Richard Amafonye FBCS is CIO at Wema Bank, Nigeria and has decades of leadership experience under his belt. Here, he tells ITNOW the secrets to being an effective leader, including the importance of creating harmony and giving people the freedom they need to get the job done. Blair Melsom MBCS reports.

Richard Amafonye grew up in in a rural village, where he picked up the farmer's work ethic. It instilled in him the notion that there is a time to plant, a time to cultivate and the importance of nurturing slowly over time. ‘One of the challenges that we face today in the world,’ he says, ‘is that we have become so accustomed to immediacy, everybody wants instant gratification but you've got to pay the price at some point for a better future.’

His career is one that has been cultivated carefully and grown entirely in the fields of technology and finance: starting off in IT operations and progressing to technical support and software engineering before becoming a CIO at Wema Bank. He says his IMIS and BCS professional qualifications and training are what ‘really got [him] started on the right footing,’ on the path to leadership.

The banking landscape

When asked about the trends and points of disruption in the banking industry, it is technology that Amafonye feels is shaping banking the world over. ‘Technology,’ he says, ‘has evolved, rapidly creating significant improvements and capabilities; these in turn have brought extraordinary changes in the way we live, work and engage.’

In no place has this become so evident than in the way people now conduct banking. ‘We have all become accustomed to immediacy, so used to simple digital solutions and customer journeys that are delivered by smart digital platforms like Amazon and Uber; we expect similar experiences as customers when we're interacting with banks.’

Technology is the key driver of change in business, especially in financial services today. ‘The offshoot of this,’ he continues, ‘is that banking is now becoming close, in terms of business model, to a utility. Business boundaries are blurring and shifting. We are beginning to see new operators with disruptive business models emerge and now other players are beginning to fish in the pond previously reserved for banks, by embedding financial services or banking services in everyday life activities.

'Competition is so intense,’ he explains, ‘that it is compelling financial institutions to begin to pivot from their traditional transaction-centric model, to the point of primary intent - if they are really going to be able to compete with the emerging disruptors in the marketplace.’

Leadership response to the pandemic

Speaking on the effects seen of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, Amafonye illustrates the ‘grinding frustration of the dark cloud of uncertainty looming over many businesses,’ describing it as ‘the worst crisis within living memory that we have encountered.’ But how have successful leaders responded? ‘I like to think with perspective and detachment,’ he replies. ‘At the beginning of this pandemic, the entire world was in a trial and error mode; nobody seemed to have a handle on what to do.

'Successful leaders have focused more on areas where they have some measure of control, rather than worrying about things about which they have no control. And at the same time, they are active, they act in accordance with the fundamental principle of strategic planning, which is to hope for the best while you plan for the worst.’

Experience vs talent for leadership

The conversation moves to whether experience is necessary to be an effective leader. Amafonye has clear views: ‘When it comes to leadership, there is no substitute for good judgment and experience. Inexperience, without any doubts, will detract from the value of good leadership because of lack of trust. Trust is key to leadership success.’

However, he is quick to remind that we are all born with some talent for leadership, which aspiring leaders should leverage by taking personal responsibility and building accountability. ‘Being willing to do what must be done when it must be done, whether you feel like doing it or not... That is responsibility. That is discipline. That is exercising personal leadership.’ And that, he says, ‘is where good leaders start.’

Even without an obvious proclivity for leadership, ‘like most things in life,’ Amafonye reassures, ‘it takes willingness, practice, patience, persistence to get better at anything. Leadership qualities can be observed, can be acquired, can be developed and can be honed.’

Leadership behaviours

So, what does good leadership look like? To answer this, Amafonye begins with a favourite quote on leadership:

“Unless we know the purpose of that which we build, it cannot be designed successfully.” ‘A good leader,’ he elaborates, ‘gives the efforts of others direction, purpose and meaning.

