Leadership’s international ambassador, René Carayol, travels to the Ivory Coast to conduct a face-to-face interview with Akinwumi Adesina, the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB).
“The magician and the politician have much in common—they both have to draw our attention away from what they are actually doing.”
- Ben Okri
We all recognise this pithy and somewhat insightful quip from one of Africa’s leading authors. Every now and again—and, disappointingly, all too rarely—we meet a leader who is the opposite: someone who is transparent and who has that authentic, relevant and inspiring vision for all those they serve. My continuing leadership journey took me to the beautiful and vibrant city of Abidjan in Ivory Coast this month. The former French colony is enjoying strong economic growth despite the memories of the horrendous civil war and recent ‘local’ mutinies by unhappy and allegedly unpaid soldiers. It was my first visit in far too many years and the city had been transformed beyond recognition but it still retained the intoxicating fusion of an authentic African identity with an unmissable Francophone flavour.
I was going to spend some time with the President of the African Development Bank (AfDB), Akinwumi Adesina, and his Senior Management Team.When elected to become the President of the AfDB in May 2015, Adesina said, “I am humbled by this remarkable vote of confidence in me by the AfDB Group. I will not let Africa down.” Those who know him knew he meant it.He was, however, following a tough act as his predecessor, Donald Kaberuka, had completed 10 years in charge—the maximum tenure of two 5-year terms. Kaberuka had successfully shifted the bank’s lending priorities on to infrastructure projects. On leaving the institution, Kaberuka said, “I do think that the next leadership of the bank, and other institutions, must put this—economic transformation, inclusion and sustainability—at the centre of what they do.” He was absolutely spot-on… but far easier said than done.
Like all organisations and businesses, the AfDB needed an inspirational vision around which all of its wide variety of stakeholders could coalesce in order to deliver against the new President’s audacious promise to transform Africa.There is much talk about vision but, in my experience, far too many confuse strategy with vision. The strategy focuses on how the vision will be delivered. The vision has to be what the transformation will achieve and, by definition, it needs to be exciting and inspiring for all who will work hard towards achieving it.Martin Luther King was able to galvanise a nation with his seminal “I Have a Dream” speech that vividly and unforgettably painted a vision of a different and inclusive America that so many came to share.Emotive and inspiring stories are still the best way of fuelling and oxygenating a vision. The journalist approaches three men working extremely hard in the burning sun on a building site. It was backbreaking work and all three were dripping in sweat. He approached the first one and asked him, “Why do you do this unforgiving work?” The worker wiped his brow and replied, “I haven’t worked for three years, so I took the first job I could get.” He approached the second worker, whose response was, “I have a wife and three kids, so I took the first job I could get.”He now turned to the third worker and asked him the same question. The man smiled and responded proudly, “I’m helping to build a cathedral.”
This is the real power of an inspiring vision—the person who brings the building of a cathedral to life and makes it vital and vibrant to all. It gives all involved something to belong to and, vitally, someone to believe in. For the AfDB, their President Akinwumi Adesina is that visionary and inspirational leader to believe in. He spent the first days after his appointment establishing the transforming and humanising vision that he has brilliantly labelled “High 5s“. High 5s” has brought a laser focus and a new energy to all who work at the AfDB—and to all who work with them.By focusing on five priorities that are vital for accelerating Africa’s economic transformation, the AfDB is crucially stepping up the pace. The “High 5s” are: Light up and power Africa, Feed Africa, Industrialise Africa, Integrate Africa, and Improve the quality of life for the people of Africa.
The High 5s
1. Light up and power Africa
About 635 million Africans still live without electricity and, consequently, the demand for energy is rising rapidly. Through the New Deal on Energy for Africa, the AfDB is working to unify efforts to achieve universal access to energy. Its new Energy Strategy aims to increase energy production and access, as well as to improve affordability, reliability and energy efficiency.
2. Feed Africa
More than 70% of Africans depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. If its full potential was unlocked, agriculture could vastly improve the lives of millions. The bank is framing its agricultural operations within a business-oriented approach, based on a deeper understanding of the obstacles, potential and investment opportunities.
3. Industrialise Africa
A persistent lack of industrialisation is holding back Africa’s economies. Over the next 10 years, the bank will invest US$3.5-billion per year through direct financing and leveraging to implement six flagship industrialisation programmes in areas where the AfDB can best leverage its experience, capabilities and finances.
4. Integrate Africa
Through its Regional Integration Policy and Strategy, the bank is focusing its integration efforts not just on the movement of goods and services but also on the mobility of people and investment.
5. Improve the quality of life for the people of Africa
Africa’s economic growth has not been rapid or inclusive enough to create sufficient jobs in order to improve the quality of life for the majority of people on the continent. The bank is committed to building up the availability of technical skills so that African economies can realise their full potential in high-technology sectors. Acknowledging the urgent need to address climate change, the bank will nearly triple its annual climate financing to reach $5 billion-a-year by 2020.
An inspirational leader
Akinwumi Adesina is absolutely the right person for the job, but not just because he previously served successfully as Nigeria’s Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. He’s a first-class ‘New Age Leader’ who ‘gets it’—and better than most of the upper echelon of leaders we have had the privilege of working with over recent years. Adesina was named Forbes African of the Year in 2013 for his reforms to Nigeria’s farming sector. “He is a man on a mission to help Africa feed itself,” said Forbes Africa Editor, Chris Bishop. At the time, analysts said that Nigeria’s economy has long been dominated by oil while agriculture has been ignored, even though it supports far more people.Mr Adesina said he wanted to help people become rich through farming.
“My goal is to make as many millionaires from agriculture as possible,” he said in his acceptance speech. He wasn’t afraid to make tough calls and he made enemies by introducing more transparency into the supply and distribution of fertiliser, which had previously been marred by massive corruption. He brings integrity, transparency and an unmissable, strong-willed determination to deliver no matter what the odds. He has that formidable combination of a calm and deft touch with people while, at the same time, being powered by a raging inferno of desire that is constantly brewing in his belly. He’s a consummate communicator with that rare ability to appear to be talking ‘with’ everyone personally in his audience. He is a master of the well-crafted speech, but impressively, he’s even better when he’s without notes and it is straight from the heart.
He has courageously taken his time to hold out for the right talent in recrafting and rebuilding his Senior Management Team. The last pieces of this jigsaw puzzle have recently been appointed and they are an impressiveif very new team. Having the opportunity to observe the President in action with his team was instructive and enlightening. He is always careful with his language and demeanour, always alert to his surroundings and the demands of his leadership role. He is naturally bold and creative but has cleverly tempered this to meet a rather risk-averse and process-driven environment. He repeatedly and directionally states that “Innovation is nothing without passion. In order to transform, we must delegate authority; this shift in power will enable us to achieve extraordinary results.”
Adesina balances realism with a strong push for change.
To transform the bank with the least disruption possible, we must recognise the achievements of our people. We, as the Senior Management Team, must be tightly aligned and everyone can benefit from coaching to develop even more,” he says softly but firmly. He works very hard to ensure his team feel empowered and valued. He coaxes them by reassuring them that, “To have a great team, you need the correct talent. We now have that. We need to leave the egos at the door, as we need to come together to deliver the priorities.”Adesina can be very persuasive: “You must liberate your people—give them the space to be creative. If you block them, they will stop trying for you. Over-controlling will kill their passion.”However, he’s also pragmatic: “Leaders have to be tough sometimes—these are judgement calls that come with experience.”He made it evidently clear that he “had the backs” of all the members of his team and, vitally, had already demonstrated this on a number of occasions. This gave his team the necessary ‘air cover’ to try even harder without fear.
Managers talk strategy—leaders tell stories
Adesina’s use of stories did not just beautifully illustrate the points he wanted to make but they also helped make him human, engaging and accessible. Before long, his team were also getting into the storytelling mode and Charles Boamah, Chief Financial Officer and VP, joined our conversation on just how important it was for the bank to better communicate its vision. He related an unforgettable story.During a recent meeting between his London team and a leading European investment bank, Boamah presented and exchanged the usual numbers, yields and algorithms that are the prerequisites and bedrocks of any potential engagement.It was becoming clear that all present were conscientiously taking copious notes and taking things very seriously, but there was a lack of ‘spark’ or emotional connection to what the transformation of Africa, that the AfDB were trying to achieve, really meant.
The numbers were important – transforming people’s lives was vital.
He decided to share a poignant and instructive story.
The backdrop was vividly set in recent times in northern Mali. A conscientious young man had ventured from his home village to look for work to help his long-suffering parents feed his family. He tried the first establishment he came to on the small main street of the nearest town. It was a busy and bustling bakery and the owner responded warmly to his request for any vacancies for work. He asked the young man if he had any experience or any qualifications. He bowed his head a little and whispered “no”. The baker apologised and said that, unfortunately, he couldn’t help him and rushed back to his work. The young man then walked up the street to a small and busy restaurant. He stood at the counter and waited politely until the Manager no longer clearing the tables and asked quietly if there were any vacancies for work.
By now, he knew what was coming. The Manager sat the young man down and, seeing just how dusty and thirsty he looked, offered him a much-appreciated glass of cold water. He asked him whether he had any experience or any qualifications. He already knew where this was going. Having been given a rather sorry “no” again, he walked slowly out and sat on the small crumbling wall outside the restaurant. One of the diners he had seen inside came outside and sat next to him. The stranger said that he couldn’t help but overheard his request for work. To prevent another disappointing conversation, the young man quickly responded that he didn’t have any experience or any qualifications.
The stranger smiled and said, “That’s precisely what we are looking for.” The young man instantly brightened up and enquired, “What kind of work is it? ”“We are recruiting Jihadists.”Suddenly the room fell very quiet. The leading executive quickly stood up to sum up the meeting and was now strikingly animated and passionate, as he promised that he and his team would do all and more to assist the AfDB in its mission to transform Africa.
I left Abidjan having been as inspired and as motivated as much as his team to help and assist the President, Akinwumi Adesina, in delivering the “High 5s” in any way that I could. This is the effect that visionary leaders can have on all whom they meet.] I’ll definitely go back to the wonderful and warm people of Abidjan, but I will also continue to be inspired by one of Africa’s most impressive leaders.Maybe, just maybe, President Adesina and the AfDB might deliver but whatever happens, they are changing the game already and deserve all the support they can get for such a vibrant and necessary vision.Adesina and his Senior Management Team most certainly are a committed band of believers—and any cynicism has long gone.They know they are so much stronger together and they might just go a long way to respond positively to the heartfelt and perhaps the most poignant provocative prose about our African predicament again from Ben Okri.“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”Adesina left his team with the seminal message: “When the history of the AfDB is being recorded, no-one will say or remember that ‘they were efficient and process-driven’.”