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CECILIA AKINTOMIDE, seasoned executive in development finance, corporate governance, Law

Cecilia Akintomide is a seasoned executive with expertise in Development Finance, Corporate Governance, Law, and General Management. She is an Independent Director on the Boards of CcHUB Growth Capital, Nigeria’s first social innovation fund, supporting high potential early-stage businesses, SWAgCo, an agricultural sector investment company; and Ondo State Development and Investment Promotion Agency (ONDIPA), a state government agency, focused on promoting development and investments. Cecilia is a member of the Board of Regents of Covenant University, one of Nigeria’s leading universities, and the Board of Trustees of the Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library (OOPL). She was also an Independent Non-Executive Director on the Board of FBN Holdings Plc., one of Africa’s leading financial services holding companies, headquartered in Lagos, Nigeria, and operating in various African countries and the United Kingdom. Cecilia is also a member of the Institute of Directors, Nigeria.

She has served in senior roles including Vice President Secretary General of the African Development Bank (AfDB), a development finance institution established to contribute to the development of African countries. In that role, she provided leadership for the dynamic relationship between the AfDB and its then 80 member states, and served as Secretary to the 80-member Ministerial Boards of Governors and 20-member resident Boards of Directors. Cecilia also served as Head of Public and Private Sector Projects and Policy, in the General Counsel & Legal Department of the AfDB, leading a brilliant team in the legal aspects of design, documentation, negotiation, closing and management of projects and policy-based financing transactions all over Africa, as well as in the formulation of operations policies and compliance monitoring. At the AfDB, Cecilia was a member of the Presidential Council, the Senior Management Coordination Committee, Operations Committee and the Executive Crisis Management Committee. Prior to the AfDB, Cecilia practiced law in Lagos, Washington D.C., and New York, at the law firms of O. Thomas & Co.; Thompson & Co.; and Weil, Gotshal & Manges, with a focus on Business Reorganisations, Corporate Law and Commercial Law.

Cecilia holds a Bachelor of Laws degree from the University of Ife (now OAU); Master of Laws from the University of Miami Law School; Master of Laws from the University of Pennsylvania Law School; and an Executive MBA from TRIUM (a combined program by LSE, NYU and HEC). She was also admitted to the Nigerian Bar and the New York State Bar.

She is an ardent champion of Girls and Women’s Economic Empowerment, and is passionate about corporate governance, the accelerated and sustainable development of African countries, as well as innovation and entrepreneurship. She is a member of WIMBIZ (Women in Management and Business and Public Service), and serves on the WimBoard Committee and the WimBiz Endowment Fund Committee.

She mentors, is a deacon, and a member of the church choir. She received gold and bronze medals in swimming, and was accorded the National Award of the Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON) by the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in recognition of her contribution to sustainable development. In addition, in 2019, Cecilia received the African Business Law Icon of the year award.

Early Years

Growing up was a joy and really confirmed that our childhood can provide a foundation for our future. I am the youngest of three children, Anthony, MaryAnn and myself. Being the youngest in a Yoruba family in which you had to show respect to any one older than you, has kept me humble. I attended Maryhill Convent School, a great start in life. I started public speaking from Maryhill as we had school concerts and I participated, and many times had to introduce my class or my school. The teachers also encouraged us to speak in class and were very conscious of not just the content of what we said but how we said it, and corrected us. High School was at International School Ibadan. Another great school, which confirmed that it was more important to discover your authentic self than to conform, and helped us blossom into our teenage years. I then attended University of Ife to study law, following which I went for my Masters.

I grew up in Ibadan, and the catholic church was a strong part of my upbringing. My mother was in the church choir at St Cyprians Oke-Offa, and was active in church. The church became a second home as well as the convent of Maryhill convent school. Faith in God, and the role of God as our Father and primary owner of lives was a foundation laid as a child. I learnt to pray and expect God’s intervention at a young age. At age 7, my father started working in a research institution, IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) also in Ibadan. We lived on the campus and truly everything about IITA was international. Although we always had family friends from different parts of the world, IITA was different. We were the only Nigerians on our street (Not in the whole campus). Everyone at IITA was committed to a cause, solving the problems of tropical agriculture and enhancing production. It did not matter where you were from, your gender, status or religion, the cause brought all and their families together.

