She speaks with a loud voice. She’s smart. She’s hardworking. She treats her subordinates with respect. She loves her family. She is Tolulope Agiri. She is the HR Director for Unilever Nigeria. She made 26 June, 2013 one of the best days of June for me.
Sometime ago at our weekly Community Development program at the NYSC secretariat in Lagos, we were called together and informed that Unilever was organising a “Tea Party”, and youth corps members were invited. A number of us wrote our names down, not knowing what it was all about. It was worth it.
The Tea Party began as an interview, the interviewee was Tolulope. Tolulope talked from her heart. She told us about some of her experiences in leadership. I’ll tell you one that struck me.
She told us she used to be “quite autocratic” in the way she dealt with her team, and she was comfortable with it up till a certain point. She had left Nigeria and gone to work in South Africa,
where she was looking after a team of Learning Managers in 7 or 8 countries across Africa who reported to her. They came to South Africa once or twice a year.
For one of their meetings, she had invited her boss. Because he had never physically worked with her—his work was not in South Africa, and as such, they usually communicated by phone—he used the opportunity to know the kind of person she is. He observed her, and after the meeting he gave her feedback. One feedback was, “If you’re going to continue like this—if this is the way you lead people—one day you’re going to turn back and discover there’s no one following you”. The feedback hit like “ouch!”
She clearly needed a change, and subsequently made up her mind to do so. She decided to be more accessible, friendlier and less of a slave driver. The results she then started to see was that subordinates began communicating with her, talking with her when they wanted to make major decisions, e.g. resigning their positions. She also changed the way she ran her meetings, even teleconferences. Instead of beginning with, “What happened last week?” she began with, “How is everybody?” even when she didn’t feel like it. Her nature was business first. So, to prevent this, whenever she was done preparing the meeting agenda, she’ll write at the top, “How are you?”
It was like a breath of fresh air. Everything changed. People wanted to work with her more. They wanted to do much more than she was asking them to do. This destroyed her paradigm that the only way people will work is by being “slave driven”. Tolulope changed her entire approach to leadership. And it has made her work more rewarding.
She told us a lot more stories, but she didn’t do all the talking though. We in the audience were given the opportunity to intelligently interact.
The best part of the seminar for me was when we aired our views on Nigerian leaders and Nigerian Leadership. It was like a court of law. One person saying something, and the other replying with, “I put it to you that…” A lady corps member said her choice leader for Nigeria is Rochas Okorocha, giving her reasons that he has done a lot in roads, houses and free education. Two lady corps member strongly disagreed with her. They were former students of IMSU (Imo State University), and were physically present in Imo state to witness his administration. In their judgement, he had done a few things, but the free education policy was a scam, and it was only children/relatives of prominent traditional rulers in the state that could benefit from it. He also forced a number of IMSU students to drop out when he increased the school fees rather unreasonably.
When I got the chance to speak, I raised the issue of the power problem as one of the greatest potential sources of radical change in the Nigerian economy. I also talked about the fact that we need a leader with a military background to lead Nigeria. Not a military person, a person that has a military past. I believe the persistent strength of purpose required to change Nigeria, as has happened in other nations e.g. Ghana, US, China, will come from a form of dictatorship, but not a military government.
My point about the “military background” issue was countered by a guy who I’ll call Dee.
Dee is a unique kind of person. At a seminar I attended a few months back, Reginald Ihejiahi, MD/CEO Fidelity bank said, “People are long on opinion and short on facts, because facts require labour”. Dee is long on facts. His depth of knowledge of Nigerian politics, past and present, is nauseating. Before he stood up, he had written a list of things he wanted to say. When he began talking, he talked in detail. He gave relevant facts to back his points. Even though he was countering what I had said, I was pleased. He was a worthy opponent.
He did mention that his preferred leader for Nigeria is Bola Tinubu. I’m not sure I agree with that. He also said what Nigeria needs is a “democratic dictatorship”, because Nigeria requires a “brute change”. I totally agree with that.
The Tea Party was a great opportunity for networking. I met some great people. I met some guys that needed some help with public speaking. I shared my experience with them and how I learned to overcome stage fright. We’ll work together on this in the next few weeks.
A lot more than this was said, but I’ll stop here. It was totally amazing. The youth of Nigeria need more programs like that to expand their minds and develop their thinking. I won’t miss the next one.