Oluwatomi Somefun, 35 years and counting, still demonstrating steady and astounding expertise in her field
Tomi Somefun is currently the MD/CEO of Unity Bank Plc. A career professional with over 35 years post qualification experience, over 26 of which were in the banking sector, spanning key segments including Treasury & Investment Banking, Corporate Banking, Retail and Commercial Banking Operations. A Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria and Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN), she graduated with a Second Class Upper degree from the Obafemi Awolowo University (formerly University of Ife) in 1981 with a Bachelor of Education in English Language. She was recently conferred a Honorary Degree of Doctor of Business Administration (D.BA) by the Redeemer’s University (RUN).
Tomi has a depth of experience in the Finance and Banking sector, with a distinguished career with UBA group where she led two major subsidiaries of UBA as MD/CEO including a start-up ,UBA Pensions Custodian where she was pioneer Managing Director and UBA Capital & Trust Ltd. Prior to this, she served as General Manager and led three critical business units of UBA Group. Her skills and experience span across Institutional Banking, Commercial Banking, Retail Banking and Financial markets. Prior to UBA, Tomi worked with several financial and consulting firms including KPMG and Arthur Andersen (now KPMG).
In August 2015, she was appointed Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of a Unity Bank Plc. Prior to her appointment as Managing Director; she served as Executive Director overseeing the Lagos and South-West Business Directorates, and the Financial Institution Division & Treasury Department of the Bank.
She is a leader that understands how to bring out the best in people, who uses knowledge and time to achieve significant results for all stakeholders. She is known to have successfully launched new initiatives and championed growth in several operations over a short period. She has a proven track record in leading and developing highly effective teams to achieve significant results.
Tomi has extensive Executive Education in change and organisation renewal, strategy formulation and execution, business analytics and development, and also financial management from various esteemed business schools. She is an alumnus of the Columbia Business School, and INSEAD, Fontainebleau, France, and holds a Certificate of Management Excellence from Harvard Business School (HBS).
She is a member of various professional bodies and has served on the board of several quoted and unquoted companies, and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
She graces the cover of Women’s Hub Magazine for this week and as a recent guest on my live show #InspiringWomanSeriesWithKemiAjumobi, she shared on her childhood, being MD of Unity Bank, Paucity of women on boards, day never to be forgotten, among others.
Memories of growing up and influence till date
I had a simple, basic, but very impactful childhood. My parents were middle class. My father retired as an administrator in a University. My mum, all her life was a teacher, and I’m the first of three siblings. We had a very disciplined, very structured and very involved childhood. My parents were very involved in our lives and being the daughter of a teacher, you can imagine how much discipline and watchfulness our lives had. And being the first of three, I had to set examples because they would always say ‘be careful what you do because your siblings are watching.’
In our house, one other thing is that, yes, we were three siblings, but our house was always full. My parents always had relatives and children of other people living with them too. So, it was a very full household.
Having a track record of being a top executive through the years
Let me start with UBA Pensions. I had had several roles in the UBA Group prior to being the CEO of UBA Pensions. But at the time I was assigned Managing Director of UBA Pensions, I was coming from being CEO of another company within the Group. And at that time, the pensions industry was just starting in the structured way it is now. It was newly regulated, newly structured and nobody had the blueprint in Nigeria of what we were doing. It was more of a trial and error thing. So, that, perhaps is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my entire career because this was starting a new company, in a new industry, under a new regulation where everybody, so to speak, was learning. We were learning and were growing along. But to the glory of God, we started that and grew the business from start to finish. I worked on that for eight years before I was moved to do something else.
In Unity Bank, though I wasn’t the first MD, It just so happened that I am the first female MD. In our industry, there are not a lot of female CEOs, so, that in itself we’d say is something worthy of mention. However, in Unity bank, though all the managing directors before me were men, I didn’t see myself as being special by being the first female MD. It just meant that I’d have to work much harder, and I’ll have to cross a few more hurdles than a typical male MD before me crossed because I would say it’s mostly a male dominated bank, even now, we have a lot more male than female staff. I am the first female MD and they are not quite used to being led at the very top by a female, and I think before then, we just had one female on the board of executive management. So, there was a female executive director, making two of us and then, I was appointed MD. That was not a walk in the park, but thank God, five years later, here we are.
