Support system aided my career growth —Adeola Azeez

Adeola Azeez was a Director and Deputy Country Representative for Deutsche Bank, a German multinational investment bank, where she served for nearly 30 years. She is currently a Partner and West Africa Representative at Sigma Risk, Nigeria, and a co-founder of the Women in Management, Business and Public Service. She tells GODFREY GEORGE about her life and career

You have been an accomplished business leader and top board executive for over 30 years. How have you been able to do this successfully?

I will not really say I was a businesswoman because I have always worked in the public space. I did that for 30 or 31 years in a particular institution. When I graduated from law school and observed the National Youth Service Corps scheme, I went job hunting. Those were in the early eighties and nineties when there were many banks in the country. I ended up with Banker’s Trust, an American institution. Deutsche Bank bought it over after a few years and it became a part of DB.

I did not start off my life wanting to do banking. I wanted to be a lawyer. As a matter of fact, I thought I was going to do activism. I studied Law as a second degree at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. This was after I had studied Philosophy at the University of Lagos.

Did you try to get a job in the legal field?

Of course, I did. When I came back to Nigeria, I tried to get a job in the (legal) field, but I wanted something more like a corporate secretary or legal adviser (of a company), and it was not readily available. After a while, I decided to go with Banker’s Trust.

How did that happen?

I had a friend who was working for Chase Bank. She called me one day to tell me that Banker’s Trust was looking for someone like her to drive their business in Nigeria. I thought about it thoroughly because I knew that all my life, I had not done anything related to finance. After a lot of thought, I decided to take the bold step and go for the job. When I got to Banker’s Trust, I told them that I was not sure I was the one they were looking for. But, they convinced me by saying they wanted someone who knew people, who could drive business, talk, market and convince corporate executives to invest and expand their business in Nigeria. All that is history now though. I did a fantastic job. I kept going from one high position to the other. I was able to drive the market for them and they became the leading correspondent bank in Nigeria and West Africa, where I and my team pioneered that success.

What exactly would you tie these successes to?

I will tie them to focus and discipline. This is because when I came back from Warwick, I found myself a little behind my peers because I had done a first degree before leaving (for Warwick) and was around 28 or 29 years old at the time I was done with national service. Some of my peers were in middle management in corporate organisations at that time while I was still at the bottom of the pyramid in the corporate world. I knew I had to play catch-up, and in doing that, I had to remain focused. When I ended up in a bank, I had to do my best. I was humble. I subjected myself to all the training, rigour, hard work, and to learning all the things around marketing. I had to do everything according to the Deutsche Bank standard and ethos. In one breath, I had to wear the hat of a Deutsche banker and in another, I had to be a corporate executive in the Nigerian space. I needed to basically ensure I married both cultures and delivered on the mandate I was given.

How exactly did your upbringing prepare you for this life?

People always say, “You are who you are based on the background you grow up in”. I grew up with my parents. My father is a lawyer but he was – and is – still more of a politician. My mum was a midwife. She worked all her life at Island Maternity Hospital, Lagos. She trained myriads of nurses and midwives, and everyone knew her. My dad has been in politics for 70 years. He is Chief Ayo Adebanjo. If you know my dad and mum, you would understand why I turned out to be this organised. I was the first daughter, and I grew up under parents who were unapologetic disciplinarians. He doesn’t fall from structure or perfection. My mum was also thorough being a nurse. They were people who modelled what they preached. My parents, especially my dad, made sure we, his children, turned out the best in all we did. He instilled discipline in us.

I remember he would always tell us— his children— that the only thing he owed us was education and a good background. A good name was all my dad wanted for his family. He would tell us that it was sacred for us to make sure his name and our names do not get dragged in the mud. He even used to threaten to disown any of us if we did anything to destroy his name or image. We lived bearing that in mind.

He didn’t have a lot of money but he had a good name. He is 94 years old now, and he hasn’t changed his values since I came to know him as my father.

As an older person, I see the importance of the values he gave, and I tell myself, “This is the way I want my children to grow up”. I look back now and I am thankful I had the kind of childhood I had. My father taught us to be very content with whatever we had and who we were, and not look at others for what they had or could offer us.

