Know your True North
by Ayodeji Balogun, CEO AFEX
Not the North in Winterfell ruled by the house of Stark in Game thrones. No. The North is many different things to different people. To me, true north refers to the direction towards the top of the earth along an imaginary line, at an angle of 90° to the equator. It is the direction of the North Pole relative to the navigator’s position.
I always come back to this definition of the #TrueNorth. Quite complex, yet very simple.
Know your location in relation to the Earth’s center.
Also, we can read it to mean, know your purpose, and how far away you are from it.
I needed to know my purpose in life.
After a few roller-coaster years, I needed to find meaning for my journey. The “Why?” question kept coming back. I kept having the feeling that my street and MBA degrees that got me here, may just not be enough to keep me. I wasn’t sure if we will succeed or not, but even if we will fail, I didn’t want it to be because I didn’t try or I didn’t know enough.
I decided to go back to school, but amid the turbulent journey, it was difficult finding time to search for a school, so I tossed a coin. I made a bet; submitted two applications in case I never made it into one (both were late), and voila! I got admitted to IESE Business School and THNK School of Creative Leadership.
Getting into School
I was online and saw an advert, it said “THNK”, we remove the ego in innovation. I could connect with it, and I loved it! I signed up, it was just a few clicks.
I was expecting a long application process and many forms. Rather, they sent an email asking for a time for a call to see if there was alignment, so that we could avoid me writing essays, only to be told I wasn’t great enough. I loved it! The call was awesome, and I knew it was for me.
After that there were a lot of emails that I just couldn’t read. All I needed was a date for the flight.
When that day came, I landed at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, and took an Uber to the venue where we were starting the program. It was an outdoor weekend in a cold town on the dam in January! I had no jackets, no running shoes, no camping wears. The jacket in that picture was given to me by the school. It was cold as it could get, but nothing would stop me from finding my True North.
Lagos Business School, Pan-Atlantic University posted that it was partnering with #IESE and Strathmore Business School (SBS) for a Global CEO Program. It was a program curated by Africa Business Leaders, and it was the pioneer class. As a baby-CEO, I knew the program was out of my league. I also thought, since it is a pioneer program, maybe I can make up for unfilled seats in the class. I applied.
I did make the list, but I was right, I was punching above my weight.
I had booked an Airbnb in Westland, Nairobi — my favorite part of Nairobi. I didn’t know the campus was on the other side of town. I was late on the first morning. I had used an uber, a boda-boda (okada or motorcycle), and ran into campus panting. I struggled to walk into the class and find my name-plate. Luckily it was at the back.
Immediately I settled down, I saw three of my bosses in the class! I was sure I was in the wrong room, only I was not. When I joined The Tony Elumelu Foundation in 2011 as an analyst, Samuel Nwanze, Valentine Ozigbo and Peter Ashade were all CEOs of our largest group companies. I grew in their hands. All others in the class were very senior CEOs across eight countries in Africa. I was by far the baby of the class.
I learned so much at the GCEO Program. It was focused on how to do business in Africa, and how else to learn, but share a class filled with business leaders across Africa. Professor Alejandro Lago was simply amazing as the Program Director. Henry Onukwuba and Carl Wagner made the stay in Nairobi, Lagos, and New York superb.
I have always believed that if you are the smartest in every room you are, then you are in the wrong room.
I enjoyed great mentorship, coaching, and built great relationships.
Applying the Lessons
2019 was as much my Story as it was my AFEX story. As leaders, until you heal what hurts you, you bleed on people that did not cut you. We have to find harmony with ourselves to be able to lead effectively.
I defined my True North and life purpose. I also resolved to lead and build AFEX for-profit and to scale our Impact. We set on a journey to shape the future of AFEX. We started what we call Project #BlackElephant — from white elephant because we essentially wanted to make the impossible possible, and we needed to continue to remind ourselves of that fact. And black because we had no other choice than to make it work. We needed to raise funds to pay consultants that will help us articulate the strategy. We chose to work with Andrew S Nevin, Ph.D. Mary Iwelumo and Chiamaka Nnake, ACCA of PwC Nigeria, were amazing. More to come in 2020 on the strategy piece.
We also started building ComX by AFEX. I recall us doing a test on 15th November, and we were about 45% completed of the scope. All hands were on the deck over the holidays. By 4th January, we had reached about 65% of the scope. We pushed to live and started building its replacement immediately. Today ComX is the best AgTech App in Africa; winning the 2020 AppsAfrica Awards in FoodTech and AgTech.
With all that happened in 2019, I crafted out my purpose Statement:
I am a buffalo soldier, fighting for Africa, leading with empathy and thoughtfulness, and helping it feed itself.
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