1. What was your first job?
My first job ever was as a sales person in a gift shop in a hotel. I was straight out of high school, so I was about 18 years old.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
For me it is about keeping the business sustainable and profitable because I feel a great sense of responsibility for the people in my team. It is a huge responsibility to make sure that whatever decisions are made are the right ones… and everyone will still have their jobs. So what keeps me up at night are the lives that I have in my hands – my team. When I first started MicroEnsure Ghana we were [a team] of nine, and now we are 40-plus. So you can imagine, all these people which I now feel a great sense of responsibility for. I am like a mother hen which has to make sure that all these people are taken care of in terms of the business decisions I make. So that keeps me up at night.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
I come from a family of women entrepreneurs, and hard-working women… My grandmother was an Ankara (African wax print) trader back in the 1950s and worked through till the 1990s as a big wholesaler of Ankara in Kumasi. I remember at the age of about five years I used to go to the shop with her and then we would go home with a lot of money and I would stay up with her helping her count it. I took so much inspiration from my grandma… and I say this with a lot of emotion because she died in 2014. Although she had never been to school, she knew every single stock she had in her shop and managed to build two houses out of that business. She was also a single mother to five children.
She just inspired me. Her business acumen was just spot on up until the day she died. My mom and her sisters also took up that mantle and are also business people in their own industry.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I think it is more of an experience of professional leadership. In 2011 I was selected for a programme called ‘The Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership’. It is run every year by the US State Department and Fortune magazine where 26 emerging women leaders are selected across emerging markets and [flown] up to the US and placed with women leaders at Fortune 500 companies. I was placed with Accenture in New York and mentored by the CFO at the time, Pamela Craig, as well as a woman called Roxanne Taylor who is currently still the chief marketing officer – along with many other women leaders within Accenture. I remember, coming from Ghana, I saw how humble these women were and how they consistently pushed selflessness as a leader. Leadership wasn’t about them but about a service.
So for me – back in 2011 when I was only 31 – I came back with the understanding that leadership was not about me. It is not about being a boss, but about taking care of the people who you are responsible for. It was a very humbling and life-changing experience. It changed my professional outlook in terms of how I lead a business. So I don’t lead it from a selfish point of view – and even things like this interview make me very uncomfortable because it centres me as the person who has done it all. But there is a huge team around me who often leave at 7pm when I sometimes leave at 5pm or 4pm. So I think leadership should always be about service.
So that experience alone gave me a totally different perspective on how to lead professionally, and even in my personal life.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I see leadership as a service and value my team. From my mentorship experience I also learnt to value people and that you drive success through people. You can’t do it on your own.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
Absolutely on the job! I haven’t been to business school yet – and I don’t know if I will ever go – but on the job experience is [valuable]. I keep telling people that being at MicroEnsure Ghana for five years has been better than going to business school because I have learnt so much, especially when it was a start-up and I was helping build the business from the ground up. It has just been absolutely incredible. But within MicroEnsure as well I have very good mentors – such as Richard Leftley (the founder and CEO) and Peter Gross (director of strategy) who recruited me into MicroEnsure. They have been fantastic mentors in terms of helping me lead from the very beginning when I came in.
7. How do you relax?
A nice quiet evening with a cup of tea and a good book.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I have kind of a funny routine. I wake up at 1:30am every single day and I have what I call my “quiet time”, which is more of a spiritual time for me. For about two hours I read my Bible, say my prayers – and that really relaxes me and sets me up for the day. Then I drift off to sleep and wake up around 6am. So I am at my desk latest 8:30am. By 9am I have gotten into work and started answering emails. On average I leave work around 6pm.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
“Why do you want this job?”
I usually look out for the drive the person has. In every business I have worked in… I have seen you have got to have passion and be driven. I am a very driven person so I need to work with people who are on the same wavelength as me – or else you can’t align and it won’t work. So I usually look out for drive and people who are ready to step out of their comfort zone and do the work, because doing work in Africa is not fluffy at all. It is hard work – especially when you are starting a business and resources are not readily available from the beginning.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
Do the work before the stardom. Prove yourself – your work must speak for you. Don’t chase stardom because once you start something that seems innovative, and you are granting interviews here and there, you can actually be side-tracked and get carried away. First do the work and once the results are out there – and they are positive – the stardom will chase you. Very often I see people all over the place when they start a small business. The argument is that by making noise you attract investors but I think there is a different way of making noise which doesn’t side-track you with trying to be in the spotlight. You need to be focused, do the work and prove yourself.
Adjoa Boateng heads MicroEnsure’s operations in Ghana, Malawi and Nigeria. She joined the team in 2012 and was responsible for converting its NGO operations in Ghana into a for-profit business. MicroEnsure develops mobile micro-insurance products for telecos. The company offers its services in five African markets, as well as in various Asian economies, and has 63 million customers using its insurance products.
The above extracts have been slightly edited for clarity.