Dr Nneka Abulokwe has always been interested in technology. ‘Early in my life, I spent a lot of my spare time building computers,’ she says. ‘This was back when computers were hand-built and getting to understand the components of computers themselves was a natural pathway into the IT industry.’
However, it was the management side of IT where she particularly felt at home – progressing to executive and board level and delivering transformational IT projects and services to large clients around the world in the public and private sectors.
Her interest was piqued by the factors that contributed to the success of IT project delivery. This led her to undertake a Doctorate of Business Administration in the centre for Project and Programme Management at Cranfield University. But as she began the programme, she notes: ‘I found I was moving into the area of governance – and it became even clearer to me than ever that governance is a, if not the, key determinant in project success.
‘There were other important factors like client engagement, the technologies you use, human capital, the skills and so on, but the common thread across everything was governance.’
As she delved deeper into her research, a particular perspective of effective corporate governance began to form, one which was fundamentally people-centric, which she explains ‘empowers your employees to be bigger and better to effect change across the organisation.’
Today she runs MicroMax Consulting, which under the mission of ‘driving growth through intelligent governance,’ is looking to advise boards on the implementation of governance as a strategic enabler. As she explains: ‘Governance is no longer the back office function that everybody tries to circumnavigate.’ It is now front and centre of the business.
What value do you think governance brings to an organisation?
My perspective of governance is people-centric. Governance is about empowering people and utilising your human capital. That may seem like a no-brainer, but how do you do it? And how do you engender a culture within the organisation that is not disparate but is actually complementary to the thinking on governance.
People generally talk about governance in terms of accountability. Particularly the accountability of the board; the rules of engagement around how the board should function. But we need to bring governance and accountability down to the individual – empowering people to give them a greater sense of ownership.
“When we tell people to comply, it goes against the natural state of the human brain”
One may have a large team, with each team member providing a different role. If we give them a greater awareness and a greater sense of ownership of their role, we are likely to gain a more committed workforce. Then that flows up to the team leader, and then again further up, and that whole thread of accountability – from the bottom to the board level – runs through the organisation.
This way, people within the organisation do not shy away from challenge and responsibility. Rather, they take more pride in what they do.
How does your vision of governance mesh with a more conventional understanding?
When I talk about governance, I steer away from traditional governance, concerning compliance and regulation. This is certainly important, and especially for the highly-regulated industries there is a time and place for it, but it is not a panacea.
When things go wrong, it is not uncommon to see more regulation being piled on. However, I do not believe that is the answer.
My notion of governance says: we lighten our controls (but not jettison them), increase oversight, empower people and then put in the appropriate levels of internal and management controls and reporting. We are moving with the digital times, the language is all around negotiating, collaborating, emotional intelligence, empathy. It is more around commitment than compliance.
When we tell people to comply, it goes against the natural state of the human brain, because in doing so, we are trying to put them in a straitjacket. But when we give people ownership, we gain their commitment. And commitment is a much stronger currency.
Rather than blinkering our personnel, we need to show them the end result that we are trying to achieve, and then stop there. We allow them to infuse their own creativity and enjoy their jobs.
When it is crunch time and we need people to come in over the weekends, for example, people will be much more committed to doing so because they are treated well and with respect. We are human beings first and when we put in a domineering style of governance, we begin to dull our capability.
It should be people first and then the governance follows.
And what about governance at the board level?
When we talk about governance at the board level, we need to ensure that the corporate objectives align with our operational activities. Strategic alignment is a given – for an organisation to exist, function and perform, or even outperform its competitors, there must be harmony between strategic intent and governance.
“When you have an overly dense process, people do not respond to it.”
As I mentioned, corporate governance is all around accountability and ownership, leading the direction of the organisation and demonstrating behaviour. We need board sponsorship on projects. Successful projects are not necessarily those that have the best project managers, but those that have the best support network around them and backing by the board.
It is all about that cohesion and alignment.
What we sometimes forget is that we also need a feedback loop, because the projects also inform the overall strategy. If a project is misfiring and not delivering, then you need that information.
Do you feel governance is too often hamstrung by complex structure and processes to respond as efficiently as possible to challenge?
Governance by its nature is dense. Within organisations, there is a place for that classic definition of governance. There is a place for controls and a place for process. But what you find is that when you have an overly dense process, people do not respond to it.
I recall once, when I joined a new organisation, I was going for a committee meeting. One of the team members brought me the documentation to support the meeting and it was a door-stop. And they said, ‘oh, but this is just the start. We have more.’ The meeting was in half an hour.
I went to the meeting, listened twice as hard and made it through. And then I came back and told my team to rip up everything. There was too much information and detail, and it was a drag on the business.
