The National Service Year and the Unilever interview process
My story with Unilever began by accident. Out of university in Quarter 4, 1992, I went to the National Service Secretariat and I had been posted to Unilever Ghana.
I reported for work and was assigned to work in the Quality Assurance Department. My direct boss was Joseph Tusah, and the head of the Quality Assurance Department was Pamela Aba Turkson. Both people took a special interest in me.
Aunty Aba, as we all called her, adopted me as her younger brother and challenged me a lot professionally. I spent many long hours labouring at the computer placed in her office; in those days there was no E-mail, no mobile phones, no internet and therefore no social media. But from the very beginning, Aba was determined that I would gain world class skills in computing and she pushed me to do so.
Joseph Tusah, my very first line manager ever, made loads of time to give me advice about life in general and career development. He was a hilarious character who was very easy to talk to. He represented me well to the Quality Assurance workforce, and, as a result, I made great friends among that team. They all wanted to help me with whatever I needed. Tusah was a special kind of boss; a brother, a friend who encouraged me as well as stretched me.
After a few months of national service, he encouraged me to think about becoming a management trainee and to work hard at it, beginning with making a positive impression on Aunty Aba. There is a sense in which it is because of Joseph Tusah that I ended up pursuing a career in Unilever.
By the end of the national service year, Aunty Aba never missed an opportunity to let me know I had done exceedingly well. She let everyone know how proud she was of me and how much she supported me. But she also let me know that while she would very highly recommend me to be recruited as a management trainee, it was not her decision to make.
I would have to compete in an elaborate interview process. And so the process began: applied to Unilever in response to the newspaper advert (I still have a photocopy of my handwritten application stating I was “a man of integrity”). Then I received a telegram inviting me for an aptitude test. I prepared for this test like my life depended on it, using the GRE texts on logical reasoning and aptitude tests. I was later told I aced these exams.
As a result of my passing these exams, I received a comprehensive set of application forms from Unilever. This was delivered by hard copy and I had to fill them in by hand. When I had done my first draft on a photocopy, I sought out my long-time friend and classmate from Livingstone House Achimota School, Johnny Akoto. He had also been my room-mate in both sixth form and at Katanga Hall in university.
Johnny was an extraordinarily intelligent and militant chemical engineer. In our Katanga days, he was a fearless activist for justice – a guy none in our generation will ever forget. Johnny looked at my responses carefully and gave me invaluable advice on how to modify some of my responses. I took the advice with humility and improved my answers. Very early on, I believed in the power of networks and their ability to challenge you to excellence. Even now, I read my filled application letter with pride – it defined values that have stuck with me for the three decades of my professional life.
The interview and becoming a management trainee
I submitted my application form and got invited for the interview. My father was delighted that I was going to get a job at David Andoh’s company. My interview was scheduled to begin at 9:00am but my father drove me to Swanmill, the Unilever head-office in central Accra that morning. By 7:30am, he had dropped me off and I waited by reading and re-reading a copy of my application form.
Finally, the interview started and I was like a man possessed. I had to discuss the answers on my application form with a panel of Unilever directors. By this time, I knew the contents of the form inside-out and had detailed reasoning for every word that I had put down. Then we had to discuss management case studies in groups. And finally, I had to pick a topic from a box on current affairs and speak to it without notes for ten minutes. Mine was, “The Middle East Conflict.”
This was a subject I knew well and had deep interest in, so I had no problem speaking to it. Even though I had studied engineering, the Katanga Hall Porters Lodge was a world class think-tank and debating society on current affairs and geopolitics. I was always at the Porters Lodge in my Katanga days, sometimes till dawn. So this was a relatively easy topic for me.
Robert Adu-Mante was the Personnel Director of Unilever then. I knew about him but had never physically met him. He was on the interview panel which was being managed by the Personnel Adviser, a Nigerian called Emmanuel Imoagene. Robert Adu-Mante was relatively quiet during the interview. But I sourced energy from him. Anytime I looked at him, his expression said to me in some inscrutable way: “young man you are doing well, carry on.”
Days after the interview, Robert Adu-Mante sent for me to come to his office. He was full of praise and said that in less than a month, I could expect an appointment letter. I was due to travel out of the country soon but there was no way I was going to jeopardise getting a job as a Management Trainee at Unilever, so I cancelled the trip and waited for the letter which did come as promised. In life, there will always be many options but one has to choose and sacrifice for what is deemed important. You cannot have everything.
