‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
Anirban Deb, country head, Olam Cameroon
1. What was your first job?
My very first job was back in India, where I joined Xerox India and worked with them in sales and marketing as a management trainee.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I think we have an exceptionally good set of people at Olam, both in Cameroon and outside the country. So I don’t particularly think I am worried about a lot. But, yes, Cameroon is an environment which has lots of opportunities, so being able to prioritise the rights ones – making sure that we are really doing the things that should be done in the right order and in the right way – is what I would guess I really think most about on any given day.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
Single most important influence on my career I guess would be our CEO’s – Sunny Verghese’s – core process session after I joined Olam… That’s an induction session that everyone goes through in Olam. It was the first time I met him and he took a group of us through Olam’s values, business models and his aspirations for Olam. So I think that has definitely been the most influential [factor in my career] in terms of guiding me and forming my thoughts on how to go about the future.
4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I would say it is that success does not make you Superman, failure does not make you a loser. You have to take both of these as learning experiences and get back to thinking of each day as a bright new day and take it as it is. Don’t try to project too much of your success on yourself and don’t try to project too much of the losses on yourself as well. Take them in your stride and really evaluate everything as it really is, instead of as you think it should be.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
That’s a very difficult question… I guess I’m very lucky that I work with very talented individuals and individuals who are very committed. Essentially the people around here are probably smarter than I am so in that sense I am lucky.
But if I had to pick one reason, it’s probably the ability to find the right people.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
On the job. I think business school can only expose you to a certain number of situations. On the job you really encounter a far wider range of situations… So it matures you up a lot quicker than business school. I think business school education is a good thing, it is a positive, but it is not a substitute for learning on the job.
7. How do you relax?
I do yoga, listen to music, go for long walks with my dogs and play with my kids. When the Cricket World Cup was going on [there was also that to enjoy].
8. What time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
Around 7am to 7:30.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I wouldn’t say there is any one question. But what I do look for in an employee is really the ability for them to listen and then arrive at an opinion or a conclusion – so to really actively listen. Anything that serves to highlight that is a good way to start off. I think it is one of the more important qualities, apart from others that are [also] needed [in employees].
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
I would say this is the place to be, and probably Africa can have more self-made, successful entrepreneurs and business people than any other place in history, given the opportunities right now. So people should be positive about Africa and really try to make their way [on the continent].
Anirban Deb heads Olam’s operations in Cameroon. He started his career at Olam as a branch coordinator in Togo in 2000, before moving to Benin, and then Cameroon, where he has spent the last 12 years holding a number of leadership positions.
Olam International is a global trader and processor of agricultural commodities. The company started operations in 1989 in Nigeria by exporting raw cashew nuts to India. Today it has diverse operations throughout the world, including 25 African countries.