Life Lessons: “Mentoring Will Shorten Your Journey To The Top” – Chief Olusegun Osunkeye



Chief Olusegun Osunkeye, OFR, OON former Managing Director and Chairman of Nestlé Foods Plc., is one of the few individuals in the country who have been able to make it to the pinnacle of their careers and also finished well without scandals.


Interestingly, just as one of our LIFE LESSONS guests (Dotun Sulaiman) has proved, by staying on Nestlé for 41 years, Chief Osunkeye, a Chartered Accountant by training, has demonstrated that you can be wealthy and live a good life working for others.


Osunkeye, who now runs a private consultancy firm, was 77 last Thursday. He shared practical life lessons with me in his office and, on reflections, he stated that his journey to the top would have been truncated without the help of the mentors God brought his way. You will, certainly, also gain wisdom reading his notes on the journey. Enjoy the reading.

Lesson 1: CAREER

Be professional; develop competence on the job.

If you truly want to get to the top of your career, it is imperative that you develop competence on the job. Be loyal to your employer and imbibe continuous learning and development as you go along. Without being seen to be competent by those below and above, you may face some ridicule at some point, and you may not get to the top of the corporate ladder.

I remember when I returned to Nigeria in 1967 after my professional Accountancy qualification in England, I started with UAC and was posted to Lipton (blenders of Coffee Tea), based in Apapa, Lagos. The people I met on the ground were just clerks and were far older than me. On my second day (I had an office to myself) and I was barely settling down when a chap walked into my office; he was one of the senior elderly Account Clerks. He said: “Excuse me sir, it is time to calculate the Variances, and it is done by the Accountant.” I knew what books to ask for and he went to get them. He brought the books and stood there in front of me with his hands behind him, which I had thought was a mark of courtesy. After 10 to 15 minutes, I gave the results to him and he brought his hands forward with a sheet of paper bearing the answers there. He compared my figures with his and said, “Yes, you are correct. We just wanted to test you. “That is competence and knowledge. Imagine if I didn’t know?

You need to remain focused in life.

Many people cut their career journeys to the top short by dabbling in so many things instead of focusing on their goals. When I joined Nestlé (the Food Specialties) in 1972 – the same building that is home to Nestlé at Ilupeju (in Lagos) was originally a warehouse. Within a year, the owners came to me and said, “This place is up for sale. We want to offer it to you first as a person.”   I replied that I wanted to be a professional accountant. I told him I had just been a year on the job, and wanted to exercise my professional knowledge, and so on. That’s apart from the fact that I couldn’t think of how to raise the money to buy it. I had made up my mind even at the time what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a captain of industry. So they left me, came back and offered it to us as a company. If I had taken the offer, for a while maybe I would have had to do something on the side to get it, and then, tell my employer that I bought the property. Can you imagine the conflict of interest in all that? When they offered it to the company, we had a policy that “we are not in the property business” and that was the answer I gave.

You need to guard against conflict of interests.

This is where many CEOs miss it. When you are in a position of authority, you need to guard against everything that can weaken that authority in any form. When I joined Nestlé, to avoid conflict of interest, I told my wife from day one that she would not sell any product that Nestlé is selling. Not only that, she would not sell any product that is competing with Nestlé products. We agreed that from the start, and it is still so till today. Also, I was in a very senior position in Nestlé because I became an Executive Director within 12 months of joining the company, effectively number two to the Managing Director. Apart from Sales, Marketing and Production, I was responsible as Finance & Administration Director, for all the other functions, Purchasing & Supplies, Accounts, Budget, Personnel and External Communications. So, I reasoned, to avoid nepotism, no member of my family would work in Nestlé. I paid dearly for that decision. I would help members of my family to find work elsewhere but not in Nestlé. I still have the ‘scars’ from some family members because of that decision. No sooner had I joined, in 1973/74, than the company wanted to hire medical delegates – normally they were nurses and midwives – to market baby food in hospitals, and so on. And they were often very well qualified people, some holding qualifications from abroad. Now, we advertised and my cousin of the same surname (when single) applied. The applications went to the MD, he shortlisted and called me in to see the shortlist. I pointed to a name and I told him this person is not coming here.   She had married at the time; so the MD was not in a position to know the connection to me. He asked why and I said she was very qualified from studying in England, but she couldn’t work there because she is my cousin.   The MD tried to persuade me, but I said that it was a matter of principle, a conflict of interests. I, then, went on to explain to the MD that it would be a lose/lose scenario not in the best interest of the company. Eventually, the MD saw my point. My relationship with my cousin nosedived and even over 40 years later, our relationship has not improved much even when we meet at family settings. If you have principles, be prepared to pay a price. So, in terms of conflict of interests, my wife never traded in any fast-moving consumer goods (FMCGs). She suffered for it, but we stuck to the discipline and principles. Instead when she retired, she sold building materials and other items. It pays later in life and I tell people that I mentor to hold on to ethics, integrity and character because there would come a time you would convert it to a big asset. I have been proved right time and again. There are times you would convert character and integrity into things that money cannot buy, e.g., to be trusted in places that matter.

