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Celebrating Amina Oyagbola at 60

Amina Oyagbola is a corporate director and versatile business leader, a former Human Resources and Corporate Services Executive at MTN Nigeria Communications Plc. With over 30 years experience working in key sectors of the economy including, legal consulting, banking and finance, oil and gas, telecommunications and business administration. She is the managing consultant of AKMS Consulting Ltd, a partner at Oyagbola Chambers , founder and Chairperson of WISCAR (Women In Successful Careers). She is a Chartered Fellow of CIPD UK, Fellow Institute of Directors (IoD), a Certified Ethics Officer, Fellow of the Aspen global leadership network and a Chevening Scholar. She is the 2019 recipient of the prestigious HR People Magazine, Lifetime Achievement Award.

She is a strategic business adviser, transformation expert and stakeholder manager, adept at creating innovative business solutions to complex problems, leading bold change and re-engineering company processes to achieve operational excellence and thereby enabling organisations to attract, develop and retain the top talent and human capital required for growth and improved business performance .

CHILDHOOD MEMORIES

Very strangely, my sharpest childhood memory is of darkness, hiding and long silences. And that is because, my family got caught in a war, the 6 day war. I was about 6 years old and my father was a diplomat representing Nigeria in Egypt. There were a few bomb attacks by Israeli jets and everyone I later found out had been primed on safety measures. I remember having to run downstairs and go into basements where we huddled together quietly under tables in the dark for lengthy periods until the raids were over. It was frightening. Although the war lasted for a very brief period, memories of its impact have stuck with me.

WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOUR FREQUENT TRAVELS WITH YOUR PARENTS HAS LEFT A MARK ON YOU?

Travelling, meeting with people, going to school with others and generally, seeing how others live has I believe given me a unique perspective on life and on others. By others, I mean people from other cultures and other historical backgrounds. By being in so many different places. I have been able to understand the limitations in the lives of Nigerians. I have also been able from this opportunity to compare the strength and beauty of our culture. How we love family, how we respect seniors, how we protect children and how we come together as a community to support each other and solve problems. Alas, in our mad rush to westernise, to globalise and to modernise, we have lost a great deal of that which is good and wholesome about our African culture. We have also tended to imbibe many negative things from other cultures. Something I have learnt is that every place in the world has both good and bad and we need each other.

I believe it is the duty of each individual to know how to separate the good from the bad, the utilitarian from the useless and to determine what is a good and fulfilling life. It has helped me answer several questions that we all have to contend with as we advance in our years. Questions such as the importance of money, the value of friendship and the impact of loyalty both to our friends and to our own core beliefs.

One thing that being abroad did, it meant that for large chunks of time I was away from my parents along with one or more of my younger siblings and several guardians. Because I was the 2nd child and my older sister was at a critical education stage that required her to remain at home. I was often the oldest sibling, the carer, the protector and the encourager. In other words, I often acted as the parent. I learnt to be firm, when firmness was required and to be soft and loving when it was consolation that was needed. I learnt to be the shepherd and perhaps for that reason, I believe I made it easy for my parents to shepherd me.

WHY LAW?

I loved history and history loved me. I say history loved me because, if it did not love me I would not have gotten the amazing grades I got in school. My simple plan was to embrace history in university.

I would have done so but for the mature guidance of my father, who was able to point out to me that what I loved in history was reading about the roles men played in the past. It showed me that it would be just as exciting to learn about the roles that people can play. He explained to me that the law is one of the most potent tools for ordering society and that studying the law would make me a participant rather than a mere bystander. I have never forgotten the wisdom in his mentorship. I took to the law like a fish to water. I studied it at Ahmadu Bello University and further refined my study of the law at Trinity College, Cambridge University in the UK. I love the logic and the common-sense inherent in the law.

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LAW, BANKING, OIL & GAS AND TELECOMMUNICATIONS, EXPLAIN THE DIVERSITY OF YOUR PURSUITS

I can explain it all using one word – Serendipity. Naturally, as a freshly minted lawyer, I wanted the cut and thrust of the courts. I ended up working for the amazing Chief FRA Williams SAN of blessed memory. How I got there, is a special story all on its own, but it involved the goodwill of 3 very kind older gentlemen who made my cause theirs. That was the first instance of serendipity. I worked there with great intellectual fulfillment and it was whilst I was there that I got married and started a family. Having children forced me to think beyond intellectual stimulation.

A friend of the family was the catalyst in my move into the next chapter of my career. He informed my father of an opportunity to be part of a new banking institution. I was required to attend an interview with some directors of the bank. You know, I spoke of serendipity and at the interview; one of the directors who I had never met spoke of being impressed by my court appearance. It turned out that he had once been in court for another matter and seen me represent a client. After weighing the financial enhancement that would come along with the job and what that would do for my family, I stepped out of the practice of law and into banking as a career.

