Africa Leaders Magazine

ABENA OSEI-POKU – Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana

Abena Osei-Poku, is a Ghanaian corporate executive who is the managing director and chief executive officer of Absa Bank Ghana (formerly Barclays Bank of Ghana). She has served in this role since September 2018. Before that, she worked at Absa in South Africa, where she was responsible for the Corporate & Investment Banking in East and West Africa, at the level of Managing Director.

ABENA OSEI-POKU - Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana - African Leaders Magazine

She was born in Ghana circa 1971. She attended Ghanaian elementary and secondary schools. She was admitted to the University of Ghana, graduating in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics and Statistics. Later, she received a Master of Business Administration from the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom.

She started her banking career at Standard Chartered Bank in 2002, working there for seven years. In 2009, she transferred to Barclays Bank. She spent part of the next nine years serving as an executive director at Barclays Bank Ghana and the rest of the time in South Africa, serving as an executive of the Barclays Africa Group, responsible for operations in Africa, outside of South Africa. In September 2018, she was appointed as the managing director of Barclays Bank of Ghana, replacing Patience Akyianu, who left the bank. In February 2020, Abena oversaw the transformation of Barclays Bank Ghana to Absa Bank Ghana.

She has in the past sat on the boards of several enterprises, including barclays Africa Group, Ghana Chamber of Commerce and Country Kitchen Limited.

As of October 2021, she was the chairperson of the advisory board of the College of Health Sciences at the University of Ghana. She also serves as the vice chairperson of the board of the Ghana Stock Exchange, and is a member of the executive councils of the Ghana Association of Bankers and the National Banking College. In addition, she is an Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Ghana and an honorary member of the Chartered Institute of Bankers.

ABENA OSEI-POKU - Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana - African Leaders Magazine

Growing up, the issue of whether leaders were born or made was such a raging topic that it proved too difficult to diffuse. I remember hearing a rather funny but poignant statement from a well-known academic, who said the person who settles that debate must be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

I grew up the first amongst four girls. It was a relentless and never-ending picture of love, collaboration and resilience. I remember vividly, as if it were yesterday, my father telling me to lead by example and that my younger sisters were looking up to me. He was such a man of encouragement. I didn’t realise until much later that it was the embryonic phase of my leadership development.

I keep getting asked countless times to describe my appreciation of leadership and how my own experiences have taught me about the concept and its ramifications. In fact, I recently joined a virtual session organised by the UK-Ghana Chamber of Commerce (UKGCC) on International Women’s Day (IWD) to share my thoughts and reflections as a Senior Executive in one of Ghana’s leading financial institutions. It was a great session and one that made me reflect more deeply on how my own journey has redefined leadership for me.

Attempting a definition

Leadership has come to mean so many things to so many people. At what stage in life can one confidently lay claim to having led successfully and what tangibles can one exhibit to reflect that? The way I see it, and no matter the diversity of attributions given to it, leadership is about people. When you are able to grasp that, you put yourself on a path to effective leadership and playing a significant role in winning and influencing people.

ABENA OSEI-POKU - Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana - African Leaders Magazine

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” said Shakespeare. Leadership is not a rosy journey or position to be in. However, when you understand that it is all about how to handle people and not just about being smart, everything falls in place. A successful leader demonstrates a lot of emotional intelligence, discernment, and engagement. You need to embrace the responsibility that comes with being looked up to and harness the skills of identifying the strengths and weakness of your people to fit them in the right roles. There was a time in my career when my Line Manager noticed my potential and moved me into a role to enhance my skills-set and get me ready for the next level. I had come back from maternity leave at the time and took it the wrong way. My biases immediately stood out distinctly and I felt I was being sidelined because I was female, but my line manager was insistent. Years later, I got my epiphany and understood the whole point of the exercise – and I must say I have never stopped being thankful for it.

Eight years ago, I was told blatantly that I’d never make CEO by a Senior Group Executive I respected. He struck a mortal blow right through my ambitions, but I didn’t let that put me down. I remember leaving that meeting thinking, “If someone’s going to give up, that won’t be me.” I delved deep into the recesses of my being and never wavered or despaired. I put my head down and relentlessly got to work to present a better version of myself.

A blueprint for success

A good leader possesses an uncanny amount of humility and a willingness to learn no matter the circumstance or environment. A leader also learns from the people they lead. It is absurd to think knowledge resides in one head; in fact, I think the greatest barrier to knowledge is the presupposition that we already know it. I have always surrounded myself with the best of people, much better than me.

In all my experiences, the lessons and approaches have been dynamic and yet full of the same central truths. Living in readiness or in expectation of the next opportunity fills you with the energy and urge to prepare, learn and know more. The Romans had a famous saying, “Victory loves Preparation,” and they could not have been so spot on. The yearning for constant reinvention and new discoveries must encompass any leader desiring to make a mark in their sphere of influence and beyond. I have come to cultivate a presence of mind in my journey where I always look for opportunities to make the biggest difference – whether at work, home or in society. It is not about defining a certain direction or ascribing labels to the kind of leadership we exhibit. Anytime I have been asked about my specific style of leadership, I hesitate because there is no one size fits all. It takes a commitment to hard work, learning from mistakes, willingness to always be a better version of your previous day and a lot of Grace!

