Nigeria: Globacom’s Bella Disu, the heir to the phone
The Africa Report catches up with Globacom's executive vice-chair, as Nigeria's second largest conglomerate starts to think seriously about succession.
Bella Disu is in her happy place: a restaurant in Paris. “My whole family are huge fans of the culture, but particularly the gastronomy, foie gras and all that,” says Disu. We are sitting in the Le Bristol, a discreet luxury hotel in the French style. Outside, it is snowing; Parisians scurry past the lobby window holding parcels, brave cyclists joust with the traffic.
Inside, the weather is more cordial. Disu is in Paris to meet France’s President Emmanuel Macron as part of a ‘Choose France’ summit and to sign contracts on behalf of Globacom with French telecoms equipment maker Alcatel.
Globacom is the second-largest telecoms company in Nigeria. As of March 2019, it had more than 46 million subscribers, equivalent to 26.6% of the market – behind MTN Nigeria’s 37.5%.
There is often a collective intake of breath when a family business is handed over to the next generation. How much more so when the founder of the business, Mike Adenuga, is Africa’s second-richest man, according to Forbes?
Disu, Adenuga’s second daughter, is the first to recognise that pressure of expectations – and how, initially, it bent her leadership style out of shape. “I started off in business as an 18 year old working in my father’s company,” she recalls, “and I felt if you are not tough enough or don’t put up a front, then you can’t succeed.”
That pressure is double for women, for whom society cuts so little slack, especially in business. “I had to go the extra mile to make sure I didn’t fail,” she says.
Now, however, she prefers to praise “the incomplete leader – one who knows her weaknesses and strengths, where they can be improved.”
Starting at Globacom in 2004, she has risen through the ranks. “I was initially in the treasury department and finance, then my portfolio increased to overseeing the call centre, the retail outlets, before it eventually increased to overall management of the company,” says Disu.
She realised, a few years into her working life meeting engineers, architects and specialists of all kinds, that “I am never going to know all these competencies. I need to focus on being the leader that can drive efficiency and effectiveness.”
And so, caught between the weight of outside expectations and the internal drive to better herself, Disu picked a path that most avoid: the 360º review.
For those unfamiliar, stay well away! Your superiors, colleagues and staff are all solicited for anonymous criticism. You end up learning far more about yourself than you may want to.
An involuntary shudder crosses her as she recalls it. “The only way is to be humble enough to take feedback and turn that feedback into change.”
And while she says she is like her father in terms of work ethic – “We exchange work text messages at 3am” – she is slowly trying to push change through the business.
Part of that is in the use of technology. “And it’s the little things like instead of having five meetings a day, send me that document via the cloud and I edit it. We save time and money instead of travelling to meet someone,” says Disu. It also means helping the legal department beat its addiction to paper.
But, she says, the real challenge is to catch up and overtake Globacom’s heavyweight rival MTN.
Disu wants to take the ‘Amazon route’ – a laser-like focus on the customer.
One of the deals inked in Paris is with Vocalcom, a company that will harvest complaints made on social media about network issues in real time and push the information to the appropriate department to fix. “Now that channel will feed direct into the call centre,” says Disu.
That kind of diplomacy, be it towards customers or clients, seems second nature to Disu. France intrudes back into the conversation: a waiter, in the French style, is keen to point out that prior arrangements have to be made before photos can be taken. Disu pulls out a smile, which works as a formidable pacifier. “We really do love the French,” she says, which is an understatement. Her father spent several million euros on rehousing the Alliance Française in Lagos.
Beyond the common set of business skills that every entrepreneur needs in order to be successful, Disu argues that women can bring more to the job. This includes, for example, the ability to build teams and communities, and, as the business buzzword has it, creating leaders throughout the organisation.
Each week she asks a new person to chair her weekly core group meeting. “Next week, it could be the executive who has just two years experience chairing the meeting. Why? Because he is put in the position where he can learn to be a leader. I realised that if you don’t do that, you can have someone in the company for 10 years and he has never been able to chair a meeting.”
She is also gathering intelligence from the footsoldiers on the front line, organising ad hoc meetings where vendors and management from stores can meet her to discuss issues they face.
“Our regional managers do come to the HQ in Lagos, but I realise you only hear about 60% of what is really going on on the ground,” says Disu. “For example, I had one telling me: ‘My signage isn’t visible enough. I could double the sales at this store if I had a pylon on the street because it’s a highway.’”
This approach is not what some Nigerian men are used to, especially in a business environment where what the boss says goes and listening to employees is not standard practice. But it has gone down well with the troops, says Disu. “Let’s change this autocratic system. It’s a new strategy, but I have got overwhelmingly positive feedback.”
But in the world of 21st-century business, instinct has no gender.
When 9mobile (formerly Etisalat Nigeria), Nigeria’s third-largest telecoms company, got into trouble late in 2017, Disu started an aggressive campaign to woo its customers. “At the end of the day, you can be the nicest person,” says Disu, “but in business you want to have your competition kicked to the side and be a market leader. That’s always the goal.”