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Leaders on leadership: I’m ready to take the first bullet, says Cadbury’s new boss Amir Shamsi

You want to take him back to the dark days when Cadbury Nigeria was mired in crisis but he is unwilling to look back. To him, bygone is bygone. Like the phoenix, a new Cadbury has emerged from the ashes of the old.

Now, the board is composed of men and women with high integrity and everything has been put in place to ensure that there would be no future breach of corporate governance rules. And the management is led by Amir Shamsi, a former marketing director in Cadbury Nigeria who was posted abroad and is now back in Nigeria in an elevated role as MD/CEO of a new Cadbury Nigeria owned by new owners by name Mondelez. Backed by a strong board that has great boardroom players like Atedo N.A. Peterside, the chairman, Adedotun Sulaiman, Ibukun Awosika and other international boardroom stars, Cadbury Nigeria is strong enough to win the World Cup!

Under Amir Shamsi’s leadership, the company has bounced back into profitability. The profit after tax might not be that big, but it’s a pointer to greater things to come under the watch of this man I called Hercules after the mythical Hercules who cleaned up the Augean stable but Shamsi refuses to wear the tag.

“Even though I have brought about a turnaround in Cadbury in my own little way, I don’t see myself as a Hercules,” he told me in an interview in his open office where he has an open-door policy. “I am a very normal human being. The issue of corporate governance breeches in Cadbury in Nigeria is history now, it’s happened ten years ago. We need to move on. What have you heard that has gone wrong in the last ten years in Cadbury? Nothing. We need to move on. We are normal human beings running an organization with good talents, strong brands and determination to win in a competitive marketplace.”

For one hour, I grilled him on his thoughts on leadership and his vision to take Cadbury to a new height of greater prosperity. I started by asking him if leadership was a democracy or a popularity contest.
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I don’t see leadership as a democracy. Not exactly. Leadership is not a democracy because as a leader you have to take the first bullet. So you have to then be decisive. I don’t think it’s in a democracy. Yes, as leaders we need to listen, we need to keep our eyes open, we need to be accessible, approachable, but then you have to take the first bullet. And in democracy, I haven’t seen the president to be taking the first bullet. A lot of people have to take bullets before it gets to the president. In leadership, you take the first bullet. And I am ready to take the first bullet if something happens. Because I am responsible.

I don’t see leadership as a popularity contest. I don’t want to be a popular leader because I say what people want to hear. In a multinational organization, you are not chosen as a leader because you are popular. I don’t think it is a popularity contest. There is no definition that describes leadership as popularity in the commercial world. For me, a leader is the face of the organization. He is the organization’s other brand besides the company’s brand. He is the one that people look up to. His behavior, his way of working defines how the organization is going to work. He is the direction, he is the compass. You hold a compass and it tells you where the direction is. I think a leader is a direction provider. And as I said, he is the person to take the first bullet and he guides the organization.

I believe in being approachable, accessible and being decisive. Listen to people, understand from it, have a clear thought of mind and then crack it. Believe in the system, believe in the brands that you have, invest in people and brands and relentlessly drive and you will get there. Don’t give up.

I don’t have a particular person I would single out as my leadership role model. There have been many supervisors that I have worked with and who have left impressions and made an impact on me. Some have taught me courage, some have taught me clarity of thought, so I think it’s a combination. I like Barack Obama from an intellectual perspective. I thought he was very intellectual and how he spoke was something that gave me the right inspiration. I thought he was very articulate and his demeanor and everything was something that I thought was great. Otherwise all my supervisors have left a mark on me as to what I have learnt from them.

I don’t know and I have not heard about Dr. Christopher Kolade, the gentleman you mentioned about. I think the company has come up so long. The company has changed. Our parent company has gone a long way. So I might have missed him in this journey of my life. So I don’t know him.

I used to work in Cadbury Nigeria from 2012 to 2015 as Marketing Director. Then I went on to a global role in the US. And then I came back last year 2017 to take over the managing director position. I have been in the group for about eight years. That is Mondelez. So I have been in Pakistan with a biscuit business, then to Nigeria, then to the US and back to Nigeria.

In coming back to Nigeria, I was given the chance to come and lead an organization in a country where I had worked previously as marketing director. So to do an MD role in a market where you had been in marketing is a head start. That is No.1. No 2 is that we are a food company and Africa is where the next growth platform will come. Today, Nigeria is from 180 to 200 million people. You go and add Ghana and French West Africa and that is about 350 million people. That is equal to the size of the United States. So in the US if a company has businesses of $10 billion with such population base, in this part of the world, even with one-tenth of disposable income, you should have at least a billion dollar business. So I think the opportunity is big. With the population growth that is forecasted, in the next 20 years, you will have about 500 million people living in this part of the world. So for me, it’s a great opportunity to come and work here. It’s a vibrant market with a young population base. And there is a lot to do in this market. Every emerging market will have economic challenges.

That market is also learning, it’s finding its ways, it’s experiencing new things.

Two years back, you will never hear in Nigeria something in manufacturing and agriculture. Everything was oil. And suddenly the price of oil drops to its lowest. And life has to go on. So then the younger generation comes up and talks about manufacturing, agriculture and even finds more revenues because they even want to live and become prosperous. I think those were the factors that brought me back. I see Nigeria as a land of opportunities.

Yes it is true that I came to work in a company mired in controversy bothering on corporate governance issue but this is history now. It is ten years now since it happened. Life has moved on. We have a very solid board today which governs the company, with very respectable names on it. And we have an audit firm which audits us, we have been completely hard audited, checked in every way and we have been responsible. For the last ten years, we had no issues on corporate governance and compliance. And this is our licence to operate. So I think it’s history, we have learnt our lesson and we have moved on. The company today from a corporate governance and audit perspective is very well governed by a board.

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