Patience Akyianu writes : leading in unchartered territory

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I joined Hollard Ghana as the very first Chief Executive Officer of the newly formed Group, made up of Hollard Insurance Ghana (formerly Metropolitan Insurance) and Hollard Life Assurance Ghana (newly created in 2018). I felt privileged to be entrusted by Hollard International with the task of bringing to life our purpose of enabling more people to create and secure a better future and ensuring Hollard becomes Ghana’s favorite insurer.

This was a new and exciting chapter in my leadership journey in an industry I knew very little about. Now, just three years on I am proud of the impact and the progress we have made and remain optimistic about the enormous prospects ahead, both for Hollard and the insurance industry in Ghana.

It has been a story of transformation, innovation, and exceptional growth; personally, and for Hollard Ghana. I am blessed to be part of a highly energized team with supportive colleagues and I am grateful for the eagerness with which we embrace and execute new ideas.

There is still a long way to go before we arrive at our desired destination, but I am confident that with God on our side, we will arrive successfully.

The last three years have been an invaluable process of learning, unlearning, and relearning, and from this experience, I share below, 7 lessons to navigate unchartered waters.

  1. Take that leap of faith.

There are times in one’s career when it is wise to take a step of faith and leap into the “dark” guided by your personal vision. Great opportunities sometimes come disguised, and it takes visionary eyes to unveil them. In my case, the idea of resigning as Managing Director of one of the largest banks in Ghana to accept the offer of CEO of a little-known company in a relatively less developed industry, looked absurd at the time. However, I was attracted to this opportunity to lead Hollard Ghana because I had a clear vision of taking the business to market leadership. I saw a great brand, with a great purpose, a great vision, and a great business ethos (We Do Well By Doing Good). Hollard’s purpose and values strongly resonated with mine, presenting an opportunity for professional and personal growth.

In my mind’s eye this remarkable company deserved to be a household name, so I jumped at the opportunity. Armed with research on Hollard and the insurance industry, I was convinced about the prospects, and I allowed my vision for Hollard in Ghana to propel me into the dark. Risky, you might think, but when you are at a point in your career seeking meaning and purpose in your work, change is imminent. Faced with two options – Stay in my role in banking (which made more sense having been in the industry for close to two decades) or take up a fresh challenge in a new terrain – I chose the latter.

When considering a role in unknown territory, remember that the right opportunities don’t always appear when we feel ready to move. This is why you must have faith to leap. Think of it this way, if the move does not work out, you would have learnt and grown through the process.

  • Forget the Former; Do Not Dwell on The Past.
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A few months into my new role at Hollard, I struggled letting go of my experiences and successes in my previous bank CEO role. I made the mistake of comparing the two industries at every turn and became increasingly frustrated with the size of the insurance market, the relatively low profitability characterising the industry and certain internal challenges.

To make matters worse, on the pretext of forgetting the name of my new organization (Hollard Ghana), some people referred to, and introduced me at events as “the Former MD” of my previous organization. As if to say my move had not yet registered.  Realising I was living in the shadows of my previous role, and at risk of disillusionment, I decided to forget the victories and failures from my time in the top job at the bank, to fully embrace this new opportunity. I started insisting on not being referred to as “the Former MD” and gradually people began to address me appropriately as CEO of Hollard Ghana.

This was the turning point for me, as I began to see things with a fresh perspective. I recognized that the approach I used in the past would not necessarily work in this role.  I also set out to intentionally develop new relationships in the insurance industry, and though I’m still not fully immersed, my efforts are already paying off.

I learnt a big lesson – the past can be a distraction! Leaders on a new mission need to forget the past because they can only realise their dreams with a single-minded passion.

One thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal…” (Philippians 3:12)

  • Expect Obstacles and Brace Yourself.

Conquering new territories comes with confronting obstacles. I was aware of this reality when I took up the new role in insurance. Of course, I did not expect that starting a life insurance company from scratch in an intensely competitive market was going to be a piece of cake. What I did not quite bargain for, was how much investment in terms of money and time was required to turn things around.

In addition, challenges around systems, processes and people can impede the growth effort. It takes a great deal of courage and determination to keep forging ahead despite some of these daunting setbacks.

It is never easy to start a new business or to turn around an existing one, especially in a difficult operating environment and it has taken sheer grit to come this far. Overcoming my own fears empowered me to lead with courage and a clarity of vision, which is needed to keep the team focused on our long-term goals. Having a long-term orientation helps to build resilience in the face of obstacles. I further learned to celebrate the little wins in anticipation of the bigger victories. This keeps our team energized during challenging times.

Essentially, there is no “promised land” without “giants”. Be strong and courageous and remain focused on your long-term aspirations.

  • Humility is the Master Key to Overcoming Setbacks.