Don’t behave as heir apparent.

This is my counsel from experience: no matter how good you think you are on the job, don’t behave as if the top position belongs to you. At a point in my career, I was promised that after returning from training abroad, I would be made the managing director. My mind was fixed on that and I prepared very well for the exalted position. To my surprise and anger, however, when I returned, I was offered the position of the deputy managing director. I was infuriated and was considering a number of options. All the explanations they gave did not enter my ears. They were disappointed with my reaction. And looking back, I really shouldn’t have reacted the way I did. But then, I decided to seek the counsel of one my mentors, Dr. Omolayole.

He gave me this advice: “He who will be King cannot make himself King. Just do your work. Do not behave as heir apparent, be loyal to your company and be dedicated. The kingmakers are those who will write your appraisal.” I took that golden advice to heart, even though I had to wait 10 more years till 1991 when I became the MD/CEO of Nestlé Nigeria Plc.

The patience paid off. I knew all facets of the business, including the corporate culture and work ethics of the Nestlé Group, and as the most senior Nigerian, I helped to inculcate the tenets down the line. In return, Nestlé gave me full support to enable me to succeed when I became MD/CEO.

In 1991 when I took over as MD/CEO, Turnover was ₦609 million, profit before tax ₦98 million. By 1999, eight years later, when I retired and relinquished the MD/CEO to become the (Non-Executive) Chairman, Turnover was ₦7.7 billion, profit before tax ₦1.6 billion.

As Chairman of the Board for 14 years (1999 to 2013), my role shifted to Board leadership, policy formulation,   oversight, guidance, advice and motivation. The tradition and culture of excellence continued as shown by the results viz:

                        1999     Turnover   ₦7.7Billion; Profit before tax ₦1.6Billion

                        2012    Turnover₦116.7Billion; Profit before tax ₦25.0Billion

I bowed out from Nestlé in May 2013 after 41 years loyal and meritorious service, fulfilled and fully satisfied. I can proclaim, “Ebenezer, hitherto the Lord has helped me.” To God be the glory and adoration.


Have mentors; mentor others.

Without the influence and help of the mentors God brought my way, my journey to the top would have been slow or even truncated. The path to the top was prone to many errors but through timely and regular counsels from my mentors, I was able to navigate through. I have been blessed with great mentors such as Chief Akintola Williams, Chief Michael Omolayole, the late Chief Justice Fatai Williams, and a few others.

A ready example I can give of the effect of a good mentor was when I was to send my children abroad for their education. I didn’t have the money; I sold my shares, but the proceeds were not enough. I had to borrow money from the bank, but I was not comfortable borrowing money. When I discussed the issue with Chief Akintola Williams, he told me, whatever it would take to give the children good education, including borrowing, I should do it. That encouraged me and I stopped bothering about the money I borrowed. I sat down and rationalised, the shares I sold, is a transfer of paper investment into intellectual investment which is great.

As a person you should have mentors and you should have those you are mentoring, so that you can share your own experiences also. I have many mentors, formal and informal. I also have many young people that come to me to be mentored. So, you need to get people above to mentor you, and get people below for you to mentor.

You need to develop networking skills.