For a child, I learnt the importance of diversity, I actually understood diversity as a gift and a strength. However, diversity gives its best when each person comes with their authentic self into the mix! IITA also from that early age taught me that you could commit to solving problems and making the world a better place for all. It was therefore a no-brainer that I took the path of development at some point in my career. I also learnt the importance of funding. This was a research institution and was not a profit-making institution. It was therefore dependent on grants as well as its efficient management of resources. Everyone around me worked hard (my parents and our neighbours), and spoke about what they did. The highs and lows of careers and research projects were a part of our lives. I picked up a foreign language at IITA (French) with the encouragement of my parents and teachers and started taking French lessons at home. Boards also from a very early age became an important part of the conversation at home as my father reported to a Board of Trustees and was also a member of corporate boards so he talked a lot about it. I actually created a game called boardroom. The imagination of a child!

Experience being member of several boards

From playing imaginary Boardroom as a child, the Boardroom has become a critical part of my career/life since 1996, when I joined the African Development Bank (AfDB), and started covering the Boards as a lawyer assisting the General Counsel, and worked my way up the ranks, by the grace of God, to the role of Vice President Secretary General in 2009 until I left that institution in 2016. Since 2016, I have joined various boards and it has truly been an exciting learning and sharing experience.

I am a member of CcHUB Growth Capital, Nigeria’s first social innovation fund, supporting high potential early stage businesses, and was also a member of the board of directors of FBN Holdings Plc, which had First Bank Ltd, West Africa’s oldest bank, as one of its subsidiaries. You very quickly learn that in addition to your experience, you have an opportunity to cross fertilize when you are a member of a portfolio of boards, drawing from the entrepreneurial and disruptive spirit of one and infusing the resilience and ability to reinvent of a seasoned institution.

The past six years in Nigeria have seen us in a recession twice, as well as experience a pandemic with significant economic and human capital implications. In addition, we are experiencing insecurity in our nation, which has had its own economic as well as food security implications.

Notwithstanding, we are seeing amazing opportunities and breakthroughs with technology as a major enabler, which has also created a world without borders as we fully enter into the digital age. All of these continue to impact strategies, the way we do business, as well as the way we govern. A Board’s ability to see beyond corners and mountains will be critical to success.

As a Board member, you very quickly identify your individual value proposition and you guard it and enhance it. This is what made you attractive to the Board, so you do not disappoint. You confirm that value and contribute a whole lot more.

Non-Executive Board members always have to keep in mind that they are no longer executives. It is a ‘nose in fingers out’ principle. However, as part of the collective board, you remain available to coach, share your experience and most importantly your network.

You also invest in intentionally enhancing your value proposition. The oversight function of the board is critical to the success of the institution, so you ensure to the best of your ability that the oversight function is being discharged in accordance with the required standards.

Being VP Secretary General of the African Development Bank (AfDB) and lessons learnt

I was at AfDB from 1996-2016 and from 2009 I was Acting Secretary General, then Secretary General and finally Vice President Secretary General (VPSG). I learnt many leadership lessons. Having risen through the ranks from being an entry level counsel to Vice President, I observed one constant in all my positions and the situations I found myself, I defined my reality. Defining one’s reality is as simple as speaking up or staying silent at a meeting, regarding a decision or regarding a reform. As a woman, I learnt that I was part of a female constituency and I had to be faithful to that constituency. I was benefitting from the foundation laid by women executives before me and I should build on that foundation for the pipeline of women coming after me. Every corporate level comes with its own authority and circle of influence, fully occupy and exert the levers of authority and influence for every position. This will help in your hiring, firing, rehabilitating, allocating resources, reforming and innovating. The opportunities are huge, make something of it. I learnt very quickly that leadership was by example.

