Bella Disu

The Africa Report - - EDITORIAL - By NI­CHOLAS NORBROOK

Bella Disu is in her happy place: a restau­rant in Paris. “My whole fam­ily are huge fans of the cul­ture, but par­tic­u­larly the gas­tron­omy, foie gras and all that,” says Disu. We are sit­ting in the Le Bris­tol, a dis­creet lux­ury ho­tel in the French style. Out­side, it is snow­ing; Parisians scurry past the lobby win­dow hold­ing parcels, brave cy­clists joust with the traf­fic.

In­side, the weather is more cor­dial. Disu is in Paris to meet France’s Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron as part of a ‘Choose France’ sum­mit and to sign con­tracts on be­half of Globa­com with French tele­coms equip­ment maker Al­ca­tel. Globa­com is the sec­ond-largest tele­coms com­pany in Nigeria. As of March 2019, it had more than 46 mil­lion sub­scribers, equiv­a­lent to 26.6% of the mar­ket – be­hind MTN Nigeria’s 37.5%.

There is of­ten a col­lec­tive in­take of breath when a fam­ily busi­ness is handed over to the next gen­er­a­tion. How much more so when the founder of the busi­ness, Mike Ade­nuga, is Africa’s sec­ond-richest man, ac­cord­ing to Forbes?

Disu, Ade­nuga’s sec­ond daugh­ter, is the first to recog­nise that pres­sure of ex­pec­ta­tions – and how, ini­tially, it bent her lead­er­ship style out of shape. “I started off in busi­ness as an 18 year old work­ing in my fa­ther’s com­pany,” she re­calls, “and I felt if you are not tough enough or don’t put up a front, then you can’t suc­ceed.” That pres­sure is dou­ble for women, for whom so­ci­ety cuts so lit­tle slack, es­pe­cially in busi­ness. “I had to go the extra mile to make sure I didn’t fail,” she says. Now, how­ever, she prefers to praise “the in­com­plete leader – one who knows her weak­nesses and strengths, where they can be im­proved.”

Start­ing at Globa­com in 2004, she has risen through the ranks. “I was ini­tially in the trea­sury depart­ment and fi­nance, then my port­fo­lio in­creased to over­see­ing the call centre, the re­tail out­lets, be­fore it even­tu­ally in­creased to over­all management of the com­pany,” says Disu.

She re­alised, a few years into her work­ing life meet­ing engi­neers, ar­chi­tects and spe­cial­ists of all kinds, that “I am never go­ing to know all these com­pe­ten­cies. I need to fo­cus on be­ing the leader that can drive ef­fi­ciency and ef­fec­tive­ness.”

And so, caught be­tween the weight of out­side ex­pec­ta­tions and the in­ter­nal drive to bet­ter her­self, Disu picked a path that most avoid: the 360º re­view. For those un­fa­mil­iar, stay well away! Your su­pe­ri­ors, col­leagues and staff are all so­licited for anony­mous crit­i­cism. You end up learn­ing far more about your­self than you may want to. An involuntar­y shud­der crosses her as she re­calls it. “The only way is to be hum­ble enough to take feed­back and turn that feed­back into change.”

And while she says she is like her fa­ther in terms of work ethic – “We ex­change work text mes­sages at 3am” – she is slowly try­ing to push change through the busi­ness.

Part of that is in the use of tech­nol­ogy. “And it’s the lit­tle things like in­stead of hav­ing five meet­ings a day, send me that doc­u­ment via the cloud and I edit it. We save time and money in­stead of travelling to meet some­one,” says Disu. It also means

‘The only way is to be hum­ble enough to take feed­back and turn it into change’

help­ing the le­gal depart­ment beat its ad­dic­tion to pa­per.

But, she says, the real challenge is to catch up and over­take Globa­com’s heavyweigh­t ri­val MTN. Disu wants to take the ‘Ama­zon route’ – a laser-like fo­cus on the cus­tomer. One of the deals inked in Paris is with Vo­cal­com, a com­pany that will har­vest com­plaints made on so­cial me­dia about net­work is­sues in real time and push the in­for­ma­tion to the ap­pro­pri­ate depart­ment to fix. “Now that chan­nel will feed di­rect into the call centre,” says Disu. That kind of diplomacy, be it to­wards cus­tomers or clients, seems sec­ond na­ture to Disu. France in­trudes back into the con­ver­sa­tion: a waiter, in the French style, is keen to point out that prior ar­range­ments have to be made be­fore photos can be taken. Disu pulls out a smile, which works as a for­mi­da­ble paci­fier. “We re­ally do love the French,” she says, which is an un­der­state­ment. Her fa­ther spent sev­eral mil­lion eu­ros on re­hous­ing the Al­liance Française in La­gos. Be­yond the com­mon set of busi­ness skills that every entreprene­ur needs in or­der to be suc­cess­ful, Disu ar­gues that women can bring more to the job. This in­cludes, for ex­am­ple, the abil­ity to build teams and com­mu­ni­ties, and, as the busi­ness buzz­word has it, cre­at­ing lead­ers through­out the or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Each week she asks a new per­son to chair her weekly core group meet­ing. “Next week, it could be the ex­ec­u­tive who has just two years ex­pe­ri­ence chair­ing t h e me e t i n g. Why? Be­cause he is put in the po­si­tion where he can learn to be a leader. I re­alised that if you don’t do that, you can have some­one in the com­pany for 10 years and he has never been able to chair a meet­ing.”

She is also gath­er­ing in­tel­li­gence from the foot­sol­diers on the front line, or­gan­is­ing ad hoc meet­ings where ven­dors and management from stores can meet her to discuss is­sues they face. “Our re­gional man­agers do come to the HQ in La­gos, but I re­alise you only hear about 60% of what is re­ally go­ing on on the ground,” says Disu. “For ex­am­ple, I had one telling me: ‘My sig­nage isn’t vis­i­ble enough. I could dou­ble the sales at this store if I had a py­lon on the street be­cause it’s a high­way.’”

This ap­proach is not what some Nige­rian men are used to, es­pe­cially in a busi­ness en­vi­ron­ment where what the boss says goes and lis­ten­ing to em­ploy­ees is not stan­dard prac­tice. But it has gone down well with the troops, says Disu. “Let’s change this au­to­cratic sys­tem. It’s a new strat­egy, but I have got over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive feed­back.”

But in the world of 21st- cen­tury busi­ness, the smart money un­der­stand that in­stinct has no gen­der. When 9mo­bile (for­merly Eti­salat Nigeria), Nigeria’s third-largest tele­coms com­pany, got into trou­ble late in 2017, Disu started an ag­gres­sive cam­paign to woo its cus­tomers. “At the end of the day, you can be the nicest per­son,” says Disu, “but in busi­ness you want to have your com­pe­ti­tion kicked to the side and be a mar­ket leader. That’s al­ways the goal.”

Each week she asks a new per­son to chair her weekly core group meet­ing

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