MAZI Okechukwu Unegbu, attorney, arbitrator and stockbroker, is currently Managing Director / Chief Executive, Maxifund Investments and Securities Plc. Boasting a career spanning over 30 years in banking and finance, Unegbu has worked at leading financial institutions including First Bank, the defunct African Merchant Bank, Progress Bank (became Chairman / Chief Executive), Broad Bank and Citizens Bank (as Chief Executive in 2005) and was also a former President / Chairman of the Council of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN). In this interview with IBRAHIM APEKHADE YUSUF, the Imo-born technocrat affectionately called OCKU who will turn 70 in August, shares his experience managing people and resources. Fragments:
When does your typical day start?
For me, my typical day starts at 5 in the morning. Once I get out of bed I say my prayers and do my morning gymnastics for about 45 minutes and then start getting ready to go out 7-7: 30am. By 8:30 am I start attending to my clients. I follow this regimen every day except Saturdays because I sleep a little late after midnight until 1:00 AM and I wake up at 7:30 AM. On weekends, I spend an hour on my morning workout.
What is your management philosophy?
My management philosophy is what I call a combination of ideas. I enjoy involving people in the work. I allow them to come up with their own ideas because some of these young guys are really smart people. What I do is use people around me to get results. The best thing you can do as a good manager is to leave the space so open that there is freedom for everyone to operate and achieve their potential.
What is your management style?
Like my management philosophy, I allow people to make their own input in every decision that needs to be made. What I usually do is if I have an idea about any issue, I just throw it on the floor for people to make their suggestions, and then I’ll sum up what they did and make the final decision.
Do you delegate responsibility or do you manage micro-management?
Yes, indeed I delegate. I don’t manage at all. I delegate a lot. As I said before, my own idea of management is that if you give people the right tools to work with, they can actually excel. That’s one thing I’ve seen in managing people.
How do you motivate your staff?
There is often a misconception that the only way to motivate people is to give them only salaries and bonuses. No, that is certainly not true to a large extent. Fine, you can pay them big checks and salaries, but there are much better ways to motivate your staff. In my own case, I give my staff the opportunity to excel in their chosen career path by creating a favorable environment and growth opportunities.
How do you reprimand your staff? Do you apply the stick?
For me, the best thing you can do is leave room for mistakes so they can learn from them. My own attitude is that if you get mad at your staff for making a mistake next time, they might as well sit down and do nothing. That way you ended up making zombies. However, if someone is consistently making mistakes, move such a person to a different section and have him or her keep a close eye instead of asking that person to go straight. Simply firing such a person would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not the right thing to do. Once you’ve moved the person to another department, you’ve already sent a signal to that person, and usually such people usually have something to prove their competence. Usually they excel in their new role. As a manager with more than three decades of experience, I have seen this in management at various executives. Even as a lawyer I have applied the same methods and it has worked for me too. Currently, as a member of the Executive Council of the Nigerian Bar Association, I can also testify that this method has worked for me.
What motivates you?
Motivation for me on a personal note is working with people. I like to do my best to help people solve their problems. I tend to get personal satisfaction from that. For me, the moment is when I can ensure that the next person next to me or even someone I don’t know is able to achieve something through my efforts that gives me a level of indescribable joy.
What is the best decision you have made?
I remember quite a few. I remember at the time making the decision to bring Citizen Bank to the capital. I was able to negotiate everything and it went well. For me that was one of the best decisions I ever made as CEO. I also remember some of the roles and actions I took to make sure that the majority of my staff got better in their careers by taking them under my wing. Fortunately, today I have many of my employees who excel in the banking industry and they are still trying to remind me of the role I played in building their careers. Such a memory is a joy to me.
What’s the worst decision you’ve made?
As CEO I remember how the action I took cost investors their money after we invested the money in a bad company and lost billions of naira as a result. It’s a sad episode in my career that I usually don’t like to remember.
What are your other areas of interest besides business?
I like to read a lot. I play tennis as well as table tennis. I also do photography. I have all kinds of cameras. Photography is a pastime that I love so much. I just love to take pictures of memories around me. Nowadays this is even a lot easier with a mobile phone.
What is your holiday destination?