You received excellence because your team saw you giving excellence. Your team is more interested in whether you could be trusted, and were fair, ethical and empathetic. You also have to invest in your team. You had to leave them better than when you met them. You also cannot leave a position the same way you met it. You must improve on it.

I learnt from the President at that time, Dr. Donald Kaberuka, that leadership comes with responsibilities. When the Republic of Liberia experienced the Ebola epidemic, Dr. Kaberuka decided to visit Liberia from our headquarters in Côte d’Ivoire. He observed that this was a major development challenge for Liberia and her people. Their leadership of her premier development partner could not observe from afar. He travelled to Liberia, reassured that nation and its government of our commitment as an institution to walk with them out of the challenge, putting his life at risk. He could have asked that one of the Vice Presidents travel to Liberia or depended on our country representative but he took that trip himself. We also subjected ourselves as an institution to the disclosures as well as other requirements of the Ebola protocols at that time.

As VPSG, I learnt that leadership can be lonely as there are times you will have to take a position all by yourself. It is also about taking risks responsibly, after having concluded that it was in the best interest of the institution (not yourself). I also learnt that maintaining harmony in the Board room through forming a consensus, working on a no-surprise basis was critical to the delivery of our development mandate. You also had to ensure a level playing field with symmetry of information.

How has being a legal practitioner broadened your scope of steady relevance?

The study and practice of law sharpens your mind. That is the trump card of every successful lawyer. A logical, analytical and sharp mind with a good understanding of human beings. It is this sharp mind that has helped one of role models Christine Lagarde to evolve from being a lawyer, to Minister of Agriculture of France, then Minister of the Economy and Finance, then Chairperson of the Board and managing Director of the IMF (a bastion of economists), and now the President of the European Central Bank. Law also helps you to understand and respect different interests and positions while distilling that which is important or fundamental which should not be compromised or which should form the basis of a consensus. Finally, integrity. You cannot be a good lawyer if you do not have integrity.

As a member of the Board of Regents of Covenant University and Olusegun Obasanjo Presidential Library, your view on reading and education

It is good to read. However, the objective is what is critical. Are we reading to regurgitate or to pass or just for pleasure? Or are we reading to be able to create, innovate, leapfrog and disrupt? I believe that as a developing country, our education must be structured to raise leaders that will help us gain lost time, accelerate our pace of development, and bypass certain stages, as we experienced with landlines and telecommunications. We also need to learn from history, which is why OOPL is such an important initiative which we all need to support. We need to pay attention though to a worrisome population of out of school children. Unicef notes that in Nigeria, only 61% of 6-11 year-olds regularly attend primary school and only 36% of 3-5 year-olds are in a form of early education. In this digital age and the fourth industrial revolution, we really need to be careful about rejoicing about our so called demographic dividend. Production is getting technical and smart. If your labour is not educated, you may not be competitive, in a world of production that is enhanced by artificial intelligence and robots.

Share on your Law practice experiences where you did, and lessons learnt

I started my practice of law in Lagos, Nigeria as part of my National Youth Service at a firm called O. Thomas & Co. where it became very clear that my interest was in the more transactional aspects of law. After my Masters degree at University of Miami and University of Pennsylvania, I continued with the focus on transactions, in particular Business Reorganisations, and was blessed to work on reorganisations such as R.H. Macy, and Eastern Airlines.

Thereafter, I tried my hand at creating my own sole practice, focused on Africa. It was after this experience that I came to work at the AfDB. I learnt that no experience is wasted and every contact should be treated with importance and respect. At different times in my career, my professional contacts have proven to be blessings and great resources at different times in my life as well as to my different employers. I also learnt that a good lawyer had to understand the business of their client. You cannot provide effective legal advice on a business you have not studied and do not understand.

Photo by: Kelechi Amadi-Obi (www.kelechiamadiobi.com)

Passion for corporate governance

Corporate Governance simplistically is about governance of organisations or corporate citizens whether or not they are for profit. This culminates in the board, which is the highest policy making and oversight organ of any organisation. Anytime, I engaged with an entity, I always needed a resolution of the Board of that entity to confirm that there was authority for the action that they were about to take. That authority could be specific or policy-based. This renewed my childhood interest in Boards. When I got to the AfDB and was assigned to assist the General Counsel with his Board activities, there was no getting away from corporate governance, and I became steeped in it.

