Enhancing African Leadership

By Williams, Stephen | African Business, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Enhancing African Leadership


Williams, Stephen, African Business


For any company, their most valuable asset is human capital, but only effective leadership can actually realise its true worth, as Stephen Williams learned from Dr Tunde Ekpe, a specialist consultant in management skills and coaching.

It's a science, explained Dr Ekpe, the founder-director of Optimentus as she told me about her consultancy services. "If a client comes to us and says 'please identify people that we desperately require for particular roles,' or 'we have many internal candidates, who should we promote to the next level?', I use rigorous, research-based methods to assess them based on the key competencies that are necessary to do the job effectively."

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Because Optimentus has clients around the world, that raises the question of the very different cultural values that, even in a rapidly globalising world, exist in different countries and regions. "There are some aspects of leadership that are universal, that are common across cultures, that you can evaluate the same way," she adds. "But there are some that are not that easy to evaluate.

"For example, I am just making generalisations here, but a Japanese candidate for a management role might be a bit more respectful, a bit more reticent about saying 'no' or putting themselves forward, although they never say 'no' really!

"Then you have differences between Africans. You've got West Africans; they are generally more aggressive and more direct than say East Africans who will be more understated, but East Africans say what they mean eventually--just not in the very direct manner that their West African counterpart might."

It follows that Ekpe is not prepared to rate a person just on certain attributes, because those attributes might reflect cultural differences. The key thing is, she insists, to actually devise an assessment that is aware of those cultural distinctions.

"The technical skills are usually self-evident but it's more difficult to unearth the leadership behaviours necessary to effectively carry out a specific role," she says

Selection by Optimentus is rigorous and based on a mixture of competency-based interviews, simulation exercises and psychometric tests conducted by trained psychologists and assessors. "Our final recommendation is thus based on the clear evidence we have before us."

Optimentus recognises the importance of evaluating a candidate's leadership traits; whether they have them in the first place and how they demonstrate an ability to interact with others. In other words, it's essential to assess their emotional intelligence, their ability to strategise, formulate a vision and then, in Ekpe's own words, "to cascade it to others successfully".

Cross-cultural issues

Ekpe has carried out research on cultural issues in multinational organisations and she has worked in Russia, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, France, Italy, India, Canada and the USA--and across Africa in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Botswana, Benin, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo, Senegal and Burkina Faso--so has extensive international experience. "I am British and of African descent. Some of the cross-cultural issues that companies face when they are recruiting, I have experienced myself and 1 can articulate them without embarrassment," Ekpe says. "It's something of an advantage to have dual nationality and not be restricted by political correctness."

She says there was once a time when executive assessments were a bit more definitive, when candidates had to behave in a particular and predefined way to succeed. But then people started saying, 'that might be, say, the North American way of doing business, but it's not the African way'.

"But the thing is," Ekpe elaborates, "when we are doing assessments, we measure ability to behave effectively. We have to be careful not to attribute everything to culture; it might be more of a personality issue. …

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