Governance Is Not The Icing On The Cake; It Is The Cake. So Let's Start Baking.

series: governance for african enterprises Apr 14, 2021
Governance is not the icing on the cake

“Governance is not the icing on the cake; it is the cake.”[1]

A Nigerian business thought leader said this to me recently and I loved her comment! It resonated with my experience of running small for profit and social enterprises in Nigeria and consulting to larger companies there too. I wonder if it resonates with your experience in Africa as an entrepreneur, board member of executive director, too?

From 1999 to 2009, I had marvellous life, business and diplomatic adventures living in Lagos Nigeria – so many that I wrote a book about my thrilling exploits in recently published Gibbous Moon Over Lagos. I encountered wonderfully energetic Nigerians carving out a new country one business at a time. I had my business wins, but I also lost a lot of my savings and earnings to rogues. I discovered the reality of living and running small enterprises within a system distorted by corruption.

I know what it’s like to:

  • Be let down by people you trusted the most.
  • Feel angry and distrustful of staff as mistakes leave you wondering if it reflects incompetence or corruption.
  • Be blindsided by a client who misuses your proposal to get work done using your ideas more cheaply.
  • Work without salary, putting employees’ salaries first, because every month suppliers miss payment terms and ruin cashflow.
  • Contemplate shutting down a business you love as the stress is too much and losses mount, your efforts brought down by the many knives of incompetence, corruption, fraud, conflict of interest, opacity, cliques, distrust and more.

Moreover, as I chalked up these experiences in my small companies, I realised the causes of my woes were the same as those afflicting my large corporate strategy clients. My exasperated client MDs and Chairs observed that:

  • Despite substantial investment in training, there were pockets (or troughs) of apparent incompetence.
  • Processes were not followed or documented.
  • Exceptions ruled.
  • People floundered to implement strategies.
  • Board members flouted policies (or tried to if my client was not vigilant).

A shared state across the scale divide was that trust with and among our people, regardless of what our HR Policies and Values Statement might say, was eroded by disturbing incidents and encounters with shady stakeholders.

I was not an entirely naïve oyibo (white person) for this to be the full explanation of why I suffered so. After all, I had already been living and working in Nigeria several years before I started up, and I had travelled and worked around Africa for decades.

For me the common denominator was the challenging environment which makes us all victims and even – no matter how small or isolated the boundary crossed - perpetrators of poor governance. I learnt the hard way that governance is the cake: that I needed to relentlessly focus more time and resources on all aspects of governance - even before I started up and continuously afterwards.

Have you experienced these issues in your business and boards too? If so, I share your pain. It is heartbreaking for all of us who are striving to build sustainable corporations that can transform African lives. It even stops women on boards of the largest companies being the change leaders they want to be.

From pain to passion. I have teamed up with Olatowun Candide-Johnson, Founder and CEO of GAIA Africa to form the Butterfly Coalition - a change movement, supportive community and source of pragmatic insights and training - for those women who want to join us game changing governance in Nigeria and in Africa.

Olatowun has said to me: “Africa must move to good governance – there is no alternative.”

I agree. So, let’s start baking.

 [1] All comments quoted in this report are words of 9 interviewees, senior women business leaders, executives, professionals and entrepreneurs operating in Nigeria. Research was conducted by Pamela Watson, Smart Ventures in Africa in collaboration with Olatowun Candide-Johnson, GAIA Africa in Q4, 2020. 76 women responded to online survey, 9 in depth, 1 hour interviews were carried out.

Have you registered for our webinar yet?