As the MD of Unity Bank, what are your roles?
As MD/CEO, I’m responsible for strategic direction, I sit on top as head of management, I report directly to the board, to the regulators. I have responsibility for managing the overall day-to-day operations, supervising all the other unit heads. Pretty much, that’s what it is. I carry the can for everybody, but that involves a lot of strategy, leadership, management, engagement with all stakeholders, shareholders, the regulators, the board members, the staff, the customers, and the public at large because those who are not yet your customers are potential customers. So, at the end of the day, you can imagine that all of that ultimately rests on the person at the top, which happens to be me.
Why the choice of Unity Bank? What makes the Bank tick?
When I joined Unity Bank, I was with United Bank for Africa, UBA, where I’ve spent the longest time in my entire career. I spent 20 years in UBA doing different things. By the time I looked back and I realised I had spent 20 years; it didn’t seem like 20 years. Every year was worth the experience and more. But by the time I had spent 20 years, I had done several things and knew I was due for a change. I was too young to retire. I was already at the management level in UBA, so, if I was going to move, I would have moved to the executive management level in another institution or go to do something else. I had my eyes somewhere else, and I was invited to submit my resume. I had had several interviews but somehow, I didn’t complete the entire interview process before the invitation to join Unity Bank came on board. Did I choose Unity Bank on my own? Perhaps not, but I’ll say that God chose Unity Bank for me. My faith is a very important part of my life, and I found myself going in a particular direction not just on my own, but because ultimately, I found that is where God meant for me to be. And in this case, I would say that’s exactly what happened. I thank God this is where I am today.
Receiving the news of being the MD/CEO
My responsibilities as ED were different from my responsibilities as managing director. When I joined Unity Bank, my intention was to spend two years as an executive director and retire. Honestly, if that had happened, I would have been very fulfilled and felt I had a wonderful career and ended it at the peak. I had no plan to become Managing Director, and I had settled down into the role of being an Executive Director, and then there were changes on the board. I thought an MD was going to come from outside the Institution. But I was called in at that board meeting and I was told, ‘you’re going to be our next Managing Director. What do you think about that?’ Of course, I am not one for many words, but this time, I was truly tongue-tied. I couldn’t say much for the first few minutes. I think I just had tears in my eyes and I was trying to comport myself because I was in awe of God, especially because that was not my plan, I had a different plan well cut out.
So, my first reaction was one of shock and then apprehension as to one, I didn’t plan for this, two, how am I going to handle this? Unity Bank is not an ordinary bank. It’s a bank that has its own flavour, direction, traditions. My appointment broke a lot of the traditions and that gave me a lot of anxiety and apprehensions. But I’ve learnt that there are some things that do not fail. Being yourself, being sincere, giving things your best shot, working hard and just being who you are never fails, and of course ultimately, trusting on God that never fails. With that, I got confident by the day and five years later, I can say that it’s been very stormy waters, murky waters, but I will not trade the experience for anything else.
What I’ve learnt about management and leadership, and people in the last five years is totally different from what I’ve learnt in my entire career and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.
Paucity of women on board
Gender inequality is not just in Nigeria, it’s all over the world. Whether we like it or not, there are more men on boards than there are women, and that’s not something we can change overnight. Whether we are women or not, we have to grow into certain roles just like men grow into roles. Even though there is a conscious effort to put women on boards, it’s not something that we can have a quick fix to and I think over the years, we’ve made more progress in that regard. There is a conscious effort to put more women on board in that regard. But honestly, being on a board is not about feminism or being a woman or a man. The question is, whether you are a woman or man, how effective are you on that board? Are you adding value or are you just a bench warmer? Do you bring value to the board? Are you deserving of your seat? I think that’s the point here. So, I would say that it’s not just about being a woman; it’s about being an effective board member first, then if you’re a woman, great!
Unity Bank is not the first place I would sit on the board as a woman. While I was in UBA, you earn that position because people feel that you have something valuable to add on that board and I think that should be the focus more than gender equality. Yes, gender equality is good but that is to say that women who are deserving should be given the chance. Women who are effective and can contribute should be given the chance not just because they are women but because they have something to add.
Is it true that companies run by women have better results?