We could now start with a blank sheet that I could use to actually implement my thinking and philosophies. We ended up with a framework that was more around the appropriate levels of internal controls, management controls and greater human oversight, with consistent behaviours across the organisation, rather than copious amounts of paper.
In the past, governance of IT has often been confined to IT departments and not really been considered by the board. Have you seen a change of perspective on this?
An organisation may not necessarily be an IT organisation, but more likely than not, IT will be front and centre of the business function. Everyone uses it and it will be pervasive throughout the organisation. We are, after all, living in the digital world.
In terms of reputational risk, all that needs to happen is for one thing to go wrong and it is on social media within minutes.
“With the use of endpoint devices, the boundaries of a company extends to every single device in an individual’s home”
There is an issue that technological risk still is not as understood or as respected as other areas of risk. But the ground is changing, boards are taking note. We had the Equifax and TalkTalk hacks. There has been ransomware, such as WannaCry, and we think about identity theft and those kinds of problems. Technological risk is a major problem for the individual now and we as individuals take this personal awareness back into the organisation.
We now have the technology-enabled and agile workforce. With the use of endpoint devices, the boundaries of a company extends to every single device in an individual’s home.
Gone are the days when IT was just about our infrastructure and defending our firewalls. So IT is certainly a concern for the top table.
And again, the risk, and the defence, is now down to people. The behaviours we engender within the organisation extend outside the boundaries of our firm. Somebody could post something damaging to the company’s reputation on Twitter. Or somebody unknowingly unleashes a bug by clicking a link on one computer, automatically cascading it across the entire network. According to statistics, almost 90% of IT breaches are narrowed down to human error.
IT risk is the individual.
If our governance engenders a culture of enabling people to think and take ownership for their actions, then that is our first point of security.
Looking to company boards and directors, do you feel there is a skill shortage in this area?
To some degree, this area is not yet fully understood by boards because the tide is changing so quickly. The conventional thinker is no longer the mover and shaker. It is the unconventional – the outliers who are challenging the status quo.
The big tech companies and their founders started with very disruptive ideas and people are welcoming that now. Whereas if we look at the traditional board, that in itself is long past its sell-by-date. Companies are looking to find new talent – and this is why people are welcoming more diversity.
“There must be a measure of accountability and responsibility for the views we espouse”
When people talk about diversity, everybody think it is just about men versus women or the racial balance, but actually it is diversity of the mind as well.
You look at top companies, where the predominant trend has been an Oxbridge background or similar. And in essence, that is fine. Those work environments may have some of the biggest and brightest thinkers.
But the world is a lot bigger than that, and we can benefit from contrasting and complementary thinking. A savvy board chair listens and blends and infuses that diversity of thought together.
There has to be a validity to the thinking that we bring though and how that is executed and taken onboard within that boardroom. There must be a measure of accountability and responsibility for the views we espouse.
You also have a keen interest in mentoring. Can you tell me about your work with this and what companies can do to support emerging talent?
I am passionate about mentoring. When one has been a beneficiary, one should give back, so I do have mentees of my own. In my career, I have had some excellent mentors, and they have come from a diverse mix of backgrounds.
I have benefitted from their guidance and I have seen how mentoring can help people progress – not just in their careers but also in their personal lives.
I have not walked my road alone.
People have seen something in me and taken me under their wing and mentored me to the next position. Now it is incumbent upon me to then pass that on. But not just pass it on, but pass it on and then some, to the next generation of future leaders.
It is not about a one-way relationship. As with governance, everybody thinks it is a one-way ticket, but it is not. It is a symbiotic relationship. Mentees keep one bright, agile and informed – they keep one cool.
I was getting ready to give a talk in March this year, and I was putting my slides together for this talk – one of my mentees spent two hours on the phone giving me her suggestions to help jazz up my presentation. At the end, I had a slide deck that I knew was really engaging and to the point.
Or when I was shooting my corporate video, one of my mentees flew over to help. And she does not hesitate to come to me when she wants advice at work.
There is a give and a take, and we both grow from it. And the relationship is not just about this point in time. It is one that underpins life. We begin to form life-long friendships – whether on a professional basis or going beyond that to just common interests.
You recently were listed at number nine on the 2018 Financial Times EMpower list of top US and UK ethnic minority executives. How did you feel about this recognition?
That was quite a defining moment for me, and I did not really understand the enormity of it until it happened.
It was only when the embargo on the results was lifted on the press release and I started to see the reaction of people, that I realised it was a really big deal.
To be ranked, not just number nine overall but as the top tech professional, of course filled me with professional and personal pride as a black woman looking to inspire our future leaders. It made me feel that the things I had done – all the effort, hard work and support I received – had not been done in vain. It is the kind of thing that spurs one on to do bigger and better things. The journey continues.
Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance