My trip to Lagos with YPO (Young Presidents Organization) brought several interesting insights. Nigeria is still considered a developing country and is 10 years behind what most Americans have come to take for granted. The country has an extreme level of poverty and deals with issues such as access to clean water and power. Even in the best hotels, the power often shuts down for minutes or hours. Life is a daily grind for most of the Nigerian people who live in survival mode.
That is a difficult aspect for business leaders and managers who find their workers dealing with basic necessities of life. Those with jobs make on average $4 per day and find that 60% of their salaries go toward transportation. Sean Hsu, the YPO Education Chair and owner of Netcom, described the Nigerian workers as a “me” culture. It’s hard to think of terms of “we” when everyone is dealing with daily survival.
A guess one word that would describe my experience of Lagos and Nigeria in general was “chaos.” The government is full of corruption where bribes are commonplace. As a result, the business leaders that I met have learned to deal with this type of culture by developing relationships. Another example of the chaos was the traffic! It was like nothing I have ever seen before. On the way to the airport, I had a police escort arranged by one of the members of YPO. I count those 90 minutes among the most amazing times of my life. It reminded me of the bumper car ride at Disneyland — just in real life! Weaving in and out of traffic without lanes or turn signals…it was truly an experience like I’ve never had before.
So I kept thinking to myself, “Why Lagos?” It was intriguing to me that this group of successful and distinguished business leaders chose to build their lives in Lagos. With all difficulties of living there that include not having basic services, dealing with incredible traffic congestion, the challenges of worker productivity and government corruption…Why choose this city? Why this country to grow a business?
The answer was unanimous among this group of leaders. Lagos is an emerging country with tremendous opportunity for business growth. The potential for financial profit had enormous upside and was worth all that went along with life there. What stood out for me was how these leaders acknowledged the chaos but chose instead to concentrate on the opportunity. They saw what most others cannot see. They accepted the difficulties and were willing to tolerate them for the opportunity, upside and potential. It is a key aspect of their success. There was financial reward and also an opportunity to improve life in this area of Africa by providing jobs.
This experience in Africa has been a reminder of a simple but sometimes elusive skill – it’s what we focus on that matters. Leaders have the ability to not only see the opportunity but then lead themselves and others through the chaos to get there. A wonderful reminder for us all!