Seni Sulyman stood out as something special from the moment I first spoke to him back in February 2016. We were running a Search for a Director of Operations for a high growth tech business in Nigeria and ‘something special’ was exactly what Andela had asked us to find for them to scale the business tenfold and build a high-performance culture.
Nearly five years after Executives in Africa placed Seni, it is clear he has had a huge impact on that business and the people he worked with there. He has grown to be a unique and talented leader, and I am privileged that he has shared some key insights with us in this ‘Leaders of Impact’ interview.
Sarah: Tell us a little bit about your early career. Were there any specific roles which really shaped you and which were the bedrock to influencing how you operate in business today?
Seni: My leadership ethos and the way I operate are a collage representing diverse experiences and learnings over the course of my career.
However, I would say that my experience at Bain & Company’s Chicago and Toronto offices, right out of university, had a foundational impact on how I operate in business today. I’m a highly pragmatic operator, who constantly focuses on how to go from idea to execution. Yet I also care, probably more than the average person, about building cultures where people actually enjoy working together (Bain consistently ranks highly on global ‘Best Place To Work’ lists).
Clients need pragmatic solutions to their business problems, not just fancy ideas and presentations
I recall several senior Bain colleagues I worked with emphasizing that our clients are running real businesses and need pragmatic solutions to their business problems, not just fancy ideas and presentations. That always forced me to place myself in the shoes of our clients, the operators, and think through what they would need to actually implement our recommendations.
From turning a 15-slide presentation into a corporate airline with industry leading service and timeliness at Bristow, to transforming Andela into a high-performance organisation that was recognized as the top employer across all of Africa, I am constantly being pragmatic in the way I operate, coach, lead and manage teams to deliver outstanding results.
I attribute this mindset to my experience at Bain.
Sarah: Over the last 4 years you have grown as a leader from running a business of around 60 people in one location to managing 1000 people across Africa and globally.
How did you change as a leader in this time and what did you learn about how to lead and inspire people?
Seni: I had a very fulfilling experience leading teams across multiple countries in Africa, and in the United States. One of the most gratifying parts of this journey has been learning more about the nuances and differences across cultures, connecting deeply with some of the most brilliant professionals across Africa and the world, and really honing in on my ability to lead across geographies and contexts.
There are many ways in which I have evolved as a leader during this journey, and three that come to mind are:
- The Importance of Creating Systems.
In a 60-person organization, it’s fairly easy to keep the entire team updated on everything that is going across the business. Information flows more seamlessly and informally, and even the most complex people issues can be escalated quickly.
As that number accelerates, information flows break down, people misinterpret actions and decisions, conflicts arise and take longer to resolve, bureaucracy begins to creep in, and it becomes harder to course-correct groups that are doing the wrong things. This ultimately impacts your ability to execute well.
It becomes harder to course-correct groups that are doing the wrong things, so I had to create an effective operating system
To combat these challenges at each state of growth, I had to create an effective operating system that drove everything in my organisation, including annual planning, quarterly business reviews, monthly performance updates, weekly 1:1s and periodic written communications where I would write to smaller or larger groups within the organisation to communicate strategy or changes.
This system was instrumental in driving quicker issue resolution and reducing information asymmetry to help us execute more effectively for the benefit of our customers and colleagues.
- How to Prioritise and Delegate
Every three to four months I realized I was completely overwhelmed with work, which is fairly typical for leaders in a high-growth startup environment. Whenever this happened, it was my cue to delegate and prioritize more effectively.
As my organization grew rapidly from 60 to 150 to 500 and to over 1,000, the risk of burning out became ever present. I had to quickly learn to prioritize the most important things for myself, delegate and manage for other important things that I could not focus on and deprioritize certain activities that we just could not afford to focus on.
To delegate and prioritize more effectively, I had to continuously figure out how to level up my team’s capabilities as operators
This also meant that I had to continuously figure out how to level up my team’s capabilities as operators. In some cases that meant me coaching people. In other cases, it meant me creating and running training sessions on different topics. And other times, it meant hiring a superb leader into the organisation.
Essentially, while it’s easier to take on a lot of work and be involved in everything at a smaller organization, it’s simply impossible to do this when you’re larger. So I’ve had to;
- Master how to hire really great people;
- Provide my teams with engaging work;
- Give people room to operate;
- Support their learning and growth and;
- Focus my energy on fewer things that I am best positioned to drive
- How to Remain Present and Accessible.
The most difficult part of being the same person who leads a small organisation during its growth spurt is that, all of a sudden you realise that most of the new people do not know who you *really* are, or how to interact with you.
Early on, I could have lunch with everyone on the team over the course of a few weeks. Back then, I took every single staff we hired on a walk to talk about my vision for the organization and hear their aspirations for their career.
That allowed people to directly plug into the vision and feel a high level of commitment as they were onboarding. But as I got busier and navigated increasingly complex situations, I started getting more removed from employees, while in back to back meetings tucked away in my office.
While I was able to delegate many of my previously held roles to others on the team, I needed to find other ways to connect.
Leading and inspiring large groups of people is driven by them being able to feel your presence, either directly or through other channels.
So, I learned to effectively use other higher-leverage methods like slack, company town halls and periodic masterclasses I taught, to continue remaining present and somewhat accessible to people.
It’s become clear to me that when leaders are competent and care personally about the mission of their organisation, employees become inspired and go to great lengths to deliver.
Sarah: There are a large number of clients in Africa looking to replicate the scaling you have delivered. Can you identify what it is about you as a leader that enabled you to scale quickly and effectively without compromising on excellence, where others might have failed in the same role?
Seni: I must admit that it has been through my conversations with an executive coach that I developed an even better understanding and appreciation of how I lead and manage other people and why I have been an effective growth-oriented leader.
That said, my leadership and management style can be attributed to a combination of; communication, competence, integrity, empathy, humility and decisiveness.
I inspire people by being able to communicate a very compelling vision about why the work we’re doing is important
I inspire people by being able to communicate a very compelling vision about why the work we’re doing is important and then I win them over by actually exhibiting a high standard of excellence in my own role. I am also very transparent and candid in giving expectations, providing feedback, celebrating wins, expressing disappointment and delivering both good and bad news.
Because I hold myself to the same standards as I hold others and practice what I preach, I typically am able to build trust and commitment within my teams. I reckon they just don’t want to see me fail!
The feedback I have received is that I am typically uncompromising in my expectations of high-performance, yet empathetic enough to give people a break when they are going through rough patches, humble enough to assume that I don’t have all the answers, and decisive enough to make judgment calls even when faced with incomplete information.
I am very clear about where the bar for excellence is and whether people are meeting that bar.
I hire and promote people who are brilliant, capable and have unlimited potential, and I genuinely get fulfilment out of seeing them reach their full potential. Quite often, when people are not performing well, it’s because they have gaps in their skill or are lacking in motivation.
Focusing on how to get people to reach their peak performance has become a passion of mine.
All of this is not intended to imply that I haven’t made management errors. I’ve had my fair share of errors and mistakes including making many wrong decisions, hiring people who weren’t the right fit, giving under-performers too long to deliver, being too impatient with people, and breaking many things along the way. Each of those mistakes has been a great opportunity for my own growth as a leader.
What’s Next for Seni?
Don’t miss Part II of this insightful interview where I speak to Seni about how he manages performance in a fast growth business and what he is looking for in his next challenge.
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 email@example.com.