Meet Standard Bank's new African Regions boss, Sola David-Borha

Sola David-Borha moved from Nigeria to Joburg earlier this year to become Standard Bank's CEO for all African regions outside SA.

By Toni Muir

“When I first started my career, I used to hate cocktail parties,” says Sola David-Borha, Standard Bank’s CEO for Africa Regions, basically its business outside South Africa. “Then one day I realised, this isn’t a nice-to-do, it’s a must-do, it’s work. Once I changed my thinking, I loved cocktail parties, because they’re quite efficient. You can meet many people in a short space of time.”

An award-winning business woman and long-serving stalwart of the financial services industry in West Africa, Sola is a powerful personality who talks with a self-assured calmness and focused passion about her work and clearly enjoys her chosen field. Her anecdote about cocktail parties serves to illustrate something bigger. “Once you change your mind set about something, for example, about your ability to take on a new challenge or move to another country, it changes the way you look at it. What might have seemed difficult to do, becomes quite simple. Changing your perspective on things is very important.”

Sola moved to Johannesburg in early 2017, when she was appointed as Standard Bank’s Africa boss. She says her daily job includes a focus on governance, risk and conduct issues, as well as enabling business by ensuring that there is plenty of growth and an ever-improving client experience. In fact, interacting with clients is one of her favourite aspects of the role, she says, along with understanding the impacts of different factors on the economy.

Asked whether she has encountered any adversity being a smart and successful woman in business, Sola says every career has its challenges.

“The important thing is not allowing those challenges to distract you,” she says, once again referring to the power of your mindset. “Whether it’s your gender, your race or your religion, you must remain focused on how you can improve your skills and your knowledge base, remain professional no matter what circumstances you see, and conduct yourself with integrity. Invariably the promotions will come.”

Night and day
As a modern professional, staying current and ahead of the curve is the route to success, says Sola, indicating that the business world is different “like night and day” to the one in which she began her career in 1984. “First of all, we now live in a digitised world, so the importance of IT as an enabler is critical. With this come numerous and varied risks, such as cybersecurity, which wasn’t an issue 20 or 30 years ago.” There is also increased regulatory intervention, she says, on the back of the 2008 crisis. “So, the cost of running a business and ensuring compliance with all regulatory regimes has gone up. There’s also regulatory pressure on margins. It’s a much more challenging environment to work in.”

Sola took up the Africa Regions role in March this year, moving across from Stanbic IBTC, where she was the chief executive in Nigeria. She believes the opportunities on the African continent are plentiful, saying that “Africa grows despite all the challenges we see”. In her opinion, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Uganda, and Angola have the greatest potential, but to realise this, it is important to have the right risk appetite and to participate in the growth sectors of each of the economies, she says.

Sola says her time in this role, which she notes is more strategic than her previous one, has thus far been interesting and exciting. “I’ve been getting to understand the countries better, meeting the teams and regulators, and getting a better insight into the opportunities and challenges in each of those countries. We’ve also been focused on country alignment sessions, where the country teams have come to Johannesburg to present strategies and explain how they intend to execute on those. The focus has been on ensuring there is alignment between those country strategies and the group strategy,” she says.

Executive education 
Although she is Nigerian, Sola was born in Accra, Ghana. Her father was a diplomat, which meant the family travelled a lot, and Sola recalls living the first decade of her life in various countries, mostly across Europe and Africa. They returned to Nigeria when she was about 10 years old. Sola undertook her primary and secondary schooling here, before completing her studies at the University of Ibadan, located on the outskirts of Lagos.

She recalls being fascinated by finance from early on. “I was introduced to economics in Class 4 and I fell in love with the subject. It was an escape from history, which had too many thick books,” she laughs. “Economics was real.” She graduated with a BSc in Economics, going on to pursue an MBA from the Manchester Business School. Her executive education includes the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School and the Global CEO Program jointly offered by Wharton (US), IESE (Spain) and CEIBS (Shanghai) . She says that finance was a natural detour from economics, likewise banking from finance.

Sola began her career at NAL merchant bank, which was affiliated with American Express, before joining a boutique investment banking firm, IBTC, which in 2005 merged with two commercial banks to become IBTC Chartered. In 2007, Standard Bank Group acquired IBTC, where Sola served as Deputy Chief Executive of the Bank and Head of IB Coverage Africa (excluding SA), becoming CE of Stanbic IBTC Bank in 2011 and CE of Stanbic IBTC Holdings plc in 2012.

Her job also requires a lot of travel, which she says is a highlight. “Visiting the countries and meeting the teams on the ground, and understanding their challenges and seeing how I can support them, is what drives me,” she says. There are 19 countries in the African region, spread across western, eastern, southern and central Africa, and while Sola has been to more than half, she’s not yet done. “I’m still counting,” she laughs, adding that she will be travelling to three African countries before November is out.

Purposeful
Sola considers the appointment into her current role as her greatest professional achievement. Asked if she is ambitious, she considers before answering: “I’m not sure the right word is ambitious. Purposeful, I would say I’m purposeful. For me, the important thing is to contribute and add value to growing a franchise, to a business and to delivering on a strategy” 

In 2016, the All Africa Business Leaders Awards named Sola Business Woman of the Year for the West Africa region. She says she was surprised at the accolade, especially as she went on to be named Business Woman of the Year for Africa, too. She is humble, attributing her success to Standard Bank.

“Standard Bank is a place where talents are recognised, encouraged and developed, and where you have an opportunity to work across regions, products and sectors, which really does stretch you and makes you more prepared than many of your peers."

Sola’s sage advice to young and ambitious finance professionals is to be committed. “Every employer wants people who are committed,” she says. Hard work and conduct are also important, she says, as is sharing the company’s vision. “You’ve got to conduct yourself in a way that is above board, even if this is to your own cost. And you’ve got to align yourself strategically to the direction in which the organisation wants to go. This doesn’t mean you can’t think for yourself or challenge people or ideas, but fundamentally you’ve got to align yourself. I remember somebody once saying, you can’t belong to a club you don’t want to join.”

Work, family and faith
If she had to give her younger self any advice, Sola says it would be to stay focussed. “You can’t control all the variables, so don’t worry about the things you can’t control,” she says. “But the variables that you can control, and your own behaviour, stay focused on those. The others will sort themselves out.”

With what can only be an incredibly busy work schedule, how does she find time for anything or anyone else? “I always tell myself that my life is divided into three compartments,” Sola says. “There’s work, my family and my faith.” The mother of three children – a grown-up step-son, a 12-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, Sola believes that a work-life balance is something you only achieve at times. “Allowing yourself to be there for the quality moments, birthdays and important school and life events,” she says. “It’s always a challenge. You always feel guilty.”

She loves swimming and playing golf, though she doesn’t often get to tee off, and enjoys reading – particularly current affairs. Time spent with her family often involves travelling. “I always tell my children that travel is education. We also like to hang about the house. My absolute favourite place is tucked up in my bed,” she says with a laugh.