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TRN Magazine: Starting up a business in Nigeria – our HR challenges

March 2008 ushered in an exciting new phase of our lives. My 3 future partners and I were on the road searching for investors to back us in establishing our new firm, CardinalStone. Our mission was to build a world class investment banking firm of African origin. Today, almost six years on, CardinalStone manages over $300 million in capital and employs over 200 professionals across 6 operating companies in 3 different sectors of the Nigerian economy. As new ‘repatriate’ entrepreneurs with sound business school and institutional backgrounds and a fairly solid appreciation for the nuances of the local business environment, the one challenge we were least prepared for was coming to terms with the intrigues and surprises of the domestically available talent pool in Nigeria.

Generally highly intelligent, extremely enterprising, creative in solving unusual problems and resilient in the face of adversity, your average Nigerian (all things being equal) should be a business manager’s dream hire; unfortunately, in our experience, these natural attributes of the Nigerian people have seldom translated directly to the workplace. On average, 9 of 10 job seekers will not make the cut, while the 1 that does will, more often than not, require a considerable degree of refinement to fit into your ‘best practices’ institution; and hopefully after several iterations, you eventually find that one that fits.

There are three broad ways in which this phenomenon has manifested itself on our journey at CardinalStone; other prospective entrepreneurs may find these useful to note:

1. Limited pool of qualified candidates

In a country of over 150 million people with fewer than a million university graduates a year from an epileptic education system, where majority of those employed are working within decaying government institutions and across informal sectors of the economy, it shouldn’t be surprising that on average 90% of applicants for any professional position will be under-educated, under-experienced, under-exposed and under-qualified for the job.

This challenge is easier addressed for entry level positions where a combination of empirical, low touch tests and situational interviews can help identify the smart, hungry and absorbent candidates that can be taken on for further training.  The same can’t be said for experienced positions where, though candidates may be numerous in certain instances, most will come with sub-standard training and low exposure to best practices.

2. Surprisingly low professional standards

With decades of societal decay under largely corrupt governments, most industries still in some form of infancy, and most companies operating with limited and dilapidated infrastructure, the generally acceptable norms on work ethics, work quality and professionalism are quite alarming.

The truth is, most workers have never had an exposure to ‘best practices’ and frankly wouldn’t know how to deliver it if it were demanded of them.  Consequently, once you’ve managed to identify the few candidates that show promise of fitting into that organization of yours, your next and arguably toughest task will be that of establishing and transmitting the culture that will foster the development of that ‘world class’ state of mind across your organization.

3. Culture of misguided entrepreneurship

In a society where role models today comprise largely of family members who, despite having little-to-no demonstrated track record of success in academia, commerce or public service, have somehow come onto considerable wealth, commitment to long-term sustained career development has largely taken a back seat to a relentless pursuit of quick wealth by most. From clocking in at work only to focus on personal business pursuits, to funnelling corporate resources towards personal endeavours, or outright theft and fraudulent practices for personal gain at the expense of the firm, the form and severity of this problem is varied. As a business owner/manager, you will have to devote considerable attention and resources to reinforcing your desired corporate culture and to quickly weeding out the bad eggs; or else, you could very quickly go out of business.

Despite all the above, CardinalStone’s growth till date has been driven in no small part by the amazing professionals assembled across all areas of the firm; the bulk of these have come directly from the local labour market.  So, to my fellow (prospective) entrepreneurs looking to bring a little piece of ‘best practices’ back to our country and continent, please keep up the persistence, and in doing so, prepare yourselves for the human capital challenges that come with the territory. Your success is our future.

Question: How do you think Nigeria and Africa can overcome human capital challenges? Share your thoughts by leaving your comments below!

This article was initially published on TRN Magazine www.trnmagazine.com

About the author: Yomi Jemibewon is one of the founding partners of CardinalStone. He previously served as Vice President – Financial Advisory at Avante Capital. Prior to Avante, Yomi worked as a consultant at Bain & Company. He began his professional career as a systems engineer at Motorola Incorporated. Yomi holds B.Sc. and M.Sc. degrees in Electrical Engineering from VirginiaTech and an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

About TRN Magazine: TRN Magazine (www.trnmagazine.com) is a niche online magazine targeting Africans ages 18-35 in Africa and the diaspora. Our mission statement is to publish meaningful and culturally relevant content, initially focusing on topics related to education, career development, leadership and entrepreneurship.

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