MAZI Okechukwu Unegbu, lawyer, arbitrator and stockbroker, is currently Managing Director/Chief Executive, Maxifund Investments and Securities Plc. Unegbu, who boasts of over 30 years career in banking and finance, has worked in prominent financial institutions including First Bank, defunct African Merchant Bank, Progress Bank (rose to become Chairman/Chief Executive), Broad Bank and Citizens Bank (as Chief Executive in 2005) and equally served as former president/chairman of the Council of the Chartered Institute of Bankers of Nigeria (CIBN). In this interview with The Nation, the Imo state-born technocrat fondly called OCKU and who turns 70 in August shares his experience managing men and resources. Excerpts:
When does your typical day begin?
For me, my typical day starts at 5.am in the morning. Once I’m up from bed, I say my prayers and take my morning exercise for about 45minutes and thereafter start getting ready to go out by 7-7:30am. By 8:30am, I start attending to my clients. I follow this regimen every day except on Saturdays because I sleep a bit late at past midnight to 1:00am and I wake up at 7:30am. On weekends, I spend one hour for my morning exercise.
What’s your management philosophy?
My management philosophy is what I call a combination of ideas. I like to engage people to do the job. I allow them to come up with their own ideas because some of these young chaps are smart people really. What I do is to use people around me to achieve results. The best you can do as a good manager is to leave the space open in such a way that there is freedom for everyone to operate and achieve their potentials.
What’s your management style?
Just like my management philosophy, I allow people to make their own inputs into any decision to be taken. What I do most times is that if I have an idea about any matter, I just throw it open to the floor for people to make their suggestions, and then I will sum up what they have done and take final decision.
Do you delegate responsibility or you micromanage?
Yes, indeed I delegate. I don’t micromanage at all. I delegate a lot. Like I mentioned earlier, my own idea of management is that once you give people the right tools to work with they can actually excel. That’s one thing I have seen in managing people.
How do you motivate your staff?
There is often a misconception out there that the only way to motivate people is by giving them salaries and bonuses alone. No that certainly is not true to a large extent. Fine, you can pay them fat cheques and salaries but there are far better ways to motivate your staff. In my own case, I give my staff the opportunity to excel in their chosen careers through creating the enabling environment and opportunities for growth.
How do you reprimand your staff? Do you apply the stick?
For me, the best you can do is to allow room for mistakes to be made so that they can learn from it. My own attitude is that if you get angry at your staff for making a mistake next time, they may as well sit down and do nothing. That way, you have ended up creating zombies. However, if someone makes mistakes consistently, move such a person to another section and have him or her watched closely instead of asking that person to go outright. If you just fire such a person that would be tantamount to throwing away the baby with the bathe water. It’s not the right thing to do. Once you move the person to another department, you have already sent a signal to that person, and most times such people usually have something to prove about their competence. Most times, they excel in their new role. As a manager with over three decades experience that is what I have seen in management across different cadres. Even as a lawyer I have applied the same methods and it has worked for me as well. Currently, as a member of the Executive Council of the Nigerian Bar Association I can also testify that this method has worked for me.
What motivates you?
Motivation for me on a personal note is working with people. I like going out of my way to help people solve their problems. I tend to derive personal satisfaction in that. For me, the moment I can ensure that the next person to me or even someone I don’t know is able to achieve something through my efforts that gives me a level of indescribable joy.
What is the best decision you have taken?
I remember quite a few of them. I remember I took a decision to take Citizen Bank to the capital make at the time. I was able to negotiate everything and it went well. That to me was one of the best decisions I ever took as the CEO at the time. I also remember some of the roles and actions I took in ensuring that majority of my staff then were better place career-wise by taking them under my wings. Today, thankfully, I have many of my staff who are excelling in the banking sector and they still try to remind me of the part I played in building their careers. Such recollection is a thing of joy to me.
What’s the worst decision you have taken?
I remember as CEO how the action I took cost investors their money after we invested the funds in a bad business and we lost billions of naira as a result. It is one sad episode of my career I usually do not like to recall ever.
What are your other areas of interest besides business?
I love reading a lot. I play lawn tennis as well as table tennis. I also do photography too. I have all kinds of camera. Photography is one pastime I love so much. I just love taking shots of memory events around me. These days with a mobile phone, this is even a lot easier.
What’s your choice holiday destination?
I also travel a lot both within and outside the country most times. I can say for a fact that I have been to nearly every part of Nigeria today. But these days, travelling within the country is not safe as it used to be because of the problem of insecurity everywhere now. These days, if I travel I go by air and am conscious of myself wherever I go. I have been to Iseyin, Shaki, after Oyo state to see how local people live. In my state in Imo, I have travelled round all the 24 local government areas as well. When I travelled round I was able to appreciate each of the peculiar needs and challenges of these people and that sort of gave me a lot of ideas when I decided to go into the governorship race of Imo state few years later. I have also been to the UK and the USA too many times. Such trips abroad usually afford me the opportunity to learn new things and new trends that I can apply to my career and life in general. So travelling is more than an adventure for me.
Do you read?
Sure I do read a lot. I try as much as possible to read a book every month.
What was the last book you read and when?
Yes I had to read the book by Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. I also read management books as a matter of routine. What I do is I just get the books of leading management authors and I read them up for ideas. I’m also now following every bit about digital currency. I packed myself in it. The whole world is now using digital currency. That is why I’m amazed that the CBN had to place a ban on crypto currency. From what I have found out through digital currency, a lot of youths who hitherto were idle and jobless are now fully engaged. The world has gone digital but it seems the apex bank is not yet in tune with such global development.
What’s your favourite Nigerian meal?
I don’t like egusi or rice at all. I like my eba with ogbono. I like amala with gbegiri and ewedu soup. I also like iyan or what is generally called pounded yam. I enjoy local foods a lot.
Do you cook?
Oh yes I do. My mother had all four us boys, there was no girl in our midst, so she taught us all how to cook. But I have reduced my activities in the kitchen because I have a dutiful wife who is ever ready to do the cooking for me.
So you do the dishes as well?
Oh sure, I do sometimes. I also do a lot of household chores too in order to relief my wife of stress. If there is nobody in the house and I happen to go to the kitchen and see the place unkempt, I take it upon myself to clean up the place. I think my wife appreciates that a lot.
How do you unwind?
I’m an outdoor person alright. I like to go to the club, Ikoyi Club to be precise, where I’m a life member now. At the club, I play lawn tennis, table tennis. I meet with my friends to network, socialise generally and relief stress. I also try to encourage my family to join me at the club too because it is such a place you can feel relax over a cup of tea or coffee. My wife is not the outgoing type but I try to encourage her to get out of the house once in a while. You see when you go out of the house; you’re refreshed and renewed in so many ways. I have followed that regimen for many years and I know it’s beneficial to me.
You’re turning 70 years in a few months. How did your upbringing impacted who you’re today?
My father was a customary court judge and was also into farming, trading and he made sure he excelled in all these areas as well. For me, that background sort of prepared me for life. I was a war commander during the Biafra war. I was just 17 years old then. During the war a lot happened. I remember during the war lizards and rats were the choice delicacies then. In fact, if you kill lizards or rats you made hot steaming pepper soup with it. It was so funny that you could also get sanctioned if you didn’t tell your superiors you were preparing such pepper soup. That is one nasty experience that has stayed with me. I can’t seem to obliterate it from my memory. I’m already compiling this experience and memories of the war in my memoir due for launch at my forthcoming 70th birthday in August 17th to be precise. I remember when I visited former president Olusegun Obasanjo at his Ota Farms when I was his Relationship Manager at the First Bank. He told me, are you not afraid coming to see a General. I told him I was not afraid that as his Relationship Manager I was even more powerful than he is because it is whatever I tell him that he would do. Then I said even as a War Commander in the Biafra Army, if I came across him during the war, I would have shot at him. He said, “yeeparipa!”
I also remembered when I visited OBJ at the Aso Villa in Abuja as President of the Chartered Institute of Bankers with other executives. When we got there, Baba said he was president with a big P, while I was president with a small P. He also said bankers are thieves. He said so many times. But I never responded to him. So I told him, Baba I want to tell you a story. He said, ok go ahead. I said my father was a customary court judge. Anytime he came home, he would gather us all his children and say, ‘please don’t misbehave outside because if you do they will say you lack home training.’ When I said that, Baba OBJ looked at me and said, ‘so you’re calling me the head of thieves ba?” (laughs). I have been friends with OBJ for some time now.