Thursday, June 13, 2019 / 9:30AM / Teslim Shitta-Bey, Managing
Editor /Header Image Credit: Chris Okunowo Solicitors & Maqsad
Chris Okunowo strikes the pose of a gentleman, a grandee of the corporate playfield, intelligent, urbane and a diligent tiller of the business vineyard. Okunowo’s delicate mien, soft-spoken Queens English-moistured tone and his sartorial precision belie a hardnosed master of the commercial universe. Okunowo is as tough as they come.
Unlike some of his equally accomplished contemporaries, he seldom, if ever, announces his presence with fanfare. He adopts what he confesses is a “less is more” approach to business and life. According to Okunowo, “as you get older and more experienced about life and business and those things that turn an ‘almost hit into a sure hit’ you discover that simplicity is not a burden but a method of choice in the pursuit of excellence.” He believes that “excessive complexity almost always results in the pain of defeat rather than the pleasure of victory.”According to Okunowo breaking business complexity down into a series of simple, repeatable actions or ‘templates’ allows for proper optimization of corporate performance.
The reverse incentive of Punishment
“My perspective has always been the simplification and optimization of businesses,” he says, “the best way to ensure that systems work properly is to make each unit self-accountable and profitable. What this means is that each unit, department or division is given a set of targets and goals and is measured and rewarded or punished based on meeting collectively agreed objectives at the beginning of a business cycle which could be a year”. Okunowo notes that Nigerians tend to refrain from quick, firm but fair punishment of failure. “ The penchant for seeing punishment for failure as ‘wickedness’ rather than as a reverse incentive to better performance leads to mediocrity.” The chairman of numerous corporate boards says that “you cannot fiddle like Nero when your business rival is burning the midnight oil, the consequence of indolence is simple enough: you get beaten in the market place of ideas and products. The temporary pleasure of a fiddle leads to a lifetime of despair, and perhaps hunger”.
Okunowo says that every office in a business needs to have a sense of accountability and profitability, even traditional ‘cost centres.’ “If you are the chairman of a company, for example, your office needs to be optimized, what this means is that you need to ask yourself whether you are you running costs in a manner that ensures that your office is lean, mean and efficient. The chairman’s office also needs to interrogate itself in the area of enhancing business revenue, is the chairman’s office driving new businesses or new ideas or additional revenue?” According to the Ijebuland first class chief, “chairmanship is not just a status symbol; it is a call to duty and responsibility. The office of the chairman should drive direction and give signalling effects to the Board of Directors and management. Not being an executive chairman does not imply indolence; it suggests social, political and economic leverage to improve corporate outcomes.”, he argues.
Okunowo’s Iron Triangle
Okunowo speaks of his ‘Iron Triangle’ of achieving the required corporate results. The triangle has three principal ‘corners.’ The primary corner is ‘creative thought,’ this is where organizations incubate leading ideas that disrupt existing practices and frameworks and push businesses to new cycles of profitability. According to Okunowo, “thought is the highest manifestation of the enterprise. To succeed, you must out-think, outwork and outsmart competition”.
The next corner of the triangle is critical action. Action is the part of the triangle when thought is given legs to run. There is no point in thinking if the action does not follow. The legal luminary insists that “thinking is beneficial when it is the precursor of tactical or strategic action. Thinking is little more than a mental talk shop if it does not lead to action, because as good as talk shops are, they do not result in productivity, money and growth if left to wander at random and they certainly do not lead to better lives if left unfocused at a task.” Action is crucial to turning a business from a great idea into a great enterprise.
The last corner of Okunowo’s triangle is a recursive or constructive review of actions taken to achieve specified goals. The consequences of actions “provide great lessons, good or bad. Once you take action, you need to follow through and document the consequences of each critical move or manoeuvre to establish whether it follows some unwritten rule or is a fluke. You need to establish the set of actions that will give you specific results, perhaps with some predictable margin of error; as American Army General GB Sullivan rightly pointed out, hope is not a method” observes Okunowo. The three corners of the Okunowo triangle make up the process by which the successful businessman and lawyer navigated Nigeria’s slippery business ecosystem with the minimum casualties.
Understanding The Boardroom
The first thing a Boardroom should not be is a squared rope for the battle between contesting egos. According to Okunowo, “from my experience, the best boardrooms are those that work like orchestras. Each Board member comes with talents and special knowledge; nevertheless, by themselves, such abilities are sparingly useful if not combined with the skills of others who turn individual noise into a symphony of music”. The Board must have purpose passion and skill. “The job of the typical chairman,” says Okunowo “is to act as the conductor of an orchestra and bring separate talents together to achieve the collective goal of ensuring a good return on investors money.”
“Companies fail,” says Okunowo, “when chairmen and Board members work at opposing purpose and fail to agree on goals and timelines, the organization hangs on the thread of hit or miss decisions creating uncertainty, lack of discipline and weakened drive.” The absence of Board unity has been seen to be the undoing of several organizations, especially banks. But where unity exists, if this is the product of wrong purpose (a pact amongst scoundrels), this could also see a company toppling over.
The corporate boardroom needs to be a place of high thinking, high morals and a heightened awareness of the company’s long-term purpose. Organizations need to fit into the circle of customer needs and continue to reinvent their corporate reality as the wants of customers evolve, and their tastes change; in other words, they must be ‘living’ companies. A 21st Century company with a Board stuck in 19th Century thinking is on the grill for roasting; such company is likely to have a short shelf-life. As far as Barrister Okunowo figures, “Boardrooms are not for the fickle, the naïve or the fastidious. If you want to build a company to last, the end game needs to be clear from the beginning, the tactics flexible, and the management ready to adapt. A world of several simultaneously moving parts is not going to wait for the slow, the feeble and the unimaginative. Success will increasingly be a function of thought, action and counteraction. The Iron Triangle.”
Chief Chris Olufunmilola Okunowo, was born in December 1947; Okunowo is a seasoned businessman with major business interests in aviation equipment supply, aircraft sale, banking, property development and he is the Principal Partner of Chris O. Okunowo & Co, a full service law firm. He graduated with a Law degree from the University of Lagos in 1972 and was called to bar in 1973.