Thank you for speaking to TWB (The WorkBooth Magazine); this is an honor for us.
TWB: Kindly take us through your professional journey and most importantly, at what point did you know that you wanted to develop a career as an HR Professional?
TO: My purpose is to nurture talents and grow leaders and my interest in people and organizational management started towards the end of my 3rd year at the University of Lagos while studying Psychology. Initially, I wasn’t sure because there were different fields of Psychology we covered like clinical psychology, child psychology, sports psychology, educational psychology, personnel psychology, experimental psychology, ergonomics, guidance & counseling, etc. However, I realized I was more alive during personnel, ergonomics and experimental classes, though I really loved clinical too as we had one of the best lecturers in the world at the time, Dr. Omoluabi (RIP) teaching that course. Long story short, I was more at home with the psychology of people and organizations. As common to all university graduates in Nigeria, I enrolled for the one-year National Youth Service Commission (NYSC) volunteer program and worked as a volunteer psychologist at the National Orthopaedic Hospital (NOH), Enugu. Despite the prospect of a good job in this organization, my interest in people and organizations prompted me to specialize in Industrial Psychology at the Master’s Level.
I have had the good fortune of working over the last 26 years, in 9 organizations, 7 sectors and 4 countries.
I started out in September 1992 as an HR intern at Guinness Nigeria Plc (Ikeja Brewery) as part of my M.Sc. Program at the University of Lagos. In January 1993, I also interned for 6 months at West African Portland Cement (WAPCO) in the Research & Marketing function under the tutelage of Mr. Salako. In December 1993, I joined the firm of Coopers & Lybrand as a trainee consultant under the tutelage of Dr. Oladimeji Alo, Dr. Charles Mgbe, Dr. Bert Odiaka and Mr. Kayode Abe. That was the real beginning of my HR career. These leaders taught me most of what I know today in the HR space. In 1997/98, there was a global merger between C&L and Price Waterhouse (PW) to become PwC. It was a historic moment for me with the new approach of consulting and audit collaborating to work on client assignments rather than working in silos.
In September 1998, I left the industry to join Air Liquide, the global French Multinational Manufacturer of Industrial Gas. My role was to assist and understudy the Personnel/Admin Manager, Mr. Owoeye, who was retiring the following year. The elderly gentleman (RIP) and Mr. Uzoh, (then, Country HR manager Nigeria & Ghana) helped me settle down and guided me through the murky waters of HR, industrial and community relations.
British Council and Guinness came calling towards the end of 2001 and 2002 respectively. I really enjoyed my career at Guinness joining as HR Project Manager, then as HR Manager Ogba Brewery, HR Lead on a transformation project and later as Organisation Development Manager – Supply Chain for Africa.
Following this, my second career journey to PwC berthed in January 2005 and I stayed there for 17 months leading cross-functional teams on client assignments working alongside others on a few projects, one of which was the M&A of Intercontinental Bank and 3 other banks.
Thereafter, I joined Shell in May 2006 and, I worked in recruitment, global change/process improvement and business partnering in Nigeria, Norway, UK and Netherlands. In January 2010, I applied for voluntary severance and left in February 2010.
Out of love for country, I came out of my self-imposed retirement to work as HR Adviser to the Director-General (DG) of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), Arunma Oteh between April 2010 – August 2013, before joining FrieslandCampina in September 2013 as HR Director (HRD) for 5 years 8 months.
Currently, I’m the Group HRD of TGI Group, a conglomerate.
TWB: What are some of the unforgettable moments in your career? Moments that could be described as turning points?
TO: My first change project that led to the exit of around 60 people, closure of three offices (out of seven) and recruitment of about 20 new young professionals. That was on a global change program at the British Council in 2001. I led the people side of that change and it was quite difficult at the time. The affected staff even threatened to invite the then President of NLC, Adam’s Oshiomole to intervene and stop the process. However, it ended well with good packages and a very good exit empowerment program for the different categories of impacted employees.
I remember when I was selected to travel to Accra to teach colleagues in C&L Ghana on how we conduct salary benchmarking exercise end-to-end. I was still a Trainee Consultant at the time but had led and just completed the popular and well-acclaimed annual National Survey of Remuneration exercise covering about 60 participants drawn from different sectors of the economy. It was pivotal because typically, one of the senior consultants would have been selected for that kind of assignment.
At the turn of the millennial, the year 2000, I was the Personnel/Admin Manager of the South East & West operation of Air Liquide, based out of Port Harcourt. I had to address a crowd of about 200 youths under the name “Association of Unemployed Rivers State Graduates”. A simple discussion at the gate nearly led to my untimely death as some of the crowd thronged the gate, forced it open and within a twinkle of an eye, surrounded me for questioning and some rough handling. It took the intervention of key members of the group before they could allow me to go back to the office. It was my Community Relations baptism of fire.
Leading a cross-functional project at PwC for a financial sector client and conducting a competency assessment of the leadership team of a downstream oil major plus being a workstream leader in a merger of four banks into one entity in 2005/2006 were pivotal moments.
