Mohammed Hayatu-Deen gained immense media visibility in the nineties when he was appointed the pioneer Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer of FSB International Bank Plc, a distressed government savings institutions that he was able to transform into a major commercial bank in Nigeria. Prior to that, Hayatu-Deen, who now runs his own business, Alpine Investment Limited, was the pioneer CEO of the Northern Nigeria Development Company (NNDC). In this interview with Ayo Arowolo, Hayatu-Deen shares the key lessons he learnt at the three institutions. Excerpts:
Lesson 1: Age plus wisdom plays vital role in success
Life really began for me in 1983 when I became the Group Chief Executive Officer of the New Nigeria Development Company (NNDC), which was Nigeria’s single largest diversified holding company at the time. I rose through the ranks rapidly to become the group managing director and CEO at the age of 30. Thirty years was a relatively young age to assume the mantle of office in such a behemoth diversified holding company. So this required that one’s intellectual skills and imagination must be matched with maturity and wisdom. There are certain things perhaps that I would have done differently if I was holding that position 5 – 10 years later than when I mounted the saddle. One was in managing relationships. The organisation was exclusively owned by the 19 Northern states with the board of directors made up of Secretaries to Governments of the constituent states of the Northern Region. The shareholders consisted of the governors of the 19 northern states under the military government and met twice a year to exercise general oversight on the state of affairs of the Group. Although we ran it like a typical private institution, the nature of its ownership, and the character and complexion of the board required that we manage it with some modicum of care and sensitivity because it was not all the time that our commercial objectives coincided with their own political and developmental objectives and hence the need to strike the right balance between our commercial objectives and other extraneous considerations. I encountered several flashpoints in the course of prosecuting my duties as CEO. One bordered on my expectation for them to buy wholesale into the vision and the mission of the company I presented to them but I also realised that they were at times driven by political considerations which to a limited degree conflicted with the set vision and mission of the Group. Striking that balance was not something I paid enough attention to in hindsight.
Secondly I wanted to turn around the fortunes of the institution by carrying out profound and transformative change consistent with the emerging dictates and trends of the new millennium we were about to embrace. For the first time in the history of that institution we decided to institute a very deliberate, methodical, long term strategic planning culture. It was for this reason that in 1984 we hired Arthur Andersen for a period of two years to assist us in carrying out a company-wide strategic planning exercise that was going to reposition the group and its family of companies from a purely development oriented institution to one that would embrace significant reforms and make it commercially oriented and more accountable from a profitability standpoint and get it ready for the decade of the 1990s to become a very dynamic and innovative commercially oriented enterprise. So that was foremost in my mind and I wanted to achieve those objectives with speed and agility. The changes were very profound but a lot of vested interests were going to be affected because we were talking of initiating major changes in management by asking those who were not operating optimally to either leave the institution or get moved to other positions. But, of course, people would resist change when they know they are going to be affected; so I faced some stiff resistance. I should have seen that coming but I could not see it probably because of my age and relative inexperience in dealing with the nuances of human relationships. We thought that we were on a noble crusading mission and that this would be the best thing to have happened to the group and to Nigeria and that 20 years down the line in the wake of the new millennium starting with 2000 we would position the Group to leverage the benefits and avoid the pitfalls arising from full scale liberalization, privatisation and free markets. By not paying attention to those nuances or better still by not accurately interpreting those forces resistant to transformative change, I ended up becoming a victim of that change as my appointment was not renewed for a second term. They won and I lost. If I were to handle it now, I would have perhaps handled it with greater sensitivity and sophistication without compromising the core principles of the institution. I would have factored in the fact that human beings do not like big surprises and seismic change. I would have taken time to persuade the stakeholders on why we needed to institute that change instead of rushing to put the changes in place.
