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What CEOs in Africa Need to Succeed

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Leadership experts share what stand-out African CEOs have in common

Business is booming across Africa. According to the Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative, in 2019 “about half of the world’s fastest-growing economies will be located on the continent, with 20 economies expanding at an average rate of 5% or higher over the next five years, faster than the 3.6% rate for the global economy.”

This growth is being catalysed by a dynamic cohort of African CEOs and entrepreneurs that are leading their organisations to new heights. But what does it take to succeed as a business leader in Africa?

In his book Success in Africa, investor Jonathan Berman writes about several traits that successful African CEOs have in common. “Probably chief amongst those is an appetite for uncertainty,” he told Harvard Business Review. “You know frontier markets have a paucity of data and of predictability in everything from how large is your market to how long is it going to take you to get from point A to point B. And you have to have more than just tolerance of [uncertainty].... You have to have an appetite for it in order to succeed.”

Berman cites Aidan Heavey, CEO of Tullow Oil in Senegal, as an example. “Aidan doesn’t just smile when he sees uncertainty. He kind of dives in,” he explained. This willingness to problem-solve in the then-unproven oil industry of Senegal enabled Heavey to build a US$20-billion company.

Unsurprisingly, African business leaders often need to be innovative, adaptable, and persistent as they challenge the status quo and create new industries. According to Dewet Schoeman, director of the Centre for Applied Entrepreneurship in South Africa, “Innovation is essential for success and survival in today’s business world where change is at the order of the day. Successful leaders are innovators. Whether innovation comes through thought, technology or practice, it is an essential trait that will impact the longevity of the business.”

The reality, though, is that few can see the potential of new ideas, which can be particularly challenging in African countries that don’t yet have a robust investment community or stock exchange. Mohamed Shameel Joosub, CEO of Vodacom, told Business Insider that the key to success is to keep persisting until people notice. “You really have to push,” he said. “You have to make yourself heard and show people that you can do more. You have to build it in such a way that you cannot be ignored. If you are doing that, you will gain success."

What does it require to build a company in a way that cannot be ignored? Business acumen, industry knowledge, and effective operational management, say African leadership experts. What’s absolutely essential for African CEOs, according to Jonathan Berman, “is being able to get into the weeds, is an ability to execute through operational difficulties.... Just the ability to achieve a smooth, running operation and deliver products on time, at price, and at quality. Just the ability to do that distinguishes the winning CEO from everybody else.”

“In order to be a good business leader, one needs to have a good sense of all the functions of a business,” agrees Dewet Schoeman. “You do not have to be an expert at all business functions, but you need to be able to understand the big picture and all of its dynamics.”

Of course, it takes time to reach that level of proficiency and expertise. Many African CEOs, including the recently installed CEO of KenGen, Rebecca Miano, started at the bottom and earned their position through years of hard work. “I started working in the energy sector as an assistant legal officer, the lowest position possible, so I rose through the ranks,” she told Business Daily in a recent interview. “It is also a testament that one should be ready to walk through the whole system patiently, diligently because eventually it lands you where you should be.”

Even Alhaji Aliko Dangote, the continent’s wealthiest man and most well known CEO, can trace his journey to the top of Dangote Group from his business ventures as a child. “I can remember when I was in primary school; I would go and buy cartons of sweets and would start selling them just to make money,” the Nigerian self-made business magnate told Business Chief. “I was so interested in business, even at that time.” Mteto Nyati, CEO of Allied Electronics Corporation Limited in South Africa, advised in an interview with MyBroadBand: “Learn, learn, and learn.”

As long as leaders with such levels of grit, creativity, and know-how continue to be at the helm of Africa’s businesses, the economic boom in the continent will likely continue for years to come.