Graduation speech: Imoni Akpofure MBA’94D

At the INSEAD graduation ceremony on 21 December 2017 in Fontainebleau, Imoni delivered the following message to the Class of 2017D.

Thank you for the introduction and Ilian for the kind invitation to speak. And I know you’ve been congratulated already but congratulations to the class of ’17D of the world’s best business school.

So as I look out at all of you, I think I can sense some of the feelings:

Relief: “I got through that MBA.”

Pride: “I’m an INSEAD MBA.”

Impatience: “Can you please finish so that I can get my certificate?”

Excitement: “I just can’t wait to put some of that learning into practice.”

Sadness: “I’m probably not going to see some of these people until the five-year reunion.”

Since being asked to give this address, I’ve racked my brain to try to remember something of what my keynote speaker said and exactly who the speaker was—and I can’t. You’re forgiven in advance if you don’t remember a word of anything I say.

Two years ago, in September 2015, 17 Sustainable Development Goals, SDGs, were adopted by world leaders at an historic United Nations Summit. Over the next 13 years, countries will, and I quote, “Mobilise efforts to end all forms of poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change, while ensuring that no one is left behind.”

Unlike their predecessors, the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs, envisage a proactive and equal role for business alongside government and civil society. So why am I starting with this. Because for the first time, business has recognised that it has as much responsibility for global societal issues as do governments and civil society. The goals are highly ambitious. They aim to ensure that no one is left behind.

So what does this mean for us as INSEAD MBAs? Ilian has already talked a little bit about our responsibilities. But when you think about the fact that 100,000 MBAs graduate annually, as the number one business school, you are the elite of a very elite group. And with this privilege comes responsibility.

So as you leave the 10 months of learning within the INSEAD bubble and return to the reality of the corporate world, I hope to encourage you to exercise that responsibility wisely and to play your part in this global agenda.

I’ll share with you some thoughts of the issue of equality. In my view, aside from climate change, this is the single most important issue facing us over the next decade. I’ll then speak a little bit about the alumni network, your role in it, how I think you can give back and benefit from it, and then I hope to give you some tips on managing your personal leadership as you reintegrate into the workplace. And lastly finish with some thoughts for the entrepreneurial-minded amongst you.

So why is equality critical for business leaders to understand? When we look at the three big issues on the global development agenda—ending poverty, fighting inequality and combating climate change—we see that a lot of progress has been made in lifting people out of poverty. Ilian gave some numbers on China. Climate change, the second critical area on the development agenda, is accepted as fact, no matter what Donald Trump may say. And business continues to innovate and to reduce the impact and aim to keep us within a two-degree world.

Fighting inequality is very different. What does it mean? How does it affect me as a business person? What can I do about it? These are questions which business leaders are asking. So what does inequality mean? The reality is that whilst inequality amongst countries has reduced over time, inequality within countries has risen. Global growth has not been sufficiently inclusive. In the past, poverty was viewed as mainly a less-developed country issue, but today it is an issue for every country and we are increasingly seeing economically marginalised groups in Europe and the US, and not just with immigrant communities. The fundamental issue is that we live on a finite planet with growing populations and depleting natural resources.

Social scientists believe that the current wave of populism in the US and Europe arises from the belief that the 1%—that’s us—are taking more than our fair share of resources and we are visible. The rise in social media ensures that information is available to the furthest reaches at the click of a button. That means that how resources are seen to be shared in an equitable manner is a huge challenge. So how does this affect me as a business person? For business leaders, societal inequality presents undefined risks to the business that can impact companies’ management, reputation, sales and ultimately the bottom line.

Today these manifest in increased stakeholder activism in the boardrooms, at shareholder meetings and in public campaigns. There’s also pressure from governments via increased regulation especially around taxes and transparency on governance. Disclosures like the Panama papers only feed the perception that business cannot be trusted to fulfil their responsibilities to society.

So what should we do about it? How companies respond to societal expectations and manage these perceptions is critical to their success. Companies that operate in emerging markets have learned how to identify social risk to their business and to integrate solutions into their operations. They routinely develop and implement robust stakeholder engagement plans that allow them to identify these social risks before they materialise.

Our OECD-based companies can learn from the emerging market counterparts. Extractive industry companies regularly implement programmes to ensure that as far as practicable, their sourcing is done from local suppliers. This encourages economic activity close to the company, it builds loyalty within the surrounding communities and it is not just corporate social responsibility. It’s actually very good risk mitigation. A UK-based company In-Kind Direct partners with over a thousand consumer goods companies—including companies like L’Oreal, to redistribute surplus goods which would otherwise have been destroyed either via incineration or landfill. They’re given to charities which support people in need. So it’s a win-win: It helps the companies with their CSR. It provides the needed products. And it helps the environment by avoiding needless waste.

