Putting Vision To Work

So super thrilled was the WCEO (women’s CEO) Academy to host Dr Patrick Awuah Jnr for #AnEveningWith on Saturday night that when it came to the time to introduce our special guest, I stammered. Giddy with excitement, it was impossible to be still. Greatness had come to hang with 20 odd women entrepreneurs, and a few good men, and I was unable to contain my singular pleasure. And so it was that the WCEO Academy hosted Dr Patrick Awuah Jnr, President of Ashesi University, for an evening of fine dining, collective learning and business conversations. Created to shape the formation and development of extraordinary female business leaders in Africa, the WCEO Academy provides an informal yet instructive means for today’s emerging female business leaders to meaningfully discover the path of extraordinary business success.

Anybody familiar with Dr Awuah and his work will understand why we would have invited him to share some lessons in business, and lessons in living. Tranquil, relaxed and soothingly calm, Dr Awuah spoke to us, really spoke to us, on the price and the prize of having a compelling vision and the importance of being true to your honourable convictions. So I want to start from the beginning. Relating Ashesi’s story as Dr Awuah told us, guided by a few questions we presented him with, around successfully starting, operating and growing an enterprise.

If you are going to do something risky, prepare yourself
Whatever you can to think or to do, begin in. Begin it now. Boldness has genius and magic and power in it. Words of Goethe. And this was one of the lines that inspired or should I say propelled the beginning of Dr Awauh’s return home and the beginning of Ashesi. Lured by Microsoft persistent invite to return to the organisation, and yet driven by his deep passion and desire to establish a first class tertiary institution in Ghana that would raise a generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders, Dr Awuah began his own personal odyssey and story. Fearful of failure that could come with starting on an unfamiliar path, he enrolled at business school to learn how enterprises operate. That was the first lesson for us: if you are going to do something risky, whether that is climbing Everest or establishing a University, you prepare yourself.

Being consistent
The second lesson was on advocating an idea, a novel idea, and its concomitant challenges. You will be misunderstood. You may also misunderstand. But you must be led by your convictions. So compelling must those convictions be that when faced with challenges, your focus remains on working through those challenges, not circumventing them. Whether it was in attaining accreditation for their curriculum with its concomitant honour system, or in convincing parents of students of the first cohorts of the benefits of an Ashesi liberal arts education, Ashesi’s story seems to be one of being consistent and staying true to their course.

Promoting a vision and helping others to succeed
But a novel idea also comes the notion of disruption. When you disrupt the norm, buy-in and support, especially financial support, will often be a challenge. And so it was for Ashesi in the beginning. Providing the seed funding for the university together with his wife and their friends from the US, for the first six years Ashesi endured a period of deficit financing. Yet the vision would not and could not be doused – scholarships were still to be provided for the set number of students, even if the bursary could not be sure where the money for recurrent expenditure would come from for the next academic year. Therein a third lesson – leadership is about helping others to succeed. Ashesi was founded on certain values and principles and at whatever cost, even if it meant yet again delving into diminishing personal finance, the vision must be executed.

But in being upfront about your values, standards and principles and being consistent with all of that, some will take notice. Deciding not to openly seek funding but rather focus more on building relationships, sharing the Ashesi vision and telling the Ashesi story, some did take notice. Opportunity met preparation. Having completed the second 10 year plan with a commitment to offer a larger number of scholarships for African students (and that was again without a definitive assurance of financial capability), an international Foundation, the Mastercard Foundation, came along and provided them with their single biggest grant. $12.9m. The next lesson – people are drawn to compelling, authentic and transformational stories and vision.

Throughout the evening, a few words were repeated over and over again – vision, integrity, consistence, ethics. Dr Awuah’s definitive advice to us all? Be authentic. Have integrity. Pay attention to your personal and business relationships.

I was reminded of the words of Woodrow Wilson, who once said “you are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand”. Perhaps that is why the best of leaders don’t set out to be a leader, but set out to make a difference.

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