I’m not going to say it’s true or false. But let me put it this way; a woman has a natural nurturing nature. We are naturally caring, we’re naturally attentive. That’s a skill that not a lot of men have but a woman is naturally nurturing. We build, we nurse, we look after stuff. Anything you put in the hands of a woman will get a bit of attention. We have that natural nature of looking after things and tending to things. So, yes, if you have an institution that has a woman at the top, by implication, there are certain skills that will be brought into play in that institution which may not necessarily be there if a man is running that institution.
Women are naturally more intuitive; they see things that other people don’t see. We have an inner sense that helps us to see things from a different and not so ordinary perspective. So, to that effect, I wouldn’t say that institutions that are run by women are better, but I would say they have a different flavour than institutions that are run by men.
With every position, beyond the celebration, there are responsibilities
When you’re given a job, you may be happy and celebrate, you may feel, ‘oh, I’ve been given this job, nice title’ and all of that. But with every position comes a new set of responsibilities. So, if you’ve been given an assignment and you leave it at the same level you met it, then you haven’t achieved anything. That’s why I feel that any job or assignment you’re given is a challenge. A challenge, either to maintain what you found there and then improve on it, because the reason that you’ve been given that job to do is because somebody feels that you can add some value. So, the challenge is not patting yourself on the back that you’ve got that job, the challenge is “how do I prove worthy of this assignment that I’ve been given?”.
That’s why I said a job is not an achievement. It’s only an achievement for the first five seconds, after that, it becomes a challenge because you have something to prove; that you are worthy of being given this responsibility, and that you can add value and make it better than you found it.
Never judge by looks, it is often deeper than the appearance
They say still waters run deep. I’ve learnt throughout my career never to judge someone by how they look or how they first come across. You can either underestimate or overestimate them. But in most cases, I found that when you are quick to judge a person, you tend to underestimate them. You need to really see and search hidden values in some people. Some of us are very obvious, others are not. If you meet a person and you don’t give them the chance, you don’t search for the hidden value…it’s like mining, when you see gold, it’s mixed with dirt and with all sorts of things. You have to wash it and look closely to see that this is gold. You might have to refine it. By that, I mean that we must learn to invest in other people. Don’t judge people immediately and don’t feel that anyone is useless, or that this is the limit anyone can be. You need to be able to see the potential in people, every one of us, so long as you are still alive, there is something useful and good. But you have to open your eyes and look for it in some people before you find it.
When you underestimate people, you don’t see their value, you may never see the value they bring to the table because you’ve put them in a box or labelled them.
Ever been misunderstood in your career?
In everybody’s life, as long as you interact with people, there will be times that you will be misunderstood. Even within the family, between friends, you say things and somebody thinks this is what you have said because they didn’t listen well. You look this way and they say you gave them ‘a bad eye’. People misunderstand you all the time. You write things down, and people read what they want to hear and not what you’re saying. So, in everybody’s life, this happens. But I would say that in my present job, I’ve experienced that more than before, why? Because I work in a place where the cultural differences, the gender differences, the religious differences were very strong (things are better now). Sometimes, what you would say to ABC that would not matter, some other person would hear it and read a lot of meaning to it. So, yes, I was misunderstood a lot even by things I said, things I didn’t say, and by things I did and things I didn’t do…even by not doing or saying anything, I was misunderstood.
So, it’s a fact of life however, what I’ve learnt is that, at the end of the day, keep being who you are, keep doing your best, keep having a clear heart and good intentions and at the end of day, people will see you for who you are, they will understand what you’re really made of and they will see the good intentions that you have (as long as your intentions are good). Be true to yourself and as long your conscience is clear, the truth will always speak for itself, and when you make a genuine mistake, be quick to apologise and provide clarification where there is doubt because in some cases, it’s nice to put the truth out there.
Never to be forgotten
There are several days in our lives both for good and sometimes not so good. Just for balance, I’ll share one of each. A day in my life that I can’t forget, even though I’m over that now, is the untimely exit of my former husband. I was married before now and I was widowed very suddenly at age 31 at the time. I had a five-year-old daughter, and I was like ‘where is this coming from?’ and because the events of that day were so fast and so vivid, even though it’s over 27 years ago, I can almost tell you every single thing that happened that day before and even after. I can tell you what everybody said, what everybody did, what I did and I can even almost see what I wore just because it was such a tragic and shocking experience. So, to that extent, it’s a day I will never forget.