To get to the top, you need to develop great networking skills. The question to ask is: How many people can you call successfully for help when you run into rough waters. By consciously cultivating valuable relationships, you are building an emotional bank account from which you can withdraw in terms of needs.

There was a time some people petitioned the Federal Government that Nestlé was illegally bringing expatriates to the country without proper immigration papers and other documentation. There was no truth in the petition, but it got to the Minister of Internal Affairs then, Chief Alex Ibru. It was a very serious offence. I was summoned by the minister. I knew it would not be wise to just go to him without a proper homework. What I did was to get to a friend of mine who was a media practitioner and was highly connected. He knew General Oladipo Diya, who was then the number two man. He worked out a plan. He got to know that General Diya would be at an event in Lagos, and he would be coming with the Minister of Internal affairs. He suggested I come to the event during which he discussed the issue openly with General Diya, while the Internal Affairs Minister was looking. That was the end of the issue. I was invited a week later by General Diya who gave me the opportunity to explain the real situation. Instead of discussing sanctions, he asked me what help I needed! Networking can save you from trouble.

Lesson 3: Family

Maintain work/life balance.

Assume you are juggling five balls in the air; you name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit. Work is a rubber ball, if you drop it, it will bounce back.

But if you drop any of the 4 other balls – family, health, friends and spirit, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged, or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.

Look after yourself, as you look after your family. Your work must also not suffer because it is from your work that you can feed the family. If you cannot work, you cannot look after your family – wife, children and you. Each must have their space at different times to think, commune with self and God. As time goes by, you can also take a broader spectrum and say that society has been kind to me, what do I give back to church, school, community and society? It is truly important to maintain the work-life balance. If someone tells you he works up to 18 hours continuously day in day out, he is not doing justice to himself. He is burning out. Use every available time to recharge, meditate and refocus more than before. As you grow older, you also have more time but as I say to young fathers that I interact with, time missed in the growing up period of your children cannot be regained and you may end up regretting it. When children are growing up, they are fun to be with and they need your attention. What your children look like or what they said from when they start talking, to when they leave for the University cannot be regained. Maintaining the work-life balance requires that you spend time with them, especially in their growing-up phase. Even our children who are married now often say that they remember what we taught them because they are teaching their own children now. One of my daughters can finish a book in a day. Because she grew up liking and reading the likes of Enid Blyton’s books, she is in America. Anytime I travel to London, she asks me to buy the books and airfreight to my grandchildren. This gives my wife and me pleasure that they remember what we taught them. I encouraged all men to imbibe work-life balance.

Lesson 4: Health

Health is wealth.

Health is wealth. You must look after yourself because many people depend on you. Give time to rest, not just working 18, 20 hours a day and bragging about it. You should plan and live a work-life balance. Do things in moderation, and of course, exercise. I watch what I eat, but I have not been successful in that, but I still watch it. Another very important thing is, although I am not 100 per cent on that, you must sleep at least seven hours in a day. I try, but there are times I do only four or five hours.

Sleep, watch what you eat, do exercise, and do things in moderation.

Lesson 5: Significance/Giving Back

Blessed is the hand that giveth.

As you grow older, you recognise that you need to give back to the society that has helped you. It is the society that made you what you are. So, as you grow older, you should think beyond yourself and give back to society. When I retired from Nestlé, the first thing I did was that I enlisted at Fate Foundation as a volunteer lecturer for about two years, teaching aspiring entrepreneurs and emerging entrepreneurs all those things I had learnt over the years, including business discipline. I was downloading them to the young ones. I also give through the church and my community. You get, you absorb, you distribute. Blessed is the hand that giveth.

Lesson 6: Spirituality

The Lord is my all.

The grace and mercy of God have been continuous for me. I am blessed. By the grace of God, I attained 77 years on the 7th September (2017). The Lord has been my helper, protector, provider, and He has promoted and preserved me to this day. Halleluya!

What you are and the height you attain are through the grace and mercy of God. The race is not for the swiftest.   Give Him all the glory and praise. Psalm 103: 1-5 tells us what God does for us – He forgives all our sins, heals our diseases, satisfies our desires with good things, crowns us with love and compassion, so that we are not consumed. There is plenty for which to thank and praise God. “Anywhere you see Him, thank Him for me” goes the first line of a lyric I like.