Those were the early days of liberalisation of bank ownership. The business of banking was fast paced, sometimes daunting, but always exhilarating. There were several opportunities and I was stretched. Even the older and bigger banks started to be transformed. It was in the course of the transformation of one of these that I ran into an old acquaintance from Law School who was deeply involved in the administration of one of them. He invited me to be part of the ongoing transformation of an old bank and that is how I made my next move and joined UBA PLC.

There’s a book which is highly recommended to professionals in all fields; the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the recommendations in the book is that people who seek to remain effective must sharpen the saw from time to time. My next move was an act of sharpening the saw.

I realised that the perception that I was fundamentally no more than a lawyer was an occupational ceiling that would hold me down from much further growth in the business arena. I needed to expand my horizon to aspire to the top.

In quick succession, a relation told me about the Chevening scholarship scheme. I applied and was awarded a scholarship. I decided to study an MBA in Lancaster University. It was challenging taking 12 months out, mid-career and with growing children. Nevertheless I braved it with the support of my spouse and family.

I returned to UBA renewed, reenergised, empowered and ready to take on anything put my way. In succession, I was engaged in several strategic roles. First to be part of a transformation team being led by Mckinsey, after which I took over the HR leadership of the bank and finally set up the private banking function.

Fate again took a hand and I was headhunted into Shell to lead a new HR Strategy, Standards and business planning function. It was my entry into the global arena and multinational business. It was strategic work and highly fulfilling. I was very happy at Shell and felt appreciated. However, due to certain organisation wide restructuring, most senior Shell personnel were required to relocate to PH or Warri. This would have separated me from my family for long periods at a critical stage in my children’s development.

I did not feel ready or able to make that move, and at just the right moment, MTN came calling. I was approached by MTN to contest for a soon to be vacant executive management position. I was successful and that is how I started my MTN adventure which spanned 12 years and 2 executive management portfolios (Corporate Services and Human Resources) culminating in my simultaneous overseeing of the 2 functions.

WHICH OF THESE CAREER PATHS DID YOU FIND MOST FULFILLING?

It’s impossible to say that one role was more fulfilling than the other. They came at different stages of my career. My impression is that each of my engagements and pursuits during the course of my career has served different purposes. Each has definitely been developmental in preparing me for other things. My practice at the bar, taught me to analyse practically and solve problems. It taught me to think on my feet and showed me the need for thorough preparation at every stage of every endeavour. An advocate’s life is very seldom restricted to one case at a time. You may go for a matrimonial cause action in the morning only to return to chambers and be faced with some complex banking agreement. You may talk to a land owner in the morning and immediately thereafter be faced with a person seeking to enforce their fundamental human rights. Practice at the bar is a roller coaster and teaches you to be agile in thought and resilient in action.

Banking, at the first bank in which I worked was not too dissimilar from practice at the bar. Because it was a new and small bank, I was called upon to wear many hats. Sometimes, to give legal advice, at the same time planning and carrying out corporate outreach programmes. It was intense and it was time consuming. Being an operative in a bigger bank was different. You were expected to be almost infallible in giving advice or carrying out your responsibilities. You constantly felt the weight of responsibility on your shoulders.

Shell taught me the importance of corporate governance, standards and coherence. It taught me that every action must be backed with appropriate policy instruments and that in large corporations there is no room for stepping out in the dark.

My work in MTN required me to call on all these preparatory skills and perceptions. MTN is a huge, but very young organisation. My entire period with MTN was a period of growth. Great strides were made and extraordinary things accomplished. Mistakes were made and corrected, but the endeavour never faltered. They have continued to break business barriers.

If there is any phase of my work that was exceptionally fulfilling it was my work with the MTN Foundation. That is because of the impact the foundation had on every nook and cranny of Nigerian society as well as on corporate citizenship and philanthropy. The Foundation made a difference in Health, in Education and in economic empowerment. The foundation transformed lives. I have not forgotten the effect the foundation had on indigent mothers who were helped to start small businesses; very sick persons who were healed; or students in rural schools and universities who were afforded the opportunity of cutting edge equipment and facilities. At each engagement with any of these, I felt a strong sense of gratitude, that I could be part of the transformation and awe at the foundations impact on those lives.