1st December 1993, I started my induction as a Management Trainee. Emmanuel Imoagene, the Personnel Adviser took me aside and remarked: “young man, you will one day go to the very top of this organisation.” I very sincerely was not entirely sure what he saw in me, but I was nonetheless glad that he made that comment.
My Management Trainee induction started in earnest. I found myself on the director’s floor meeting Martin Esson-Benjamin, the then Marketing Director. I remember as if it just happened, that he looked at me sternly and asked: “are you the son of Professor Nsarkoh?” I said I was, and he responded: “Then you have a family reputation to protect and I will really hold you to high standards.”
I came to know Martin Esson-Benjamin as a stickler for excellence and a very hard working man who left nothing to chance. He was very proud of the marketing function and he let it be known and I was very inspired by him. Unfortunately for me, he was promoted soon after I joined to become Managing Director of a brewery owned by Unilever at the time, so I did not get to know him too well.
It was much later on in life that we reunited on social media. I have never had the opportunity to tell him how inspired we were by him at the time.
Dr. Carl Irvin, the Technical Director during my year of national service had sat on my interview panel. He was a hard man from Britain, perhaps even a brutal man, but when I called on him at his office he was delighted and said: “you did very well at the interview young man, now excel as an engineer.” Within months of my becoming a Management Trainee, his tour of duty ended and he returned to the UK. Our paths have never crossed since.
Till the end of the process, no one ever promised me a great salary. All everyone said, is that at Unilever I will be trained to get to the top of my profession. That was what drove my choice. Yaw Nsarkoh, who in his student days in a confrontation with one of his lecturers had been told will never get a job had landed a job. All praise to God.
Enter Kwame Addae
I was working as a Shift manager at the Foods Factory, as part of my Management Traineeship when Kwame Addae returned from expatriation in India to take up the role of Technical Director. My direct line manager was Kofi Folson, a Chemical Engineer to whom I owe much for training me in Manufacturing and Food Technology. During my National Service, Kofi Folson gave me a ride to work almost every day. An invaluable help for which I cannot ever say thank you enough.
Kwame Addae had done many important jobs in Unilever before becoming Technical Director. He had been for example, Personnel Director and Deputy Technical Director. His reputation was already larger than life. In introducing Kwame Addae to us, his predecessor Dr. Carl Irvin told us, “Kwame Addae is a detonator!” We were soon to learn why. Kwame was returning from India, which housed one of Unilever’s most revered operations, Hindustan Lever. He had incredibly high, world class performance standards.
Physically a diminutive man, he had the energy, determination and drive of a thousand giants. In pursuing excellence, Kwame Addae was simply fearless and indefatigable. He was tough, he was challenging and he could be rough when he needed to be. He held very high standards on integrity. You breached them and you were a goner. His famous 9.00am morning reviews with all the engineers was the scene of spit fire accountability. We stood on our feet as he reviewed the quality of production from the previous day – shift by shift, hour by hour. Those were the days, those indeed were the days.
Kwame Addae was a big picture guy who was also deep in the details. He knew what was going on. No one could sell bull shit to Kwame Addae. As he would often say, “don’t mess around.” If you promised to deliver something, you did everything in your power to do so. The man was as tough as nails. Yet, in my experience, there has never been a Director more loved by the workforce. We all talked and moaned about Kwame Addae and his pressure to deliver. But we deeply respected him for many things.
He was egalitarian in spirit and instinct. He loved walking around the factory floor. Many times he would spend hours talking to shop floor workers. Even as a young and junior engineer then, Kwame Addae would invite me to his office to discuss my trend monitoring reports for the vegetable oils refinery. He was deeply interested in our professional development and he pushed us to excel. Under Kofi Folson’s leadership, we upgraded refinery capacity by 25% through process optimisation only. Unheard of in those days.
Put Kwame Addae anywhere people were, and they would soon roar with laughter. He had a funny story for every occasion. This was the tough boss who nonetheless always had people laughing. He was a true Katanga boy, at ease with people. Kwame Addae challenged me and grew me. Sometimes I absolutely hated him for being so demanding. But no one built my confidence and values as a professional as much as Kwame.
I still remember some of the Kwame Addaeisms. His constant pitch for eternal vigilance. Him repeating Ashok Ganguly’s, “Time is inelastic” and “Question Everything.” Kwame Addae was an engineer philosopher.
Tough as nails though he was on the exterior, in time through strange circumstances, I got to know he had a heart of gold. And was very committed to the success of his teams. He just did not verbalise this much. He called me “Yaw Nsarkoh, the great.” One day his secretary mistakenly sent me a report Kwame Addae had written about me. Before he rushed back for it, the young cheeky me had read it. And tears welled in my eyes.
