me, I can be reached. This is the 21st century. It is a smart world where one can get a lot done on that basis. If I was just stuck in Onitsha, pouring libation and breaking kola nuts, I will probably go crazy.