Therefore, they must exhibit traits or behaviours that are more focused on motivating and influencing people, such as:

  • the ability to inspire a shared vision;
  • the capacity to perceive the need for action and the urge to do it,
  • self-confidence and a reasonably high self-rating on competence (although there's a thin line between self-confidence and arrogance so you need to balance it);
  • trust: without trust everything crumbles;
  • giving people autonomy on the job and making them feel valued and appreciated.

And what about micromanagement? ‘There is nothing that diminishes the capacity of somebody that needs to work like micromanaging,’ he states definitively. ‘I think it was Steve Jobs that said, “you hire smart people and then you get out of the way and let them get the job done.”’

Climbing the ladder - with the right mindset

Amafonye has three simple pieces of advice for those aspiring to leadership: ‘Number one: performance, number two: performance, number three: performance.’ Smiling, he continues, ‘Performance will almost always trump politics. If there's anything that destroys careers, especially at certain levels in an organisation, it is destructive qualities.’

When pressed for details on qualities to avoid, he explains that some people play destructive politics by adopting a zero-sum game. ‘I believe there's enough in the world to go round,’ he says.

‘My succeeding will not in any way stop any other person from succeeding. If I succeed, we all succeed; we must have that capacity to rise above the petty differences and put the interest of the institution that we serve, the organisation, over and above every other consideration. Being selfish and self-centred destroys trust and harmony in an in an organisation.’

On the other hand, he explains that nothing enhances professionalism more than being solution oriented. ‘If you are the go-to person when there is an issue; if you are the one that rallies everybody around to find creative ways to solve problems,’ he says, ‘you will your rise in your career. So, it's performance, performance, performance, focusing on being solution oriented.’

Lifelong learning for leaders

The subject moves to advancing the career of those already in management and leadership positions: where do they learn? How should they continue to push themselves forward? The answer is simple: by staying curious.

‘Good leaders do not believe that they already have everything figured out,’ Amafonye says. ‘They absorb and they seek more knowledge and understanding by reading and then observing too.’ Illustrating with another favourite quote, he explains:

“A gram of your own experience is worth more than a ton of other people's instructions.” And, in fact, the ‘need to keep abreast of developments in one's area of specialisation has never been higher,’ he warns. To maintain professional development, Amafonye strives to attend industry events and webinars, which, he says are a ‘good source of acquiring additional knowledge,’ and where he gleans ‘a lot of insight and learnings.’

Inspirational figures

Like many of us, Amafonye has been inspired by others in his career, especially ‘those who are contrary and independent and have the courage of their convictions.’ Two leaders in particular stand out for him, ‘because of the way they redefine leadership with their passion, their crystal-clear vision and extraordinary achievements that they brought about in their organisations.’

One is Jack Welch, who transformed General Electric as CEO: ‘He was acknowledged as one of the greatest leaders of his era,’ says Amafonye, as he laments Welch’s passing earlier this year. The second is the current CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, who Amafonye believes has ‘renewed Microsoft in ways that is hard to believe. Within five years of assuming office, who could have believed that Microsoft will embrace open source?’

The X-factor

Amafonye is keen to point out one last thing of importance to current and aspiring leaders and that is ‘the role and the benefits of professional organisations like BCS in fostering the right values and work ethics… that's what will make the difference much later in someone's career, making sure that people have the right work ethics.’

So, is professional membership something that a leader like Amafonye would look for when hiring? ‘Yes,’ he says without hesitation, ‘that would be an added advantage.’ ‘Today, technical competence is a given. So, you look out for the “x factors”, the extras that someone brings to bear: character, curiosity, persistence, work ethics - and there's no better place to acquire some of these softer skills than being a member of a professional body like BCS.’

Recommended reading for leaders

When he left school at age 15, Amafonye’s mother gave him the Amazing Results of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Pearl to read. That book was so inspiring that it led him to seek out more from the genre.

His other recommendations include: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie; Think Big by Ben Carson; Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl; Success is Never Ending, Failure is Never Final by Robert Schuller; Straight from the Gut by Jack Welch; The Rules of Life by Templar; The Leader Who Had No Title by Robin Sharma; The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Green; Good to Great by Jim Collins; Who Moved My Cheese by Dr Spencer Johnson

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