As Satellite Recruitment Manager, I led the review of the recruitment status at Norske Shell in 2007 and this was pivotal for my career; the assignment provided an opportunity to showcase what I could do in a foreign land and within a team that was all-white. I also learned how government vision and policies can impact the future of a nation, and reset the direction for growth. What started as a simple project of understanding the issues we had in recruitment in Norway and fixing it led us to a national issue. We discovered that there was a very low percentage of University students studying science courses and projecting the data for a big oil economy like Norway, that was a disaster waiting to happen and to the future looked even grimmer. However, the government partnered with parents and towns to address the issue.
As a result of the successful work done in Norway, I was subsequently selected to lead a global project, working with the global recruitment leadership team, Accenture Netherlands and teams across the five continents. I picked up couple of learnings working with very talented and multi-cultural teams, managing European team members, engaging various stakeholders across different jurisdictions and developing global process documents with various local tweaks.
In terms of life-changing experience, working in the public sector at the SEC Abuja, resonates. It was at the SEC I learnt how to persevere in the midst of adversity until triumph is heralded. Hitherto, I used to be quite impatient (something you learn from consulting).
At Friesland Campina, I learnt how to be a real leader, how to lead with purpose and the real reason why your success as a leader depends on how you nurture and develop others. Overall, I learnt how the little things you do as a leader (1-on-1 discussions, relentlessly communicating vision, mission and strategic objectives of your business, leading by example, ruthless focus on performance & behaviours, giving your team enough room to operate, developing trust, consequence management, etc. all add up to making people and businesses great.
TWB: With the benefit of hindsight, are there things you would do differently if you were to start afresh?
TO: Somebody once said, “We live life looking forward but understand life looking backwards.” Looking back now, I should have stayed longer at Guinness. It was one of the most exciting work place for me.
TWB: You currently function at an executive level, please share with us how you prepared for this role and what are the critical skills that upcoming professionals require to transit to C-suite?
TO: Everything is down to the God factor, good health, continuous learning, dissatisfaction with average performance, change orientation, enthusiasm and curiosity.
God factor: essentially divine favour. I do not come from a well to do family or background and there’re so many people better than me, so God must have had a hand in all of these achievements.
Good health: so even if you’re a great guy, most intelligent, etc., without good health you’ll not be able to work. It’s a good thing to exercise, eat right, take necessary breaks, etc., as all these aid your physical and mental development.
Continuous learning: in addition to learning & development courses provided by companies I worked for, I had to do lots of reading. While at PwC, I attended the Automobile University (AU) every morning. Where? In my car. 1 – 2 hours every morning in the traffic from Magodo to Muri Okunola where our office was located. How: audio CDs of great books. At Shell, I was always staying behind after closing to attend free webinars on the sites of shrm, HCI, cipd, atd, etc.
TWB: Technology is disrupting businesses across different verticals; how do you think African business should respond to this disruption? What are some of the examples you have seen in Nigeria of how organizations are effectively responding?
TO: First, we need to unfreeze our frozen minds on the tech side of things and to accept the reality that technology is a disruptor as well as an enabler of people and businesses. Next, we need to embrace technology and continue to upgrade our skill-sets to remain relevant.
Regarding technology disruption, some of technology’s impact and responses we have witnessed in the last few decades comprise the development of e-commerce/online shopping, especially with Gen Z and Millennials customers/consumers. Consequently, many organisations have had no other choice than to develop their own modern trade businesses and are now creating digital units and populating them with digital natives to gain insights and act decisively online, real time.
Also, some companies have replaced humans with robots in transactional roles like customer service, first line recruitment processes, basic manufacturing, agriculture, medicine, law, etc. The right technology is able to save cost, speed up decision making and scale up impact and all of these can help our people and organisations grow. Growth is the tonic of organisation.
TWB: In your view, what do you predict as some of the challenges that Professionals in Africa will face in the next decade?
TO: The population of the world is projected to hit 9.8 billion by year 2050 and Africa’s population will more than double by then. Therefore, for now and the future, the ability to gather, analyze, interpret and gain insights from data, develop plans based on the insights and execute such plans flawlessly without sentiments will become so critical to the development of Africa.
Africa’s economic growth will continue to be accelerated by technological innovation across all sectors, so training and developing the young and fast-growing population of the continent in the right technological skill-sets will enable professionals in Africa remain relevant now and into the future.
However, the greatest challenge the continent will likely face, going by our antecedents, is the lack of visionary leaders with high levels of emotional intelligence to execute plans without sentiments. In essence, having leaders who are rich materially but suffering from poverty of the mind will continue to pose major problems to Africa and by extension to professionals in Africa.
TWB: In 30 to 40 years, what kind of legacy do you want to be remembered for?
TO: That I developed talents and grew leaders for organisations I worked for, my country of birth and the continent of Africa.
Thank you for your time once again and we wish you success in your future endeavors.