My Nigeria visit – part 3

This month I travelled to Nigeria to give a series of talks and workshops on Creativity and Innovation to the Young Presidents Organisation, a chief executive group in Lagos. Here are some conclusions about my trip.

The Mindset

All the business leaders I spoke to in Lagos were all under 50 and although many were Nigerian, some from 3rd generation families, non were indigenous Nigerians. Instead they had originated in India, the Lebanon, elsewhere in Asia and one from Europe. Were there any black Nigerian business leaders? Yes, I was told, but one of YPO’s recurring problems is to draft them into the organisation. Nigeria has a complicated and checkered recent history. It seems to have a slightly different attitude to some of it’s West African neighbours. Nigerians want things to be cheap and they don’t want to pay for things they don’t need. So much so that many people don’t have bank accounts, partly because they are so poor, but also because of a distrust of any system that costs them money. This gives rise to a very ingenious people. I was told a story about one man who wanted to send money to his daughter hundreds of miles away. He bought a phone card and told his daughter the activation code over the phone. She then sold this number, this transferring money without a bank. This innovative thinking, this entrepreneurial spirit is hard-wired in to the people. But there’s a dark side to it, that anyone who you mention ‘Nigeria’ to will be able to state straight away: scams and corruption.

We’re lucky in western Europe and the USA that corruption is rare enough to still shock us. Even with the ingrained greed and outrageous expenses claims from UK MPs that’s dominating the headlines at the moment, we still believe in honesty and that somehow all will be put right, and if it isn’t we can actually make a fuss about it. African countries often don’t have this luxury. In Nigeria there is corruption at the highest level where millions of gallons of oil (Nigeria has recently found itself rich in oil and other raw materials) just vanish. Individuals have individually stolen billions of dollars from the state. The problem is when this happens at the very top of a country (or an organisation), somehow it filters down, unconsciously to people at every level.

In the mythology of King Arthur this concept is called ‘One Land, One King’ – when the King is sick, the land and people are sick. A friend of mine has toured hundreds of schools in the UK over the past 15 years. He has collected a vast amount of data that shows that if the head of a school is present, positive and engaged in their school, the children he performs his environmental comedy shows to will be well behaved and engaged. If the opposite is true, the children will be unruly. Somehow, large groups of people will take on some of the characteristics of their leaders. This is why we must always lead by example as business leaders, managers and parents with the moral behaviour we want duplicated by others.

Nigeria seemed to personify this theory. Corruption is rarely just at the top. Scamming permeates all levels of society. So many people are out to get what they can get while they can get it. I was only in Nigeria for a very short time and may seem unjustifiable to make sweeping statements on so little evidence, but it seems to me that it is a country that has fantastic potential that for some reason, is not being realised.

What seems to have happened is that the innovative entrepreneurial spirit that lives within many of the people is sometimes powered by the ‘dark side of the Force’ – by purely self-centred motivation – to get what I can get for myself without regard for anyone else. This is what corruption is and what scamming is. Entrepreneurship is different: it also benefits others, by employing people or by providing things people want. True and long lasting successful business has a two-way flow of benefits. Selfishness, akin to ‘the dark side’ may appear more powerful in the moment than altruism and good deeds, but in the long run it is self limiting.

The businesses I met discussed the problems they had overcoming this lack of shared goal mentality when recruiting labour, at every level, for their organisations. They talked of how some Nigerians often mistrusted foreigners, mistrusted immigrants and mistrusted each other. This mistrust and lack of self-esteem resulted in superstitious behaviour such as the belief that anything made in Nigeria was no good, no matter what the quality appeared to be (and even if the price was less than foreign imports.) Even when vast oil deposits were found which could offer the nation real wealth and a way out of the chains of history, this lack of confidence in their country and themselves disappointingly continues the cycle of mistrust and corruption.

When I was being driven through the ‘centre’ of Lagos, there was not much that was recognisably ‘the centre’. Unlike every other city I’ve seen it appeared to have no recognisable focal point. No shops collected together, no municipal buildings, cathedrals or temples. There were no apparent public spaces or parks that I could see. This to me is a microcosm of the problem: there is not much of consequence shared. I asked my hosts if there were any national heroes in sport, entertainment or even politics or religion. There seemed to be nobody of consequence. No-one that everyone could get behind. Anyone who was a possible hero was always able to be split up into tribal delineations: being from the north or the south, black or white, Christian or Muslim and within those further subdivisions. The only thing everyone agreed on was a love of English football (and Manchester United in particular).

There are warning signs here for nations like the UK: have we lost pride in our country and what it produces? Does the corruption with some MPs mean that many of us think it’s ok to steal pens from our employers, or charge our mobile phones at work?

Obviously I’ve over simplified it here, but to me, this lack of shared vision, of having a big picture to look at is why the city was made from an array of individual concrete block buildings with no central focus. With no shared goals coming from leadership that serves everyone, the message of working together is just not getting through. We need to ask ourselves these questions. As a business leader, manager or parent, am I clear in my vision and goals and have I communicated it in a sharing, giving way to those whom I have sway over? Do I dictate rules that I rarely follow? Do I give orders without sharing the purpose and meaning of the task? Do I share and endeavour to make clearer, the big picture?

These are all right-brain thinking skills and this is how you motivate people to awaken their innate creativity. It was what I was over in Nigeria to talk about.

I really enjoyed my brief stay and my hosts were very welcoming and generous. There’s work to be done there, and the leaders I met are doing a great job in making it happen. If you get a chance, you should go too. I’d love to go back and learn more.

(Photos: From top to bottom: Me and Ali, my host. The ‘centre’ of Lagos. Most of the city was ‘under construction. Houses by the coast.)

