Business leaders need courage and humility, says Unilever MD

Yaw Nsarkoh joined multinational consumer goods company Unilever as a management trainee after he finished university in 1993. The Ghanaian national is currently the managing director of Unilever East and Southern Africa.

Yaw Nsarkoh, managing director of Unilever East and Southern Africa

Yaw Nsarkoh, managing director of Unilever East and Southern Africa

Throughout his career Nsarkoh says he has witnessed a transformation of Africa’s business environment that has culminated in greater connectivity with the rest of the world and increased transparency. Nsarkoh told How we made it in Africa that business leaders require a certain amount of humility to be constant learners because the world around us is changing fast.

“In today’s world you cannot be a leader that professes to know it all. Some of the younger members of your team, who are young in terms of age and experience, have much greater capability and understanding of the reality of the world that we live in than anyone at the top,” says Nsarkoh. “Who is likely to understand social media better: the young people joining the workforce or the 80-year-old who is the chairman of your board?”

Nsarkoh notes that business leaders in Africa also need a certain amount of courage to be able to drive business with purpose. He explains that businesses should care about their ecosystems and compassionate models of capitalism, arguing that today’s business has to be sustainable and much more inclusive than it has ever been.

“I am not talking about charity when I say this. I am just talking about business models that enable people to achieve all the traditional goals of business but in a more inclusive way.”

As more African companies expand regionally, Nsarkoh says private sector, government and academia should come together to chart the path in building a talent pipeline that will power businesses in the future.

Noting that widespread youth unemployment at a time when populations are expanding in Africa is a big issue for every government, the Unilever executive argues that the skills shortage is a common challenge in emerging economies, but says it is surmountable.

“We need to step back and look at ways to augment our manpower planning [and] manpower production faculties to be able to keep pace with what is required in the future. There is a [skills] deficit and we can complain and complain but what is more important is that we start putting interventions in place within our own company systems and get going.”

Facing reality is one of the top lessons Nsarkoh has acquired in his 20-year career. He warns that trying to escape reality is an act of futility.

“You must always look reality in the eye. See even what you don’t want to see, so long as it is there, and then determine what interventions you need to make,” says Nsarkoh. “I can think about earlier stages in my career where I may have ignored certain signals I should have picked up and by the time they did happen I regretted it tremendously for not having paid attention to them.”