The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour – Hamda Ambah, CEO, FSDH Merchant Bank

With Wole Famurewa

I have learnt that you can’t motivate everyone the same way. Some people need to be validated by public recognition. Some are driven by being given challenges. So it is important to take time to figure out how to deal with each person or team.

Hamda Ambah began her banking career at the International Merchant Bank (IMB) and later moved on to work at Reuters Limited until she joined FSDH in 1993. Her portfolio when she joined FSDH included Corporates (comprising multinational, mid-tier corporations, telecoms and energy sector), as well as managing the Port-Harcourt and Abuja Regional Offices. She rose to become Executive Director and was appointed to the boards of three subsidiaries (now affiliate companies) of FSDH. Hamda holds an MSc in Management Science from the Imperial College of Science and Technology (1982) and a Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Lagos, Nigeria (1980). She is a member of the Nigerian Chartered Institute of Stockbrokers and was awarded the 1999 IBTC award for the best examination candidate in Corporate Finance. She is an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at Insead, France and has attended a Senior Management Programme at the Witts Business School in South Africa.

University, Sciences or Arts?

Sadly, there wasn’t a lot of guidance with regard to choosing a career path when I was growing up. So, in a sense, I was left to discover my interests as I grew up. My father was a diplomat and I traveled a lot when I was younger. While living in Paris, I followed with great interest the first heart transplant surgery in the world and that fascinated me and stirred an interest in medicine. However, I soon realized that I found biology boring so that dream didn’t last very long even though I was good at science subjects. I eventually decided to study Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos but yet again, I soon realized that I wasn’t sure why I was studying the course. I lost interest in that course and I then decided to switch to computer science. After my youth service, I enrolled for a Master’s Degree in Management Science at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. At this stage, I was quite sure that I wanted to pursue a career in business and possibly starting in management consulting. If I had my way, I would have enrolled in an MBA programme but the ones I was interested in required candidates to have acquired some work experience which I did not have at the time so the Management Science degree was the next best thing.

After completing my master’s programme and my return to Nigeria, a friend introduced me to someone at the former International Merchant Bank. Long story short, I did a few interviews and started my career in banking within months of my return to Nigeria.

Biggest lesson from University?

I found how important it is to have broad-based relationships. I think it is so important to be open and establish a rapport with people as a student because I find that the people you connected with in some way remember you many years after and such relationships are often immensely valuable and may help you get ahead. So I would advice young people to take advantage of the opportunities to build relationships with their colleagues in the university. These could be immensely valuable in the future.

Looking back, what advice would you have given to the young Hamda Ambah when she was entering Imperial College or when starting her professional career?

While I didn’t fret too much about the future as a young professional, I would still say to my young self not to worry too much about the future. There were moments that I was uncertain about what I wanted to do but I think, overall, things worked out quite well. I am grateful that I had a good relationship with my parents and still have good relationships with my siblings, so there is little to regret in that regard. I feel like I have been very fortunate in life and have few regrets about how things have turned out. I would probably not study computer science and maybe study philosophy or something like that.

Lesson from your first job?

I found the atmosphere in the office very energizing. It really motivated me to learn and absorb a lot. I do feel sorry for the younger people today because I think things were a lot easier for us in those days. My view is that my cohorts caught the tail-end of the oil boom. Within months of starting my first job in a bank, I was able to buy a brand new car.

Things that you have learnt in your career that are not taught in the classroom?

Dealing with people. The higher you go in your career, the more important it is. Managing people who are very intelligent, have a somewhat different approach to addressing issues than you do and do not necessarily get along with each other etc. That has been a learning experience.

Greater influence, Mom or Dad?

My father was a massive influence on me because he made me believe that I could achieve any goal I set my mind on. I think he was such a well-rounded person and his worldview influenced me greatly. He was someone who had strong views and was logical in his reasoning. He was always ready to debate and discuss issues with people who may have opposing views. My mother on the other hand was a more traditional person and very intuitive. She was an excellent judge of character and could read people very quickly. Experience showed me that 9 out of 10 times she was right when she had reservations about someone she had just met. This has encouraged me to appreciate and listen to people who act the same way. Even though, like my father, my approach is more logical than intuitive, I have benefited from valuable advice given by people who trust their intuition

 

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You speak French as a second language. Do you think Nigerians are missing out on something by not speaking other foreign languages?

