WHEN Babs Omotowa, the then managing director of Nigeria LNG, NLNG, told me in 2014 that he’d been invited to speak at Harvard University, I knew – because of the conversations I’d had with him over the years – that his speech would be worth listening to.
And, impressed by the fact that it was going to be delivered in America’s most revered academic institution (which I’d always wanted to visit), I decided to listen to his speech live.
So I purchased an airline ticket to Boston that I could barely afford at the time. And I’m delighted to report that I did not wind up regretting this impulsive extravagance because Babs’s speech turned out to be as inspiring and honest as I’d expected it to be.
Titled, “Nigeria: In Need Of Dreamers Of a Certain Kind”, it focused on Babs’s conviction that Nigeria needs super-smart nation-builders who possess vision, integrity and courage…and are not only committed to inclusivity but eager to attract talent that can help them execute their dreams.
Seven years down the line, Babs has written another insightful masterpiece: An autobiography that was published by Kachifo and launched in Lagos this week: From Storeroom To Boardroom. And I only have one beef with this book: His Harvard speech – which every national of this country, including schoolchildren, should read, in my opinion, is not included.
But despite this omission, it’s a jolly good read and full of entertaining titbits, astute observations, pearls of wisdom and interesting anecdotes about his life, the human condition and the oil industry in Nigeria and beyond.
It is the story of Babatunde Jolayemi Omotowa, a boy born to a hard-working, principled, aspirational couple whose ancestors had migrated from Ile-Ife to establish Gbede villages in the largely agrarian Ijumuland segment of the Middle Belt territory that is now known as Kogi State.
His parents were determined to escape from rural poverty and educated themselves so efficiently that his father, Joseph (initially an agricultural labourer), and mother, Margaret, wound up winning scholarships to undertake postgraduate studies in the UK and US.
Read about the outstanding people who brought Babs up and you will clearly see where he got his key personality traits from, traits that enabled him to rise from modest beginnings (helping his father with farming chores) to the upper echelons of Shell Global Upstream. His is a tale of inherited drive, workaholism, passion and Christian values…A tale of an inherited ability to dream big dreams, an inherited capacity for quiet heroism and activism, an inherited desire to assist the less fortunate and an inherited allergy to unethical conduct.
From Storeroom To Boardroom also reveals Babs’s humility and refusal to allow success to go to his head. In the Introduction, he refers to what he describes as “my monumental mistakes and personal failures”, explaining that in a bid to encourage his readers to avoid similar errors, he has resisted the temptation to leave out unflattering incidents that are not consistent with who he is today.
Babs has four kids; and most parents – sneakily! – hide any naughtiness they displayed as youths, so they can preach at misbehaving offspring without being accused of hypocrisy. Meanwhile, most VIPs want the world to regard them as icons of sainthood and perfection who have never put a foot wrong…or who have only fallen short of the ideal from time to time because of circumstances beyond their control or the shortcomings of the people around them.
I once asked a politician who was known to be of bad character and had spectacularly failed to do a good job what he regarded as his greatest weakness. Without any hesitation and with a totally straight face, he told me that his greatest weakness was that he was too kind-hearted and too intelligent for the Nigerian system!
Babs is not into such boastfulness, concealment or self-delusion. One of his many strengths is his willingness to admit to his human flaws and take full ownership of them.
He unflinchingly lists his professional errors of judgement, alongside accounts of his adolescent rebellions. I salute his frankness.
Corruption and intimidation
He also does not mince words when he is talking about the corruption and intimidation that he has encountered within his workplaces, within government circles, within security agencies and within some of the Niger Delta communities that were targets of his corporate social responsibility efforts.
I would also like to seize this opportunity to highlight his sympathy for natives of oil-producing areas that have been neglected by governments and international oil companies. Each experience Babs shares ends with an explanation of what he learned from a particular situation or individual. If you want to know more about how to run a massive company properly and deal with obstacles, read this book.
If you want to see how local content laws can be creatively and patriotically applied to empower Nigerian entrepreneurs, read this book. If you want to learn about thinking and acting outside the box, read this book. In addition to sitting at the top tables in Shell and NLNG, Babs also became President of the British Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply.
If you want to find out how an African can shrug off racist assumptions and shine in organisations that are dominated by White folks, read this book. If you want advice about how to become an exemplary leader and role model while navigating your way through often choppy waters in a high-risk country like Nigeria, read this book. Before his career really took off, Babs was nearly killed by hoodlums he had challenged. I thank God that their evil plan failed and that he lived to tell the tale and share his amazing journey from a storeroom in Warri to a boardroom in The Hague.
Babs recently retired and I pray that he will now be able to enjoy his well-earned break from work with his beloved wife and family.
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