We couldn’t just walk up to him and say we wanted something simply because someone else had it. He wouldn’t buy that. That also guides me now. I train my children that way. I grew up very disciplined and focused. There were also what we called ‘treats’ and ‘reprimands’. We got recognised when we did well in school. If we didn’t do so well, we got reprimands. We were taught how to be well-grounded in life. We were taught how to prioritise and do chores and how to treat everyone equally with respect. My mother would make sure I did house chores before going for any extra-curricular activities. We had no blender but we had a mortar and a grindstone. So, I would use both to make moin-moin (beans pudding) every Saturday before I left home. I was also taught how to kill a chicken. My mum taught me that, so I can do it now, and not request help from anyone. Those were skills that, when I was learning them, I saw as deprivation. But, I look back at at those times and I understand what my parents did for me.

Much later, I learnt that most of my mates couldn’t do any of those things. Some couldn’t even make eba (baked cassava). Back at UNILAG, I made the best corned-beef stew; my mates then couldn’t even compete (Laughs). In fact, till now, they still tell me that they miss my corned beef stew a lot, and it gives me great pleasure. I was a very focused child. We were not spoilt kids. I wouldn’t say I was raised with a silver spoon, but my parents didn’t let us lack anything. I was not pampered. I didn’t have excesses that many kids these days have. I just had enough to get me by.

You went to school at a time when it was not too common to find many girls in school. Would you say you were lucky to be among the few that got educated?

I don’t even know whether to say I was lucky. I was brought up by parents who did not discriminate between a girl and a boy. We were raised equally. I did not suffer that discrimination. However, there was more emphasis on me being the first child and knowing how to do everything, than on me being a female child. My mum is the second child of her parents, but when her elder sister died, she took up the responsibility of all her elder siblings. I think my mother saw in herself what she needed to build in me to be like her to be able to take charge. When my father was out there politicking, she was home with me, raising me. Little wonder I look a lot like her. My brothers were there, and they were not really spared too. I remember they made their beds, tidied their rooms and did other things even though we had domestic help. The job of the helps was to do the general cleaning, not take care of us. At weekends, we (children) took turns cooking. I was from a large family, so I grew up with a lot of siblings. I always say it was a community and there was no place for discrimination.

Times have changed, and this has also affected family life. It seems most families have lost touch with the togetherness and communal nature that characterised the 80s and early 90s. What exactly do you think is responsible for this? 

It is sad how many families have lost touch with that togetherness that comes with being with a lot of extended family members. I have not lost mine. My background impacted a lot of good virtues in me. I have two biological kids but I am raising five children. My house is always filled with people that are living with us outside my biological children. I adopted one. So, my kids are only three. My daughter is back home, doing her national service. Three others are abroad. One is here with me. There is always someone living with us and it is something I am used to. My husband was not really used to it but he has adapted.

You are currently a Partner and West Africa Representative of Sigma Risk, UK. What exactly are your duties?

I am currently the West Africa Representative of Sigma Risk, UK. I took on that role in 2021 after I retired from Deutsche bank in December 2020. My partner here at Sigma Risk was a former Deutsche banker, so when she heard that I was out of Deutsche, he invited me to join him. There was a lot we could do with the banking industries with the standards and knowing the customers. (We had to make sure) Nigerian banks were ready for the hard investigation that they could be subjected to by international banks. We had to make sure the banks were compliant. We had to ensure that the banks knew their customers enough to prepare them against cyber security and fraudulent practices. I saw some of these gaps and lapses working with Deutsche. Any role that I take on, I make sure I am filling a lacuna and providing a purpose. My partner and I are working together to make sure that Nigerian banks have better profiles. We have to make sure they are up to international standards, so people will want to deal with them. Most of these banks are given certain training, exposures and lessons to tackle any interaction with the outside world. We also do certifications and master classes for business professionals and growing businesses.

How have you fared so far?