ABENA OSEI-POKU - Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana - African Leaders Magazine

Work-Life Balance

It is a cliché that continues to permeate the corporate world with characteristic vigour. However, as I understand it, I do not embrace the thought that such a thing exists. As a leader, you have to make choices, you must be decisive. It is not a knock on your time management skills, it is rather a call for a strong and effective support system.

I am blessed to have a close-knit family. Throughout my life and career, apart from God’s grace, they have been the backbone for my success. We support each other in every challenging situation, through prayers, encouragement, and unfettered love and that’s priceless!

Key takeaways on leadership

Leadership is a journey. It is one of unmitigated learning and investment. I invested in my journey, consciously or unconsciously, by the choices I made in building capacity, taking risks, helping others, fostering relationships, pushing myself outside my comfort zone and gaining visibility. As a mentor once told me, P = C x A2; where Performance (P) equals Capability (C) multiplied by a double dose of Attitude (A). The model highlights that to maintain a high level of performance, attitude is everything! It was a lesson that really struck a chord and stuck with me.

Learn to embrace the opportunities that come your way, identify mentors (in your sphere of influence or the external environment) and cultivate a habit of voracious reading. Above all, remember that success in business (any kind of business) is a team effort. It is better to move together and achieve more than to move alone and achieve little. Above all great grace abounds!

In an interview with oxford business group, she had this to say about the Banking Sector in Africa.

To what extent did the banking sector successfully navigate the Covid-19 pandemic?

The banking sector demonstrated notable resilience during the pandemic, highlighting the fact that the sector is regulated, well capitalised and broadly profitable – despite strong competition. The sector has sufficient capital buffers to absorb potential losses from lending, even in the current challenging operating environment. Indeed, capital adequacy has consistently outpaced non-performing loans, even at the height of the pandemic. As a result of bold regulatory interventions by the Bank of Ghana over the course of the health crisis, the sector continues to be profitable. Banks have found innovative ways to improve the customer experience and have been able to create significant value for shareholders. However, private sector growth has been slow. As a result, lenders are much more wary of customers’ business risks, and many potential clients are experiencing difficulty accessing finance as banks work to mitigate risks.

What short- and long-term effects did the pandemic have on the banking industry?

The pandemic highlighted the integral role that banks play in the economy, as well as the challenges they face. The sector has had to build financial buffers and set aside significant amounts of reserves for bad debt provisioning. Banks offered relief to hard-hit businesses and customers – especially those in hospitality, education and aviation – typically in the form of payment holidays. Banks also restructured facilities to provide liquidity support, which is not traditionally done. Despite these efforts, the volume of loans to the private sector was not as high as it normally would be, given such measures. Even so, while most banks saw a reduction in income and profitability over this period, the sector as a whole fared better than other parts of the economy.

ABENA OSEI-POKU - Managing Director, Absa Bank Ghana - African Leaders Magazine

One upside of the pandemic was the accelerated pace of technological innovation and digital transformation. From customer channels to business processes, this had been part of many banks’ strategies before the pandemic, but it was not at the forefront of development plans. In addition to operational improvements, the pandemic gave the sector a more human face through corporate social responsibility efforts to support the communities in which we do business. The sector donated to and supported health practitioners and individual banks acted as well, from constructing hospitals and other facilities, to supporting the less fortunate by paying their bills and supplying food. This more humanising way of doing business is here to stay.

How widespread has the adoption of environmental, social and governance (ESG) principles been in the finance sector?

Ethical investing is a trillion-dollar industry globally. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced the trend of investors preferring to put their money in investment vehicles that result in positive environmental and social dividends, but in Ghana this concept is in the nascent stages of development. ESG investing principles are widely known and they are beginning to gain ground in the local finance sector. The country has the awareness and knowledge to implement them, but Ghanaian investors have traditionally prioritised yield and risk.

In mid-2021 the government announced it would issue $2bn in social bonds by the end of the year to fund education development programmes. This will be the continent’s first social bond and will be an opportunity to introduce local investors to the benefits of ESG principles. The issuance will help motivate future ethics-driven investment allocations; while these have been widely discussed, there have not been many opportunities to put them into practice.

She was recently adjudged the 2019 Outstanding Woman CEO of the Year by Entrepreneurs Foundation of Ghana (EFG) during its 2020 Ghana Entrepreneurs and Corporate Executives Awards ceremony.

The award was in recognition of Mrs. Osei-Poku’s inspiring achievements in demonstrating exemplary corporate leadership, integrity, sustained business growth and innovation as the Managing Director of Absa Bank Ghana.

“Our intention is to give a worthy individual the recognition she deserves as well use her as an example to inspire corporate executives, budding entrepreneurs, public sector executives and business leaders to achieve similar success,” the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Ghana said in a citation letter accompanying the award.

Commenting on her award, Mrs. Abena Osei-Poku said “I feel honoured, excited and truly humbled to receive such an award; recognising the many equally deserving individuals leading and shaping industries in Ghana.  I could not have achieved this without the great support I enjoy from the board and colleagues of Absa, key stakeholders and most importantly our loyal clients and customers.”

“My guiding principle in leading our organisation continues to be my passion in giving meaning to other people’s lives and the ability to support in bringing the possibilities of individuals and businesses to life,” she added.



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