By Charles Khiran
Leadership expert and professional speaker, Charles Khiran, engages his business mentor and super entrepreneur, Mahmood Ahmadu, who is also the chairman of OIS, and one of Africa’s greatest entrepreneurs, on a one to one in Dubai, on behalf of the global community.
May I begin by congratulating you on your Forbes award and your Euro-knowledge humanitarian award in 2020, very well deserved sir!
Yes, it was a bright spark in what was a turbulent and challenging year for all of us. The Forbes Africa award was a big surprise, and a high privilege to be selected from a line-up of super achievers and some of Africa’s biggest names was a thing of great joy.
I was also particularly pleased to have received the Euro-knowledge awards as well the second year in a row. However, of greater value to me was the important Euro-knowledge category of ‘leading personality on humanitarian response to COVID-19 crisis’, because as you clearly know, so many lives were adversely affected by this dreaded disease. We had to mount a massive response to the COVID-19 crisis all through the year to alleviate the suffering of so many. I was glad it was recognized by Euro-knowledge. It also encourages us to do much more.
Everything that could be shaken was shaken last year, especially in the business world; many household names from around the world disappeared or were badly affected. You have your business footprints in over 52 countries; how have you and your various companies managed to weather the storm and keep afloat?
Truthfully, I couldn’t really sit here and tell you our genius got us through! Just like every other business owner out there, this thing caught us all by surprise. I will have to give thanks to God above all else for seeing us through what was an extremely challenging year. I have been in business for over 30 years, and I can honestly say I have never seen or experienced anything like what we experienced last year in business!
Speaking to my various friends from around the world, many were in very bad shape and some unfortunately are still not sure whether they will pull through.
Clearly, we as a business, sustained losses, and we equally embarked on strict streamlining of our operations, and pragmatism in terms of leadership was required with regards to our strategic response to the pandemic.
However, uppermost on my mind was how to sustain and retain our staff, especially our top staff. It has taken a lot for us to attract, train, develop and retain some of the sharpest minds out there in terms of our employee pool, and I did not want to lose these talents. There is a grave gravity of responsibility in running multiple profitable businesses and championing the careers of thousands of employees, and it is something I take very seriously.
Furthermore, just like every other global business, we had to look at our overall operations and see which ones we can transition online with the enablement of dynamic technology, and which ones we would have to shut down in the short term. We had always ensured we maintained a lean and agile operation over the years and that has been one of the biggest blessings.
Tell me a bit about the importance of leadership in times of crisis, especially in the past year of the pandemic in steering the ships with thousands of employees?
Well, as the great leadership guru, John Maxwell said – “Everything rises and falls on leadership” my first priority is providing direction with respect to vision of how we are going to navigate in an unprecedented time. So I and the other leaders have had to dig deep and raise our games a notch, for example I have had to increase the rate and regularity of my communication with the team. I have had to be more visible and present than usual; many of our employees in other markets around the world are working from home because of the lockdowns so communication has been more critical than normal.
Therefore, it became absolutely critical to provide virtual platforms that allow for groups as well as two way dialogues. These have been important in settling the angst, and quashing unfounded rumors company wide.
I began hosting weekly and monthly webinars where I spoke face to face with the team, answering questions of what we know, providing hope and inspiration helping to alleviate fears. The other thing is the value of authenticity, transparency and empathy by speaking candidly to the team and letting them know what is going on, sharing brutal truths. These are solid leadership qualities, but I can tell you it has been amplified even more in these times of unprecedented turbulence.
Finally, it has also been all hands on deck with everyone rolling up their sleeves including me. So I have paid more forensic attention to some details than usual after months of immense financial pressure on businesses everywhere including ours, we have learnt the importance of collaborative support from our partners and tighter cost controls in other to maintain strong balance sheets.
What would you say are some of the biggest lessons you learnt in 2020?
In truth, 2020 has been a year of immense education like no other, even for one as pragmatic and visionary like I believe myself to be. There have been so many learning opportunities in the midst of the chaos.
1. You have to know that time is finite, do not waste time
2. I learnt to make important decisions at speed while leading multiple business organizations remotely, even with some feelings of anxiety as we were not sure what was happening.
3. I learnt the importance of constantly being prepared for any eventuality, and the need for more stress testing
4. I learnt not to sacrifice the future based on the current year’s problems. We were still innovating and planning for bigger visions while people were focusing only on the current problems.
I personally believe my own equity as a leader has gone up exponentially because of what I went through and survived in 2020
You are the brain behind probably the largest, innovative and exciting technology companies out of Africa. How has technology helped you in this past year?
There are certain things that technology cannot change, like the human to human experience which we miss terribly in many of our locations experiencing lockdowns. However, for everything else technology is what we know and what we do, so as compared to many, technology has been a life saver as this is our normal terrain.
We have been developing breakthrough technology for governments and large scale institutions in Africa and around the world for the delivery of financial solutions, streamlining the ease of payments and transaction processing through our unique and intuitive platforms for many years now.
So we have built and deployed technology in some areas to quickly plug holes and bridge gaps to stop the hemorrhaging of money where expedient. Our central focus is to never stop innovating, and we are responding to this crisis with even more innovation!
I know you do not have a crystal ball, but what do you see ahead in this new year, 2021, especially in the business environment?
In truth, for anybody to say they know what is ahead of us this year will probably be purely guessing. I don’t believe anyone has a clear picture for what lies ahead. Governments around the world are responding as best as they can to an unprecedented situation, so all we have is faith and hope.
My faith in God helps me to believe that we will be out of this situation soon, but I am not convinced that it will be business as usual anymore. One thing I am completely persuaded about is the ingenuity and the indefatigability of the human spirit. Humans will always find a way!
When I reflect all through history and some of the battles and challenges that have confronted humans, from the great depression, the Second World War, civil wars, Stock market crashes, Black Monday and so many others, I realise that humans found a way, rebuilt and have always came through. I am persuaded we will bounce back and bounce higher after this dreaded pandemic, but there are still many tough months ahead for all of us.
My hope is by the third quarter of this year, we should begin to see the shoots of recovery and the enabling environment from the regulations standpoint to enable high flight again.
What final words of wisdom do you have for other leaders in difficult situations?
I believe leaders, who have had to navigate through a devastating year like 2020 and survived it will definitely be worth their weight in gold. So many have witnessed enviable businesses that built fold up or crumple before their eyes through no fault of their own.
I would like to encourage them that the lessons learnt from this period whether good or bad, will definitely add to their overall value going forward. The best business schools could not have taught many of the valuable lessons learnt last year. I would like to encourage them to lift their sights above the temporary failures, and instead focus on what educational good they can glean from the situation.
Remember that adversity and crisis reveal your foundation and your build quality. When crisis comes unannounced like we all experienced last year, all we can do is control some of the details even though we could not stop it.
Finally, guard your mind and your thoughts and discipline it! Do not let fear take you captive, and make a decision not to speak words of fear out of your mouth. Besides the fact that you are listening to yourself, your people are also seeing the world through your eyes and words! May God help us all!
Charles Khiran is an Afro-European professional speaker and corporate trainer based in the United Kingdom. He provides bespoke and customized training to governments and business organisations. For more information please visit www.charleskhiran.com