Footprint to Africa Interview with Entrepreneur and Former GE Global Executive, Vishal Agarwal

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Vishal Agarwal is the bestselling author of Give to Get. As a Senior Leader, he has navigated corporate life for the past 24 years. He has served as a Top Global Executive for General Electric (GE) and as a Senior Partner at Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC). Agarwal has navigated all facets of corporate life – from building teams and delivering value to translating multinational visions into local wins. Agarwal believes that Africa has the potential to make major shifts in the global economic landscape but needs to be qualified, influential and impactful leaders in order to do so.

Why do you believe Africa is lacking strong and influential leaders in the global market?
I think it is a function of two things: (1) time – our markets are nascent and we are in the 1st or 2nd generations at most of making global impacts; the (2) is we are poor storytellers.  Our leaders tell our stories as ‘theirs’ – those messages are vanity centric and rarely resonate outside our borders.  One of my own ambitions with my book was to have it resonate globally.  The message, therefore, is more a ‘giving’ message as opposed to a vanity project.

What should every aspiring African entrepreneur know before entering corporate life?
A corporate career can also feel like a never-ending grind. Endless meetings, frustrating bureaucracy, rigid fiefdoms, and silos. Constant travel, overnight flights followed by 8:00 a.m. meetings, and late-night conference calls. High stress, rivers of coffee, and seemingly endless time away from family. Working for a large corporation can be a thrilling ride, but it’s also full of aggressive competition, petty jealousy and skepticism, intense scrutiny from all angles, and myriad obstacles, challenges, and pitfalls.
If you know how to navigate these challenges, they’ll become your strength and fuel your success. But if you don’t, they can destroy your career and cost you everything you’ve worked so hard for. I’ve seen countless professionals who were very talented and hard-working but didn’t know how to navigate. In all cases, they ended up feeling unwanted and unrecognized, had their egos bruised and their reputations battered, and ultimately left the company.
There is no dearth of smart, talented young executives, but many of them lack the ability, willingness, and fortitude to endure. Anyone who lacks the grit to stay in the marathon of corporate life will quickly find themselves on the outside.
Corporate life does not come with a “how to navigate” manual. There are really two ways to understand these essential lessons—either spend a decade or two in the trenches and earn your scars or read my book. I suggest the latter. I’ve already done the hard part for you. All you have to do is absorb it.

What makes a good leader, according to you?
Contemporary leadership in a world of speed; innovation; robotics and machine learning is one that focuses on serving the team.  The best way to get leverage out of the smart workforce leaders find themselves in today is by winning the hearts and minds of the team.  This is easier said than done – words are not enough. It takes action. Consistent action.
Traditional leadership is a top-down pyramid where the leader sits at the top, and subordinates do as the leader commands.  Contemporary leaders turn that pyramid upside down by sharing power with their teams, placing the needs of their team before their own, and helping subordinates develop and grow so they can perform at the highest level possible.

What are some of the common mistakes of unsuccessful leaders?
Here are 6 common mistakes that unsuccessful leaders make:

  1. They play the ‘I am the boss’ card
    They demand a seat at the table because of their fancy title and power. They don’t inspire subordinates.
  2. They say ‘Do it my way’
    No one follows you just because you have an impressive resume. It takes more than just experience to be a leader. People follow you because they trust and believe in you.
  3. They have visible ‘favorites’
    Showing favoritism towards people who are your ‘ambassadors’ – the early adopters is a critical mistake. It makes converting the ‘distractors’ even more difficult.
  4. They get into frontal conflicts
    The cost of a head-to-head conflict with a colleague is steep, and the self-inflicted damage is hard to overcome.
  5. They create silos and fiefdoms
    The last thing you want is to be viewed as siloed, as stuck in a vertical, as compartmentalized, or as a creator of a fiefdom.
  6. They talk out of both sides of their mouths
    If the other person delivers their side and you fail to deliver yours, that will undercut your credibility forever.

 

How can areas like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Ghana boost economic growth?
I am a big believer in enterprise lead development and developing high skilled jobs at the same time.  Both of those drivers require the development of top-tier leaders and a high intellect workforce.  Investing in future leaders in our region – whether entrepreneurs or corporate professionals will help crack this code.

Do you think African leaders will make a bigger splash in the global arena in the near or distant future?

Yes – I am long on our region and its talent.  I see a great population of highly skilled diaspora returning home while increasing opportunities for our indigenous talent in great businesses in the region as well as training programs around the world.  Both at PwC and GE, I was proud to have been central to a lot of our young professionals being given opportunities to get trained or get seconded to businesses around the world – with a view of their ultimate return to the continent.  I was also very proud to have played a role in recruiting many top talent African diaspora to return to the continent.

I have no doubt that this talent is driving great outcomes already and will continue to do greater things in the future.

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