Bunmi Banjo is an organizational Psychologist and Digital Transformation expert with over 20 years experience in Africa, Asia and North America. Prior to her current role as CEO of Kuvora, Bunjo led Google’s efforts to equip millions of job seekers and businesses with digital skills for career and revenue growth. Her ongoing work includes helping organizations thrive in a digital age through implementing highly impactful strategies that result in formidable competitive advantage. Bunmi has been featured on BBC, CNN, Aljazeera Network, Financial Times and other international media. She has spoken at international forums including the UNESCO Debate on the future of technology, the World Economic Forum on Africa and the IFC conference on the future of work. More about Bunmi’s work at www.kuvora.com
You helped Google train one million Africans with digital skills! How did you tackle such a huge project and what would you say was critical to success?
Big things are easier to do when there’s clarity. With young people roaming the streets with nothing to do and people trying often unsuccessfully to build legitimate businesses, it was clear to me that Google could play an important role in providing skills training. With regards to how we did it, in addition to developing the right metrics and tracking against those to keep the team focused, the most important elements were partnerships and collaborations to help localize, bring partners fully into our vision and to scale with high quality. It was important that all trainers were from the communities in which they trained and had the flexibility to adapt the content for the learners. We also invested extensively in the trainers not just around the content but also in soft skills, leadership development etc.
With the challenges youth in Africa are facing regarding lack of jobs, what insights did you gain through the Google work and any others in terms of what might address the unemployment problem in a sustainable way?
What is required is an enabling environment, one where individuals and businesses can pursue economic goals and reasonably expect their effort to generate income. There’s also a need to encourage innovation by celebrating it wherever it exists. We need to do a better job at capitalizing on the tools that we have. For example, there are many opportunities in digital for youth in Africa with their mobile phones. With just devices and data plans, I’ve seen thousands of people becoming self employed and hundreds going on to employ several people.
You say that companies wanting to work in Africa must leverage the energy and creativity of young people. What might that practically look like?
First, such organizations must be comfortable with taking more than financial risk, for example by allowing young locals to make decisions and listening to them because people understand their environment better and what works in it. I’ve been in many situations where someone was telling me an idea would not work, but they couldn’t explain why. The temptation was to dismiss them, but I chose to assume they knew something I did not and helped them articulate their thinking and ideas. Many cultures in Africa are deferential so leaders need to actively seek out the input of younger or more junior people and provide incentives that support openness across the company.
Employers also have to be creative about how they hire, train and motivate local talent. Using traditional indicators like how well they did in school, their type of degree, or how someone speaks, may not show you who will be a great employee. Some of the most brilliant people I have hired did not fit the traditional mould. Look for passion, drive, creativity and boldness. Hire those people, train them, challenge them, listen to them.
What do you think might be the biggest quickest shift (besides AI) in how the future of work might evolve and how employees should prepare?
People need to become comfortable with ambiguity, accept that your future is very likely to be different in ways you just can’t pre-determine. Lifelong learning needs to be a reality for all of us and organizations need to help employees feel comfortable with this by thinking differently about how to motivate and compensate people.
The value placed on things like collaboration for example should increase. This is an area I focus on now at Kuvora. While we partner with industry leaders to provide training on machine learning, AI, UI/UX, enterprise system management, cloud platforms etc, our focus is helping organizations prepare for the future of work by building skills pathways that ensure that employees are increasingly more capable of using technology to meet business objectives and understand how to think about technology in relation to their work. If your employees are open to learning, are not intimidated by technology and enjoy collaborating with one another, your organization will be in a better position to benefit from technological shifts.
As someone well versed in organizational dynamics, how do you think the workplace needs to work in terms of non-tech components of organizational design?
The free flow of ideas across the organization is more important now than ever as is the ability to quickly execute. People on the front lines need to be able to react quickly to customer needs. Organizations need to do away with silos. Companies typically keep functions separate – technology teams work with other technology teams, marketing teams talk to fellow marketeers etc. This is inefficient and shrinks opportunities to innovate and bring changes to the business. Leaders need to disperse power and authority, understand how younger employees view the world, how they think. Younger people want to find meaning in their work and are not as motivated by promotions and salary increases as they are by things like autonomy.
Having lived in many countries and your work touching over 29 countries, you practise trans-cultural leadership. What’s your working definition of that kind of leadership and how do you ensure you get it right in any given country?
Trans-cultural leadership is effectively guiding people, teams and organizations in a different cultural context than one is from or is used to. When you spend time in different environments as I have, you realize how much more similar people are. We all want and cherish the same things for the most part – respect, fair reward for effort, validation, trust etc. Over the years I’ve landed on 3 things that I believe are the most important when dealing with people – humility, honesty, humor. I try to stay humble, open about the fact that I don’t have all the answers; I listen to people and pay attention to non verbal cues; I pivot when I need to and when I get things wrong I admit it and make adjustments. Humor is an important part of every culture, so I learn the nuances where I am and share a laugh when appropriate. I try not to take myself or my goals too seriously. I know if I am able to connect with people, work will more likely get done well.
What are one or two key things you’ve learnt from teams you’ve led that enhanced your leadership?
That you inspire loyalty and confidence and decrease the day to day burden on yourself as the leader through trust and coaching. An environment of trust, where intentions are clear, allows conflicts to be dealt with head on and for the interdependence necessary for extraordinary results to grow. I don’t think teams can reach their potential if members don’t align their objectives, and take regular temperature checks on how they’re progressing. By ensuring every team member is being coached on a regular basis – by their manager or a more experienced peer, everyone gets support that allows them to be more effective at their work. You as the leader need to model behaviors that build and encourage trust. Personally, I openly share my ideas, worries, thoughts and I don’t leave people guessing what my intentions are. If I need something from you I will explain why. If it’s a situation where I cannot completely be open, I let the team know that and why, rather than obfuscate or appear to be operating in secret.
How do you assess when to say ‘no’ to what looks like an exciting opportunity?
I say no to anything that is not aligned with my personal goals regardless of the opportunity. It’s important to know who you are, what’s important to you and what success is to you. I’ve found meditation helpful for developing clarity and regularly writing down objectives, ideas and plans helpful for keeping me focused on my goals.
My focus is on making the best of everyday. It has been my experience that if I keep moving in the direction of my goals day by day things fall in place. People call it different things – faith, “the secret”, natural law – I don’t know what it is but I know it to be true. Know what’s important to you and keep in alignment with those.
For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development please go to http://j.mp/verabooks