In order to build to last, an organisation must cultivate systems and feedback mechanisms to encourage this type of dialogue. Open, frank discussions to listen, learn, inform, engage and educate.  I thought to share a few points from our interaction, particularly useful tips for other professionals hungry for success: 

1. Starting out right

Whether you are an aspiring entrepreneur, or you prefer to climb the corporate ladder, the importance of structure and working in a structured environment cannot be overestimated. It helps to cultivate discipline which is directly correlated with your productivity and ability to produce results. While the corporate structure is beneficial in helping to instil certain work ethics, your work environment should be one that is conducive for learning, growth and opportunity. 

The best organisations for young people are those who recruit objectively and transparently (not based on who you know or who put in a phone call), train and capacitise young professionals, place round pegs in round holes, i.e. deploy talent to where it is best suited, give people access to the right tools to execute their tasks, keep them challenged, measure and appraise staff fairly, and finally, reward and commend results and sanction failures. Any organisation that follows this merit-driven chain will give you a great career start. 

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2. Your dreams are valid

Your aspirations and yearnings are normal. As a young analyst, I still remember my own feelings of anxiety — itching to know when I would rise through the corporate ranks and finally earn my first N100,000. It’s okay to want more. But you must remember that you must deserve more to desire more. You must put in the hours, the long nights, the sacrifice, and the diligence. While it is okay to yearn for more, you must work hard enough to earn the promotion, the pay rise, the title change, the salary increases etc. 

Have a clear picture of the destination you desire but instead of letting frustration set in, let those desires become the fuel that drives you to attain your goals. In a merit-driven system, people are rewarded for their hard-earned results, and leaders never take credit for the work of their subordinates. You will rise according to your productivity, advance in your career, and be exposed to even more responsibilities. As you climb the ladder, remember that you owe it to those coming after you to train, teach and inspire them as well. 

3. Strive to be the best version of yourself

The best spent money is that which is spent on your self-improvement. With the rising digitization in today’s world and the ubiquity of the internet, ignorance is no longer acceptable. Your generation has unhindered access to quality information, much more than those before you, so you should take advantage of it and develop yourself. 

Read, learn, feed your intellect, and strive to expand the horizons of your mind. Learning is a long-term investment, and it never stops rewarding. I like to hear about leaders who walk this talk, and unsurprisingly, whose intellect and boundless knowledge fascinate their team members. 

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4. The People Factor

The people issue is extremely important and as Leadership 101 dictates, if you hire the right people in an organisation, they will fire the organisation on to scale all targets. In the same way, prioritise the people you work with. Never take others for granted. Nurture your relationships. 

I was fortunate in my career to have a network of people who identified my potential early on and created the right pipeline of opportunities for my growth. In the same way, as you start out in your career, build your relationships, seek to learn, don’t be afraid to understudy the experts, reach out to potential mentors and learn from them. I shared with them how a former manager once wrote in my appraisal, “Tony can walk on waters”. Till this date, I have not and will never forget this. He wrote this because he recognised my interest in learning and getting things done. 

Develop these relationships with managers and mentors while leveraging them as a spring board for more opportunities. At the same time, don’t neglect your peers. Needless rivalry, cliques, office gang-ups and gossip in the workplace do not benefit anybody. Stay away from these distractions. 

5. On checking out for overseas pastures 

You don’t have to check out, to travel out of the country to become successful. I hear of many young people traveling abroad as a way to escape the economic challenges. What I often say to them is that yes, challenges are real on the continent, but so are the opportunities. Of course, I did not always think so. As a young teenager, I also wanted to ‘checkout’ to America in pursuit of what was sold to us as the better life. Luckily for me, but unluckily for me at the time, my parents could not afford it. 

That seeming lack of opportunity opened me up to a future in Africa that I could not have had anywhere else. This is not to say there is anything wrong with aspiring to live abroad or relocating for studies, but never forget that there are immense opportunities available to you right here on the continent. If someone like me, from an ordinary background could make it, what makes you think you can’t? 

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Final words… 

It is all about balance While it is true that you can have it all - a thriving career, robust relationships, a sense of purpose, a rewarding career etc. - you may not have it all at the same time. Life comes in phases and seasons. As a young professional, this is your season to sow. This is the time to toil to build the right foundation. 

This is the hour to learn voraciously, to work hard and gain all the experience that you can. This is the time to put in the work! Reaping and harvesting will come at a later time. Some others may call it balance, I call it prioritisation. Doing things step by step, because indeed there is a time for everything. Sequence things well. What is most important to you at this time? 

However, your health should remain a constant priority, and any respectable workplace will give you time to refresh and recuperate.

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About the Author

Tony O. Elumelu is an entrepreneur and a philanthropist. The chairman of Heirs Holdings, United Bank for Africa Plc and Transcorp Nigeria Plc. In his early career, he made a name for himself by turning the nearly bankrupt Standard Trust Bank into a top-five player in Nigeria. In 2005 he led the largest merger in the banking sector in sub-Saharan Africa, acquiring United Bank for Africa (UBA). In five years, he transformed it from a single-country bank to a pan-African institution with over 7 million customers in 19 African countries. Click here to find out more about him.

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