Unfortunately, the empirical evidence appears to indicate that Nigerians don’t have much interest in learning other major foreign languages. I think a major reason for this is that languages are not taught very well in Nigeria. While working at Reuters many year ago, I use to travel to Cote d’Ivoire a lot and observed that many Ivoirians that I worked with spoke English very well. When I asked them where they learnt to speak English, I was surprised to hear time after time that they had learnt it in secondary school. Moreover, I believe that because Nigerians speak English which is the dominant language in the world (when you take into account the fact that it is the language of business as well as science & technology), like other anglophone nations we expect everyone else to speak English and make little effort with the languages that others speak. When you are able to speak a person’s language, it endears you to them. In an increasingly integrated world, I believe that we are missing something as a people when we are not able to speak other languages.

What type of music do you like?

I have a very eclectic taste in music and I love to dance. I love everything from reggae (Bob Marley), calypso (soca), rhythm & blues, juju (Sunny Ade) and highlife among other genres.

Your interest in books?

I am also an eclectic reader. I read the Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb some time ago and it really made an impression on me. I am currently reading Skin in the Game by the same author. One author that I follow is Malcolm Gladwell. I tend to buy all his books.

Who’s your best boss ever and why?

I would mention Nebolisa Arah, a boss I had at IMB. He was a great mentor. He took the time to teach me what was required to do my job properly. He was my first boss so at the time, I didn’t realize that not every supervisor would take the time to guide and teach subordinates like he did. He also gave me responsibilities that challenged me.

What has been the biggest lesson that you have learnt as a boss?

I have learnt that there are people in the organization who can get feedback from their colleagues that I may be oblivious to. I have found it valuable to listen to them to absorb what I may be missing. I have also found my colleagues to be great sounding boards when making big decisions. I am more confident in my decisions when my views are challenged.

What have you learnt about motivating your team?

I have learnt that you can’t motivate everyone the same way. Some people need to be validated by public recognition. Some are driven by being given challenges. So it is important to take time to figure out how to deal with each person or team.

What are your ideas about achieving greater work-life balance?

I think I have been relatively fortunate with regard to finding a balance. I am of the view that this is probably a bigger challenge for women than for men. In my view, the best decision that can be made to achieve the right work-life balance is to ensure that home is not too far from the office. The ability to avoid a lengthy commute to and from work is extremely beneficial. My husband and I chose to get a better quality of life by living reasonably close to our offices instead of securing a bigger apartment or house further away.

In your view what should be the role of businesses apart from making money?

Businesses should play a role in nation-building. Businesses should add to the collective effort to build a great nation. It is not the responsibility of any one person. We all have to play our part.

 

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Things you value the most in a candidate when hiring?;

I like people that have a can-do attitude and display an enthusiasm for the job. I believe in the adage that “you hire for attitude and train for aptitude”. It is possible to teach someone facts that they don’t know, but extremely difficult to teach a person with a bad attitude how to develop a good attitude. Moreover, an employee with a bad attitude can have a poisonous effect on the team. Integrity is also very important to me. Sadly, it is something  that is sometimes hard to spot in an interview.

What’s your favourite place to go in Nigeria and abroad and why?

In Nigeria, Lagos is my favourite place. The city exudes energy. I like the fact that even when I choose to stay at home, I know there’s so much going on socially and in entertainment that I could participate in if I so desire. I love to travel to places I have never been to before and enjoy new experiences. So instead of identifying a favourite place that I have already been to, I will identify my top three dream destinations (all new). They are Hawaii (USA), Sydney (Australia) and Bangkok (Thailand).

Any interest in sports?

I love to swim but have been doing less and less of that over the years. However, my favourite spectator sports are athletics and gymnastics.

Best use of money ever for you.

The investment I made many years ago in taking a nanny with me on a holiday abroad with my young children. It made all the difference. The experience of being on holiday with a nanny who assisted me with three children enabled me to enjoy the entire holiday instead of having to merely endure most of it.

Who will you like to spend a holiday with?

I usually vacation with my family. A holiday with a group of girlfriends would be a great idea. No husbands. No children. That should be fun.

What will be your biggest advice to President Buhari if you ran into him at a restaurant?

I would say “Sir, we have run out of money and cannot afford these subsidies. Please, just let them go!”

 

The Lunch Hour was over zoom because of the restrictions on public gathering due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

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