Meet the Boss: Geoffrey White, CEO for Africa, Agility
1. What was your first job?
I was a graduate trainee with a big UK conglomerate. On day one I arrived in a brand-new suit, but was sent to the back of a warehouse and asked to unload a lorry of cables.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
Absolutely nothing – I sleep like a log. I think about the business all the time [and my] focus is on delivering things and pushing things forward. The biggest challenge is to keep momentum going and stop things getting bogged down.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
It would have to be my first chairman when I was a graduate trainee. I came out top of my graduate training programme and worked in the same company being mentored directly by the chairman. I got to a point where I was sufficiently senior running a business, and the next step up for me was to be regional director for that business.
However, I was 25 or 26 and the HR department turned around and said they’d never had a regional director who was under 45. So I would have had to do the same job for 20 years. But the chairman told me I was not suited to work in such a conservative environment. He made some phone calls and he found me another job in a global retail business that was happy to promote people at any age, depending on one’s ability. It was a huge step for my career, and I still thank him when I see him.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
Consultants understand your business less well than you do. The reality is you understand your business better than anybody else.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I think not taking ‘no’ as an answer and being able to think laterally. When there is a problem [I’m able] to think out of the box and come up with an alternative plan.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
On the job because it gives you practical day to day experience. In fact, I would say not just on the job, but in as many jobs as possible. One of the things I was very fortunate with in my early career through my graduate training programme, and in other positions, was being in organisations that gave me lots and lots of jobs to do. [It gave me] a wide understanding of how a business works and the challenges a business faces. I think it is important not to get stuck in a niche and say, ‘I only do marketing’ or ‘I only do sales’. You want to have a far wider appreciation, and it pays dividends to have a far wider appreciation of all the aspects of what goes on in a business.
7. How do you relax?
Good food, and walking my two dogs.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I try to find out what motivates them. What is it they are actually looking for out of the job? So be it a truck driver, a cleaner or a sales director – what is it that actually keeps them interested and motivated?
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
Broaden your experience as early as you can. So do lots of different things – that builds an objectivity and level of experience that enables you to grow into senior management and do much bigger things. Don’t become a niche employee who only does one thing. For aspiring entrepreneurs, they should keep chasing their dreams because the reality is if you knock on enough doors, eventually one will open.