For more see:

My Nigeria visit – part 2

This month I travelled to Nigeria to give a series of talks and workshops on Creativity and Innovation to the Young Presidents Organisation, a chief executive group in Lagos. Here is the second part of the story.

The Workshops and talks

The YPO is more than a networking group. The members are the leaders of some of the largest businesses in Lagos. As well as offering expert speaker sessions they have regular meetings to mastermind each others business (and personal) problems in what they called ‘forums’, offering each other their shared knowledge and experience. I was told of a time when one member had died and his forum ran his business for his family up to the point, a few years later, that it could be sold. My first task was to give a 4 hour seminar to the key managers of the members companies. There were 50 in attendance. It was a large air conditioned room above a modern and spacious Chinese restaurant. There were moments throughout my stay when the power would suddenly turn off for a few seconds and the fans would stop briefly. Luckily I don’t rely on Powerpoint or other electronic trickery. The session went well and everyone appeared engaged and understood both my accent and my references which can be a concern when you speak in a different part of the world. The point of the session was to understand creativity, looking at why it’s important, what stops it and how to be more innovative in the workplace.

In one part of the session I collect business cards for a ‘raffle’ at the end to win a copy of my book. One chap not only put 6 of his cards in the box, but also 6000 Naira (about $40). He also put in his driving licence and National Insurance card. He knew my book was available to buy for 3500 Naira. So why did he do it? Was he being innovative, trying to stand out? Was he showing off? Or was it something else?

The second session the next day was different as it was to just the twelve executive leaders. These were proper business leaders running large and successful businesses, many in manufacturing. These were people who really knew what they were doing and it was an honour to be able to speak with them. We focused on how to embed an atmosphere of creativity and innovation in a company. We looked at how to encourage and foster ideas that come from the creative individuals that work in the organisation and how all this is directly linked to increased profit and long lasting success.

It was my third day in Nigeria before I got to really see something of Lagos. We went out for meals in the evenings but the rest of the time I was in the workshop sessions or the hotel. We got on board a boat and headed out along the coast to spend the day at the beach with the executives wives and children. It looked like a wide river estuary but we were actually sailing between island archipelagos. From the boat I could see the buildings of Lagos, many under construction or re-construction. Then we passed into more industrial coastline, close to large rusty container ships, some that had partially sank. The coast then became littered with blackened corrugated squaller. Presumably people lived there. Real poverty when you see it up close looks frightening and dangerous. Eventually the coast changed again to thick forests of palms. Deep in these coconut woods lived more poor villagers. They had almost nothing but the wooden houses made from the palms. They helped run the beach houses along the front which was where we docked.

We had a barbecue, a swim and then I performed a 30 minute children’s show with my guitar (for ages 3 to 8) and later another session for mainly the ladies with songs and improvisation. I can even claim to have dipped in the sea, but only knee deep, anything more would have allowed the intense current to sweep us out towards Antarctica. The eight foot waves would have been the envy of Devon’s surfers. We came back on speedboats in 30 minutes (much quicker than the barge that took 2 hours to get there). The boat that set off ahead of us sank, they just had time to get ashore.

(Photos: Top: The sea between archipelagos. Middle: The beach house. Bottom: The speedboat prior to sinking)

For more see:

My Nigeria visit – part 1

This month I travelled to Nigeria to give a series of talks and workshops on Creativity and Innovation to the Young Presidents Organisation, a chief executive group in Lagos. Here is an account on a few aspects of my trip.

The journey to get there

You’d be forgiven for thinking that your presence was not wanted and that obstacles were being placed in your path at every opportunity. On entering the Nigerian Embassy I was already a stranger in a strange land. “Be prepared to loose hours, days in this place” someone said to me. I found the maelstrom of chaos disorienting. There were no answers to be found in the hot, blank, confused faces of the vast assembled congregation. The innovation needed here to improve the process would not require hours of brainstorming. A simple sign could have said, “take ticket and wait for number” which would have removed all uncertainty for everyone and also the pointless need for the voice on the Tannoy to have to angrily bark for the confused denizens to “get back from the counters and take a seat”. Four visits, unnecessary payments and the uncertainty that I would even get a visa, finally granted me the green sticker in my passport just a few hours before my flight. I was going to Nigeria.

I was met at the airport straight off the plane by an assistant from YPO. It was 4.30am and I hadn’t been able to sleep on the plane and had watched re-runs of Doctor Who and Blackadder instead. Their guy got me through grumpy military-dress officials who always seem to sit in pairs. They offered no eye contact and grunted to indicate that I step forward and grunted again to indicate that I hadn’t filled out a form properly. Then baggage reclaim: there’s always that awful few minutes when everybody’s bags seem to have appear save your own, but eventually my case and guitar turned up. Then we were out into the 29 degree dark heat of Lagos. Even though it was so early in the morning and so dark there were loads of people hanging around. The roads were busy with cars and small buses packed with people like sardines. There appeared to be no rules of the road. Red lights were just to ad colour, they certainly didn’t seem to mean stop. The oddest thing was noticing that all the vehicles looked like their entire bodywork had been extensively pummelled by a million toffee hammers. Every car looked like it had been once used in the Dukes of Hazard, missing windows and bumpers hanging off. One car looked like it had been burnt out – but was still driving along. When we drove up to the hotel it was dawn. A sliding gate opened (it was someone’s job to open and close the gate. His job was to sit there all day in case someone wanted to come in). I had just a few hours before my first talk at 10.30am.

(Photos: Top: view from my hotel window. Below: the Civic Centre)

For more see: