A partner with McKinsey, Eyitope Kola-Oyeneyin shares how her career journey began and how her firm belief in being an agent of transformation plays out in every aspect of her life.
“I see myself doing business deals..”
I remember the moment – I was 14 years old in my parents’ living room making the pitch for why I needed to urgently relocate to the United States to continue my education. My mom asked “So, what do you want to be when you grow up”? I replied, “I see myself doing business deals.” I was not so sure what “business deals” meant – I just knew it would involve global travels, it would be fast paced, and I’d be dressed up in power suits, high heels and a fancy briefcase in tow.
I have been doing and thoroughly enjoying these “business deals” for around the last 20 years – as an entrepreneur as well as spearheading transformation, group operations and international expansion for First Bank of Nigeria, developing and executing the Cashless Lagos program at the Central Bank of Nigeria, and supporting global businesses to transform their business with McKinsey & Company.
Engineering to Finance
Finishing secondary school, I did not know exactly what I wanted to study in University. I knew I wanted to understand technical things, but did not want to be a typical techie – afterall, I wanted to do business deals. I initially considered doing chemical engineering – I liked my chemistry teacher in secondary school (she made the topic interesting), engineering was technical, and my grandad, whose business acumen I admired a lot, did a lot of business in oil & gas, so I figured I could apply the knowledge to business.
However, the university I decided to attend at the last minute did not have a Chemical Engineering program. In the process of attending a ‘’free food’’ event, I learnt about a field of engineering I had never heard of before then – Industrial Engineering. At that moment, it was as though someone took what I thought of in my head and created a degree program for it. It was perfect! A mix of technical and business; in fact it was often called management science or business improvement engineering.
It was easy to excel in school, because I was doing what I loved and truly enjoyed. My background in Industrial Engineering made it easy for me to criss-cross across industries – from working with IBM as a software engineer to working in financial services.
However, I often tell people the most important thing about a University education is not so much your course of study, but learning how to learn. Yes, a course can influence the opportunities that will be immediately available to you upon graduation, but your work ethic and ability to learn and solve problems will ultimately open doors for you and differentiate you.
My career choices have always been governed by the opportunity to learn, develop and drive impact. Typically, this is usually determined by the type of institution, the level of ambition, and the people I’d be working with – especially the leaders who shape the ambition and the agenda.
I also like variety – I was at First Bank Nigeria for 7 years and I had three roles during the period, including a stint at the Central Bank. I find it important to keep challenging myself with new opportunities, different problems, etc – it’s the fastest way to grow as a professional.
Where I live has always been a different matter – when I was younger I had the liberty to optimize for location and I did – from living in Jos to living in California; and I still do now when the opportunity presents itself, but it’s more difficult to connect the dots of work and location. So, I do the work I’m passionate about and try to make time to enjoy the things I would have if I lived elsewhere.
I enjoy what I do and I bring all of myself into what I do. I don’t have my work separate from community service, or from play, and so on; it’s all intertwined. So, it’s very important to me that my work reflects what I am passionate about. It is important to me that I leverage every opportunity to drive excellence, improve standards, build capacity and change mindsets. It is my little way of contributing to a better Nigeria and changing the world.
I have always been passionate about Nigeria and its potential. Perhaps it’s because I know when Nigeria occupies its rightful position, it will create respect for all Africans and also inspire them to achieve their potential. Attending school outside Nigeria, I realized other nationalities didn’t have multiple heads – there was absolutely no reason the things I saw overseas could not be done in Nigeria, and even better than was done there in some cases. This belief has shaped a lot of things I do, including relocating to Nigeria.
But relocating to Nigeria requires a different mindset. Every environment has a protocol, and Nigeria, doubly so – especially for a young single female, working in executive roles. Here, you must be cognizant of cultural perspectives on age and women. In terms of work ethic – I have seen people with poor work ethics in Nigeria and outside of Nigeria; so it’s not an ‘only Nigeria’ thing. Most times, it’s a function of mindset, values, exposure and the environment – some environments squeeze the life out of people.
But beyond work ethic, what was more concerning was the ‘’manage it’’ mindset – instead of aspiring for excellence, we stay satisfied with just ‘’good enough’’. I spent a lot of time working on mindsets and trying to paint a picture of why excellence matters – and how our little actions have such an impact on the bigger picture.
Some of the best talent I have ever worked with are young Nigerians – born, bred and groomed in Nigeria. It often makes me wonder what these same people could have achieved if given more opportunities, exposure and resources. That’s why Nigeria has to work!
Vision and Setting Goals
I enjoy reflecting a lot – so I have always had a broad perspective of the types of things I would want to do and impact I would like to have. Years before I worked at FirstBank, I knew that I would love to have a ‘’hands-on”’ execution role in an institution that could make a difference. So when the FirstBank opportunity came along, it was easy to know – this is it!
But there have also been opportunities I had no vision or plans for, but they just came about. So, my personal belief is have a general idea of where you want to go, but “lean in” and be open and flexible to opportunities that cross your path. Having said that, any time I start a specific role – I take time to develop a clear vision of what I want to achieve in that role, specific targets and a timeline for when I am ‘’done’’.
This is critical for me – again like a coach, it gives me something to aim for and channel our energies towards; it ensures I am focused on impact and not day-to-day. It also provides a form of self-assessment – I don’t need to wait for feedback from anyone to know if I have done a good job or not – the scoreboard tells me.
It has to be building capacity and working with teams to accomplish great things. Working together to do things initially considered not possible or with people considered inexperienced. As a consultant, it is doing this with your client teams and forming lifelong friendships through the process. At FirstBank, it was initially challenging young FirstBankers, and eventually across the board; and providing them the platform to drive the Bank’s transformation – changing mindsets, giving them opportunities and providing necessary support.
From a project perspective, the execution of Cashless Lagos is probably the accomplishment I am most proud of. When the then CBN Governor, HRH Emir Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, set it as a goal – most people said it was impossible; but under the leadership of the then Deputy Governor Operations, Mr Tunde Lemo, and commitment and innovation of NIBSS along with other stakeholders, it became possible.
It left the biggest impression on me, because you see what can be accomplished at scale when you have a committed leader with a laser focused vision, and when you bring all stakeholders to the table. It’s a pointer and a blueprint for how we can tackle some of Nigeria’s biggest problems. It is possible!
Sponsors and Mentors
Absolutely! People are a central part of anyone’s career journey and many people have influenced and shaped mine significantly – from my siblings and close friends, to university professors and leaders I have served. My mom has been central to shaping my mindset (not just in career but life in general) – encouraging me to go for gold, supporting me in every way and shifting my mindset from career to purpose; she helped me see that there was nothing wrong in loving your career; just make it purposeful and do it well.
Every woman needs a good friend and brother like Onche Ugbabe. He challenged me, supported me, and helped open doors for me at multiple points in my journey.
And then my life partner and Partner of Life and in life, Kola Oyeneyin, who is extremely supportive and makes it possible for me to do what I do, even with little kids – typically why and when many women leave the workforce. Who you marry is so very important, and especially if you have career aspirations. I can take on opportunities and keep dreaming big dreams, because I am so very blessed to have a partner who is supportive not just in words but in actions.
However, it is important to note, beyond sponsors and mentors, the single biggest element of sponsorship in my life has been the grace and favour of God. Period.
I also have a LOT of virtual mentors – I engage them regularly through their books, articles, etc. I read a lot and I am open to learning from anyone who is good at what they do – I admire and respect expertise. Their experiences have challenged me to think bigger; and provided valuable insights and counsel at different decision points and in challenging situations.
If I had one piece of advice to give to young women, it would be – know your stuff. Be diligent and put in the effort to build competence; add value and be a problem solver. If you choose to marry, get married to someone who celebrates who you are, supports you and has genuine joy in your accomplishments. In other words, make sure your spouse is a ‘’SwagAssist”. As a bonus, I’ll also say make sure you have personal standards, manage your income well, master protocol, and send the right ‘message’ with your dressing!
I try to identify the things I don’t like and find ways to outsource them, so I can focus on what I am good at and truly enjoy. That’s critical to minimize stress and create capacity. I try to prioritize what’s most important per time – so things might not all be in equal portions at a time, but at any given point, I focus on what’s most critical.
A couple of years ago, I took a one-year sabbatical and that was a refreshing break and an opportunity to reflect, refocus and ensure the things I am doing now are consistent with my aspirations for impact and truly making a difference. Unwinding for me is about connecting with loved ones, reflection, and learning; enjoying the little pleasures, which includes everything from spa days and hanging out a nice cafe to just a hot bath, uplifting music and family time.
- Know your stuff – put in the effort to build competence.
- People are a central part of anyone’s career journey.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in The Spark Magazine. Find the magazine here to read other articles.