We have not limited our clients to just banks. We have worked with oil companies as well. We are also working with federal institutions. For confidentiality, I wouldn’t want to mention their names.

Prior to this, you were the Director/Deputy Country Representative, Nigeria of Deutsche Bank, a German multinational investment bank, where you served for a long time. How was the experience in that role?

I was like the second in command. Discipline and focus are my watchwords, and that has really helped me. When Deutsche Bank came looking for me, I knew I had no choice but to succeed. I couldn’t have failed. Within a year or two after I was trained and began work, the marker share doubled. As I told you, that was a problem I was helping Banker’s Trust to solve. I needed to go out to win market share. I had the advantage at the time because most of the market share distributors were people I knew. So, when I told them I was now a banker, they gave me all the support I needed to thrive. I saw progress when I started. I saw that I was winning clients for my organisation.

To work in an institution like Deutsche Bank, one must be very hardworking and good at what one does. I made sure I was not lagging behind at all. I was very good at building the brand. What I didn’t know, I didn’t know; but what I knew, I knew very well. I began to build my profile, go for more courses and represent (the company). My bosses began to rely on me. Building that brand and staying true to what I was doing definitely helped. I worked in various offices as well because of the nature of the job I was doing. I had – and still have – a lot of access. I could work with the Central Bank, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or any of the multinationals. I was regarded and respected, and we did what we needed to do.

As I always say, I wanted to protect my name, so it became a brand. I never took no for an answer. Nobody could tell me I couldn’t get something done. I am also a Plan A, B and C kind of person. If Plan A doesn’t work, I activate Plan B and C, if possible. I am always disciplined in everything I do. In Nigeria, there are a lot of inefficiencies that were there to devalue your work as a core professional. But every professional who wants to thrive must learn to keep to the standards and not let anything deter him/her.

Were there some practical steps you took to make your life easier while working with Deutsche?

I knew from the onset that with the nature of my lifestyle, I would need a live-in driver. So, I got one. I didn’t like not being punctual. I wanted someone who would be ready when I am ready and bring me back from wherever I am when I am ready. I was living in Surulere, Lagos, at the time. I got married in 1994 and my children were going to school. I knew I had to make adjustments to make sure my life as a professional was not hampered. I could drive and I wanted to work while my driver drove. I am always ready for the unexpected. The only thing I am not ready for when it eventually happens is death. I have trained myself to anticipate the unexpected. When I am travelling, I always make sure I have two extra tyres just in case there is an emergency. I never want to be caught unaware.

Being a diversity and inclusion coordinator for Africa at Deutsche Bank, how would you assess the African workplace and how they manage diversity?

Diversity is a struggle, especially when it comes to inclusion. The institution or organisation has to be intentional and conscious. When it comes to women of colour, disabled people, Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex +, and the likes, the company has to be very inclusive because it would be hard for them to control the kind of people who would find their ways to work in that space. Because I was a gender advocate, I ensured that there were more women across the ladder and I made sure it was institutionalised. I was told to represent Africa and foster that culture, and I think I did an excellent job.

The workplace, especially in the boardroom, has more men than women. How do you think women can bridge this gap?

People always say, “We don’t have enough women at the top”. I will rather say,

“That used to be the case”. We need women who are at the top now to start advocating for other women to join them on board. This has to be intentional. There must be the will of the board members to want to make this happen. The concern then was, “Where are the women”? As women rise up the corporate ladder, achieving work-life balance is always a problem. The home front includes the children, husband, in-laws and others; while the work front includes targets, expectations, late closure, and early rising; and the self front includes the physical, emotional and mental wellbeing of the woman. All these must not be allowed to suffer. One cannot go to the office and say one is in a bad mood. Nobody wants to know that. I think some women have had challenges dealing with that. I have found out, from the numerous mentees I have, that these challenges are there because these women in question lack a support system. I am an example of someone who was blessed with a good support system. It is that system that has made it look like I am successful and thriving. It seems as if I had no issues during my journey to the top.

