“Employees are the key to success in every company,” says Dick Borsboom, the Nigeria-based Regional CFO for Dangote Industries in East and Southern Africa. The Dutch national is an experienced finance leader and joined cement firm Dangote in August 2012 to broaden his horizons even further. Borsboom has a lot of great tips for Nigerian and other African CFOs, many of them boiling down to engaging staff in decision making. “Negative management – do this or else – is something we should move away from.”
After working in the United States and Europe, Borsboom has enjoyed his stay in Nigeria and his regular trips to countries like Ethiopia, Zambia and Tanzania. “What I really like is that this is a completely different world from where I have worked previously. Of course there is the aggressive traffic and a lot of poverty, but there is a lot of warmth underneath that.”
Borsboom’s boss Aliko Dangote is generally regarded as the richest African alive and the Dutchman says the owner of the company is very influential in Nigeria and beyond. “This is a man who has built a business empire all by himself. He has a lot of energy and takes a lot of risk. He has clearly made the right choices at the right times.”
However, in general the CFO has ambivalent feelings about the big number of African companies that are still strongly managed by founders.
“It doesn’t always have to be bad. We have now gone into fertilizer and refiniries, because that is where our owner saw opportunities. In the West there would have been so much analysis that it probably leads to paralysis killing off the project. Dangote makes bold moves and he can do that. He is extremely well-connected in Nigeria and sees opportunities where other can’t. Nigeria has a tremendous potential but much of it is wasted. It would be an interesting experiment to see if an inclusive management style would work in a Nigerian environment.”
At the same time institutional rigour and initiative from the bottom can be lacking in owner-managed firms, Borsboom has noted. “Where companies are usually structured around policies and take a more institutional approach, these owner-managed firms are more entrepreneurial. The decision making really only happens at the top. It is their money after all. That can lead to challenges, because one has to wait for a decision from the top and there is less initiative on the work floor.”
According to Borsboom there are big steps to be made in Nigeria when it comes to involving employees. “In Western companies employees will brainstorm and middle management will take decisions. Here, people are not engaged, but they have also been conditioned like that. They get small tasks, but never an oversight of a whole project. They won’t come forward with suggestions, because bosses don’t listen to them. I appreciate it when an employee is already thinking of the next step to take. People should not be afraid to be wrong. They should learn from mistakes and do it right the next time. To change that culture will be a long process, but I am trying my best to spread the message.”
Borsboom says that in Europe and America he always approaches other business people with the ‘assumption of trust’ that they will do the right thing and won’t do anything that is bad for the company. “Unfortunately, here in Nigeria it is better to distrust people until they have shown they are trustworthy and you can give them more authority. The attitude of ‘What is in it for me’ is very wide-spread, I am not sure why? It also works the other way, you never hear managers say ‘well done’, ‘thank you’ or praise someone in public. The management is on the negative side. Do this or else you will get fired. We need to create a more positive atmosphere, because employees are the key to success. People are reluctant to take responsibility. Nobody will say ‘I know how this should be done’ and then take responsibility for it. When something goes wrong it is suppressed or a subordinate gets blamed.”
It is well-known that Nigeria is also struggling with public governance, but the extent of this has surprised Borsboom. “Normally you know if you don’t adhere to the tax law, you will get a fine or pay a late payment fee. That is very predictable. Here those laws are seen as optional. I think every large company needs to stay away from that type of behaviour though. People need to realize that corruption is a real sin, it’s theft from the community.”
Next year Borsboom will be moving to South Africa, where Dangote is opening a factory and a manager with Nigerian experience is needed. “South Africa is a vacation compared to Nigeria,” he says. “People are much more on top of projects. We don’t have to worry that money will be stolen. It is well-managed, more like we do things in the West. When we spoke about credit lines for South African clients, my Nigerian colleagues just did not understand how we could possibly do that. In Nigeria you should never give anybody unsecured credit. The bills simply will not get paid and there is not a functioning legal framework that can force the debtor to pay you.”
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