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Success in emerging markets requires authentic leadership

Translating powerful personal principles to corporate imperatives
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Omo Igiehon

By Omo Igiehon

My experience as an investment advisor working in emerging and frontier countries, including Africa and the Caribbean, is littered with examples of how our perceptions and values powerfully shape our success as business leaders in a global environment. Whether a foreign interest is looking to invest in another country or a local entrepreneur is partnering with a foreign entity, leadership in any business context or in any region needs to be governed by certain attitudinal, perceptual, and ethical imperatives that can overcome cultural differences and create a higher common denominator and basis for engagement.

When cultural mindsets dominate partnerships negatively

In my work across multiple sectors, such as real estate, oil and gas, healthcare, infrastructure, and logistics, I am responsible for coordinating investment transactions for private and public-private partnership projects. I also frequently conduct business mission trips taking high-level investors and institutions for extensive strategic engagements and exploratory trips into various countries across Africa. In these exchanges, I sometimes see how bias and misperceptions about countries and people make it difficult for leaders to make real progress and have relevant impact.

Many inaccuracies exist on both sides—for both the foreign investor and the local African business person or government official. Quite often, the foreign investor explores partnerships with these assumptions: corruption only exists in Africa; Africans can’t be trusted; as a foreigner I bring superior knowledge; or one-size-fits-all for Africa. The local African business person is not immune to similar attitudes: honesty often equates to a feeling of weakness; there is a constant search for loopholes to abort due process; financial profits are the only value that must be extracted from business relationships. Such mistaken mindsets often lead to exaggeration of risk from both sides and can derail potentially beneficial dealings and partnerships.

The need for integrity through objectivity

Cross-border partnerships require a new approach based on a more progressive mindset. When coordinating or participating in these transactions, it is refreshing when both parties enter sincerely with the intent for meaningful and sustainable engagement.  Africans need to see themselves as stewards for local development, and foreign entities (institutions or investors) need to see that when they invest in Africa or the Caribbean, they are investing in a world of equals.

According to the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association, African countries are expected to perform better than the BRICs in coming years. To ensure the viability of investments and the integrity of partnerships in Africa, all sides must challenge their stereotypes. As I bring foreign institutions into Africa, I am very aware of the connection between having accurate perceptions and developing productive relationships. I encourage my foreign partners to be more objective and insightful by looking beyond portrayals in popular media and by learning from foreign and local partners who are more in touch with local trends and values.

When we stare too closely at a thing, we often miss the obvious. I recall as an undergraduate, a fellow student asked me to translate the word for love because he wanted to write a letter to his girlfriend in my ethnic language. Growing up, I had been trained in my tribal language by private tutors, and told him there was no such word in our vocabulary. When I searched the books in my college library, I discovered that the very name of my tribe meant love, something I learned while living 300 miles away from home. We sometimes need to step outside of our frame of reference to realise new approaches and perspectives. Those who can do this effectively will take the lead in any region or leadership context.

Translating powerful personal principles to corporate imperatives

Leadership starts fundamentally with internal motivation, whether as an individual leader engaging with a business partner or as a team working on a project with a client. What’s your motive for doing business? What is the true driving force behind your actions?

For most leaders, profit-seeking comes at the expense of a higher good. As birds of a feather flock together, greed attracts greed and will ultimately breed failure. But if leaders consciously build an ethical culture that governs their company’s decisions and interactions, then values such as transparency, fairness, and integrity become objectives of their partnerships. Having the right motives attracts the right people and the right opportunities. Furthermore, being driven by principled motives in a partnership can activate true creativity that brings sustainable solutions for the partner.

Business leaders who lead by their values empower others to embrace their convictions. Ethics, in this context, has nothing to do with a chapter in an MBA textbook or a public policy manual but your conviction and modus operandi. The business agenda, therefore, begins with the heart of the leader.

An ethical platform is safe and predictable

In building this ethical framework for business relationships, leaders create a necessary environment of trust, accountability, and innovation. Beyond satisfying foreign and international laws, operating with an ethical incentive guarantees peace of mind, assuring others of a business’ standard of excellence.

I once expressed frustration for a particular international organisation’s lack of understanding of the African context, and the untarnished explanation given to me was as follows: “Everyone knows that the guy at the top doesn’t really care about making real progress. He just loves receiving his large paycheck and perks afforded to him by living in Africa as an expat.”

Just as a leader’s lack of ethics can produce cynicism and mistrust, a leader’s ethical consistency can produce trust, security, and a willingness to serve.

Attitudinal imperatives for leaders

In leadership, a handful of people are empowered to make decisions for the good of the whole. Leadership is, therefore, a responsibility, not a privilege. Accurate leadership implies selflessness and service, and creates a slipstream for others to follow. The trickle-down effect of leadership is real—people become what they see in their leaders. Leaders set the tone and have the power to create an atmosphere for progress.

The leaders and institutions that will have a truly lasting impact on Africa (and in other leadership contexts) are those who will:

  1. Develop an Ethical Framework: Constantly examine and adjust your motives and the associated incentives on a personal and corporate level.

  2. Pursue the Power of Accurate Sight: Seek new information and perspectives that shape your relationships and operations.

  3. Build Relationships on the Right Values: Align yourself with the right individuals and corporations of like-minded mentalities and motives.

  4. Learn to Learn: Approach partnerships with a willingness to learn.

  5. Embrace the Wider Scope of Your Responsibility as a Leader: Feel a great sense of responsibility and charge beyond the desire to make profit.

The future of Africa depends on the leaders willing to rise to the challenge and embrace authenticity as the new normal.


Omo Igiehon has 20 years of experience in engineering and management consulting. He leads Portals International, a consultancy focusing on emerging and frontier countries, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean. His responsibilities include coordinating investment transactions for private and public-private partnership projects across sectors, such as real estate, oil and gas, healthcare, infrastructure, and logistics. A native of Nigeria, Omo currently resides in Washington, DC.


This article was originally published in the New Global Citizen.


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