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Asue Ighodalo, Sterling Bank chairman on his BOARDROOM HEROES

If you are searching for a new generation of Nigerian boardroom leaders, you will find one in Asue Ighodalo, 57, a corporate lawyer and entrepreneur, who is the co-founder of one of Nigeria’s leading law firms, Banwo and Ighodalo.  He is the chairman of Sterling Bank Plc, chairman of Dangote Flour Plc and chairman of Global Mix, a property investment company.

A very busy man, he also sits on the board of Okomu Oil Palm Company, AIICO Pension, and three non-profit boards namely FATE Foundation, Christopher Kolade Foundation and Federation of Health Care for Nigeria.  He is one of the glittering array of boardroom stars interviewed for a new book on “Boardroom Leadership and Corporate Governance in Nigeria.”  Since our first meeting, Ighodalo has proved himself a good friend and a great supporter of my writing projects.  Here is an abridged version of Ighodalo’s boardroom journey plus his homage to boardroom gurus and mentors who have influenced him:

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MY father wanted me to be a lawyer but I wasn’t keen on being a lawyer.  I wanted to be a banker from my secondary school days.  That was why I studied economics.  My dream was to cap it with an MBA.  As I was studying economics, my father, an accountant, insisted that as far as he was concerned, a man should have a profession and that I should go study law, then we would take it on from there.  To please him, I went to the London School of Economics to study law after my bachelor’s degree in economics.  When I was in law school, I had an attachment at Chris Ogunbanjo & Co, a top corporate law firm at the time and I really enjoyed my work there.  Luckily for me, Chris Ogunbanjo and Co. employed me after law school.  That was the genesis of my practice in law.  Apart from being well-groomed and well-tutored as a lawyer at Chris Ogunbanjo & Co, I also had the opportunity of studying the man at close quarters as a corporate person.  At the time I joined the firm, he was chairman of a number of corporates, listed and unlisted, and I had the privilege and opportunity of attending board meetings with him, to take notes for him.  He was the chairman of the committee that worked on the new Corporate and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) and I did a lot of research work for him.  I had a good learning at his feet as a corporate person.  He was a very interesting person, very detailed, very intellectual.  His attention to details was really very high. Watching him, studying him, working with him as a corporate lawyer, I started developing an interest in corporate practice and corporate governance.

I am also very close to Dr. Christopher Kolade.  He is like a father.  He took me to Lagos Business School to teach corporate governance, a course he taught, but assigned me the legal aspect of a director’s duty, and I lectured that for a long time.  The experience also exposed me to boardroom activities.  I served on the board of his foundation, where for some time he was the chairman. That was the only place I served with him directly on the board.  I learnt from him.  Really, he is like my father, my mentor.

I have had the opportunity of association with people that are very strong on corporate governance.  I am also very close to Dr. Ohiwerei.   Chief Adeyemi Lawson, a strong corporate and boardroom person, was my mother’s cousin.  I had the opportunity of learning from all of these people.

As I became stronger as a corporate lawyer and opportunities to serve on boards came my way, I had a strong resource pool.   I talk to all these people from time to time.  I enjoy their counseling.  There was no time I had any issue as a corporate person or on a board that I had to deal with that I couldn’t muster the right resource.  I could also run to any of these people who are still alive.
My mother in her civil service days was the first female permanent secretary in Nigeria.  For a long time, she used to be Permanent Secretary for Trade.  In that capacity, she set up the Odua Company for the Western Region and was a member of board of a number of companies.  Those days, my younger brother and I, after school, would be picked by our mum who would take us from one meeting to another, where we would sit at her feet under the table.  So, my thinking and grooming was already in that direction very early on.  Luckily, I found myself able to serve.

My boardroom heroes

It is really difficult to point at one person as my boardroom hero, because most of the people I have worked with on boards have brought different attributes, different perspectives, and different strengths to the board.  Of the older generation that I have the privilege of interacting with, (although I didn’t sit on boards directly with them) Dr. Kolade easily comes to mind.  Of course, I have a bias for him, because he is like my father.  I also have a bias for Chief Chris Ogunbanjo who taught me all I know in law.  I like Dr Ohiwerei––he is calm, gentle and a good listener.  If I have anything close to boardroom heroes, it would be those three, looking at them from afar.

People I have worked with directly on boards brought different qualities that I admire.  Fola Adeola, for instance, has his own style and uniqueness, epitomised by his strength and ability to, one, keep challenging management to give its best and two, build consensus on the board.

Then there is Alhaji Aliko Dangote.  For eight years, I was on the board of Dangote Flour Mills with him as chairman, before he left the board and I succeeded him.  He has a phenomenal retentive memory and an ability to recollect figures.  His head is like a computer and he pays serious attention to details.  He has all his facts at his fingertips and he challenged me to ensure that I am a lot more studious.

People that do not know him think that he is difficult to work with, or difficult to persuade.  Once you come up with superior argument, he bows.  Most successful people who become great in what they do have a distinct strain of humility, such that they can identify and see superior argument.

I experienced the same thing with Fola Adeola.  He’s one of the most successful bankers of his generation.  He created GTB, one of the most successful indigenous institutions.  We have worked on boards together.  I have served with him on a board for a long time now and that trait hasn’t changed.  If you come with a superior argument, he bows.

Bisi Onasanya, former CEO, First Bank, is one other person I really respected as chairman, when we served on the board of Kakawa Discount House (later acquired by First Capital).  I was on the board as an independent director for three years.  The intriguing facet of the Kakawa board was its membership.  Since banks owned the discount house, the board of directors was composed of chief executives.  First Bank being the largest shareholder has the prerogative of selecting the chairman.

If you know bank MDs, especially those of successful banks, you would know something about their egos.  They have large egos.  For Bisi Onasanya to have successfully managed that board, kudos should be given to his humility and attention to details.  There was very easily a lot of arrogance on the board.  There was a lot of intellect on the board.  Everybody had to be on top of his game.  If you chair such a board and didn’t know what you were doing, you very easily get messed up.  Once during a conversation, Bisi told me he began serious reading three days before board meeting, and on the day of the meeting, he woke by 3:30 or 4 am to read.

I try to model myself on the good qualities of these exemplary people that I have had the privilege and honour of working or associating with on boards.  If you are on the same board with them, all these people expect you to do your homework.

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