LESSONS LEARNT

1, Keep the end in view

Most of our actions as human beings are seemingly instinctive and we often believe arise out of a spontaneous reaction to a situation before us. I have come to realise that the most effective people in this world are not those who act out of instinct or emotion, but those who act based on a well considered analysis of who they are, where they are, who they want to be and where they want to go. These considerations are fundamental to achieving your purpose in life. They start from a basic understanding of navigation. That if you do not know your location, you cannot plot a path or way to another place. There are many things tied to this basic principle. In the first place, if you do not know yourself, you can never know what you can do or achieve. You are therefore merely left to blow in the wind like a leaf without a branch. Even when you know who you are and where you are, the next step is to have a clear goal and to carefully work and travel towards it.

2, The Journey is as important as the destination

Whilst it is important to always keep your end in view. We must remember to live and espouse the values we stand for. Don’t allow your fundamental principles and character to be lost in pursuit of a a particular goal. My true companions in life have been my values. Family, generosity, kindness, charity, integrity, industry, loyalty and my faith. These have been my companions and my compass in my journey so far.

3 Be Kind to yourself

Life is tough! Very few will doubt that. To live well you require energy, industry and perseverance. However, you also need to be happy and maintain your mental wellbeing. To achieve this you must be kind to yourself. So find wholesome ways to have fun and pursue happiness.

4 Pursue excellence

Be disciplined in thought and action and keep challenging yourself. Establish your credibility in your areas of expertise and be recognised for qualitative work and results. Exceptional performance always shines through and will ultimately be rewarded and duly recognised. Pursue Excellence in all you do. Let excellence be your hallmark and your brand and that will take you everywhere you want to go.

WOMEN ON BOARDS: WHY IS DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION IMPORTANT?

In recognition of the importance and impact of female representation on boards, in 2003, Norway pioneered the use of gender quotas, requiring public companies to fill at least 40% of their boards with women, otherwise, they would risk losing their board certification. In Nigeria, CBN regulations mandate a minimum of 30% female representation on boards of Nigerian commercial banks. The SEC Corporate Governance Code recommends that publicly listed companies consider gender when selecting board members, and the 2018 Code of Corporate Governance encourages boards to set diversity goals and to be mindful of them when filling board vacancies.

A March 2020 PWC report states that at the lower levels of formal employment there is almost a 50-50 split between men and women. However as they climb up the ladder women begin to decline in representation at senior leadership teams and at board level for a number of reasons. These include, lack of understanding, culture, unconscious biases, stereotypes, harassment and discrimination. Consequently, in Nigeria, women own only 20% of enterprises in the formal sector, with only 23% female representation in management teams and 12% as Directors on Corporate Boards.

The Global picture is not any better and the pace of change is slow and unacceptable. Africa has actually improved in this area according to a report from the McKinsey Global Institute. Interestingly, Africa has the highest proportion of women on boards, beating second-placed Europe at 23% and global laggard Latin America at 7%.

Nigeria at 21% however ranks below several other African nations such as Botswana and Kenya and should be leading this charge. Deliberate and intentional policies and programmes need to be put in place by government and the private sector to accelerate the pace of change. The Institution of Gender quotas and targets will ensure priority attention is given to this development issue and enable the attainment of goal 5 of the SDG’s and indeed the 17 SDGs in our collective interest. Reporting and disclosure on gender diversity and inclusion by organisations will drive the right leadership behaviours and enable real change.

Gender diverse boards is not only the right way to go, it is the SMART thing to do. We simply cannot develop as a nation if we continue to exclude 50% of our population. We must optimally utilise our human capital. Research has shown the huge business benefits that accrue to businesses with diversity on boards and in senior leadership teams. The benefits include improved financial performance and shareholder value, reduced risk of fraud and corruption, increased customer and employee satisfaction, greater investor confidence, enhanced market knowledge, reputation and governance. Studies also point to the positive influence of gender-diverse management and boards on a company’s sustainability profile.

A 2020 McKinsey report states that companies that include women in their executive teams are 25% more likely to have above-average profitability and thereby contribute more to GDP and the nation.

NEED FOR WOMEN INCLUSION IN GOVERNANCE

Inclusive governance is good governance and a shared prosperity for all. The outcome of COVID 19 is a case in point. The manner in which the COVID 19 pandemic was managed globally by leaders, showcased the value that women bring in leadership and governance. Countries led by women had significantly better Covid-19 outcomes. They managed to successfully curtail the spread of the virus. The women led with focused consensus, with intellect and transparency, with authenticity and with compassion.

They also did not let their ego’s get in the way of serving the people that they were elected or appointed to serve. The competence, capacity and character of women to lead is not in doubt. What is required is equal opportunity and access for both women and men to realise their potential. It is disheartening that at 60+ years after Independence, Nigeria, has the lowest percentage of female lawmakers on the African continent and in public sector leadership. After the 2015 election, Nigeria had 20 women out of 359 in its lower house 5.6% and 7 out of 109 in its upper house 6.4%. Post the 2019 elections, women make up 3.1% of the House of Representatives and 7.3% of the Senate. There are no female state governors and Nigeria has never had a female president or vice president.

