Spotlight: Meet Bola Adesola
Tell us a bit about your background I grew up in Lagos, Nigeria in a small tight-knit family — just my parents, myself and my older sister. In a way, I was always the son my father never had. My dad was a renowned lawyer, he studied law at St Johns’ College Cambridge and later ‘took silk’ in Nigeria in the 1970s. Although I was more science inclined in the beginning (I did Biology, Chemistry and Maths in my A-levels), I later ended up studying law at Buckingham University (in the UK). The advice from my parents was to get a university degree and to view it as a blank canvas upon which to paint my life and aspirations and then, to live that life.
I practised law for four years, working with my father in Lagos. However, I was still in pursuit of what my purpose was. During this period of soul searching, the banking system in Nigeria started to open up, as the regulators were issuing licenses to new banks who were on a recruitment drive. My interest was piqued and I decided to embark on a career in banking. To prepare me, I took a course to learn the basics of accounting and computing.
My banking career has spanned over 30 years and aside from the first job application, I have never been interviewed for a job. I have always been ‘head-hunted’ for my next position. After spending 10 months in my first job, I got a phone call from Citi Bank where I spent 9 years; after that another call to be CEO of Kakawa Discount House (a securities trading firm) and 7 years later, I got a phone call from First Bank to join their board. 5 years later, a similar call led me to Standard Chartered Bank which I joined in 2011. I was CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Nigeria and West Africa until my recent promotion to my current role of Senior-Vice Chairman, Africa of Standard Chartered.
The financial services sector is primarily male-dominated. Throughout your career have you seen any changes to even out the scale between men and women, particularly in senior roles? I definitely have seen changes in my 30 years as a banker. When I joined the industry the issue of gender was not even a conversation topic, people just did their jobs and the inequalities were not recognised or acknowledged. My first observation is that today there are more women in areas that were traditionally male-dominated areas. Women are more confident and have higher aspirations. There are definitely more women in previously male-dominated roles. This has not just happened by chance. Many organisations now have Diversity & Inclusion policies that mitigate against unconscious bias.
During my tenure as CEO of Standard Chartered Bank Nigeria, at a point, 6 of the 8 executive committee members were women. This included the Chief Financial Officer; Head of Risk; Head of Retail Banking; Head of Technology and Head of HR and me. All roles based on merit! Nowadays, there are also more support structures for women to make it easier for them to extend their careers and stay longer in the workplace, such as the ability for remote working. Whilst I was CEO of the bank, I championed a policy which the Central Bank of Nigeria adopted setting a target for banks to achieve 40% of women in senior management and 30% female board members. In addition, the compliance disclosure requirements for banks meant that the issue of closing the gender leadership gap was elevated to the board-level discussion.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) #5 is also an affirmation for the need for gender equality globally. This has helped move the needle on this topic. Also, the men are being educated on how they can support women in the workplace so that where men are policymakers, they are more sensitive to this topic.
You’ve had a successful career, what do you consider your greatest achievement? Throughout my career, I have nurtured and coached hundreds of men and women. I would say that my biggest achievement is seeing them grow, develop and blossom and become leaders in their own right. I consider it an achievement when I have made a positive impact in the lives of others. That is my purpose and calling. Achievements such as successfully running businesses, or delivering record profits, all of which I have attained, pale into insignificance for me, when compared with seeing an intern whom I have mentored rise over the years to become appointed to the board of directors. Pure joy!
What are three tips you would give to women? My three tips are summarised into: “Three Ps”
Be Purposeful. “To thine own self be true.” Know what you want and plan your career journey. Begin with an end in mind.
Position Yourself. How do you position yourself to be seen by the right people, to believe in you and help you to succeed? Ask yourself “who do I need to help me on this journey?” Mentors, sponsors and so on. Have strategic visibility.
Manage the Perils: There will be bumps in the road and hurdles to overcome. Success depends on what you choose to ignore. Choose your battles wisely, especially in a male-dominated industry where you can easily be perceived as an angry and embittered woman if you fight every single battle. As a woman, you should aim to glide through life, elegantly like a swan whose head and body is seen above water, but who conceals her toughness and resilience underneath most of the time.
How do you deal with work-life balance? The honest truth is that I don’t, at least not in the superwoman way in which people expect. Life is never truly balanced. However, what I do is to always be present in whatever activity I am involved in. When I’m working, I’m focused on working and delivering good results and when I’m with my family, I don’t let work interfere. I bridge the tension caused by work versus family by ensuring that I have an arsenal of support systems. I have established an appropriate and effective domestic infrastructure at home and at work, I have a good professional infrastructure to support me.
I recommend a book called Boundaries by Cloud and Townsend — the caption reads “when to say yes, how to say no, to take control of your life”. It has some good tips for managing your work vs life balance. I think a woman can have it all — on her own terms. For women who are unmarried and very ambitious, it is important that they align their choice of partner with the level of their career ambition. If there is misalignment there, future problems often arise.
Who did you most admire growing up? My father. He was very purposeful and determined. He didn’t go into anything without having the desired outcome. He was a tough person, an astute lawyer, who saw every court appearance as going in to educate the judge. He was a celebrated orator. He was also a fantastic cook. He was my all-round hero.
How do you manage your own finances, what is your attitude to savings and investments? I suppose I divide my finances into Save, Spend and Invest.
I started investing as soon as I started my career. I worked in Treasury and Financial Markets so as a trader, I have always been a money risk manager. The ability to take a calculated risk energises me. I do a lot of research and information gathering before investing. I am somewhat contrarian and a bit rebellious, so I often see what other people don’t see and I take a futuristic view in investing. For example, in property, I would look at the new areas that will be regenerated in a few years’ time and look to invest ahead of the curve.
In real estate, I think the plan should be to make money when you buy, not only when you sell. Find opportunities to buy below market price, at a time when markets are depressed, so you ultimately may stand to gain more when you eventually sell.
My savings are incidental and not deliberate. I use my savings account to build reserves for a rainy day, to build liquidity, and to build a pot that gives me the opportunity to splurge when I need or want to.
With regards to spending, I do love to spend on myself and on good experiences, and art. I was a bit undisciplined, a bit of a splurger when I was younger. But as I grow older, I have become more thoughtful and will spend on meaningful things or activities.
What are your thoughts on digital investing solutions? I believe digital investing and fintech is the future of financial services. As I said, I take a futuristic view of most things. I have done some angel investing in this space.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work? I love travelling and seeing new places. I’m also an art enthusiast and I have a decent art portfolio. I like to spend time with family and play games and puzzles to keep the grey matter oiled.
In 2001, you co-founded WIMBIZ; Can you tell us a bit about the organisation and the inspiration behind it? The idea of WIMBIZ was to create a women’s network that would support and elevate the profile of women in management and business. It was started in 2001 by one man and twelve women. Later we decided to include women in public service as a target because we felt that they were a critical pillar in society and government. We utilise programs, engagements, activities and platforms to reach out to women, young and old, and to provide support, mentorship, training and information on their career and business journeys. For example, the WIMBIZ ‘WIMBOARD’ programme, helps prepare women for board positions. We engage CEOs on this and other female-focused initiatives. WIMPOL seeks to enable more female participation in politics.
WIMBIZ is an organisation that I am immensely proud of; no one would have imagined that 12 women would start an initiative, run it, and then step away so that it is run independently of us. We founders are now trustees and we started a succession plan for the leadership about 10 years ago. We’ve had several rounds of young women who are now running the organisation and we’ve impacted hundreds of thousands in very many meaningful ways. WIMBIZ also continues to make an international impact through partnerships.