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Coaching CEOs in Africa’s unique business landscape (I)

Updated: Feb 21, 2023

In an insightful three-part article, Lionel Marumahoko – an Executive Coach, Leadership Speaker, and Business Advisor specializing in complex transformation growth and new market entry in Africa, discusses some essential lessons every CEO can benefit from through coaching.

Lionel is a former C-Suite executive in a Fortune 500 company, with business experience spanning over 30 years across Africa, Europe, the USA, and Asia, and who ‘retired’ in 2018 to devote himself to coaching the next generation of business leaders. In this week’s first installment of a three-part article, he reasons that the continent’s unique business operating environment requires CEOs to have a coach to help them navigate past familiar pitfalls and the challenges presented by people, business purpose, and digital and organizational agility on their corporate leadership journey.

Leading businesses on the continent of Africa present CEOs with many unique challenges that, for the most part, go beyond their current experiences, competencies, and capabilities. Every CEO, their team, and the company itself will face inherent limitations that are specific to this continent’s environment.

A critical step to success for CEOs operating in Africa is recognizing these limitations and embracing that each of them will put you to the test. Therefore, I believe it is essential that CEOs and executive teams make use of an experienced coach to guide them through this veritable minefield.

I am, myself, a living testimony of the power of coaching in business. To summarise a whirlwind 30-year career into just one sentence, I started out as an IT manager and ultimately became a vice president. The power of coaching throughout my career was a critical factor in this achievement – every step of the way.

After ‘retiring’ from my own corporate career, I now coach CEOs and reinvest what was invested into me at both the fledgling stage of my career and all the subsequent stages throughout my journey up the corporate ladder. As a proud Zimbabwean and African, I am passionate about sowing my experience and expertise in African business back into the next generation of business leaders to ultimately benefit the continent’s economy and people as a whole.

So, why should CEOs pursue coaching?

I encourage you to consider it from this perspective – all high-performing individuals in high-pressure competitive sports – whether they are athletes, footballers, or golfers ­– all benefit massively from their coaches. The coach is both a gust of wind in their sails and an essential navigator on their journey to success. In a business context, the same principle applies. Even the highest achievers in the corporate world can benefit from guidance and looking up, instead of just ahead.

A profound benefit of being a recipient of coaching is that it identifies your blind spots and provides you with a sounding board that will enable you to increase your chances of success crucially by avoiding unnecessary pitfalls. A huge aspect of knowledge gained by experience is the lessons learned from the mistakes. Ultimately, in most cases, understanding the road to potential failures and having the discernment to avoid them is more important than anything learned from notable successes. The benefit of hindsight should not be underestimated, and a seasoned coach can offer a wealth of it.

Reflecting on my journey as a C-Suite executive, there are many things that I look back on and say: “I wish I’d known that”, in lots of particular scenarios. Coaching is my way of helping others learn and benefit from my experiences, and there is much emphasis on avoiding the same pitfalls. These lessons are particularly beneficial in regard to organizations staying ahead of their competition and succeeding – the primary goal of any CEO.

The highest hurdles of a CEO’s race in Africa…

Research by KPMG identifies that CEOs’ biggest challenges today are people, purpose, and digital/organizational agility.

In response to each of these, the most important traits an African CEO must possess or purposefully attain are adaptability and resourcefulness. They must be an Afri-can and not Afri-can’t. Their situational leadership strategy must be adaptive to diverse change at any moment. For example, even on a basic environmental level, there could often be a power outage or a sustained drought to test infrastructure to the limit. Because of these all-too-often occurrences, it’s vital to have contingency plans to overcome these environmental hurdles. Fail to prepare, and prepare to fail – CEOs must endeavor to scrutinize every detail of their operations painstakingly and have all eventualities covered. Overcoming random problems while your competitors fall foul of them presents great opportunities.

On a similar note, a volatile environment requires agility. The uniquely African challenges such as the fundamental issues of poverty, unemployment, social inequality, and a lack of infrastructure, all require their own necessary action to circumvent the hurdle or overcome it completely. The CEO needs to see themselves as the change agent. They need to be able to have a big-picture vision of what their industry and the world will look like in a few years. But, most importantly, they need to have a vision of how their business will adapt to this future they envision, and be able to articulate this vision clearly to the rest of the company.

A shortage of talent is another huge obstacle. Since the early 1990s, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Africa has been losing 20,000 professionals annually. This trend resulted in the recognition by the United Nations that the emigration of African professionals to the West is one of the most significant obstacles to Africa’s development. As well as this physical lack of talent, an exacerbating factor is the lack of genuine commitment to talent development from African companies. In response to this, and to turn the tide, CEOs must make concerted efforts to develop young talents through robust development programs, starting from a grass-roots level. From tiny acorns grow mighty oaks, but only if they are nurtured well.

More sizeable hurdles an African CEO will contend with are a plethora of outdated and seemingly archaic regulations, plus a highly inflexible labor market. These fall under the bracket of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) business-limiting factors.

CEOs must recognize that stakeholders increasingly demand action on ESG issues, which requires ESG commitments to be embedded within the broader corporate strategy. There needs to be a mindset shift into a transformational mentality by reframing ESG issues as opportunities to differentiate positively and build brand trust. Moreover, ESG target metrics can be incorporated into talent reward and recognition, using tools such as performance management frameworks and incentive plans. Every issue must be looked at as a potentially huge opportunity to be a cut above the rest and add value to the brand. That mindset is essential to fulfilling the main duties of a great CEO.

…To be continued next week, in the second installment of this three-part article, in which Lionel interrogates the difference between a ‘good’ CEO and a ‘great’ CEO, addresses the most common issues CEOs struggle with, and suggests how CEOs can lead their organizations to become more future-proof and robust.

Featured on the Business & Financial Times (B&FT) is currently Ghana’s biggest business newspaper with a varied readership base across the 16 administrative regions of the country.

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