Nearly five years after Executives in Africa placed Seni Sulyman as Director of Operations in Andela, Nigeria, it is clear he has had a huge impact on that business and the people he worked with there as he rose to become VP of Global Operations. He is a unique and talented leader, and I am privileged that he has shared some key insights with us in the second part of this ‘Leaders of Impact’ interview.
Sarah: You are one of those people who really makes things happen, a real high potential African who has delivered many impressive achievements. What are you most proud of achieving and why?
Seni: What I’m most proud of in my career so far is transforming Andela’s office in Nigeria into the #1 best place to work in Nigeria and Africa in 2018 (ranked by Great Place to Work).
This involved building a high-performance organisation and creating an environment where people felt they could have a great experience while doing their best work. It was the most intense work of my life, but also the most fulfilling.
Sarah: We have just run a webinar on Agile Performance Management. Having worked in a high growth people business, how did you create a truly performance-focused almost self-managing culture?
It might sound redundant, but building a high-performance culture begins with being determined to build a high-performance culture. I say this because it takes a lot of effort and attention to get the wheel spinning, and not everyone has the level of determination to see it through.
I always start with creating clarity around the vision, strategy, goals and expectations of performance.
Then I focus on ensuring the organisation or team design enables people to be successful, by eliminating unnecessary overlaps in responsibilities that create confusion and obscure accountability.
Beyond that, the next most important element is to ensure that I have the right people on the team, and have a process for helping people who are not the right fit to get off the team (through a performance management process). You can call this organization design.
I prioritise having competent people who have the right functional expertise, an ability to learn quickly, strong internal drive, self-motivation and integrity.
Once I have all of that, then it really comes down to effectively managing a loop of assigning responsibilities, setting goals, executing, managing performance, providing feedback, training and development, rewarding the right behaviors, penalizing the wrong behaviors, and reinforcing the mission and strategy to keep people engaged.
Sarah: How do you get the balance between maintaining control and quality whilst encouraging innovation and creative thinking within an organisation?
What this question seems to really be asking is how business leaders build great teams, design effective operating systems that enable execution, and continue raising the bar for excellence. It’s a lot of the same principles in the previous question, thought it gets increasingly complex with the size of the organization.
The areas I focus on for direct control are those few areas where my involvement has an outsized level of impact on the organization, and where it is critical that we get it right, including areas like budgeting, goal setting, culture and performance management. But it’s impossible for me to have this level of control and involvement across every area.
I believe that in a high-performance culture, people generally feel high levels of ownership over their work.
They know that their output impacts their colleagues and ultimately customers, and they are comfortable escalating issues or blockers early to get help. That’s why I have focused a lot of my time on getting really good at building high-performance teams.
With such teams in place, a big part of my job becomes helping them unblock bureaucracy and other organisational friction that gets in the way of them being able to get their work done seamlessly.
I think of myself as being able to shift hats between being an entrepreneur and intrapreneur. So, whether I am in a large organisation or at a growth-stage startup, I apply these same principles.
Sarah: I am a great believer that the best leaders shine when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. What has been the toughest situation you have faced and how did you deal with it?
In one of my previous roles, I took over a completely demoralized cross-functional organization and had to convert it into a high-performing organisation. When I walked around the office, I could feel the apathy. People had lost faith in leadership and were disillusioned about the company’s mission.
As a leader, I personified everything they were upset about and had many interactions where I wondered if I had made the right decision taking that role. I had a clarity of what needed to be done, so I stuck it out.
I needed to start producing business results fairly quickly but first had to address morale issues
I needed to start producing business results fairly quickly, but I knew that a push for results without first addressing the morale issues would likely lead to unsustainable short-term wins and longer-term challenges. I had seen other leaders fail in the past by not recognizing this, and I had learned from their experiences.
I started with a focus on building trust with the team
So, I started with a focus on building trust with the team and helping them to understand that the context had changed and that we had a real opportunity to build something great together. I made it clear that we were going to become a great workplace and an employer of choice for talented people, while continuing to deliver for our customers. At first, people were skeptical.
In parallel, I started making changes that led to visible improvements in how we operated including;
- Instituting a clearer goal setting and performance management process
- Improving our internal communications and company gatherings like town halls, and
- Empowering employees to get involved in key decisions that affected their workplace experiences.
I also needed to make some difficult changes to certain elements of employee compensation and benefits which were clearly misaligned with the kind of organization we wanted to build.
Even while most employees were still skeptical, some people began to trust that I really meant what I had said in the beginning. They began to see early results and became the internal champions who helped move others from apathy to curiosity.
By setting a clear vision of where I wanted us to go, focusing on building trust rather than immediately pushing for results, and then making bold changes that communicated that I was willing to make tough but beneficial decisions, people bought into my vision and trusted that we could achieve it.
Within 6 months, we had a complete turnaround in performance and in morale.
And a year later we had become a high-functioning team attracting some of the best talent in the industry.
Sarah: What is next for you professionally?
Having had the privilege of spending these past eight months on what now feels like a perfectly-timed sabbatical, I feel very re-energized and excited to return to work in 2021.
I am still passionate about building great African businesses
The kind of work that inspires me today is a continuation of what has inspired me over the last few years. I have been advising some executives on how to build great organizations which has helped with my transition back to working.
I am still passionate about building great African businesses that provide valuable services to customers while embodying operational excellence, a high-performance culture, and an environment where the best people want to work.
My focus will be on exploring amazing opportunities where I can add the most value
Regarding next steps, given my diverse experiences across industries, geographies and company sizes, I can get excited about many things. So, my focus will be on exploring amazing opportunities where I can add the most value in achieving these aforementioned outcomes.
Executives in Africa are delighted to have the opportunity once again to represent such a talented African who is passionate about making a tangible impact on the continent.
If you would be interested in speaking to Seni about how he could help you build a great African business, then please contact me, Sarah FitzMorris, Managing Director at firstname.lastname@example.org