1. What was your first job?
A researcher and analyst at a public affairs and government relations consultancy. I worked in their international affairs department, advising governments in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean. I spent an inordinate amount of time next to the fax machine, sending memos and correspondences to far-flung places.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
As the CEO of a pan-African strategic advisory firm I’m charged daily with making decisions where there is no obvious right answer. It comes with the territory. As a young founder of Africapractice I used to sweat over these decisions. Today I can resolve them with my management team during office hours, leaving my evenings and my weekends free for my family. I usually fall asleep within seconds of my head hitting the pillow.
Resolving tensions in the workplace or unhappiness among staff members implicates me personally. I feel a great sense of duty to ensure that my team is happy and empowered to be the best they can be. I turn to David Hampshire, my chairman, and my wife Lilian for counsel on people-related issues. My wife has a high emotional intelligence and my chairman has spent a life-time managing big teams of people. He’s seen it all before!
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
Zeinab Abbas. She taught me about Africa’s rich cultural history and opened my eyes to inequality and prejudices. She helped me to understand that a small team of committed people can overcome any challenge and change the status quo. Together with Pierre-Emmanuel Maubert, my colleague for more than ten years now, Wiseman Nkuhlu and Bamanga Tukur, she helped me to fashion a vision for Africa as prosperous continent and a super-power – resource rich with a large and enterprising population and 54 votes at the United Nations.
4. What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I have received lots of good counsel from wise men and ladies over the years, including my own family – who always set the bar quite high. All of their advice has been valuable to me at different stages of my career, but a single statement frames all of my decisions – “Am I happy explaining my actions to my wife and children?” If I need to justify a decision to them, then it’s probably wrong.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
I developed a career mission at a relatively young age. I’ve managed to translate this into a clear vision for the company that I lead today. It’s this vision which has helped to rally some of the best talent in Africa to work with me and some of the biggest companies in the world to place their confidence in me.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
I’m not sure I should be confessing this in print, but here goes. I had the best education that money can buy. I had an inspirational primary school headmaster and then five great years at a world-class secondary school. In all of that time I didn’t once pick up a book for pleasure. Books and education can be helpful, but there’s no substitute for real life experience in my view. I’m a great fan of experience on the job. Exposure is a much richer talent development tool than any classroom. That said, I am contemplating submitting myself to a three-day ‘board stewardship’ course later this year.
7. How do you relax?
Good question! I relax by running long distances, kite surfing and spending time at the coast frolicking with my family. I love the sea, the sound of the waves and immersing myself in water (no matter how cold) – it distracts the mind and washes away tension.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I’m an early bird. I like to have two hours to myself before the world wakes up, reading and sending emails and catching up on current affairs. I’m usually tapping at my computer from 6am.
I have been travelling throughout Africa for 15 years now (visiting three countries each month on average). In all of this time I can count on two hands the number of passengers that I have spoken to at any length. I cherish the ‘alone time’ that a plane journey affords me. I use this time to think about my company’s strategy and plot the future. I’m not a fatalist, I firmly believe that you create your own fortune.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
The question I always ask is, “Why do you want to work here?” If the individual’s motives don’t align with our organisational vision and goals, and if they haven’t taken the time to identify how their skills can help my company to perform better and to grow, then I don’t care how qualified they are, they are not going to thrive at Africapractice. They are better of working elsewhere.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
The walls that constrained your predecessors are crumbling. Advances in technology, transportation and the advent of global supply chains means that there are fewer barriers to entry for new businesses and fewer obstacles to success. Establish your vision, develop your mission and pursue your goals with passion and commitment. Surround yourself with people, friends, family and colleagues who can reaffirm you when the chips are down. Set goals, not figures or time frames, and be resilient in pursuit of these.
Marcus Courage is the founder and CEO of Africapractice, a pan-African strategic advisory and communications consulting firm. He is also a director of Alkebulan, a financial advisory firm that supports African companies to structure and source growth capital.