A key attribute of a great leader is humility. Great leaders realise that leadership is not about them, but about the people they are trying to influence.

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According to Ken Blanchard in the One-Minute Manager, “people with humility do not think less of themselves, they just think about themselves less”.

I have personally been transformed by the setbacks and challenges I have been confronted with in my role as CEO of Hollard Ghana. I have had to admit my knowledge gaps and humbly learn new things. I did not know much about insurance when I first joined and had to rely on my colleagues to teach and point me in the right direction for relevant reading materials to improve my understanding. I used to lead a company of about 1,500 employees and could be forgiven for assuming I knew a thing or two about leadership. It took humility to invite feedback and constructive criticism from staff on how things could be better. It takes humility to continue to work cordially with people (whether peers, subordinates, or superiors) when they are strong disagreements.

As Group CEO for Hollard Ghana, I am the Chief Salesperson, in addition to my other leadership responsibilities. This entails being in the “trenches” with the sales team. In a relatively small business such as Hollard, everyone is expected to roll up their sleeves and actively look for business. Humility is not thinking of yourself more highly than you should and doing what needs to be done for the business to succeed.  Humility is also admitting you don’t know everything and asking for help when you need it. Humility means accepting you are sometimes wrong and apologizing. Some relationships are more demanding than others and require more care and skill to navigate successfully. I have resolved some relational challenges at work just by deciding to be humble and not insisting I am right or having my own way.

Do you sometimes feel like you are under siege, whether at work or in social settings? Try being humble and empathetic. I guarantee humility can get you out of most “siege-like” situations.

  • Patience is the Key to Long-Term Success.

Patience and perseverance are necessary ingredients to achieving long-term success. However, in a bottom-line driven world, this sounds like theory. As Larry Julian puts it in his book, God is my CEO, “Patience and bottom-line pressure are like oil and water, they don’t mix”.

My greatest headache as a newly appointed CEO in an unfamiliar industry was to balance short-term pressure to show results with our long-term aspirations, which required positioning the business for growth by making significant investments in advance.

The pace of execution has been slower than anticipated as it involves external partners who may not be in as much hurry. It has taken time to gain traction for many of our initiatives and productivity lagged for some time before finally meeting expectations in our life insurance business. I have had many difficult conversations along the way, and it has been exhausting to say the least. I am still learning to be patient and it is never an easy conversation to tell shareholders to be patient. However, I am happy to note the little patience we have shown by sticking with the plan, has begun to pay off in spite of delays in seeing the expected results. Now, Hollard is currently at a place where our strategy is working, and Patience is being rewarded.

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Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet” – Rosseau

  • Be Your Authentic Self.

I have always led by being authentic. Many who know me will confirm that with me, what you see is what you get. Being open about who you are and bringing your true self to work, leaves you vulnerable. However, I have found this builds trust between colleagues, and endears you as a leader to people. Leading is about influencing and the more authentic and real you are as a leader, the more influential you will be. My style of leadership gives others permission to also be themselves at work and encourages colleagues to be real and mindful.

Being authentic has enabled me to connect more with people, especially in my new environment and to form meaningful productive relationships that have contributed to the growth of our businesses. As an authentic leader, I completely bring who I am to work by incorporating my faith and work. I make it clear to people that the source of my values, decisions, priorities, and choices is my identity as a Christian. For me, being a Christian supersedes any other identity and I like to be held to the Christian values I espouse.  Integrating work and faith has helped me to lead by example, even in tough times and an unfamiliar environment.

  • Finally, the last and in my opinion, the most important lesson I have learnt in my many years of being a CEO is, God belongs in the business world.

I believe organizations stand a better chance of succeeding when God is at the center of what they do. God wants us to make profit and indeed the Bible says in Isaiah 48:17 “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way you should go”.

Bill Pollard the author of “Serving a Higher Purpose and making Money”, insists “God and business do mix, and profit is a standard for determining the effectiveness of our combined efforts”. In my own experience, both in the banking and insurance industry, God uses people in the business world to achieve His own purpose and to glorify Himself.

In my professional life, I have found that bringing God into the mix brings meaning and purpose to work and is ultimately the key to individual and organizational success.

Being a “godly” leader has enabled me to recognize the potential worth of those I work with and engage them with care and dignity.

I am aware this point may be controversial because we live and work in a society where some people are skeptical about bringing religion to the workplace or have different definitions for God.  For the avoidance of doubt, let me state categorically that I am not talking about excluding (or including) anyone based on their religion and I am not advocating for treating people differently either personally or professionally because of their religion or lack thereof.

Everyone is free to choose what they will believe, and I choose to believe God belongs in the business world and so far, it has worked for me!

By Patience Akyianu, Group Chief Executive Officer, Hollard Ghana (Hollard Insurance and Hollard Life Assurance Ghana)

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