20 years seems so long and yet it all feels like yesterday. We actually started in my father’s dining room. There were no cell phones in Cameroon in 1995 and getting a land line could take years. We would walk 200 meters to the road to use a phone booth. We paid the attendant to take messages from our clients and inform them we would call back. A company was born.
I remember when we found the office. It was perfect; on the corner, in one of Douala’s best neighborhoods, very accessible and completely run-down. Perfect for the start-up company that we were. The run-down state allowed us to negotiate a very reasonable monthly rent considering the neighborhood, and allowed us to fix it up the way we wanted. STRATEGIES! had found its home. 20 years later, we are still in this beautiful building with its typical Douala character.
We have learned many leadership lessons thus far on this incredible journey. Here are 20 of the most important ones.
1) Take the risk. When we started STRATEGIES! we had no money, just very good skills and excellent ideas. We took the risk. It was in 1995 in a country that had just undergone devaluation and whose economy was in shambles, still we took the risk. We were certain of two things:
There was a market for the strategic consulting and training services we could provide.
Our firm was one of the best at providing those services in this market. We were certain we could beat the poor economy, the international competition (most consultants in Cameroon were French in 1995) and the hurdle of convincing clients. We took the risk and won. Study, analyze, ensure you have competitive advantage and then, take the risk.
2) Be prepared for tough times. When we took that risk in 1995 we knew we were in for 2-3 very tough years. At STRATEGIES! we still call them the “Garri years”. Years when we were so poor, there were days when all we had to eat was garri in cold water (Garri is ground, fried cassava. Eating it in cold water is one of the cheapest and least nutritious meals in our country). During the garri years every single staff member had a salary of 50 000 fcfa. The fact that we were all in the same boat made it easier to weather storms and built a greatly heightened sense of team.
3) Build your identity and culture. It is the foundation for all. Today, developing a mission, vision and values for your company is often taken lightly in many organizations. At STRATEGIES! our mission “to be the reference in leadership and strategy”, our values “we believe in people” and the visions we build every 3-5 years, are our lifeblood. They guide our strategic choices, determine whom we hire and most importantly define how we develop and deliver our services to our clients. To lead effectively, you must know who you are. To chart a course, you must be clear on where you are going and what you will and will not do in order to get there. For STRATEGIES! our identity and culture have enabled us to stay on a course of excellence and integrity in a market that is fraught with corruption and mediocrity. Our identity and culture have enabled us to stride confidently into the international market as Africans that have excellence to offer the world. Our central value of “we believe in people” has determined how we deliver to our clients and how we build our own teams. Our identity and culture is the foundation of our success.
4) Build leaders. Successful leadership entails building leaders. There is no growth, no excellence, no increase in market share, no innovation and cutting-edge services without leadership within the organization. Over the last twenty years a central part of our business has been to identify people with leadership potential, train and develop them and give them the space to implement and grow their leadership. We proudly count amongst our former staff, over 25 trailblazers: CEOs, entrepreneurs, leaders in multinational companies and international organizations; all of them Cameroonians, over 70% of them women and most of them still under 40 years old. Their leadership grew STRATEGIES!’ leadership. Today, they continue to lead and we continue to lead. Build leaders, it pays.
5) Excel. When we started our consulting firm, we were clear on the fact that we were not going to be the best Cameroonian firm, nor the best African firm. STRATEGIES! was going to be the best. Till today whenever we evaluate ourselves as second best in providing one of our core services, we analyze why that is, and we fix it. As Africans, providing services in a field (leadership and strategy) in which our continent’s reputation is poor, we cannot afford to be good, we must excel. This standard has enabled us to compete internationally and offer our services in the unlikely markets of France, Germany, the U.S. and more.