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When I started Poise people thought I was living in Cuckoo land – Mavi Isibor

By Jemi Ekunkunbor

Mrs Mavi Isibor never ceases to leave me with an impression each time I encounter her. First, you meet a beautiful woman, then you discover a courteous person, with fine manners that fire your admiration of her. But who would have expected less from the master of etiquette herself?  Nine years ago, Mrs Isibor took the initiative to set up Poise Nigeria Limited, a protocol and etiquette school in an environment that had lost its regard for social skills and decorum.

Selling Poise therefore became a herculean challenge but one that this alumnus of the Protocol School of Washington, USA was willing to face. Poise is today not only the premier personality and image consultancy in Africa, it is the first of its kind in Nigeria.

Happily married to Rev. Goodie Isibor, the mother of six was born of a humble background but a background that ensured the provision of proper education. Some of those values which her mother passed on to her, make up some of the skills that she now teaches professionals to enhance their executive presence and social skills.
A recipient of several awards, she has been recognised as one of the 50 drivers of change in Nigeria and one of Nigerian Women Achievers. In 2007, she also got the PSR National Merit Award for Development in Nigeria.
In this encounter at her GRA Ikeja office, the highly sought after motivational speaker and personality coach opens up on her background, her business days of little beginning and gave tips to help women stay on top.

What was the gap that you saw?

Mavi Isibor
Mavi Isibor

The truth is that I’ve always had the background that encouraged finesse, grace, etiquette, decorum, decency and this rolled into work life such that at work, I noticed quite a few gaps and lapses. There are a lot of things people did wrong, things that could have been done differently and you’d achieve better results. These things were always there but they crystalized when I was working in the bank. I was into relationship banking; credit and marketing. All the courses and programmes I attended at that time, were geared towards technical areas of marketing – the four keys of marketing, but they don’t really help you to market properly. They don’t help you to interface with the customer. At the most, they helped you to write a good credit report, and understand the marketing mix and all of that but that is all they help you to do. They don’t even help you to open conversation with the customer before you start introducing your product. They don’t help you to do any of those things and those were the areas where I had great challenges. And there was nowhere it was being taught. Somehow, I had to teach myself. Then, when I had the opportunity to go on vacation abroad, I had to go and learn some soft skills in the USA.

When I came back, there was a difference in the quality, performance and output of my work. Where there was a lot of struggles, it became a bit easier for me. I realised that the lack of that skill was a major gap. Organisations focus on technical competences, knowledge and skills acquisition but they don’t give you the soft skills, what I call the fundamentals of business and relationship. What you have therefore is that at the end of the day, you are fully equipped to become a professional but then, you are not operating in the league of those who are real professionals-they smoke, they are suavely, they know how to comport themselves, they are sophisticated and smart. Those are the things that help you to promote yourself and promote your product. That was the gap that I saw.

You talked about your background that helped to shape you. What was this background like?

I came from a stock of parents who believed in education. My father was an accountant and my mother a teacher. She was very tough. She believed there should be rounded education for children. So you could not sit anyhow. You heard things like, “tuck in your tummy. Stand straight, don’t slouch, sit straight. Don’t open your legs, you are a lady. Don’t laugh like a prostitute”. There were so many things you were not allowed to do and that really was actually the making of my career. I didn’t come from a rich background. We never had enough money for anything, not for school fees, uniforms or rent. But there was high moral upbringing.

What were the challenges you faced being a pioneer in this line of business?

Because Poise was a pioneer school, the first thing we had to do was to create awareness. There was hardly anybody who thought that it was a business venture or that it was a money spinner or something that people would want to pay for. They could not see the connect between the ability to project yourself correctly and the impact it would have on their bottom lines. There were those who felt we should go and teach secondary school students. So, we needed to help people see the connection between personality projection, suavity, decorum, decency, etiquette, protocol and your bottom line. And felt especially that in this technology-driven age, with influences from different cultures from across the globe, there was no way we would continue to operate the way we were doing.

A lot of people didn’t think it was viable. Did you think it was viable?

I knew that there was a gap that needed to be filled. I knew that it was something that was doable and feasible and because I had this dream, I thought it was viable. The truth is that when I go to tell people that this is what I want to do, they start laughing and they really couldn’t believe what I was about was a business. They look at me like somebody who is living in cuckoo land. And when I tell them the fee I’ll charge, like N50,000 which was some good money about nine years ago, people virtually fell out of their chairs laughing at me. I remember when I told my pastor, he said I should kneel down so that he can pray for me! It was really laughable. But I thank God that’s why it’s good to dream big dreams. If I did not believe, there is no way that it would have taken off at all.

A lot of women don’t own businesses. What do you think is wrong with us?

Incidentally, right now, I have been invited to contribute to a book that will be read by mostly women and one of the things I am tackling there is why women are not successful and managing an enduring business.

Many women own businesses. But they are usually small scale business. They are not thinking ‘I can be a wholesaler or own a chain of departmental stores’. One of the reasons I’ve come up with is that women don’t like to leave their comfort zone especially women who are married. They always fall back, they are like, “after all, nobody sent me, I wasn’t starving, if it’s not working, I’ll pack it up”.

So one thing is that women are self saboteurs, this limits them to think that anything that smells or portends a little bit of hardship, has to be avoided, it’s not a big deal. Second reason is that many women are also afraid of the hard work and the effect it will have on their families. They are afraid to be too successful because it will affect the home. They often think “My success may overshadow the man’’.

Having succeeded in business, how did you surmount that challenge?

You don’t surmount it. You keep on managing it. That is why many married women are not able to retain their homes. It is the main thing.

If while you were still building your company, you got to a point where you’d have to choose between career and home, what would you have done?

I would have learnt to manage it. That is why it’s good to have mentors, people have gone through it, people who have done twice successfully what you are trying to do once. Women who have done well and are still keeping their homes. How do they do it?

But you were a pioneer in your field?

Yes, but building a business is the same anywhere. Success is success whether you are a banker or an engineer. The fact is that, the issue is not really with the women. It is managing the perception of the man to understand that you have not grown higher than him. So, women are afraid to be successful in this regard. Many just draw back. A lot of businesses that women start, they just draw back and hand it over to the men to run. I believe it is because they did not know how to manage the situation. But conflicts are meant to be managed.

What pleasant memories would you say you have of being the boss of Poise Nigeria?

I think it’s a lot of responsibility I can tell you. I think what is pleasant for me is the fact that I am doing what I really like to do. When challenges come, you are not looking to quit. You are looking to overcome and get a solution and then the fulfilment you get from finding a solution is enough. Also you get fulfilled from experience – it could be very painful but you are getting wiser because you went through the experience. Meeting people is also pleasant for me because doing this business opens a lot of doors. Everywhere, you meet people, people that you would never have met if you were doing a regular job or something. Even if you are not making the kind of money that you expect to make, the quality of people you meet and associate with, you cannot quantify that and that is one privilege that every one that works with Poise would have.

Which one Nigerian do you admire who you would like to meet if you have not met her already?

I would like to meet Mrs Maryam Babaginda! She was a major inspiration for the faith to launch out in business. She was my mentor. I’ve never met her before but I know virtually everything about her. I read anything about her. She has a certain grace that you cannot deny. From the beginning, I studied her- something she did not have initially, she later acquired it. That singular act that shows that that kind of grace can be learnt and acquired was a major stimulant to push me in the right direction that this thing can be learnt. Her life convinced me that this thing can be learnt otherwise, you’d think that people are born with it. Yes, some people are born with it, but it can be acquired.

Is there a way to convince public officers to do something about acquiring these skills?

We have tried and we are still creating the awareness but the environment in which the public officers work, as it becomes more and more influenced by sophisticated external forces outside the shores of this nation, you’d find our leaders would be forced to change. Because there is nothing like being made to feel small and inconsequential, lacking knowledge and suave. It’s not something people say but what you feel when you are in the midst of people who know. So, we will on our part, do our best to try to create the awareness that this is something that is needed. However, we also do know that a time will come when the public officer will not be able to deny that niggling feeling that he needs to go back and get things done.

If you were not in this business, what would you have done?

I never really had a plan B. Yes, before Poise when I was still trying to discover my purpose, I worked in the university environment and I also worked in the bank. But since Poise, I don’t think there has ever been a plan B. When I was working in the financial sector, there were other things I used to do because I’m a creative person. I used to make cakes, hats. I tried my hands on many things but since Poise, I’ve never had plan B.

As you get older, what are your constant thoughts?

The youth and the legacy we leave behind for them that is why I identify with what the Minister of Information is trying to do now, to re-brand Nigerians. If society continues the way we are going now, there will be nothing good that we would leave behind for our children. We have our own idea of how this re-branding should go and there are ways to penetrate different areas of our society to ensure the individual understands his value and why they must become quality people in order to measure up. We cannot bulldoze our way into such things. We cannot complain our way into such areas. So for me, what we are leaving for our youths is what preoccupies my mind  now. I believe we have to strongly look at what is happening to the youths in our society and the legacy that we are leaving behind for them. Look at the crop of politicians that we have now, they are all old. And what we are passing on to the younger generation is very fearful, its worrisome.  Where are we going?  Look at what they feed themselves with, on TV, the values are fast eroding. They are chipping the block


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