Kwame had praised me professionally to the skies. And predicted in writing, all of three decades ago, that I would go very far in my career. I was stunned. Kwame Addae, the pressure bucket? He loved his people but like many of our African parents, he showed his love by doing, not saying.
He gave me big professional break throughs, like sending a very young me to Canada for the North American World Class Manufacturing Workshop – an experience that changed my professional life by giving me early exposure to what it means to be world class. That opened my eyes.
One day the driver of Kwesi Okoh, then Customer Service Director, came to me and said that once when driving his boss and Kwame Addae, the latter had had a lot of great things to say about me. He said he knew earning those compliments from Kwame would have required lots of hard work. So I should keep doing what I was doing. This incident has stayed with me throughout my career.
Organisational logic is not what the organogram says. The drivers and the tea servers and security people and cleaners must receive equal respect. Because often they know what is going on in the organisation even more than the senior managers.
Such was Kwame – if he had a tough message for you, he told you to your face. But he would never make you feel you owed him something because he did not even let people know when he supported them. He kept quiet about that, wanting nothing back from anyone. He promoted me to full management in what was most likely a record for the time. When I said thank you, he simply said: “you deserve it.”
The bouillon cubes factory story
Once, Kwame Addae asked me to come to his office in the morning. At the time we had just started manufacturing bouillon cubes in our Tema factory. The factory was going through teething problems. As I climbed the stairs to the then directors’ floor, I saw Kwame Addae standing with Mike McGrath, the Finance Director at the time.
Kwame boomed: “That is the young man, I was just talking about to the Board. Yaw Nsarkoh, the great, I will assign him to the bouillon cube factory and in weeks all the problems will disappear.”
Huh?! What was Kwame Addae doing? I did not know what bouillon cubes were. I had never seen a bouillon cubes factory and here he was presenting me as the solution to the problem. Did he want me to fail? He just told me, “I know you have the leadership capability to do it, I will support you.” As a young engineer, I went back to my little factory corner crestfallen and broken, in complete panic. Why had Kwame Addae turned against me this way? Why did he want me disgraced? Why was he setting me up for certain failure?
But two days after I had prayed incessantly, I went to the factory and called a meeting with the workforce. I had nothing but my notebook and a pen. I confessed to the team that I knew nothing about bouillon cubes manufacturing, but I was confident they did.
So they should tell me what needed to be done. Impressed that I had shown this vulnerability, they made several suggestions. So I asked why they had not done this in the past, if they knew the answers. And the answer they gave me taught me something about the importance of the tolerance of honest-failure I never forgot in my career.
The work force believed deeply that if they tried something they had not been directly told by an engineer and it did not work, they would be blamed. I explained that this was not the case and that I, as their leader, will accept responsibility. I was not really sure why I said that but soon something went wrong and I was on trial before their eyes.
Trembling, I walked up to Kwame Addae and accepted responsibility, saying I had asked the work force to try and something relatively minor had gone wrong. He listened quietly and then commended me for taking responsibility and owning up and asked me to go and continue my work.
From that day, the mood in the factory changed. Word went round, as it does on shop floors, that the young engineer would stand by them if something went wrong. They wanted me to succeed as a result and they set about making changes. In weeks, the factory was humming and the problems were gone. I had become a part of organisational folklore.
Yaw Nsarkoh had again turned something around. Without any false modesty, not one of the actual engineering solutions came from me, it was all the shop floor implementing what it knew. This has been a feature of my career – people know what to do, create the climate for them to do what they know and they will make you and themselves fly.
I learned from that incident, and I have told this story all over the world in the years since, that if you truly respect people as human beings and treat them with dignity, most will die for the cause. But often in organisations, we get intoxicated by hierarchy and then treat people with indignity and are surprised that productivity is low. Human beings want to be treated with dignity everywhere. That is when they thrive.
Kwame Addae and my move from Engineering to Marketing
Back in the day, we had the tradition of the Unilever Managers Course. Young managers would be taken to one of the top Accra hotels for a week for a residential course, where the senior leaders of the business came to teach us about every aspect of the business. Festus Odimegwu, the then Marketing Director, handled the Marketing Module that year when I attended this course at Wangara Hotel.
