In his memoir, Babs Omotowa tells the story of his rise from managing a storeroom to becoming one of the few Africans ever appointed global vice president for Shell companies across the world. Between these significant points of his life, he transcended limitations to establish that no matter where one is coming from, opportunities are there to be taken, especially with the right attitude. From Storeroom To Boardroom has been described as both a personal memoir and a handbook on leadership. It is filled with illuminating anecdotes and inspiring life lessons that contribute significantly to filling the knowledge gap in leadership we experience in our society.
Read excerpts from his book From Storeroom to Boardroom
It was midnight on my penultimate night in the Hague. I had just returned from yet another dinner graciously organised by my colleagues to send me off. I was retiring early after 26 years at Shell; I had decided to pursue other personal aspirations after a career in which I rose to the top echelons of one of the largest multinational corporations in the world. My colleagues, that evening, had shared stories of our good times together. But I wondered if I deserved the compliments I got that night, because I recalled that I was sometimes the contrarian in the team and had had many difficult encounters with co-workers.
I had lived in the Hague for three years, in a small flat on the eighth floor of a high-rise apartment on Carnegielaan Street, behind the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice. The apartment had a great view and I often found myself by the window, soaking in the beautiful scenery of the city and reflecting on its rich history.
As I stared out my window that night, my gaze darted across the brightly-lit streets and rested on the canal – the Netherlands is famous for its canals. With a quarter of its land below sea level, canals play a prominent role in the country’s environmental security. They manage overflows of seawater and keep the cities from being flooded. The canals surrounding the cities used to serve as moats to protect inhabitants from foreign invaders. Today, they support tourism, irrigation, recreation and transportation.
I thought of Obalemo and Pere, streams in my hometown Okoro-Gbede, in Nigeria. In contrast to the Netherlands’ canals, Obalemo and Pere are unplanned and covered by bush. They do not mingle with people and traffic, and do not crisscross the town. Yet they provide sustenance for the community – fish and irrigation.
I walked away from the window and went into my bedroom to get some sleep. My thoughts drifted off again. During the send-off dinner, my colleagues had asked about my post-retirement plans. When I mentioned that I would write a book, many asked if it would be an autobiography. I have always associated autobiographies with fame, wisdom, age and achievement; none of these were me.
I would be content, simply, with writing a book about my failures, challenges and successes; episodes from my life; and the lessons I learned during my career.
My career was one of outright rejection of the status quo, which was the perception that Africans, Nigerians, underperform in global business. My story is an example that one can ascend in life irrespective of where one started from, and that opportunities are available to be taken, with the right attitude. My story demonstrates that education, hard work, creativity, courage, character and integrity pay.
I wanted to tell the unusual story of my rise from humble beginnings in a storeroom to CEO and, later, global vice president of a major multinational company. I wanted to share my reflections on the challenges global businesses face in developing countries. I wanted to share my story in a way that enables readers to reflect on these lessons and draw insights.
I hope that my story will be of interest to business executives and leaders, mid-level managers, new joiners; insiders and outsiders in the oil and gas industry; businesses with subsidiaries and ventures in developing countries; people with interest in social issues; and students working in developing countries like Nigeria, or planning to do so.
I hope that my story will inspire young ones to be focused and not meander through life, but, instead, have determination, courage and integrity through the tests of life.
I hope this book helps in redirecting the steps of those who had core values instilled in them from childhood but have lost focus along the way.
I have had to dig deep into emotional wells I have never explored before, resisting the temptation to omit stories that may not be flattering or consistent with who I am today. By recalling moments of personal disappointment, such as my truancy in secondary school, which ultimately led me to repeating a year, I have been able to recognise my imperfections. In life, there are no rehearsals, and we all make mistakes.
I will share some of my failures, including when as CEO of Nigerian Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG2 ), I had failed to convince the board to approve a major organisational change, and how I came back from this.
I will describe some of the challenges in the oil industry, such as communities’ underdevelopment, gas flaring and the oil pollution of the mangrove areas caused, in some cases, by the corrosion of pipelines, but mainly by sophisticated gangs stealing huge amounts of oil from these pipelines.
I will outline how, with determination and courage, impact can be made in advancing a company’s objectives, such as developing local capacity and transforming communities.
I will narrate some dilemmas global international companies face working in developing countries with different ethical and rule-of-law standards. Once, a government agency blocked my company shipment for weeks in contravention of court orders, for the sake of extorting an illegal levy; in the process, we recorded huge losses to the country and company.
I will chronicle some of the challenges I faced working in high-risk countries with corruption and little regard for transparency, and how Western views on tackling corruption in these countries need to evolve.
I will recount some of the difficult encounters I had with legislators insistent on amending or repealing a legislation that is the foundation of NLNG, and how I fought this.
I will reveal how, despite a strong case for growth opportunities within the company which would benefit the country, political interests at the highest echelons of government led to unnecessary delays.
I will mention some challenges and insights about working outside my home country on international assignments in Europe, being a minority in an international company, and how assumptions on racism played out.
While my experiences are not universal, they provide some insight on characteristics that enabled my success: the courage to change and create a future of possibilities; ethical leadership in the face of adversity; focus and determination; making impact in difficult Introduction situations; building relationships and influencing others.
I hope the lessons learned during my journey climbing from the lowest rung of the ladder to the top of a global organisation will be valuable inspiration for readers. In managing big businesses in developing countries like Nigeria, one tends to see hot-button issues such as community development, corruption, pollution and local content only in the rear-view mirror – stuff that are marginal and secondary in the consuming chase for market and production target – unless one makes deliberate effort to put them on the dashboard of corporate agenda. Readers will learn what it takes to run big businesses in developing countries, to deal with national governments, shareholders and politicians.
As I drifted to sleep on my penultimate night in the Hague, I reflected on how magical it is when ordinary circumstances and everyday events hold hidden, deeper truths and future implications. Many of the failures and experiences that occurred during my younger years have later revealed their significance in my adult years. My story is one of gratitude to God for every step I took throughout my career. I owe all to Him, for His seen and unseen hand in my life. I am grateful to Him for the opportunity to write this book, to tell my story, with the hope that it will add to the knowledge of readers and inspire them to achieve success.
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