I learnt very quickly that corporate governance is transversal in its effect, whether positively or negatively. It can enhance performance across board, as well as negate performance similarly. This is what got me interested. It is a place of intersection of all that makes an organisation work or become dysfunctional.

On your passion for sustainable development of African countries, your contributions

My first exposure to development was from the perspective of democracy. I was part of the election observers of the United Nations assigned to observe the 1994 elections in South Africa, won by the ANC, and which ushered in Nelson Mandela as President.

My experience at the AfDB of course constructively unleashed the passion for the sustainable development of Africa. Africa is not where it used to be, however, it still is not where it should be. It will take concerted and focused efforts as well as committed honest leadership to succeed. This is why the wonderful people that work in institutions such as IITA and AfDB are so important as they make this their daily focus.

I believe that any activity we carry out in the underdeveloped world carries a tax of underdevelopment which negatively affects our ability to be competitive. Sustainable development is about removing that tax burden responsibly. On my contributions, this was my job for 20 years. In addition, I was part of certain significant decisions such as the Policy for Enhanced Engagement in Fragile States, which involved the creation of a Financing Facility of over US$800m; The adoption of the Share Transfer Rules of the AfDB, which created a dynamic process for forfeiture and purchase of shares which contributed to the restoration of the Bank’s AAA credit rating, the establishment of the African Water Facility Fund, establishment of a Middle Income Country Fund, the Food Crisis Response, and the reform of the engagement with shareholders at Annual Meetings, as well as the reform of the election process of the President of the AfDB.

Challenges faced by most banks in Nigeria

The weak macroeconomic environment is the main challenge. This is followed in my view by the rapid change in operations, lifestyle and culture of the clients from physical to digital platforms. Cyber risk is a major challenge and it will require the concerted efforts of banks to address this issue. Also, new competitors such as fintechs with more lean, agile and efficient structures.

On Capital Adequacy Ratio, are Nigerian banks equipped with the capital buffers to endure unexpected financial blows?

Nigeria has one of the highest Capital Adequacy Ratio requirements in the world at 10% for national banks and 15% for international and systemically important banks. International requirement under Basel is about 8%. Banks in Nigeria are therefore considered as having adequate buffers. Notwithstanding, in a situation of extreme economic meltdown, capital buffers may not be helpful.

View on banks and non-performing loans

The macroeconomic environment is the number one factor. As it improves, we will see an improvement in NPLs. In addition, there is the capacity of those responsible for conducting the review of credits as well as the decision-makers. We need to invest in training in this regard. Finally, we must ensure that those responsible for credit decisions have a great understanding of the underlying business. We should not be reviewing the credit request for a business we do not understand. The business environment is also critical that there is a respect for the law, as well as effective enforceability of the law.

On devotion to innovation and entrepreneurship

The world is not static, so countries that are underdeveloped need to find ways to leapfrog and increase the pace of their development. Anyone interested in development, particularly from a developing country would be particularly interested in innovation and entrepreneurship as a game changer. We have experienced firsthand the economic growth that came through the telecommunications boom in Africa. This has resulted in the creation of more jobs, innovation and entrepreneurship in different sectors, such as finance, trade, agriculture and education. People are being lifted out of poverty through innovation and entrepreneurship and we need to redesign our learning to better encourage entrepreneurs.

Challenges of women in the corporate world

The most common challenge you face as a woman in the corporate world is negative bias of regarding your competence as well as whether your appointment was meritorious. The only response to such bias is to disprove it by your performance. Get the work done, do it well and let it show. Women also have to help other women while being fair to male colleagues and staff.

What is currently on your front burner?

I am working on a few initiatives in Agriculture, Wealth creation for girls and women as well as a performance culture for Government. I am also embarking on a corporate governance book project with a friend.

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