The Lunch Hour

The Lunch Hour, Olajumoke Odulaja, Chief Risk Officer, Union Bank

Olajumoke studied Economics at the University of Ilorin and has an MBA from Manchester Business School, United Kingdom. She held several senior credit management roles at Stanbic IBTC and Standard Chartered Bank before joining Union Bank in May 2018 as Chief Credit Officer. She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Nigeria. Her areas of expertise include Risk management, Credit Evaluation and Underwriting, Credit Policies and Operational Risk. Olajumoke is Vice-Chairman of CRC Credit Bureau Nigeria.

I honestly believe no one gets poor from giving and helping others. So always, always pay it forward”.

University, Science or Arts?

I studied economics at the university even though I did sciences in secondary school.  My dad is a chartered accountant and that influenced what I ended up studying. I had to sit the JAMB exams twice. My dad felt I couldn’t just sit at home while waiting for university admission, so he enrolled me to start ICAN classes. I started studying to qualify as an accountant right after secondary school. By the time I got into the university, I had already passed two stages of the  ICAN examination. There was really no point in going to study Accounting at the university, so I studied Economics, though I had to do some Accounting courses. By the time I graduated from the university, I was already a chartered accountant.

What secondary school and university did you attend?

I attended Federal Government Girls College New Bussa, Niger State. Then, the University of Ilorin.

What do you consider the biggest lesson you left the university with?

An essential life skill called balance. I was lucky to have the presence of mind to think through what I wanted to take away from the university. It is a place that you make whatever you want to make it out to be for you rather than just go with the flow. I studied very hard but I also had fun and made good friends. I have very fond memories of my time at Ilorin.

And Ilorin Town?

I am from Kwara State, not from Ilorin though. It was like home for me because I had an uncle who was living in Ilorin at that time, so every weekend I had to go home to ‘mark the register’. My mum and my elder brother were in school at the same time as me. Mum was running her BSc programme and was in 400 level while I was in 100 level. So, there was some form of policing and monitoring that kept me in check.

Teachers that left a lasting impression on you?

I remember quite a number of teachers from secondary school. But the teacher I can’t forget is an Economics lecturer at the University. He was very tough on us.

Who would you say had the bigger influence on you, Mum or Dad?

Both of them but in different ways. My dad because he didn’t take any prisoners. He was very strict. He charted a course for our lives and our future and he ensured we stayed true to the path.  For him, there was no idle time. I remember clearly how I changed to keeping a low haircut. I went to the salon one day and it took me a long time to get back home because there were many customers in the salon. My father couldn’t understand spending time I could have spent reading waiting to have my hair done so he asked that I cut it. I was still in primary school. I only resumed making my hair when I got into the university. That’s my dad for you.

When home on holiday either from New Bussa or Ilorin, my dad bundled us all to his office. We would leave home with him as early as 6:30 a.m. sometimes and come back home in the evening with him. I spent the time in his office either learning to use the computer, reading or preparing for ICAN exams. But being idle at home was impossible. This of course shaped us to be the disciplined and focused persons we are today. Even while waiting for NYSC call-up, my father helped to get me an interim job with Standard Chartered Bank using my ICAN certificate.

There was no time to think about boys, partying and all those things. My mum on the other hand was the gentle one. She was the calming factor amidst everything. When you are tired or frustrated or feel you are handling way too much, my mum was there to calm you down.  So, I would say both of them influenced me in different positive ways.

Also Read: The Lunch Hour, Andrew Nevin, Chief Economist at PwC Nigeria

When did you leave home for good and what’s the biggest lesson you took with you?

I left home for good when I got married. The biggest things I took with me were hard work and discipline. I grew up seeing my father very dedicated to his job and to the family and being a very principled man. This turned out to be a very big influence on me.  I took a lot from him when I started my career and when I got married and started a family.

What is the biggest lesson from your first job?

I learned to differentiate myself through my work. Many times, we work because we know we are going to get paid at the end of the month but I learned to be different. And when you are different, it stands you out from the crowd. Let me give you a few examples. I was able to do my NYSC in Standard Chartered. I was working in a particular unit and I just used to work and work. I am an early bird.

I had a Kenyan boss then and when it was time for conversion from NYSC to full staff, we had to do the psychometric exams and face the interview panel. I recall there were a lot of people on the panel and it was so tough. They were asking me all sorts of questions. They even asked me questions about my final-year university project. I know I didn’t do too well in the interview. They weren’t asking me what I had been doing in the bank. The questions were abstract. I was somewhat resigned to not passing the interview. Eventually, I learned that my boss interceded for me because I was excellent at my job and he wasn’t going to let me go regardless of the outcome of the interview. So, I got the job because of the dedication I had exhibited.

We attended training school after that and I emerged first runner-up to the best graduate. I also won the best student award in some of the courses. The top three graduates of the training school were usually given the opportunity to choose the department they wished to work in. The guys in Treasury wanted me to work with them because I did very well in all courses that were relevant to their department. It was a tempting offer because everyone believes you make a lot of money in Treasury. But I chose to stay loyal to my boss because he was the reason I was still there even though he wouldn’t have minded me leaving for another department. The experience reinforced something I have always known- you need to be different. As long as you do your best, you don’t have to know people, you don’t have to play to the gallery. Just do your job and do it very well.

It is important for everyone to build relationships at work. But you don’t have to do this by being political or playing to the gallery. I am not an extrovert by nature. But I have realised that being loyal and sincere to people and being reliable is also a very important way of networking. Everyone should always make a conscious effort to build relationships. 

Who is your best boss ever and why?

