1. What was your first job?
I was an accountant in the office of the President of Kenya. I was just fresh out of college, having trained in finance and accounting. I recall I would walk into the office and the police would salute. I would turn around to see who they are saluting, only to find out it was me they were saluting. It was an amazing experience being responsible for budgeting and reporting, but I realised very quickly that the simple number crunching and bean counting didn’t do it for me. What was more interesting for me was the story behind the numbers. I wanted to understand and advise businesses. So I moved on, and eventually ended up in the SME advisory and investment world.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I lose sleep about any of our businesses not performing up to expectation. I am always worried about how we can get companies to perform better. There are a lot of good plans and strategies, and qualified human resources, but the biggest risk in achieving results in my opinion is the execution risk.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I was with CARE International (a humanitarian agency) for almost a decade, and one of the country directors at CARE Kenya, called Dennis O’Brien, had a great influence on my career. I remember there was an opportunity for upward movement and I was a little hesitant but he convinced me to take up the opportunity. He taught me to always challenge myself.
I also learned the values of hard work from my parents. My dad – who was a public servant and retired as the auditor general – always worked hard, even through weekends. My late mom too insisted on hard work at school and also around the home. These values of hard work, continuously challenging myself and always seeking solutions, have influenced my career and the kind of person I have become.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I will go back to my former bosses at CARE who taught me a valuable career lesson: to never stop at identifying problems, as that was the easy part, but to always seek solutions to the challenges.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
There is no substitute for hard work. I wake up between 5:00 and 5:30am every day without fail and I have done that for more than 30 years. Hard work and discipline are virtues I picked from my parents and from school. It means never giving up, even if you fail at the first attempt. It means pushing oneself hard, but it also means pushing others as I do not tolerate mediocrity from myself or others. Also I cannot underscore the importance of diverse and deep networks in the business world, and not just locally, but globally.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
I think it is a combination. I think you can learn a lot on the job if you have good mentors. But school is also important. I did my studies on a joint course between a Kenyan university and the US-based Columbia University, and I learned a lot about leadership.
7. How do you relax?
As I travel a lot and spend a lot of time at work, when I have spare time I like to spend it with family. We love going to national parks and I think I have been to almost all national parks in Kenya.
I travel a lot on business, but the fun part is when I get to travel for leisure, and I have been fortunate to have visited the pyramids in Egypt, the Sahara Desert in Tunisia, the Swiss Alps and Kruger National Park in South Africa – I enjoy stuff like that.
I also enjoy watching and listening to news on international and local TV stations whenever I get a moment. Occasionally, I go out for drinks with my friends and colleagues.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
Unless I have a breakfast meeting, I get to the office between 06:30 and 07:00. I keep to myself for the first couple of hours when I respond to my emails and if I have any heavy documents to read or challenges to mull over, this is when I address them as I think most clearly in the morning. In that respect I am definitely a morning person.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
What is most important for me is not what the candidate says, it is what kind of a person the interviewee is, and sometimes you get that not by asking questions but through your interaction throughout the interview. I want to get a feel of their attitude, passion, integrity, and chemistry. I don’t want to hire someone and find out later they want to stroll into work at 10:00 and waltz out by 15:00. These are things you can pick up during the interview. So when I interview somebody I try to get to know the person, then I can tell whether or not I can work with that person.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
There is no shortcut to success. If you are looking for a magic bullet, it is hard work, patience and perseverance. I would also say that your destiny is determined by yourself. You can actually identify what you love and pursue it.
George Odo is a partner and managing director for East Africa at pan-African private equity firm AfricInvest Capital Partners. Headquartered in Tunisia, AfricInvest manages US$1 billion across 14 funds.