For two and half hours, in one of the most energetic and most passionate marketing presentations I have ever seen in my long career, Festus shook us from the crown of our heads to our toe nails and the soles of our feet. Here was a man who had read nearly every management text book there was. He knew philosophy and invoked Plato to explain the role of marketing. I was totally blown away by the guy I was meeting for the first time. He made marketing seem attractive to me. It had never been before.
So when we got back to the office after the course, I sent a short E-mail to Festus to thank him for his presentation. The very next day, he called me to his office. We had a long chat that led to him adopting me as his mentee. He was certain that I would do very well in Marketing and he started a campaign that I should be moved from Engineering to Marketing.
Festus was the kind of man that people did things for just so they could get rid-off hm. He never stopped when he wanted something done. Until you gave him what he wanted, he could harass you to breaking point. It was not very long when people started to call me to come and meet them because Festus had told them they had to meet me.
As fate would have it, Festus ended his tour of duty and returned to Nigeria to become Managing Director of Heineken there. Kwame Addae had also moved to Malaysia. But Festus has sowed the seed and in time, the new Marketing Director, Roy Williamson, invited me for a conversation. Everyone thought I should be delighted to move to Marketing. But they were confused that I seemed hesitant and frightened.
Unknown to them, my Technical Director after Kwame Addae left, was not happy that I had to leave Engineering. He argued that he too needed good talent. And he wobbled me by saying I was doing very well in engineering so if I left for the marketing role, there would be no return ticket. I panicked. While this was going on, Roy Williamson was also beginning to get impatient with my dithering and indecision. I did not want to disclose to him the pressure I was under from his colleague. What was I to do?
Stranded, lost, confused, at my absolute nadir and with my confidence shaken, one late evening I called Kwame Addae. He had moved on from being Technical Director then. He listened to me patiently, as I rambled and waffled. When I was done, he laughed and then said something I have never forgotten: “Never fear Yaw, you will succeed. What can go wrong? Accept the job and you may just enjoy it and learn a lot.”
All my fear deserted me and I accepted the move to marketing. As they say, the rest is history. Roy Williamson who had initially been frustrated by my indecision was to become one of my most important supporters. Roy made me a marketer and put his own career on the line to keep me in marketing. I will not explain the reason why what he did at the time was a risk. I write today to celebrate people not to denigrate anyone.
He became a mentor for life – Kwame Addae
I could recount many more such stories. In time, “Yaw Nsarkoh, the great” became “Professor Yaw Nsarkoh, the great!” Kwame Addae always addressed me as such when he saw me. Whenever Unilever issued any new publications on anything related to my field, he would lend me his copy to read.
One time he asked me to lecture the entire technical function, including himself and many accomplished engineers many years my senior, on oil processing and the biochemistry of vegetable oils. For weeks I was immersed in books, as this was not a subject that I could claim any expertise in. But that was Kwame Addae, always challenging people to breach new frontiers.
Throughout my career, wherever I have been in the world, whenever I have been stuck, I have reached out to him for his wisdom. Even in his retirement, he has always been there for me. God gives us people on earth as guardian angels. Among mine, professionally, were Kwame Addae and his friends.
When we tell our stories in later life, we should always remember that whatever we achieved is because we stood on the shoulders of giants. And we must never forget them. I am glad that in the evening of my executive career and Unilever career, I am able to say a public thank you to all these people and that they are all still around to hear it.
Never one for hogging the lime-light, Kwame has kept a low profile in retirement. When I am down about this Robinson Crusoe Society that Ghana has become, I wonder what our politics would have yielded if it was men with the cast of mind and work ethic of Kwame Addae that had made it to the top.
Chief of Staff to the President, Kwame Addae; he would drive implementation in cabinet more than Lee Kuan Yew and Paul Kagame and Deng Xiaopeng put together. Or else the Ministers will not sleep. What you promise to Kwame Addae, you give to Kwame.
The President himself would have had fire on his head if he slacked. Alas, this broken politics of ours has no place for such excellent resources. He is too honest, too professionally disciplined, too inflexible when it comes to upholding high standards, too fearless in holding people accountable. No surprise we are what we have become.
I write, as the muse dictates. All the people I have mentioned are still alive. I am grateful to God for putting these people in my career and life. Without them, I would have gone nowhere in my corporate career. I have never forgotten this. None of them is infallible. Not one is perfect. The perfect human does not exist.
My purpose is to thank them in our lifetime, not to deify them. I am not one who ever presents anyone as perfect. I have thanked them for specific contributions to my development. No more. If I can contribute to others, in my lifetime, the way Kwame Addae and the others mentioned did to me, my life work would have been done. So help me God.
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