BusinessDay

Nigeria’s favourite boardroom director turns 70

If you had the rare privilege to mix an Alex Ferguson with a Pierluigi Collina, and transpose that combination of the world’s greatest coach and the world’s greatest referee into the business world, what do you get? Your guess is as good as mine…a skilful boardroom guru who delivers even in the toughest terrains.

And time after time, the greatest leaders are those who not only build institutions but build the people around them and go beyond the ordinary to help the next generation of leaders also navigate the tough choices they have to make either in life or career.

It was in 2011 when the Chairman of a prominent company representing a global brand had to make one of the toughest decisions of her career.

She went into the inner chambers to speak with her spouse about the pros and cons of the looming decision hanging above her head, a bit like the sword of Damocles, and after much sober contemplation, the only counsel to her astonishment that she received from her husband of two decades was “Have you spoken to ‘Dotun about this?”. Instance after instance, many business executives I know facing tough dilemma have asked the same question after much ponder, ’Have you spoken to ‘Dotun about this?’’.

On February 26, 2022, distinguished business leader and board director Adedotun Sulaiman MFR turns 70. A bit of an avuncular mentor often doffing his corporate hat in order to let others take the limelight, Adedotun Sulaiman’s rare access to privileged information and his encyclopaedic understanding of the African business terrain has earned him the undisputed position of the ‘’perfect sounding board’ when making boardroom decisions: no pun intended.

If you like, he has metamorphosed over the years from being a typical boardroom player into the business equivalent of a confessional priest who knows so many secrets yet listens humanely to the frailties and weaknesses of supplicants in a non-condescending, non-judgemental matter.

Typical of his classic humility, when a little bird once whispered on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, a decade ago, that he held 13 board directorships, he quietly remarked in astonishment, “who’s counting?” And he politely continued his conversation without drawing any further attention to himself.

Today, Marketscreener.com puts the tally at 17 Boards, while information from Principa.org, the Principal Advisors’ director database, confirm that irrespective of the metrics used, after adjusting for horizontal interlocking directorships, Sulaiman would fall into the top quintile of Board directors holding positions in distinct, non-family-owned companies in Nigeria, coming closely after unmatched veteran lodestars like Dr. Gamaliel Onosode.

In a country where genuine role models are numbered, and integrity often gets beclouded by the harmattan mist even in broad daylight, the illumination of a clear and trusted business leader whom both contemporaries and contenders trust is often much needed when tough career and life decisions have to be made.

It is in those delicate moments of existence that a still small voice is needed, a bit of a silent conscience who combines a fine balance of historical perspective and foresight on one hand; and a fair mix of ingenuity tempered with a moral conscience on the other.

Much of the story has been told about his earlier career after graduating with a First Class Honours in Business Administration from the University of Lagos in 1975, and working as a career diplomat in Washington DC from 1976 to 1978. Rising rapidly in his new career at Arthur Andersen & Co. in six years to become a Local Partner in 1984 and subsequently, a Partner in the Worldwide Firm.

He assumed the CEO role as Managing Partner from 1993 till 1999, and subsequently as Country Managing Director of Accenture, the management and technology consulting firm till 2005. From 2005 to 2007, he worked in South Africa taking on a regional growth role in Africa to drive expansion for the global firm. His subsequent board appointments expanded from financial services to manufacturing and technology in leading companies in their respective segments.

While his official profile simply describes him as ‘’…chair of the board of several companies, traversing several sectors of the economy with a major emphasis on the emerging electronic payments industry and companies in the entrepreneurial stage’’, much of the wisdom and the success secrets that can be gleaned from his extraordinary career and business influence lie in his being able to see beyond the curve and create legitimate opportunities where others see insurmountable challenges.

Grand-Uncle of Nigerian FinTechs

Nowadays, with many young whizz-kids emerging with the enviable status of ‘’Founder’’ and ‘’Co-Founder’’ especially in the FinTech space, reaping the fruits of a fairly structured environment with pretty well-defined rules, it is easy to forget the labors of the early pioneers. Indeed a lot of acknowledgement needs to go to the pioneers of financial technology in the Nigerian economy.

Back in the later 1990s and early 2000s, about the same era when PayPal and the likes were just refining their business models and scaling, their early counterparts in the electronic payments space in Nigeria were at best staggered experiments in a relatively undefined landscape. The first two real attempts at FinTechs in Nigeria had a steep and painful learning curve, often accompanied with toppling of CEOs.

By 2002 when Interswitch came onto the scene, it had become obvious that the key success factor for a successful FinTech was not so much of the software and ‘’network’’ engineering skills of the managers, but the ‘’network’’ and social capital of a honest broker who could help facilitate the ecosystem required to make the platform work.

Years before the term ‘’platform strategy’’ became common parlance in business schools and tech companies, Adedotun Sulaiman had envisioned this was a key pillar for the success of Interswitch that he played a role in midwifing, in his then role as Country Managing Director of Accenture.

He subsequently became co-owner and Chairman of Interswitch in 2006, a role he held for over 10 years till 2017. Sir Kenneth Olisa, the eminent British businessman, “most powerful black person in Britain”, and first black Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, who succeeded Adedotun as Chairman of Interswitch, describes him as a ‘’steady hand…(with)…big shoes to fill’’.