As a young woman, one has to think about the pre and post-marriage years. I got married at the age of 33. It was at the height of my career, and for the fact that my marriage never suffered, I have my mother to thank for that. She did almost everything for me. She made sure breakfast was ready for me on my way out and dinner was set on my way back. She filled all the gaps for me. Even after I got married, she continued. I was lucky that I married a man who always supports me. He knew my job was so demanding that sometimes, I could not even make a meal. I had to make sure there was food in the house for him when he came back. I thank God my husband was not a spoilt man. He grew up independent and knew how to do house chores. The microwave was always there to the rescue. We decided, in our first months of marriage, not to engage a domestic help. I got pregnant immediately after marriage but I did not get a domestic help until I was almost due for delivery. We used those months to bond, get used to each other, and share responsibilities.

Most importantly, I was blessed with very good bosses. All my bosses were male but I never had any issues with them. I have been told that I have my way with people; that I am a people person. In my career, I have had five bosses, who I was always second in command to. I had balanced relationships with all of them.

Do you think it would have been any different if they were not male?

I don’t know. I am not going to speculate because I did not have that experience. I study people a lot and try to ensure that there is no friction between us. I am not a ‘yes’ woman. If I see a superior argument, I bow; but when I am right, I stand by it. I don’t hold on to an opinion because it is mine. I am a very inclusive person who loves everyone to agree first before moving ahead. I don’t like it when people say women do not like supporting other women. That is untrue. I don’t even see it; I deal with it. I knew that that was one of the clichés we wanted to break when we founded the group, Women in Management, Business and Public Service, and I am glad I have been able to do that in the 20 years we have been in existence. I acknowledge that some female bosses can be hard to work with, but that is the same thing with male bosses, too. I tell my mentees that one has to win one’s bosses over if one really wants to rise in the corporate world. Study your bosses. Know what they want and do them. I know that some women are scared of other women coming to take over their jobs, but that shouldn’t be a problem. It is how the world is; it is not just a Nigerian women thing. We all need good bosses; male or female, so one can succeed in one’s work and limit the number of frictions.

Did you suffer any form of discrimination in your career on account of your gender?

It is safe to say I have not had any form of discrimination in my corporate life in that when it wanted to raise its ugly head, I killed it. I was very outspoken about it and I killed it. When one is working with expatriates, one should know that they may want to ‘try’ one. But if one is open, transparent and has good character, they would leave one alone. I did not experience it glaringly but if I were not mindful of it, it could have reared its head.

With responsibilities come challenges. How do you manage the challenges that come with heading a team of nationals from different cultural backgrounds, age grades and genders?

When I was in Nigeria, I dealt with Nigerian clients. When I went abroad, I had to do a lot of adjustments because of the cultural and worldview differences. One’s reputation goes before one. Because I was always second in command, and Nigeria was an important part of my organisation, the aspect of Nigeria was left in my hands. When the multinationals come, I go out of my way to make sure that they arrive and go back safely, even as I ensure that their stay is exceptional. In doing all that against the ideas they had and what they must have heard about the country before coming, they are usually amazed. I opened a lot of doors at board levels for my foreign colleagues who came to do business in Nigeria. When one is efficient and conducts oneself in a professional manner, things will fall in place for one.  The way one projects oneself would put one at a very high standard. I had a very good reputation within the organisation and this came with a high expectation which was met with a good outcome. I think I am a good manager of people irrespective, of colour, attitudes and age differences. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I am a due diligence person, so I do a lot of background checks to make sure everything is done the right way, despite the ‘Nigerian factor’. Throughout my 30 years (in the company), I had a good record. People often wondered how I survived a place like Nigeria, which was viewed by the world as a home of corruption and cutting corners. I had to keep my brand intact because I could not afford to fail myself or my name.

The funny thing is that while I was with them, I knew I was constantly being investigated because of where I came from. They looked at my bank transactions, my outside business interests and the likes, and they did not find anything. When I was going to join WIMBIZ, they investigated WIMBIZ. They realised I was clean, open and transparent. If I wanted to do anything, I did it to professional standards.

You recently developed an interest in politics with your participation in platforms such as Fix Politics and Women in Politics. What inspired this interest?

