Wednesday, 31 December 2014

On Competence, Potential And Why It Helps To Have Someone In Your Corner

You know, the role I applied for specified that the candidate must have at least 10 years experience. I had 3. I applied anyway. When the interviews were done, I was the last man standing; don't ask me how it happened. Because it was a new company with plans to offer somewhat untested services within the Nigerian market, we had a lot of learning to do, so off to Jo'burg we went to learn the ropes from the parent company.

We came back and won a major account from one of the world's biggest multinational. Though we had the same client in South Africa, the size of the Nigerian account was 4 times the scope of theirs. And my company, in their wisdom, put me in charge of the entire Nigerian operation. 

Shortly after, top executives from this multinational wanted to meet the team in charge of their account; the team that would exceed the ridiculous target they had set for the year. My boss, his boss and myself went there. When they asked, "So who is the Project Manager?" my boss pointed at me.

They burst out laughing. All of them. Understandably. You should have seen me then - This thin teenage looking girl in jeans and sneakers (That was the dress code by the way - jeans). I couldn't possibly blame anyone for thinking I didn't have experience. I could pass for a jambite.

They told my boss, "Sir, sorry o, but we don't think she can handle this account." Without flinching, my boss said "If you are looking for someone who can run this account she's the best we've got." They were not convinced. They asked for my profile after which they were going to revert on whether they will let me do it or not. On the way out, my boss gave me a pat on the back and flashed the most reassuring smile I had ever seen.

I went home that day and cried. Ha! I was pained and confused and truly distraught. Half my tears were due to sheer embarrassment, no one enjoys being laughed at; the other half was because I had this nagging feeling that they may actually be right.  It truly was a massive account and I wasn't sure I knew enough to do what was expected.

That night, I went through my CV, checking my previous responsibilities and reminded myself of how all I had learnt prepared me for the role at hand. I identified areas I needed help with and made notes to learn and fast. That night, I reminded myself of who I was. I looked at myself in the mirror and told the frightened face staring back at me - Naomi, you can do this thing. And for sticking his neck out for me like that and affirming what even I wasn't so sure of, I swore I wouldn't let my boss down.

But of course, when it it rains, it pours...While in Jo'burg, I had 'shadowed' a lady who had done the job I was hired to do for 13 years straight. Like a sponge, I absorbed all there was to learn and came back with what I felt was a deep understanding of the process. But there was one thing I didn't anticipate - the environment. The South African environment is configured to make doing business easy - The road network, phone and fax system, you name it; in Nigeria, it's the exact opposite. Essentially, most of what I learned was useless to me because the Nigerian environment didn't have the framework needed to make those processes work.

And that was how I found myself redesigning the entire framework needed to manage the project from start to finish using my knowledge of the local environment. In between all of that I had 80 - 120 people to oversee, 32 states to cover, 1,000,000 girls to reach and 4,500 schools within those locations to keep happy. I found myself covering 5 states within a week sometimes, flying so frequently that crew members at Arik called me Sis. It was gruelling. I practically lived from my backpack.

Two years after I took over that account ,my superiors from Jo'burg came down for training. On one of the training days, I was gobsmacked when one of them said the founder of the company had a specific request - She wanted to know how I was able to reinvent the project management framework, literally turn the workforce training on its head and still save money like I did. And that was how I found myself teaching my superiors how to run projects four times bigger than what they were handling at the time.

Shortly after, we got new briefs from the same multinational. Six of them - To manage several other projects and to oversee the same project I was managing in some African countries. I left in the middle of all of that but if my company did their homework right and won those accounts, the value of the portfolio would have been worth a little less than a billion naira.

All I had was a degree, some work experience, street smartness, passion and a personal commitment to excellence. One man saw all of that and demanded that I be given a chance; that I be allowed an opportunity to prove my mettle. For that and for all I learned while doing that bit, I will remain eternally grateful.

Sometimes, all it takes is one person in your corner. 

©Naomi Lucas


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this Naomi. You may have just saved a life with this piece on this New Year's eve. Looking forward to more greatnesd from you. God bless you richly in 2015 and beyond. Happy New Year!

Gbenga Awomodu said...

Thanks, Naomi. This is definitely a very inspiring story/testimony! :)

You are like an onion, you never run out of greatness and great experiences to share in such a seemingly effortless way.

Opara Mirian said...

If there is one person that believes in you, it is me! Especially because I have seen you in action and you have made sure to impart some of your "Street smartness" and "passion" in me.

Many thanks Naomi.