‘Meet the Boss’ is a How we made it in Africa interview series where we pose the same 10 questions to business leaders across the continent.
NJ Ayuk, managing partner, Centurion Law Group (Equatorial Guinea)
1. What was your first job?
I did two at the same time. The first was housekeeping at an hotel, and I also worked at a fast food restaurant. I was 16 years old and in Germany at the time.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I would say providing good service, getting good clients and ensuring we stay true to providing good quality work. But also, with being a growing law firm, you must always think about your people. My staff travel a lot and I’m always worried where they are across different time zones.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career and why?
I think the person who had the biggest impact was an African-American professor, the late Dr Ronald Walters. He worked with me as a mentor and taught me a lot about service, business and community. He also encouraged me to think about law. I actually went to law school thinking about being a civil rights lawyer, and today am a corporate lawyer in that same vein.
Dr Walters was a former campaign manager for Jesse Jackson and a very political guy. But he really shaped my views on community and service, and helped make my career. I owe a lot to him.
4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I got it from one of my law professors, who said: “Cover your arse, and kick some arse”.
5. The top reasons you have been successful in business?
I think one of the reasons why I have always thought we have been successful is because of our strong sense of commitment to our clients and knowing that we have an obligation to continue doing what we do. For us it’s not just a job, it’s a cause.
I always strive to be on top because it’s the bottom that’s crowded. I don’t want to be at the bottom. I hate failure and cannot think of failing. I like to compete, I like to win, and I have an insatiable appetite to defy the odds.
There is a strong [drive] to ensure that our societies and people get better, which keeps me up at night. But it’s also the reason why we can, and have been, successful a lot. I think that vision has kept me focused, and we’ve been able to transfer that to other lawyers within the firm.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
I think education is vital in preparing for leadership, but on the job is what really works. When you are on the job you see different things and you deal with different people.
Leadership is not just about having people on your team with nice PhD theses. Some of the best lawyers I’ve worked with did not have all A’s in law school. Some of the “B students” have been the best guys I have worked with. They have led teams, big teams, because they have been led and are ready to lead. And I think you see that happen because leadership is about connecting with people and about knowing the bigger day-to-day issues as well.
Yes, whatever you learn from business or law school is very important, but I always say that I came from the school of hard knocks. So for me leadership has always been about finding out how to go out there as an entrepreneur, as a lawyer and as someone building a big business, and connect with people both in the boardroom and on the streets. Both are very important in building leadership.
For me I consider service leadership as my leadership model. We have to be of service. Like I said before, this is a cause, not a job for us.
7. How do you relax?
I love a good spa day. I have also started the habit of jogging in the evening and hope I can find more time to do that. Going out there, taking some time off and collecting your thoughts helps a lot.
One of the new trends we face as new African entrepreneurs and business leaders is that we do not really rest and find the time to take care of ourselves properly. And I think it’s really important that we do. We are trying to implement this at our firm – to really find a work-life balance. This year we are getting a gym membership for everyone at the firm, and if they don’t use it, they pay me. A healthy firm is a rich firm.
8. When in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I like to be at my desk at home by 5:30am. I like to start my mornings very early but I also go to bed very late… and I awake with a cold shower every morning.
Africa is moving so fast and is so exciting, and we are seeing a lot of business because of it. So if you start your day at 5:30am to 6am, by the time its 9am you have gotten your emails out and made those first important phone calls.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I always ask where they see themselves five years from now. I am worried about any person who doesn’t have a five-year plan… because it shows they’ve not really given themselves much time to think about it. Their answer also tells me where they want to go in life and what their expectations are. That thought process, that critical thinking and analytical skill is very important. I am actually much more focused on that, than what their actual answer is. I want people who are driven, ambitious and pro-African at the firm.
I always tell people that I am willing to work with a lawyer or an employee who doesn’t have everything, but has drive and the willingness to learn. If they give me that drive, I will develop them… and one of the things I am most proud of at Centurion is that we have trained leaders.
10. Your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. Don’t let anybody tell you to go home. Don’t let anybody tell you it is not your time. This continent is ours and it is our time. Like the Texans say “don’t mess with Texas”, Africans should say “don’t mess with Africa”.
We have everything at our disposal. My generation is drinking from wells that were never drilled for our parents. We have a chance to do something bigger than our own personal interests. Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah and all the great African leaders of the past, they liberated this continent by rallying people together and creating a movement to give us freedom. Now our generation has email, Twitter, Facebook – we are the most sophisticated in technology and have everything in our hands. How can we not do more than they did for this continent?
And don’t blame the white man if you are not succeeding. Don’t let anyone tell you that some Europeans, Americans and Chinese are those responsible for you not getting to where you want to be. Your worst enemy is you. If you can defeat the enemy within you, the enemy out there can do you no harm. So start by getting up every day and improving yourself, training yourself and getting the best education you can. Find good mentors, and let them hold your hand. Yes, you are going to fall down. I have taken some personal hits in my life, but I always get back up. So when you fall down, get up, dust yourself off, and proceed.
Also, cut all negative friends loose. You are going to be part of the best generation this continent has seen. But to keep going forward we can’t be held back by this self-bigotry of low expectation and the idea we cannot build businesses because that is only meant for a certain group of people.
And finally, always give back to the community. This continent needs business leaders and entrepreneurs with good ethics that grow quickly, yet always have a sense of giving back.
NJ Ayuk is the managing partner of Centurion Law Group, a pan-African corporate law conglomerate which specialises in energy, extractive industries and the financial sector. Headquartered in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, Centurion has offices across the continent, and has most recently expanded to Johannesburg, South Africa.
Ayuk has been active in the structuring, negotiation and implementation of natural resource projects in sub-Saharan Africa, with extensive experience in advising both international and local companies and governments.
He graduated from University of Maryland College Park and earned a Juris Doctor from William Mitchell College of Law in the United States. He also holds an MBA from the New York Institute of Technology. In addition, he is recognised as a Global Sharper of the World Economic Forum.