For several years, long before the term ‘’Fintech’’became sexy, he played an active role in the not-for-profit E-Payments Providers Association of Nigeria, and has been active on the board of Secure ID Group, one of Africa’s largest smartcard manufacturing plants serving 21 countries.

Governance and Statesmanship

“Not everyone of us can emigrate to Canada’, he once quipped to me. ‘This country is yet to be built; we can’t all fold our arms or throw our hands in the air and do nothing’.

Even though he has the means, in every sense of the word, not only by being an ex-diplomat but also the capacity and the social capital to live in virtually any country of the world of his choice, he has chosen to help build entrepreneurial capital in both the private sector and the public sector in Nigeria.

In his characteristic long-term perspective, he opines that ‘’there must be a greater reason or purpose that some of us have been endowed or privileged in some way or the other’’.

Much of his involvement in the public sector has been first as engagement partner or advisory partner on transformational programs, and sometimes as Chairman of an ad-hoc committee in public agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in 2009 and the Nigeria National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) in 2012.

Others have been more prominent. In 2017 when the Financial Reporting Council needed a pair of steady hands after a tumultuous era, Sulaiman was the obvious choice appointed by the President. He so effortlessly brought calm and dignity to an institution that had become a rocking boat, while still maintaining firmness that his rare ability to build concensus in a storm, can easily be overlooked.

Away from the klieg lights, those who burn the midnight oil know that perhaps his greatest contribution is working behind the scenes to help navigate around dangerous curves in businesses and governments. His earlier role as a founding member of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group and member of the Summit’s Board since inception in 1993 until December 2006 probably says little of the other significant contributions he has made in recent years to steady the waters of aspects of the Nigerian economy.

Unlike many others who like the photo-ops and the public acclaim for all the benevolent and not-for-profit work they do, Sulaiman thrives better in close-knit circles where the focus is on lasting outcomes and not just self-promotion.

In 20015 when it was apparent that the Nigerian economy was headed towards a tough recession, he was one of the key players behind the scenes who rallied round the more visible figures to minimise the impact of the recession in 2016 when it did hit.

In many other instances too numerous to mention, he simply lets others takes the credit. Once when an important national assignment had to be delivered urgently, he negotiated a more advantageous position for someone relatively junior to him to ensure the outcomes were delivered, even if that placed him in a relatively subordinate position.

Lessons for the Next Generation

In mentoring sessions that he is often asked to participate in, one common question that arises is: Whydo some institutions and individuals consistently outperform their own targets, staying on top of their game?And what advice does he have for the next generation?

In his usual humble manner that evades unnecessary self-adulation, Dotun once provided a clue as to the secrets of his own phenomenal if understated success. A lot of success, he suggests, is quite frankly nothing but sheer smart work continually refined with new insights, and putting in the best you can in whatever your hands find to do.

The other bit that Dotun never underestimates is the power of the right circle, and if you like, as he once said in a strategy session at a client two decades ago: Pre-selection. Yes, pre-selection. Success begets success. The more you do good work and you pre-qualify yourself for success, the easier it is for you to get accepted and then ‘qualified’ into higher circles, even by those who may not expressly like you.

Attending elite schools like King’s School and having classmates like Adebayo Ogunlesi, former Chairman of global investment bank Credit Suisse, may have no doubt placed him in a good peer group to bounce ideas off. But at the end of the day, you take responsibility for your own decisions and better make sure you are in good stead.

Responding to an interview question on how he balances his multiple roles, he makes it clear that “my role as a Chairman is first among equals’’. In a way, a kind of referee when the executives and the non-executives need a final decision and someone needs to take the bitter pill and bite the bullet as final.

Interestingly, someone has likened him to a boardroom equivalent ofthe leading celebrity referee and world’s best referee of all time Pierluigi Collina who is considered ‘’too objective’’ to be bought by conflicting interests, and respected the world over for his calm but stern approach to officiating.

Read also: Can Africa become tomorrow’s Fintech market?

Combining the 7 characteristics of a referee, he exudes the sense of pride, authority, banter, skill, humility, vulnerability and vision that make him an evergreen. The only difference is that Adedotun referees in the boardroom and not on the football pitch.

Indeed, like any of the greatest in their fields, whether in military warfare or boardroom politics or statesmanship, other views highlight his ability to read the game of business, play the game and how to exit the game with your heads high.

Great leaders usually have a signature style that they develop over many decades of meticulous honing of their skills in both boom and burst, through economic expansion and recession, and through alliances and corporate defeats alike. Every great leader is respected for his or her influence on the pitch, but the greatest leaders are regarded for their influence outside the pitch.

After all is said and done, one of the greatest attributes of any leader is to be deeply respected if not revered even when people disagree with your decision, and to still trust you even in the rare instances that the leader is wrong.

It’s an attribute that is only earned after decades of trust, and indeed that is probably why many business people would still call him the Big Dot, and acclaim that he has earned that rare privilege of being described as our nation’s favourite ‘boardroom guru’. Happy Birthday Big Dot!!!

Dr. Alayande is a board advisor and management consultant based in Lagos

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