These are just some examples, but there are many examples by country and by industry which show best practice especially how business is interacting with the employees, their shareholders, their governments and the broader society. As you re-enter the corporate world, I encourage you to be aware of these risks and to look up examples which can be applied within your organisations.

So as Ilian mentioned, this year is the 50th anniversary of INSEAD admitting its first female students. So far, over 7,000 women have become INSEAD alumni, leading companies, creating businesses and influencing companies and nations everywhere. We spent much of this year celebrating the INSEAD woman. We started with two women in 1967. When I graduated in 1994, we had 56 women out of a class of 223. Today we have 203 women graduating out of the class of 553 representing 38% of the class. Powerful.

So gender equality is one of the key sustainable development goals and another aspect of the equality discussion I’d like to focus on. It’s not only a basic human right, but its achievement has enormous socio-economic ramifications. Christine Lagarde, the IMF managing director, once said, “If Lehman Brothers had been a little bit more Lehman Sisters, we would not have had the degree of tragedy that we had as a result of what happened.” Now whether you agree with her or not, the fact is that women’s economic equality is good for business.

Companies with three or more women in senior management functions score higher in all dimensions of organisational effectiveness.

“So while it’s important to aim for equal pay and access to finance for women, if we can increase the involvement of women in political and economic decision-making processes, we can really make a difference.”

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For the corporate sector, this means we need to improve women’s representation at leadership levels, especially at the board level. And in this aspect, the OECD and European countries in particular lead the way, do much better than emerging markets. On the boards of listed companies in the Nordic countries and in the UK, the targets set have led to increased participation of women as non-executive directors. More progress can be made at the executive level.

Emerging markets are mixed and, interestingly, Africa’s leading the way. It is top ranked amongst the emerging regions when it comes to female board membership in large companies. In Nigeria’s financial sector, where I sit on the board of a bank, targets set for 30% of female representation at board level have almost 100% compliance. Two of the largest banks have women chairman. But interestingly, the public sector fares better than the private sector. To date, Europe has had 28 female heads of state. Africa has had three elected presidents, but when you take into account prime ministers and heads of government, there have been a total of 13 female heads of government in Africa.

In the public-sector leadership, Rwanda has 61% of women in the Lower House of Parliament, the highest in the world, and South Africa has 41%. So the old adage of what gets measured gets done has definitely applied to ensuring gender equality and encouraging the participation of more women in senior levels in the corporate world. So as future leaders, I really hope you’ll pick up the baton. And it can be simple things like ensuring there is a qualified woman on every single shortlist—note I said qualified. Or monitoring compensation, to make sure that is truly experience and performance based.

Now in speaking about gender equality, I have to talk about the #metoo movement and sexual harassment in the workplace. While most sexual harassment cases are reported by women, I have enough male friends who have been sexually harassed to know that it is also a problem for men. And in some cases, it’s even worse because it’s less acceptable for men to speak up. So while we’re all rejoicing in the new openness to discuss these issues, I’d like to encourage all of us—and here I include not just the graduating class, but also parents, family, friends here—to speak about it. It’s happening a lot more than we acknowledge, and it is no longer taboo. It helps people to know that they’re not alone.

For all the folks who have experience, please be mentors. Provide avoidance tips to the younger ones, they are invaluable. It’s a bit like self-defence classes. Better to be prepared before you need it. And then, as you become future leaders, remember the tone at the top really does matter. When you’re in a position of leadership and power, please use it to influence positive behaviour.

So having hopefully challenged you a little bit on global issues which I think you, as future leaders need to think about, let me encourage you as you continue to develop your post-INSEAD leadership style.

“As sad as you are to be leaving INSEAD today, never forget the alumni network is there for you. I know I’ve said this already, but we are truly privileged. The INSEAD alumni network has incredible breath, depth and geographic spread. Use it.”

It’s also accessible. Whenever I arrive in a strange city, all I have to do is say, “I’m an INSEAD alum,” and my email, phone call, is immediately answered and help is offered. I encourage you all to remain as accessible as the current network has been.

I recall when I was based in Zimbabwe in 2002 and I got an email from the admissions office asking me to interview somebody. I reminded them that I was no longer in Washington DC. And they said, “No, no, no, we have an American candidate who’s in Harare.” He’d offered to go to South Africa to be interviewed but they said, “No need.” And he was so impressed that in the middle of Harare, Zimbabwe INSEAD had somebody who could interview him. Today, he’s also an alumnus.