Truthfully, I have had fantastic bosses all through my career. Right from Standard Chartered Bank. They all have had an impact on my career.  I can say I am here today because of the great people I have worked with. All my direct bosses have been men and from across different nationalities; a Kenyan, an Indian, two South Africans, a Ghanaian and a gentleman from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have also worked with two or three Nigerian bosses. But I will say my best boss ever, my favourite of them all is my last boss, K.K from DRC. He is a truly fantastic guy. He is a body of knowledge and a mentor.

What do you look out for when hiring staff?

First of all, I look out for competence. But I have also found that hiring someone who is competent but has a terrible attitude is almost worse than hiring an incompetent person. So, it is a combination of the ability to do the job well and a positive attitude to work and co-workers. There has to be a balance. Attitude is not easy to gauge during interviews because no matter how hard you try, someone who is out to deceive you can get away with it. Yet, there are some probing questions you can ask to gain insight into the kind of person or the personality you are looking to hire. But does it always work? Sometimes it does, and sometimes you miss. 

Nigerian employers rarely ask potential employees for a character reference

I think it is a huge oversight. A character reference is important because it gives you an insight into who a potential employee is. We should incorporate character references into our processes for employing people.

How would you describe the risk management function in banking to someone who taught you English in primary school if you ran into him or her?

I would say risk management is all about the things that could go wrong in a bank and how to ensure those things do not go wrong. Sometimes, it is about what you would do to mitigate the effects if they do go wrong. How do you reduce the things that would crystallise when those things happen? I am trying to avoid using the word “risk” here. It is about considering everything that can go wrong, and there’s a wide spectrum of things that can wrong. It could be ‘how do I lend you money and be sure that you will pay my money back without defaulting?’ It is about ensuring that people who work in the bank are able to work well: that they have the right tools, processes, and technology to work.

It is about the work environment and trying to avoid smearing the name of the bank. It is ensuring trading is done properly such that we are not losing money and how we put certain triggers in place to monitor some of the things we do so we don’t breach certain parameters. It is about the whole bank operations; the strategy of the bank and ensuring everything is put in place for the bank to continue as a going concern.  I think that touches everything but there are new or emerging risks or things that can go wrong as we go along. For example, nobody ever thought about Covid-19 and what impact it would have on our operations. The continuity of operations is important because you still have to service your customers. At the peak of the pandemic, everyone was working from home, accessing systems and software that can expose the bank to fraud and cyber-attacks. It is a new phase and one we are learning to live with and manage now in addition to other risk issues.

Can shareholders step in to toughen the risk management designs and systems to prevent risks that may arise from “ethical challenges”?

The effectiveness of the controls and processes go a long way in mitigating risk. Does it stop it completely? The answer is no. When people master your systems, they can always take advantage because they know one or two loopholes they can exploit. Now, the board has general oversight for what you do in the bank so a lot of your processes and some of these mitigants that you call your triggers or your management action triggers and certain parameters you put in place to mitigate some of these risks are approved by the board and you would have presentations monthly or quarterly to bring them up to date. Is that enough? It mitigates a lot of the risks but you will always have those unknowns” like we always say known-unknowns or some unknown-unknowns.

An example of an “unknown unknown is Covid-19. Nobody foresaw it, yet it came and disrupted everything. We had robust processes for business continuity foreseeing all sorts of scenarios, including fire and flood. But no one foresaw the pandemic. There were different levels of reactions from different organisations. Union Bank was quicker to react. We had a process that enabled people to work from home. In fact, before the pandemic, HR was begging people to take advantage of the policy we had put in place for them to work from home. But Covid didn’t give us the privilege to make those choices. It was easy for us to do a plug-and-play and then watch, respond, and tweak things as we went along. We were having updates with the board every two weeks to address questions such as “What are you doing now? What are the issues?”.

So, we had proper board oversight over that period. I think to a large extent, you do the best that you can; some situations occur that you probably wouldn’t have thought about.  Those are very few but they test how agile you are. How fast can you get up and react quickly? Now, organisations have learned to be resilient; you have to be agile, that’s the only way because if you are sleeping, you are very vulnerable to the risk of slipping into death. So, you have to be wide awake.

What types of books do you like to read and what are you reading currently?

I read any type of book but fewer books these days. I am currently reading a book titled ‘The 5 AM Club’ by Robin Sharma. I just started reading it. The book is all about how to make the best of your mornings- ‘Own your morning, elevate your life’. It is quite interesting.

Favourite holiday destination?

Still searching. These days, I see all sorts on Instagram and I say, those are the places I should go. I am thinking of going to the Maldives and Seychelles. Usually, I am good anywhere there’s a beach/water and a nice hotel. Anywhere away from Lagos!

What do you consider the best use of money?

I believe in investing. You can make more money and spend the proceeds on other things. I also think helping people is financially rewarding. I believe that helping people multiplies your wealth. I believe it is one of the quickest ways to increase one’s wealth.

Is this belief a function of your faith?

Yes and No. Apart from the religious aspect, it is also what I have observed. In a class organised by PwC, the partner told us a story and that part of the class was about giving back. He called it “Paying it forward”. Whatever it is you do today to help others comes back to you in future. He told a story of how things fell into place for him with respect to a scholarship and relocating with his family for the duration of the programme. He had plans that seemed almost impossible. However, everything worked out even better than he had planned. He put it all down to kindness to all kinds of people – fuel attendants, cleaners, sweepers on the road e.t.c. In the same class, a lot of people shared similar experiences. I believe it has worked for me as well. I honestly believe no one gets poor from giving and helping others. So always, always pay it forward.

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