Albert Essien is a veritable ‘Ecobanker’. He has lived and breathed the institution for the past 20 years and, when the call came to steady the ship following the bank’s recent upheavals, he felt it his duty to respond to the call. We met with Essien in Tunis, where he was visiting the African Development Bank. In this in-depth interview he throws light on what was a difficult period for the bank and also what the future holds for him and the institution he loves.
Essien is a far cry from your brash, wild and arrogant banker as depicted in the recent Hollywood epic The Wolf of Wall Street. Nor is he the combative type who will bulldoze anyone and everything in his quest for victory. If anything, he is self-effacing and not one to crave the limelight.
His decision to accept the role of Group CEO at Ecobank Transnational in March was not taken lightly, nor “based on a desire for self-aggrandisement”. He describes himself as very open and approachable and believes in transparent management.’ “I’m open, I’m frank, I speak my mind, sometimes it gets me into trouble but I do, so that’s my type of management.”
Over the past nine months, the bank went through some of its worst times and had accusations of mismanagement and very poor governance hurled at it.
Essien, with typical understatement, says this period “was not enjoyable”. It got to the point, he says, “where the charged atmosphere generated confrontation. It got to a point where people lost sight of the fact that the bank has 18,000 employees plus their dependents, there were customers and shareholders to consider. So, yes, I was not happy.”
Despite the huge responsibility of leading Africa’s largest multinational banking group and the recent internal traumas, Essien has lost none of his charm that comes through in his warm smile. But make no mistake – he is totally focused on the targets the bank has set out for itself. He says what he cannot stand is being distracted, or seeing his lieutenants being distracted from their goals.
Although he looks much younger than his 58 years, Essien has roughly two years to make his mark on the bank as, according to the bank’s charter, he will have to step down as CEO at the age of 60. Throughout our discussion, Essien avoided apportioning blame to a particular person and wanted to focus on what the bank he had helped build has to offer.
He is clearly frustrated and annoyed that the internal clashes spilled out into the public realm and became politicised, tarnishing the Ecobank brand in the process.
“We wasted nine months on political in-fighting rather than strengthening the institution.” he says.
“We lost our way because of internal politics. The problems had been identified and could have been solved on the spot but personality ego clashes, wrangling, misperceptions got in the way and events spun out of control.”