If you haven’t read it already, take a look at today’s fascinating interview with Tidjane Thiam, the CEO-elect of Prudential. If you have the time, it is well worth reading the full transcript of the interview.
There are all sorts of reason why the 46-year-old’s ascent to the top of the one of the world’s biggest life assurers is so interesting, not least the fact that he is the first black person to head a FTSE 100 company.
But Mr Thiam’s professional experience is also a bit unconventional for a chief executive for a City of London company. After an early career as a consultant for McKinsey in Paris, he became an independent adviser to the government of the Ivory Coast and, later, minister for development. Following a coup, he was briefly detained and then offered the position of chief of staff to the military government. He chose instead to return to McKinsey – don’t know of many consultants who have had to make such a choice – and n 2002, he was headhunted by Aviva to become its strategy director before heading the company’s continental European operations. He became finance director of Prudential in March last year and was appointed chief executive in March of this year.
From a management point of view, he offers some very revealing insights about how his time in Africa impacted (i.e. didn’t) his career in Europe:
FT: Lots of people know that you had a job in government in the Ivory Coast if not always much about what you actually did there, but what if anything did you take from that experience that has helped your leadership skills?
Tidjane Thiam: Many, many things. It’s easily dismissed. To be honest with you, I spent six years of my life in Africa, when I came back I had to resume my career exactly where I’d left it when I actually believed I’d achieved quite a lot in those six years because the rest of the world frankly doesn’t care and doesn’t recognise it, but as a person I would do it over again every time. It’s been a fantastic experience. I was at 31 the CEO of a company with 4,000 employees. When I arrived no salary had been paid for six months and I knew I couldn’t pay any salary for the next six months, so I learned a few things about how do you motivate people! That was great management experience. And then the other thing is probably an ability to keep things in perspective because the problems and the issues that you deal with are so extreme. So the level of pressure, often there are real lives attached to your ability to deliver and what you have too deliver and that does create a lot of pressure and I think it teaches you to keep things in perspective. And a bit of audacity too, because frankly when you’re sitting there, there’s not much downside. The observation someone made when I started and when I was so stressed and he said look, you can only improve things, so go for it and don’t think so much about the downside. I think we achieved …
Difficult circumstances certainly test our abilities, particularly as managers who have to motivate, cajole and keep staff on track, and there can be few circumstances more trying that those confronted by Mr Thiam. It is curious, then, that his experience in Africa was not perceived as a bonus on his return. I wonder how a typical manager at a developed world company would do in a similar situations.