As with all worthwhile achievements in life, a successful career is shaped by many factors – role of the individual, people, luck/divine providence, opportunities, timing, moments etc. Mine is no different.
In the following article, I have decided to focus on the ‘people’ element. Let me state upfront that many individuals -line managers, peers and direct reports, have contributed to shaping my career trajectory, but in this piece, I want to shine the spotlight on a special group of people I call my human bridges- individuals who played a pivotal role in my career - especially during a time of transition- either by guiding or propelling me through their own efforts onto the next stage of the corporate ladder.
I have chronicled 3 human bridge stories. Two may appear to be (more) direct interventions. Nonetheless, I have maintained the 3rd (an indirect one) for two reasons -firstly because it helps to demonstrate the fact that the path to success is not always linear and secondly it serves as a good example of the faith-marketplace interplay that has marked my entire career.
Return journey from the U.K to Ghana
I doubt that when my Nigerian friend on campus, Akaego Ugwu (now Okoye) recommended Dr Mensah Otabil’s church, International Central Gospel Church (I.C.G.C) to me as a potential spiritual home on my return to Ghana in 2000, she envisaged how important it would be to helping lay a foundation for future career success. I was impressed to find a well-organised church with an inspiring and compelling mission statement -Raising Leaders, Shaping Vision and Influencing Society through Christ. This mission influenced sermon topics, themes of conferences and even their CSR activities. Such was the extent of holistic, integrated thinking and execution in this centre of excellence. This clarity of purpose coupled with Doc’s pragmatic teaching style and guidance on how to apply spiritual principles to one’s life won me over – especially as I began to experience transformative results. I would remain in I.C.G.C for 7 years until the start of my Corporate Nomadic life in 2007.
Doc’s teachings helped me in 3 main ways: Firstly, it helped set in motion the process of reconciling the existing tension I had between practising my faith in an uncompromising way and achieving marketplace success. I learnt to accept that the two goals were not diametrically opposed to each other but that they could co-exist and even re-enforce each other in a positive way. Secondly, I was inspired by his Pan-Africanist fervour, pioneering spirit and pursuit of excellence. For example, Central University, the largest private Christian university in Ghana is a product of I.C.G.C. Theirs was also one of the first churches to leverage radio -in the aftermath of privatisation- as a tool for effective media ministry.
Unsurprisingly Doc and his team are leading the way in integrating digital technology into church management. Thirdly, thanks in part to his emphasis on identifying and developing our gifts and talents, I volunteered to serve in the Counselling Department and later assumed a senior leadership role in the Singles Ministry. I also honed my writing skills by contributing spiritual content (customized weekly devotionals which I circulated to interested colleagues) and relevant Marketing articles which were published in industry magazines (e.g. Marketing Mix) and leading newspapers (e.g. Daily Graphic). This helped position me as a relevant Marketing practitioner and an emerging thought leader in my peer group.
It is not a coincidence that my time with I.C.G.C coincided with my progression from Assistant Manager to Brand Manager to Senior Brand Manager to Marketing Manager in Unilever Ghana.
From Ghana to Singapore
I began my Marketing Career in the Foods Division of Unilever Ghana in October 2000. In 2001, Charles Cofie (currently Chairman, Barclays Bank Ghana Ltd) took over as the Marketing Director. An MIT graduate, a former Proctoid, a high-flyer with a strong track record in the business, Charles had the chutzpah and swagger of a future CEO. As our leader, he was the consummate Marketing professional. He had his finger on the pulse of the consumer, a deep appreciation for analytical and intellectual rigour was results-focused and had a passion for talent development too. For young marketers like us, one of the defining moments in our fledgeling career was having Charles review your advertising brief or marketing proposal and signing it off with ‘Good” or ‘Excellent” (yesterday’s equivalent of today’s thumbs up emoji). It was akin to a soccer fan securing an autograph from Messi or Ronaldo.
As time went on and I turned in strong business results (whilst taking on other team leadership roles), I appeared on leadership’s radar. Then it happened! An opportunity arose. After only 21 months in the business, I was promoted into a Brand Manager role. I later learnt that Charles played a key role in that decision. Fast forward to 2007. Charles then CEO was working closely with HR to find suitable leadership accelerator-type opportunities for high potential /key managers in the business.
In my case, a Regional Corporate Audit role based in Singapore was proposed. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure if it was the right move. But both Charles and my line manager, Yaw Nsarkoh( who I will write about in a separate piece) believed this would be a great opportunity. And boy were they right! This move turbo-charged my career, accelerated the development of my leadership arc and put me on a path to becoming a Global Citizen. The exposure gained from working in over 10 countries across Europe, Africa and Asia also helped me develop a global mindset, gain a broader business appreciation and helped prepare me for a future General Manager role (which incidentally is my current role)
From Turkey back to Africa
In 2011, I moved into a Regional Marketing role in Turkey where I managed a 5-brand haircare portfolio across South Africa, Turkey and Israel. This turned out to be the most challenging cultural context within which to work - not least because of the language barrier. Ironically, it became the birthplace for my English- speaking book club, Global Minds Book Club( GMBC) which also serves as a cultural bridge uniting fellow Global citizens and bibliophiles across 10 countries. GMBC (which has a branch in the U.S) will be celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020.
My assignment in Turkey was to last 2 years after which I intended to return to Africa to take up a local Marketing /Brand Building role. In a manner that I can only describe with the benefit of hindsight as an act of Divine providence, a set of circumstances culminated in me receiving a call from the famous K.R Raghu ( then Vice President of Marketing Operations and Brand Building Central Africa) just before my contract expired. As it turned out, a ‘perfect’ opportunity in the form of a Regional Marketing Operations role with a focus on ‘Afro’ Beauty had arisen -which required my skill set, local and regional marketing experience and domain expertise in Afro Hair/Beauty.
After a round of conversations, Raghu was convinced I was his man and became the human bridge to transport me from Turkey across the Indian Ocean to Durban, South Africa. If like Reid Hoffman you believe (which I do) that trajectories of impressive careers are not slow and steady but marked out by breakout opportunities, then I can honestly say the Regional Marketing Operations role I landed ( located in the regional headquarters of Unilever Africa) was my break-out opportunity! Everything came together for me in that role. With great support from Raghu, I excelled in the role, paving the way for a bigger responsibility in my next assignment – Marketing Director, Ghana. This position effectively meant a seat on the Unilever Ghana Board of Directors, where I had the honour of working with a league of extraordinary professionals, including one Charles Alexander Cofie!
I am extremely grateful to these human bridges for their respective contributions to my career growth and development. I am still in touch with all of them. Charles remains involved in my leadership growth and development. Raghu also continues to dispense advice from his rich life /work experience and thanks to the ‘bridge’ of social media, I am able to ‘catch up’ with my dear friend Akaego now based in the US.
I consider myself blessed to have had (and still have) these human bridges in my life corner.
*** The writer is the Country Director (Ghana) of Invest In Africa.