Lesson 2: Never compromise your core principles to keep a job
One other lesson I learnt following from the NNDC experience is that one should never compromise one’s core principles and value to retain a position. That is why I can say that I do not regret for a single moment, any of the actions I took to reposition NNDC for a better tomorrow because I acted selflessly and based on my inner core. That has served me well long after I left NNDC and I want to believe that it was a key factor in my getting the job at FSB International Bank and other opportunities that came later. So my advice to the young and upcoming people is that they should stick to their core principles; they should be bold and courageous to pursue their convictions, no matter how tough the situation might be. Once you compromise your core values and fundamental principles, it then means that you have lost your identity as a person and as a leader. Principled-based living simplifies your life and you go to bed every day with a clear conscience inoculated from the fear of having to explain yourself and your actions to any ill motivated enquiries. To keep my job at NNDC for the second term, I could have made huge adjustments to satisfy vested interests but I chose to stand by what I believed in and that served me quite well and has continued to serve me even up till this moment. Part of the recognitions I still receive locally and abroad are tied to the fact that a number of people can testify that I stand by certain principles. The lesson here is that you can use different methods to achieve your objective, as a leader of an organization to instigate and propagate change, but you must stick to your core principles while compromising on the margins in a spirit of give and take. This would enable you to execute the mandate with tenacity and conviction. That was one big lesson I learnt from my experience at NNDC.
Lesson 3: Keep valuable relationships by any means possible
One other profound take away is that one should try as much as possible to build and keep relationships. At NNDC, we had a very good run but I was only the cheer leader. I shared the success we had with every member of my team. In everything in life, if you do not have a very strong, competent team with integrity around you it would be difficult to achieve your objective of running an institution successfully. I have kept most of the relationships that came my way while at the NNDC and one big lesson I have learnt is that life is like a set of revolving doors; you keep on revolving through that door for most if not all of your life. Keep every relationship in perspective. You may come across some people that you think are not valuable now but later on they may turn out to be assets. I still keep some of the relationships I built at NNDC and some of them later even permeated right through to my family and my subsequent career and civic endearvours. I had the pleasure and privilege of inviting some of the people I worked with at NNDC to join forces with me in starting other endearvours I was involved in much later. In some cases you may think you are done with a place or a person but you may find out that sooner or later, you would still get to meet them. So that is why it is important to keep relationships unless where mutual trust has been damaged irretrievably .
Lesson 4: Spell out your terms before taking a major responsibility
I was appointed the turnaround manager in January 1990 to transform the fortunes of the defunct Federal Savings Bank later branded FSB International Bank Plc, an ailing national savings institution. And that experience was totally different from that of NNDC in the sense that first, even though it was owned by the Federal Government, I set down clear conditions for accepting the appointment and therefore I had total and complete operational autonomy, almost like a sole administrator in the first one year before I even got a board of directors. Secondly I now got everything I needed; all the conditions I laid down for taking over and running the institution were fully met and I was given unfettered freedom of navigation in contrast to the climate of political interference that I experienced at my previous job. So it was a lot easier from that perspective.
The lesson from this experience is that when you are given a job, a near impossible job of taking over such a thoroughly and comprehensively devastated institution, do not take it for the sake of being adorned with the title. Take it because you evaluated the opportunities, threats, strengths and weaknesses of the entire institution and have come to a very solid judgment as to whether there are prospects of turning around that institution. Second you have to be sure that you lay down in crystal clear terms the basic conditions for success that must be met by the shareholders for you to have a decent shot at success. You must churn this in your mind over and over again, put it down in writing until you can see things very clearly. Thirdly go to the shareholders and give them the irreducible minimum conditions that must be met before you accept the mandate. If you make the mistake of letting someone else persuade you to compromise on some of those conditions, you would have yourself to blame.
So I got the entire principal actors in the project from President Ibrahim Babangida to Chief Olu Falae, who was the Minister of Finance ; late Alhaji Aliyu Mohammed, who was the Secretary to the Government; Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, Permanent Secretary Ministry of Finance; and Dr. Hamza Zayyad, the chairman of the Technical Committee on Privatisation and Commercialisation (TCPC) to agree with those conditions for purposes of successfully turning around the institution. And they met the conditions all the way. Remember, Federal Savings Bank was one of the companies on the privatization list earmarked for either liquidation or turnaround; the government did not know what to do with it as a result of the string of losses it had sustained. I was hired as a turnaround manager to take a look at it with a view to determining if it could be salvaged.
Interestingly these eminent people who helped me were personalities I had known in my previous job and that made things easy for me. As a matter of fact, I got a record listing on the Nigerian Stock Exchange within six months of initiating the process. I got the Securities and Exchange Commission approval. My friends Late George Akamiokhor, the Director General of SEC and the late Hayford Alile , the DG of NSE fast tracked everything for me . And that reinforces the earlier lesson I shared with you that your previous relationships may become very handy in your maximum hour of need; relationships should be serviced and lubricated at all times. You never know when, where and how they would be useful.
Lesson 5: You can achieve Wonders with a solid team
Here is another lesson I learnt from running FSB: if you have a very clear and compelling vision that is sharply defined and is sold to all of the stakeholders, external and internal, and you have a vigorous plan of action you can achieve wonders. Some people believed that the story of FSB was a miracle. I don’t think so; I considered it quite ordinary and basic in my view. It was simply because we had right thinking men and women drawn from every nook and cranny of this country who were imbued with profound passion and were deeply committed to the mission and the values of the organization and were willing to give it their all in order to achieve those fundamental objectives and prosecute our programmes with energy, clarity and conviction.
Remember one of the conditions I agreed with the government was the need to allow me to embrace commercial conditions of service rather than government conditions of service, I was able to hire the best and the brightest from the Nigerian banking industry. At that time, if you remember, the leading bank was Citi Bank. I had hired many skilled and competent people from the bank, quite a number from the new generation banks and a few from the more dynamic older bank. So from day one, I had about 70 people in middle and executive management, each of whom was a very skilled, competent and experienced person, people who were not stuck in the past but were willing to look to the future, who were more than happy to embrace new ways of doing things for example in terms of using technology as a major platform to deliver products and services and delight their customers. FSB was the first financial institution that introduced online real time banking where you were able to open an account in Lagos and execute transactions from any other location in the country. For me that was a great lesson: the power of people. To me human capital is the single most important resource that you require to achieve your vision and deliver sterling performance and give your competitors a good run for their money.
Lesson 6: Never take success for granted.
You can have a very long period of profitability, unbroken for a period of 10 to 12 years, but if you have just one year of declining profitability, which was the case with FSB while I was there, people would forget about all those years of successes and then focus on that single period of poor result. That is just the way life is generally. You can be successful for a long period of time, but if you stumble for a brief fleeting moment, people would focus on your failure and forget about your past success story. As a matter of fact they would find reasons to justify why you deserve to fail and even begin to cast some measure of doubt over your past success. The lesson here is that you should never take success for granted. Never allow success to get into your head to the point that you consider yourself a superstar or a cult figure. Life does not work that way. Every single day of every week, of every month, of every year, you have to keep pushing boundaries and never become complacent. There was this one year either in 2000 or 2001, when we did not do well and the shareholders were very upset. Competitors were laughing at us and there was a lot of stuff in the media . People began to wonder whether that was indeed a sign of decline or whether things could be turned around. We took things calmly and we analysed the situation to find the causes. One of the cause of the poor results was the significant loan loss provisions we took. We decided it was better to actually bite the bullet and write off the bad loans rather than carry substandard assets in the books. We did not want to play to the gallery by window dressing our books.
Lesson 6: Bow out when the ovation is loudest. I served in FSB from January 1990 to September 2004, which was a period of about 15 years. In hindsight, it is just the nature of life. By the time you spend 10 years in an institution (except where you are the owner), most of the spark could be gone. People would forget what you have done. People are by nature ambitious and they would want to move up and your long gestation up there would in their perception hinder their upward mobility. I think it makes sense that after serving for up to 10 years you should leave when the ovation is loudest. There would be people both within the organization and outside who would want to play for your seat. They are just tired of seeing your face and would believe that there are other people who can do a lot more than you have accomplished. That was a big lesson I learnt. I did not leave when the ovation was loudest and that “over staying” somehow almost eroded the achievement people credited to me and my team at FSB. So I would say 10 years maximum is about the right duration at the helm of any organization, whether it is a company, an NGO or a government. I would therefore say that a decade should be the marker or the golden rule for the tenor of CEOs.
Lesson 7: It takes different skillsets to be a successful entrepreneur
I had been a career person all my life until 2004. In other words, I had been a corporate executive and employee working for shareholders, and successful at that. I had imagined that would immediately translate to success as an entrepreneur. I was wrong! I can now explain the reasons for this. As chief executive of any institution, you have vast infrastructure and resources at your disposal and you can with the click of a button move mountains and your instructions are executed instantaneously, and the reverberations are felt immediately throughout the length and breadth of the organisation. When I left and started my own business in 2005, I discovered three things. I was taking for granted that when I wanted to get things done, automatically they got done in an instant. But when I started a small business, small in terms of the number of people, things did not work out that way. You now begin to understand how entrepreneurs actually labour, sweat and struggle to get things done. So I had an initial period of frustrations and adjustment, about one year where things would not move at the speed of light as I had hitherto gotten experience for about 20 years of my career. When you migrate from a large corporate institution to an owner managed business, the imperatives are very different.
The second thing I noticed is that you can actually lose a lot of money because you may not have the robust support and the risk management systems at your disposal unlike when you were working for a large corporate with well established systems of checks and balances designed to protect both the tangible and the intangible assets of the company. The skills set of being an entrepreneur can be quite different in certain respects from that of being a chief executive of a very large corporation.
The third takeaway is that when you are in an exalted public position, people will mill around you in droves and you have to realise that a great many of them are principally there because of what the office can dispense rather than an endearing affection for you as a person and a great number disappear into thin air when you leave office. Fortunately for me, I had fully assimilated that lesson when I left as a Group Chief Executive Officer of NNDC at the tender age of 35.
Lesson 8: Balance work with other key wheels of life.
One other lesson I learnt from the family perspective is that regardless of how tasking or engaging your work is, take time to balance it with other wheels of life, especially the social wheels like your family. Remember the banking industry is an over regulated environment; you can get consumed by it if you do not deliberately take time to reflect and consider other aspects of your life. My experience was that with my first three children, my wife spent a lot more time with them than I ever did. I simply did not have the time to carefully balance between the demands and pressures of work and family. Things would have been different if I had given sufficient time to my important family commitments. I came to discover this gap after I left FSB which coincided with the delivery of my last two children who were about five and six years old then. I had enough time to be part of their story as they were growing up into teenage and adult life. Only now did I realize how much time I should have given to my children because I have come to understand these two kids a lot better. I attended all their activities. I speak to them all the time; although both of them are far away studying abroad. There were very many nuances of parenting I missed out even though my wife covered up for us very well.
I also realized that at that time I was so busy that I did not devote enough time to other important social causes and my faith and it is just about now that I am beginning to think through very carefully about giving back to society. It is something I should have started much earlier.
Lesson 9: Prepare ahead for your retirement years
Another lesson that actually surprised me was that I had always seen myself as a child and young man who would forever be under the shadows of my parents, uncles, aunties and all the rest of them. But I discovered that over the past ten years, every one of those people I was leaning on left this world due to natural causes, and I suddenly found myself as about the only person that would now be responsible for taking care of most their commitments to our extended family network. Without planning for it, I suddenly found myself becoming the patriarch of the family and as you very well know in the extended family system in Nigeria this can be quite burdensome. The lesson here is that people should plan well ahead and not be carried away by living in the moment and stop living in denial that you would never get there. You don’t get a notice because these things just happen suddenly and dramatically. For those who are coming up, I think they should just plan their lives carefully so that there are no surprises when they get to about 50 or 60 years of age. Surprises in the sense that you would be compelled to assume responsibilities for which you are not prepared. This goes beyond finances; it involves psychological and emotional commitments. For instance, a young relation may suddenly have a major kidney problem: it goes beyond just cutting a cheque; you have to be financially, physically mentally and emotionally engaged to ensure that he is restored to robust health. It is a very sobering experience really. So it is advisable to be prepared well ahead of time so that those things do not come as a surprise.
About two years after I left FSB, I made a sizable investment overseas in a complex high risk, high return venture – which I had thought would bring superlative returns, but the investment went sour due to geo technical reasons. There are few lessons to be derived. One is that the legal jurisdiction is radically different from our own legal jurisdiction but I did not fully factor that into consideration. Furthermore unless it is a quoted company, if you want to invest heavily abroad, you better spend a lot of time on ground there; and don’t try to run it by remote control from outside. Another thing I discovered is that I had invested in an industry I knew little or nothing about from an ownership perspective even though I had institutionally lent to that industry as a banker. I had never operated in that sector before; it was a first for me. The complexities and nuances were very different from what I had handled in the past.
My dad gave me what I consider the best advice I had ever received. He told me, among other things: “Son, be careful in who you confide in because that person you confide in has other confidants and those other confidants also have their retinue of confidants. Eventually, the conveyor belt of confidants will dump you in the market place.” That has been a golden rule for me. You would see a lot of betrayals in people you confide in. The message is that you should be circumspect generally in terms of what you share with people.