On the flip side, however, there is also a day I will never forget. 17 years later, I got married again. It’s a day I won’t forget and that’s why I said those two days are closely related. One not so pleasant, the other one, God’s restoration. So, the meaning of that day will always resound for me.
Words of encouragement to widows, widowers and single parents?
First of all, it’s not the end of the world. I was widowed at 31, I had a five-year-old. Not just that, I had other people I was looking after at the time. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world. Life goes on. I learnt not to depend on people. When such happens to you, everybody would come around with promises: we’ll do this, we’ll do that and be there for you. It’s not possible. The only person that can be there for another person 24/7 is God. So, no matter the promises people make, it’s not possible. People get tired.
Secondly, they have their own issues. So, it’s not time to be bitter, it’s not time to start holding people accountable; you said you’d do this, you said you’d do that. So, they didn’t, get a life. As a single mother, it’s real. Forgive yourself, whatever has happened, whether you had the child for someone, forgive yourself and live. That is the reality.
If you are a single parent looking after your child alone, that is the reality. Where we miss it is when we depend on other people, we lose our focus on God. In those years after I got widowed, I realised the full meaning of my name. I realised my parents didn’t make a mistake in naming me ‘Oluwatomi’ (God is my sufficiency). When you start looking to people, that’s when you become a sorry case. If people are there for you, fantastic. If they are not, all well and good. You live your life and you try and do things as you can do at your own level.
Another thing that helped me was that, I realised very quickly that nobody will be giving me money. Happily, I had a job so I just made sure that I held it very well. I didn’t have the luxury of losing it. I had to work very hard and be conscientious. As widows, you’d have to balance things, being a widow or widower is not an excuse. It’s not an excuse to beg, it’s not an excuse not to look after your children. You’re widowed; somebody else has his or her own issue. So, everybody has their own issues that they are dealing with.
Therefore, wherever we find ourselves, we manage ourselves during that season until it passes. That’s what we’re called to do.
Also, whatever you’ve experienced, make sure you help somebody else because you’ve been there. You’ve seen some things, you’ve gone through some trauma, help somebody else who’s going through the same. That’s where you see the real value in what you’ve been through.
Any experience that we don’t share, that we don’t learn from is a waste. That is when it’s a tragedy.
How do women in corporate organisations cope with challenges?
People have different ways, but I’ll say there will always be challenges because there will always be the odd person that will take you on because they feel ‘she is a woman; I don’t have to respect her, because she has no value’. There will always be people like that. As a woman in the workplace, we have to work a bit harder, we have to show that we’ve earned or deserved the role we are occupying. However, one thing we need to do to help ourselves; be on top your game, know your tools, know your skills. If you don’t know, ask go and read, or ask people. Don’t be an ignorant and proud person. Ask questions, get understanding. Speak with wisdom and knowledge, don’t open your mouth and say empty things. That way, you will earn respect, not just of the men but even of the women that are your colleague.
Secondly, hard work is key. Don’t be slothful; don’t see feminity as an excuse. It’s not an excuse to be lazy. Let people see that you are a smart and diligent worker, and then handle every assignment that you’ve been given properly. We need to be diligent and constantly improve our knowledge. It’s natural as women, we’re so busy joggling so many balls and sometimes, it’s impossible to do some things, but you can prioritise. If you can’t do it now, you can do it later.
Women should help other women. Don’t be proud. Don’t make yourself inaccessible. Be assertive and don’t have a chip on your shoulder. Don’t try and prove yourself by being nasty, there is nothing attractive about being nasty or unnecessarily harsh. You can get the same effect by being silently affirmative. They assume that we’re going to be emotional, when you say something quietly looking at that person straight in the eye, they will know that they shouldn’t mess with you. So, you can be firm in a very quiet and assertive way.
As women, we have to find a balance between our emotions and the decisions we need to take on a day-to-day basis. Be yourself. Stay in your own lane. Be content, but not satisfied because when you’re satisfied with the status, then you won’t make progress. But be content with who you are, everybody’s journey is different. Be the best of who you are at every point in time.