The question is, what shall I render to Him in return? I constantly remind myself that we are born to serve Him, and we are blessed to give, and have compassion.

When I made up my mind in 1967 to be a “captain of industry” in my career, I did not envisage getting there in five years; I kept on working, and yes, God blessed the effort. I became a captain of industry, some will say a ‘general’ of industry, but it was an evolution and a vision of about 25 to 30 years ahead. Everything at the end of the day is by the mercy and grace of God. Man proposes, makes the plans, God disposes, but you have to plan, anyway. If you do not plan, you are a sluggard, you will not eat (Proverbs 20:4). My mother used to say “Isekii pa yan;Isenipayan.” (Hard work does not kill; it is laziness that kills). Make the plans first, believing that God will bless the plans.



Develop a savings culture from your youth – Advice from my mother and elder brother.

This advice was given in February 1959 when I received my first salary in employment (about £17.10 shillings) at the end of my six weeks’ sojourn in the Civil Service at “Six Storey building”, Broad Street, Lagos. I wanted to go on a shopping spree at UTC & Kingsway (both popular shops on Broad Street then).

I was quickly called to order by my elder brother with whom I was living in Yaba, and my mother who came visiting. My brother told me that if I could not or would not save from my salary as a 3rd Class Clerk (earning £150 per annum), I would not be able to save even when you rose to a Permanent Secretary on a salary of £2,292 per annum.

That advice has stuck with me to this day – and I have had the privilege and God’s grace to pass it on to two of my grandchildren, who have graduated, and are now in employment. You not just save; you must also invest. I cultivated the habit of putting my savings in shares and that paid off. Apart from using the proceeds to train my children, the money I was able to save through investment in shares has also made my retirement enjoyable.

Lesson 7: Fun Time

Work hard, play hard.


At King’s College, Lagos (1954-58) and at the Nigerian College of Arts, Science & Technology, (1960-1962), I played Football, Hockey, Cricket and took part in Literary Activities, e.g., Student Christian Movement and later, I played Squash, Handball (in Malaysia).

If you have worked hard, also enjoy play time, after all “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, as the saying goes. An annual vacation is a must and that has enabled me to see other parts of the world. I have been a member of Rotary International (my home, Club Rotary Club of Ikeja) since 1971, and through attending some of the Annual Rotary International Conventions, I have visited Canada, Brazil, Denmark/Sweden, Spain, South Korea, USA (most recently Atlanta). Visiting the U.K. (is like a ritual year in year out, and the Musicals such as Sound of Music, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Cats, the Lion King, My Fair Lady, Gone with the Wind, etc., at the West End Theatres in London, are fascinating for me.

Attending Performances at the Royal Albert Hall, and pageantries of Trooping the Colours and the Lord Mayor’s Procession all in London, is most enjoyable, as well as Caribbean Cruises in the last few years.

Back home, and in earlier times, partying and dancing to the music of legends such as Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, Dele Ojo, I.K. Dairo, Victor Uwaifo, etc., is quite relaxing.

This, of course, is aside from the game of Golf, which I started playing since 1999. It doubles as a social platform as well as helping me to be physically fit.


1.As an Accountant, your word must be your bond. Make integrity your watchword –Advice from (Elder) Mr. Akintola Williams (February 1959 to September 1960.)

  1. In your career, do not behave as the heir apparent to the exalted position. This advice was given by Dr. Michael Omolayole, in 1981, who also counseled that there is “virtue in patience”.


In the last few years, I developed something for myself. I call it TEAM (Time, Energy, Added value and Money). If I get invitations, I subject them to that evaluation consisting of four questions. What time is it going to take me? How much of my energy will be devoted to it? What value will I be adding to myself and the person inviting me and how much money will it cost me? Saying yes to too many things leads to failure.


(1)      The Holy Bible   -    It covers all dimensions of life and living, it is alive and never stale, always refreshing.

(2)      Other books and Journals I read (not necessarily from cover to cover)      relate to professional and management subjects and articles, written             by experts such as Peter Drucker, Covey, E.F.L. Brech, Charles        Handy, Directors’ Handbook, Corporate Governance, The Director,             Harvard Business Review, etc.