We have a lot of opportunities to give back to INSEAD. In my first 15 years, I was an interviewer. For the last five years, I’ve been a member of the admissions committee. And it has been wonderful to see the quality of candidate applications we receive and the enthusiasm for INSEAD from potential MBA candidates.

I was active in the alumni associations in the US and South Africa and in France. In Nigeria, where I am now based, we created an alumni club last year and are finalising the creation of an alumni association. And we have an ambition to make INSEAD even more relevant in Africa. So as you leave Fontainebleau today, know that the network is always available for you. Please contribute to it.

Now I’m sure your OB classes have given you a lot of advice on personal leadership, but here are a few tips from me. As leaders, we’re always told that critical to our success is our ability to listen. But what does this mean? So firstly, I’m a Nigerian, so that means I’m loud, I’m opinionated and always right. So for me, I’ve learned that it really starts with how well you know yourself. I’ve also learned that as we get older, we become our parents. Some of you are looking horrified, others are looking happy. But I remember having a conversation with my father when he was in his 70s, and I asked him why he never listened to us when he brought us up to question things. And his response was that as he got older and already knew what the answer was going to be, he didn’t have the patience to listen to somebody go through the thinking process. But 10 years ago, I suddenly realised I was becoming my father in this aspect, and that conversation has really stood me in good stead.

So here are some tips on listening. If I’m the most senior person or I’m chairing a meeting where I really want to seek views, I never give my opinion until everybody else has spoken. And then remember that visual cues are very important. Your teams are always looking to try to guess what the boss is thinking and which way the boss wants to go. It sounds simple but try as much as possible to keep your expression open and really wanting to get feedback.

I stay very close to my long-term friends who tell me the truth, even if it’s unpleasant. About a month ago, I spent a weekend with two friends I’ve known all my life, giving each other career advice, having fun, but also just listening to them. Peer mentors are very important. And then lastly, I question myself constantly.

“As a leader, you need to have supreme self-confidence, bordering on arrogance, but you also need to question yourself on motivation, bias, lack of information, anything else that might influence your strategic decisions.”

And specifically, for the more entrepreneurial-minded amongst you who as we all know are a different breed. In my 30 years of working, I’ve had lots of ideas, but never had the courage to start my own venture. But I’ve worked with many entrepreneurs both as a lender and as an investor, so here’s some advice for you: Have the arrogance to believe in your vision and ignore the naysayers. Balance that arrogance by having trusted advisers who know you, who buy into your vision, but who are not part of your formal structure. And whatever you do, remember governance. I’m sure we’ve all watched from the side lines the drama that continues to unfold at Uber. It’s good to be light on governance as you’re starting out, but you need to have some governance structure in place that allows you to build the culture as you build your organisation.

Some of you will do it on your own. Some of you will go into ventures with people you’ve met during this year’s INSEAD. There are a lot of examples of that. I applaud you and look forward to hearing about your success.

In closing, I’m going to quote from a story written by former Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta some years ago: “I was jogging this morning and I noticed a person about half a kilometre ahead. I could tell he was running a little slower than me, and I thought, ‘Good; I’ll try and catch him.’ I had about a kilometre before I needed to turn off, so I started running faster and faster. Every block I was gaining on him just a little bit. Finally, I did it. I beat him, I caught him and passed him. On the inside, I felt so good. Of course, he didn’t even know we were racing. Then after I passed him, I realised I had been so focused on competing against him that I’d missed my turn. I had gone nearly six blocks past and I had to turn and go back.

Isn’t that what happens in life when we focus on competing with co-workers, neighbours, friends, family? Trying to outdo them or trying to prove that we are more successful or more important. The problem with unhealthy competition is that it is a never-ending cycle. There will always be somebody ahead of you, someone with a better job, a nicer car, more money in the bank, more education, prettier wife, more handsome husband, better behaved children.

“But realise that you can be the best that you can be when you’re not competing with anyone. Stay focused and live a healthy life. Run your own race. There is no competition in destiny.”

So I hope you remember your responsibility to combat social and gender equality, your leadership – your personal leadership, within your organisations and within the INSEAD network. And finally, in interviewing and considering candidates for admission to the MBA programme, the question I always ask myself is, “Do I want this person as part of my network?” I’m very pleased for all of you that INSEAD alumni have decided we would like you to be part of this wonderful network to which we all belong.

All that remains for me to say is welcome and I look forward to reading about your future success with pride. Thank you.

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