I also travel a lot, both within and outside the country. I can say with certainty that I have been to almost every part of Nigeria today. But nowadays traveling within the country is no longer safe as it used to be because of the problem of insecurity everywhere now. Nowadays when I travel I go through the air and I am aware of myself wherever I go. I went to Iseyin, Shaki, after Oyo state to see how local people live. In my state in Imo, I have also traveled through all 24 local government areas. As I traveled around I was able to appreciate each of these people’s peculiar needs and challenges and that gave me a lot of ideas when I decided to participate in the Imo State Governor Race a few years later. I have also been to the UK and US too many times. Such trips abroad usually give me the opportunity to learn new things and new trends that I can apply to my career and life in general. So traveling is more than an adventure for me.
Do you read?
Of course I read a lot. I try to read a book every month as much as possible.
What was the last book you read and when?
Yes, I had to read Chinua Achebe’s book, Things Fall Apart. I also routinely read management books. What I do is I only get the books from top management authors and read them for ideas. I now also follow everything about digital currency. I wrapped myself in it. The whole world is now using digital currency. That is why I am surprised that the CBN has had to impose a ban on cryptocurrencies. From what I’ve discovered through digital currency, many young people who have been inactive and unemployed until now are now fully engaged. The world has gone digital, but it seems that the apex bank is not yet geared towards such a global development.
What is your favorite Nigerian meal?
I don’t like egusi or rice at all. I love my eba with ogbono. I like amala with gbegiri and ewedu soup. I also like iyan or what is generally called pounded yam. I enjoy local food a lot.
Do you cook?
Oh yes I do. My mom had all four of our boys, there wasn’t a girl among us, so she taught us all to cook. But I have reduced my activities in the kitchen because I have a dutiful wife who is always ready to cook for me.
So you do the dishes too?
Oh sure, sometimes. I also do a lot of household chores to relieve my wife of stress. If there is no one in the house and I happen to go to the kitchen and see the place unkempt, I take it upon myself to clean up the place. I think my wife really appreciates that.
How do you relax?
I am quite an outdoors person. I love going to the club, Ikoyi Club to be precise, which I am now a lifelong member of. At the club I play tennis, table tennis. I meet my friends to network, socialize in general and relieve stress. I also try to encourage my family to go to the club too, because it’s the kind of place where you can relax with a cup of tea or coffee. My wife isn’t the extroverted type, but I try to encourage her to get out of the house every now and then. You see it when you leave the house; you are refreshed and renewed in so many ways. I have been following that regime for many years and I know it is beneficial for me.
You will turn 70 in a few months. How has your upbringing affected who you are now?
My father was a regular court judge and also engaged in agriculture, trade and made sure to excel in all these areas as well. For me, that background prepared me a bit for life. I was a war commander during the war in Biafra. I was only 17 years old at the time. A lot happened during the war. I remember that during the war lizards and rats were the delicacies of choice. If you kill lizards or rats, you even make hot, steaming pepper soup. It was so funny that you could also be sanctioned if you didn’t tell your superiors you were making pepper soup like that. That is a bad experience that has stayed with me. I can’t erase it from my memory. I am already collecting this experience and memories of the war in my memoirs that will be launched on my upcoming 70th birthday on August 17 to be precise. I remember visiting former President Olusegun Obasanjo at his Ota Farms when I was his relationship manager at First Bank. He told me, aren’t you afraid to visit a general? I told him I wasn’t worried that as his relationship manager I was even more powerful than him because it’s what I tell him he would do. Then I said, even as a war commander in the Biafran army, if I ran into him during the war, I would have shot him. He said yeeparipa!
I also remembered visiting OBJ at the Aso Villa in Abuja as president of the Chartered Institute of Bankers with other executives. When we got there, Baba said he was president with a big P, while I was president with a small P. He also said bankers are thieves. He said so many times. But I never responded to him. So I told him, Baba, I want to tell you a story. He said, okay, go ahead. I said my father was a regular judge. Every time he came home he would gather all of his kids together and say, “Please don’t act outside because if you do they will say you don’t have home workout.” When I said that, Baba OBJ looked at me and said, ‘So you call me the head of thieves ba? (laughs). I’ve been friends with OBJ for a while.
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