Dr Emi Membere-Otaji, PH business leader, reveals how to lead businesses through turbulent times

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The medical doctor-turned entrepreneur who has huge interests in maritime and oil/gas gives insight into how to prepare for stormy times. He says no corporation is too big to crash, and that agility and capabilities are the secrets of survival rather than plans and ambition

 (First used in BD Sunday)

By Ignatius Chukwu

Most corporations in Nigeria especially those in violence-prone regions like the Niger Delta have faced difficult situations and some have had to shut down or relocated, but one medical doctor-turned entrepreneur has rather grown phenomenally within this same situation. Emi Membere-Otaji, former commissioner of health in Rivers State and now the president of the Port Harcourt Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (PHCCIMA), has released a treatise on how to navigate a business through turbulent times.

The chairman of Princess Medic-Clinics Limited delivered a special presentation at the Nigerian Institute of Management in their July 2018 continuing learning and development programme where most leading minds on management, finance, and economic planning gathered to review the spate of business failures and the way out, especially in a distressed economy. They specifically looked at how to survive in violence-prone regions with case studies and examples from success stories.

Membere-Otaji, who has continued to harp on need to diversify away from core oil and gas businesses by companies in the Niger Delta in the face of receding oil business and advent of new energy, told the experts that turbulence in business which is characterized by sudden, significant, and cascading changes in today’s world, does not recognize or respect the organization’s status in the industry. He said its effects are noticed irrespective of the strategic plan of a business, managerial experience or brand recognition.

Membere-Otaji is a graduate of the University of Lagos (Medicine) and the MC’Donough School of Business (US) as well as a fellow and recipient of the “Award of Excellence of the Nigeria Institute of Management”, fellow of the College of Health Sciences & Technology, Rivers State, and award winner and model winner of the Nigerian Medical Association, Rivers State chapter. He agrees that today, organizations (both private and public sectors) operate in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VOCA) environment, adding that this often leads to irrational demands and that leaders have to face strong and relentless oppositions to survive and it could escalate the conflicts towards a downward spin.

Understanding business turbulence

Whatever makes an organization not to meet set objectives and targets is turbulence.

The one-time chairman of West African Glass Industry Plc, a former director of Pabod Breweries, and adviser to the Governor Peter Odili on Privatization and Investments warned that business turbulence could also be from internal factors, despite external factors. “It could be in form of force majeure, such as natural disasters, willful sabotage, acts of war or terrorism. Others in this category of external factors include insecurity, government policies (actions and inactions including policy flip flops), fiscal and monetary instability and product/service disruption from competitors. On the flip side are turbulence from internal factors including fraud, failures in leadership or strategy, or product/services issues.”

Membere-Otaji is active in the business sector. He is the chairman-Marine Trade Group PETAN and member, Petroleum Technology Association of Nigeria (PETAN), vice chairman of the Maritime Trade Group of NACCIMA, founding member of Ship Owners Association of Nigeria (SOAN), trustee of the Marine Equipment Owners Association (MEOLAN), chairman, Board of Directors of Clearline International Limited (HMO) as well as a member of the National Economic Council Committee on Export Promotion. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of Oil & Gas Free Zones Authority (OGFZA) and director–ECOWAS Regional Sea link Project Company.

Learn fast, adapt and respond

His tip is that an organisation’s ability to survive turbulence is not necessarily to create stability in the firm alone but the ability to learn fast, adapt and respond to changes and uncertainties thus always adding value no matter what comes along. “By always wearing the thinking cap, the business should be in proactive not reactive moods. Bill Gates puts it succinctly that “success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, re-invigorate, react and re-invent”.

The coordinator of Sealink Implementation Committee and Governing Board member of the Nigerian Chamber of Shipping (NCS) and University of Port Harcourt Business School thinks that building the culture of agility is key to organizational survival. “Agile leaders and organizations see turbulence or change as an opportunity not a threat. They are always proffering solutions when their firms face headwinds.”

Situations that created turbulence or change to businesses

The business leader gave instances  of turbulence experienced globally and in Nigeria to press home his points: “The invention of cell phones with cameras was a big blow to the survival of camera manufacturers like Kodak. Commencement of Uber services has severely disrupted taxi business in some cities. The advent of online shopping has challenged the survival of the conventional brick-and-mortar shopping halls in some countries.”

In Nigeria, he said government’s opening of the nation’s borders and policy flip flops have seen to the collapse of most manufacturing concerns like the textile industries. “Insecurity including kidnapping, militancy, etc. have severely affected businesses in some key Niger Delta cities since the late 2000s. This has led to relocation, outright closure or mere survival of some businesses leading to some once bustling industrial areas and prime residential properties now empty in cities such as Port Harcourt and Warri”.

He added: “Insecurity from ethno-religious crisis around the Plateau killed tourism business around Jos and other neighbouring towns decades ago. Insecurity in the North East from Boko Haram attacks has killed many businesses in the area. The recent herdsmen-farmer’s clashes in Nigeria are obviously threatening agro-business around the North Central states.”

In 2016, he pointed out, from a combination of fall in crude oil price, tightening of foreign exchange controls and certain actions and inactions of government, he said Nigeria went into economic recession with many businesses’ ability to survive severely challenged. “Many never recovered even with the country’s GDP, now in the positive territory.”

Way out:

Showing how to lead a business through turbulence, the top business leader pointed to what he called ‘Leadership and Agility’. He said; “As business leaders with thorough understanding of the complexities, disruptions and turbulence, our organizations are facing, it is pertinent to ponder on some issues: Is the level of agility in the organization high enough to surmount business turbulence, to ensure increase in performance and growth? Is the leadership team poised and wired to articulate and exert agility in the organisation? Does oganisation’s leadership serve as effective role models for personal resilience and creating agility work environment for others to follow?”

Relying on authorities like Mckinsey and  Michael Wade, he described agility in business as the ability of an organization to renew itself, adapt, change quickly, and succeed in a rapidly changing, ambiguous, turbulent environment.”

The key elements for success today are not plans and aspirations, but agility and capabilities. Capabilities (or access to capabilities) are required to compete effectively in a given position, and agility is required to make shifts in that position in response to a changing environment.”

8-point organizational capabilities

On how to succeed, Membere-Otaji gave eight tips to his fellow experts as critical factors to achieving organizational capabilities; Fully access and acknowledge the facts and reality; Improve client and employee relationship management; Be responsive and agile; Employ efficient-cost control measures for short-term sustenance and long-term viability; Revisit the strategic plan; Put in place product/service innovations; Execute well and make quality a key ingredient to the business growth; Exploit existing capabilities and explore new business opportunities and new markets, customers, products, potential disruptions etc. In essence the organization should be ambidextrous.

He also gave what he considers important tips on three leadership personal capabilities: Exhibit transformational leadership; Be visible; Rebuild purpose. He said the entrepreneur must reaffirm the vision and strategy for the business, set realistic short term goals and be clear and concise about what needs to be done.

Conclusion

Membere-Otaji, who just clocked 60 years of age, and who credits almost everything about his success to his mother (a nurse), said: In summary, in terms of high turbulence, survival cannot and should not be taken for granted as good leadership is about making hard choices, doing the unexpected and sometimes the seemingly impossible, even in the face of opposition. In an environment of high turbulence, the leader must put up emotional resilience and ‘espirit de corps’. “When you cannot anticipate everything (or even anything) you should trust your instincts or gut-feelings, stick to your beliefs and stand by your values.”