Women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life are essential to our prosperity and to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. It is the key to changing the fortunes of our nation and future that we want. The benefits of women in governance cannot be overemphasised. Research has shown that in leadership, politics and governance, more women than men; work across party lines, are highly responsive to constituent concerns, encourage active citizen participation in democracy through their own participation, and, prioritize health, education, good governance and other key development indicators. Promoting women inclusion in governance therefore comes with benefits that accrue to everyone.

Women inclusion in governance and gender mainstreaming is critical to policy planning, formulation and implementation. Women represent 50% of the population. The female perspective and voice must be duly considered and taken on board. Nigeria can turn its fortunes around and improve socio-economic development and growth by enabling, empowering and including women in public and private sector leadership.

WISCAR

WISCAR (Women in Successful Careers) is a non-profit organization focused on empowering and developing women in the professions and enterprise to contribute to development and growth in Nigeria and indeed Africa.

WISCAR has earned a reputation for building a formidable network of focused women who will facilitate a new chapter of experience in the workplace and in organisations. The WISCAR WIN with WISCAR Mentoring Programme is a structured and tiered mentoring program that provides strategic career advice, inspiration, guidance and support to young career women to help unleash their potential, navigate career pathways, foster ambitions and nurture dreams. Our mission is to ‘develop women to build a better nation’ by building capacity and a deliberate pipeline and database of next generation women for leadership. There are 3 tiers of the WIN with WISCAR programme. In 2020 we successfully launched the WIN III programme, which is targeted at mid-level career women who aspire CEO and C-suite roles. We have successfully completed and graduated the pioneer set of WIN III Mentees. The feedback received from participants has been very encouraging. There is a clear and growing need and demand for structured mentorship. WISCAR, now in its 13th year has catalysed and brought attention to the gender issues, the importance of mentorship and female role modelling. We have impacted over 10,000 people through our various advocacy, programmes and events. The indirect effect of our activities cannot be quantified, but there is still work to be done.

TURNING 60

Age is a number. Of course there are responsibilities that come with age. However, I believe we owe it to ourselves to not dwell on the numbers or on imagining what may come. Most older people will tell you that they feel the same way as when they were 10 years old. That is because with age what really changes is that we become more aware of our responsibilities or we get progressively diminished by our own loss of energy. But we only lose the energy that we chose to. In my use of energy here, I refer to motivation. A motivated 90 year old can perform amazing feats of physical endurance if they chose to. Of course the world teaches us to slow down and so we do. But, it is our zest for life that determines the quality of our lives. Gratitude is fundamental to a happy life. It is not what you don’t have that is important but what you have. Counting what you don’t have is the best root to depression. I count what I have and I am thankful for them. Some of them are good health, a loving family, a wonderful circle of friends, ability to help others, ability to have fun, to breathe air, to drink water, to be astounded at the wonders of God. These are all my blessings for which I remain ever grateful to Allah.

WORK LIFE BALANCE

The work schedules of 8-5pm was a creation of the industrial revolution. We have since moved away from the need for orchestration of large workforces. What we have not done is to rethink the constructs that were put in place then. In the bold new world of work we must re-examine all our paradigms and become more inclusive to better enable men and women, old and young to thrive. For women in particular there is need for enablement. In my own case, and during my child caring years, juggling the balls was a huge struggle. I was one of the lucky ones. I had the support of a strong and caring family. They enabled me to work through the challenging times. Their support made me look good and enabled my success. The COVID 19 has exposed to us possibilities of alternate solutions to work life. We have now seen that it is not the physical presence that is most valuable, but the productive ideas and solutions that can be brought to bear to solve business problems.

This is an opportunity we must not allow to pass us by. We must struggle to ensure that the lessons learnt are not merely discarded at the end of this period. I am truly excited for the generation of women who are and will come into the workplace in the next few years. Finally, there is opportunity for them to overcome those cultural limitations and impediments that have worked against women in the workplace.

ADVICE TO EVERY YOUNG LADY OUT THERE

My advice to every young lady is the same advice I give my daughters which is to make the most of every opportunity. To borrow a well-known phrase, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Seize every opportunity and give of your best every time. Life is unlikely to be tailored to your specific needs. Carefully examine the opportunities presented to you in order to extract the unseen gem. Turn your critics into your enablers by always presenting a positive outlook. A can do spirit! Dare to have bold dreams and aspirations and seek mentorship. Dare to be bold. Let your aspirations scare you and challenge yourself to achieve them.

FINAL WORDS

Be ethical, work hard and SMART, be good to others and leave the rest to God.

Stay Safe, Stay positive, test negative and thrive!

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