Coming from a political family, politics has always been a part of me. It was just suppressed. I couldn’t have been working for an organisation like Deutsche Bank and also be a politician. That would have meant I was a politically- exposed person, and that would be disadvantageous to the company’s interests.

Towards the end of my stay at Deutsche Bank, I told myself and my friends that I was going into politics. I had aspirations to really make a change in my world from my small corner. I was going to politically-professional events. I became a card-carrying member of a political party because I feel everyone should belong to a political party. I did not really get involved with campaigns and the likes though. I think every Nigerian must be involved in politics because it affects everyone. If one is living in a community, one will identify a lot of needs.  A fruit, they say, doesn’t fall too far from the tree. I had always had an interest and passion for, not just politics, but in people. I want to better the lives of people and communities. We have to get people of different levels to be involved in politics. It is rare to see someone with my profile coming from the private sector into politics. A lot of people thought I was crazy. There is a lot of worry about how I am going to walk through the dark terrain of Nigerian politics and still keep my name intact. But, if I don’t go, who would?

What is the big picture for you going into politics?

The big picture for me is to make a difference. I want to put my money where my mouth is. We all sit back as elite women in the private sector engaging in WhatsApp conversations and debates, but not leveraging our corporate experiences in the political space. I have a wide network in all areas and sectors. I just don’t want to sit in one or two boardrooms. My boardroom should be my community, and I should look for ways to make a difference in my community.

How do you think more women can climb up the ladder in politics?

As women, we need ourselves if we want to climb the political ladder, which is male-dominated. And, that is going to be done one day at a time. No one would give women leadership on a platter simply because they are women.

According to statistics, there are more women than men. Why do you think it has been difficult for Nigeria to produce female governors, other than Virginia Etiaba of Anambra who was in office for only a few days?

Our socio-cultural and religious beliefs have not helped in building and growing women to be in politics. Imagine how the recent (gender) bills were presented to the National Assembly and how they were thrown out. There are more male legislators, so you can imagine that some men cannot even fathom why a woman would be in the same room with them discussing anything that has to do with politics, governance, the economy, or nation-building. Women need to change that mindset by educating the girl child. We have seen a lot of countries rise above it. This means we, as Nigerians, can also do it. There are a lot of things in the polity that discourage women. For instance, the cost of running a political campaign here is ridiculously expensive. Why do women have to pay that much for trying to help? The political parties have a huge role to play because they have to be intentional that women are represented in their political structures.

Many successful women are seen as overly proud and over-ambitious. Was that the case for you?

Many professional women are seen like that but that shouldn’t make them begin to shrink themselves or make themselves look smaller, so they can be accepted. It wasn’t really the case for me. My name is not really gender-specific, so most people don’t even know whether I am male or female until they see me. I make sure my first encounter with anyone is very remarkable. Everyone should be able to prioritise and know what they want. The workplace is not favourable to women, but things are changing. Now, there are flexible working hours for women. But, we must continue to advocate for more till everything is at par.

What was the inspiration behind forming WIMBIZ?

We wanted to inspire, empower and advocate, and I am so glad we have been able to do that in our 20 years of being in Nigeria.

How do you love to dress?

I like to be appropriate in my dressing. The occasion I am attending determines how I dress. If I am going to see the grassroots, I would wear ankara. I also love pearls. I always like to wear a smile on my face as well. It breaks down barriers.

Are you an early riser?

I wouldn’t say so. I sleep late because I am nocturnal. When things are quiet, my brain works. If I have to wake up early, I do. I am adaptable. But, I am not a typical early riser.

How do you spend vacations or time off work?

It has been a long time since I had the kind of vacation I want. I used to think I loved travelling and shopping until I got older and found out that I was not sure anymore. I treasure vacationing with my girls. I like to go to the spa. I love to relax. I do a lot of exercises too.

What do you love to eat most when you are outside Nigeria?

I love to eat vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods when I am abroad.

What Nigerian delicacy do you love the most?

There is an Ijebu dish called ikokore. It is made from water yam pottage. It is very tasty and healthy.

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