What My Intern from Harvard Taught Me about Leadership
A few months ago, a student from the Harvard MBA program reached out to chat about fintech in Nigeria, and the possibility of getting some experience in the field for her summer internship.
According to her, Nigeria is thought to have the sexiest fintech ecosystem. I’d take that.
Abena and I spent two hours discussing her background in healthcare, her keen interest in fintech, and what it was like to lead a fintech business in Nigeria. She went on to spend three months working with me remotely from Ghana to flesh out processes for Research as a standalone function of the Product Team at OPay.
On a personal note, I was grateful for a fresh mind on the team with whom I could discuss self and team audits. At the end of her internship, we had a 360-review conversation about my leadership style and I found her feedback interesting. I love getting feedback and I will share some of it, as well as what I learned from mentoring Abena.
- I clearly have an affinity for women: I was so proud of this one! I cheer a little louder when the women on the team make great contributions, I push for them to speak in public, and I amplify the perception of their value. I love that! I made a mental note to be more deliberate about curating a work environment where the men on my team feel psychologically safe enough to bring their best selves to the table.
- I pass the mic, my team must be seen and heard: The Product team was Seun, Afeez, Omojo, Bukolami, Kamal, Bada and Yinka — not allowing anyone address us as Seun and everybody else. I ensure they’re acknowledged by name, shine the spotlight on what they’re great at, make sure they own what is theirs, and appreciate them for the work that they do. The gold stars are theirs, not mine.
- When it comes to communication, I connect better in one-on-one conversations: Naturally, I leaned into that. While this helped me better influence each member of the team, the collective conversations suffered. More frequent group conversations would have served the team better because people would receive the same information at the same time, improving the team’s concerted effort. It’s super important to lead the collective, not just individuals. It promotes connectedness in the team.
- I love teaching: I didn’t even realise how much I loved it until I’d gathered experience and was in the position to lead a team. Now, I even teach outside of work (at universities) and speak at conferences. I feel responsible for what my people know and I take advantage of teachable moments — not in a threatening or condescending manner but in a way that sells the idea that I’m invested in my team’s learning.
- Short feedback loops: Our feedback system would benefit from shorter feedback loops, instead of focusing only on hitting our goals — or the standard half-year reviews. I’d take the end of a specific project like a new feature being shipped, as an opportunity to give feedback. The long-term benefits of an improved system cannot be overemphasised, and we get 1% better every time we use our muscles.
- A charming personality helps a ton!: The team was very happy to run in whatever direction I articulate because they liked the leader. I should say here that it’s important to strike a balance between loved boss and a tough boss. You’re not Ice Cream.
- I own the energy in the room: Afeez on the team asked me once, “Boss, why are you always happy?” People feed off my energy so I have a responsibility to curate the enabling environment for them to do their best work and feel safe to talk about grievances within and outside the team.
- I self-developed in front of them: I am not ashamed of not knowing something and publicly asking to be educated on the more technical details of our work — APIs for example. It helped the team to lean more on each other’s strengths and this improves our know-how as a collective. Our team was a safe place where people could ask for help while fixing their mistakes and strengthening their weak areas.
On a final note, if you’re going to lead, you must be willing to: