Mawulom Essel-Koomson. Chief Operating Officer, African Leadership University – Mauritius.

Tell us about yourself

I am a passionate and relentless problem solver, with a knack for bringing complex and audacious ideas to life. People tell me that I don’t just help manifest a vision, I bring vivid colour to it. I definitely like to bring an element of ‘magic’ to everything I do!

I currently work at the African Leadership Group, where I contribute to our bold vision of developing 3 million ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for Africa by 2035. I joined this moonshot in 2016, and helped to build our School of Business and flagship MBA programmes from scratch. I now serve as Chief Operating Officer of the African Leadership University. In this role, I oversee strategic operations and enterprise transformation initiatives for our multi campus institution, based out of Mauritius and Rwanda.

I am also the Executive Director of the African Leadership Network, a pan-African community for the continent’s leading entrepreneurs, thinkers, and innovators. This is actually my 5-9, my passion project which allows me to use my love of designing experiences to curate purposeful gatherings for this incredible group of changemakers who are united by the desire to truly prosper Africa.

To give you a brief history of my early years, I was born and raised in Accra, completed my IGCSEs at the British School of Lomé and International Baccalaureate at SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College. I studied at Queen’s University in Canada and completed my Masters at the London School of Economics.

Walk us through your early career journey (first five years)

I started my career as a management consultant at Deloitte in the UK, focusing on Technology Integration and Human Capital consulting. It allowed me to travel a lot and gave me extraordinary opportunities to work with some of the biggest firms in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands very early on. I got to work on exciting projects in diverse industries including large ERP implementations, change management programmes and I even created code for some innovative financial management systems. A personal highlight was consulting for a leading Energy Firm, overseeing a large-scale transformation project across 18 countries in the Middle East and Africa.

In 2010, I decided to move back to Ghana, to set up a micro venture capital firm, focused on supporting small businesses that did not have access to traditional investor funds. I was very hands-on with these businesses and helped to set up a food company and real estate company in the process. During that time, I also ran the Akua Kuenyehia Foundation, a private charity focused on educating underprivileged girls. I helped build the foundational systems and recruited the second cohort of exceptionally talented females to the programme.

After this experience, I was keen to understand holistic enterprise management, which triggered a move to Vodafone Ghana. I started as an End-to-End Process Manager and set up some of the core operations systems and processes for our enterprise customers while I was in that role. I would go on to spend the next five years there in different roles, including working with the CEO as his Business Manager (aka Chief of Staff) – I truly learnt about what it would take to run an enterprise and create impact at scale.

What values/skills would you say you demonstrated in your early career journey that has contributed to your career success?

 Attention to Detail – I learnt this the hard way in consulting when one of my senior associates reviewed my work, and I had a double white space in between words – I was ‘shook’, that he was able to see such a ‘simple error’. Since then, I’ve been particular about the details, and my teams will tell you that this is one of my key trademarks.

Tenacity & Going above and beyond – With no prior business education and background, I felt backfooted when I first started in consulting. I was surrounded by accomplished colleagues with name-brand internships and academic qualifications to their names. I quickly realised that my smarts alone would not be enough to make me stand out. I had to be relentless in my pursuit of excellence, and keep interrogating, asking questions, trying, failing, and trying again. I developed a dogged pursuit to leave things better than I found them and it became my hallmark to always add that additional personal touch or extra detail.

Learning through observation – Working in such diverse and high performing environments, I was genuinely fascinated by people’s superpowers and motivations. I constantly watched out for those moments where people did things in a better or unique way. Every time I discovered these instances, I made sure to ask for more details, researched more, and adapted the particular skill to suit me. This has served me well over the years, and I continue to learn deeply from observing the people around me.

Did you always know you wanted to do what you are doing now?

Absolutely not. I am one who has taken their career one step at a time. I believe strongly that the ‘dots connect backwards’. Each step of my journey has contributed to my current role. My science and computing background makes me a systematic problem solver; at the Akua Kuenyehia Foundation I gained a deeper understanding of issues around access to education; and my diverse work in consulting and telco set me up for building and managing large scale transformation initiatives. I am immensely grateful for each of these experiences and how they have shaped who I am and what I am capable of today.

Of course, it would have been much more comforting for a planner like me if I knew my mission and purpose from day one and was able to plot each point “forward” on a neat path with a clear script. However, life is not a straight line. It is a curve that ebbs and flows in seasons but aligns you to your right path as long as you live with intentionality. Be comfortable with the idea of the dots connecting backwards and only make sense in hindsight; embrace the journey and exceed expectations at each stage, trusting that everything will fall into place.

What were some of the mistakes you made on the career journey?

Thinking I had “arrived” – Excellent feedback in evaluations and raving reviews of my work created blind spots in the earlier parts of my career. I once had a manager who tried to push me by giving me challenges – a point however that was lost on me because I just thought he was getting me to do his work. I will admit that while the work I did was good, it was not great, definitely not the ‘magic’ I talk about – I didn’t push myself for that extra mile and missed out on a unique learning opportunity in the process. Looking back, I realised he trusted me with a lot, and I wish I had had a better appreciation of that fact and had embraced a growth mindset instead.

If you had the opportunity to change one thing in your early career/work experience days, what will it be?

Being more curious and present – As a consultant, I wish I had been ‘more present’ to the broader work the team was doing. I had a “silo-ed view” that an excellent job on my workstreams alone was enough. I wish I had been more curious about what my colleagues were doing and adventurous enough to explore the cities I was privileged to work in more than I did. I would have built more meaningful relationships with my peers as a thought partner and bonded with my clients through shared experiences of their culture.

Since then, I have become more intentional about building authentic relationships which I have been able to leverage for support and have contributed to some of my proudest achievements. The large events I curated for the African leadership Network are a perfect example.

I also decided to become more ‘business curious’ and have taken a ‘systems view’ in all my roles. A critical question I always ask myself is – ‘How does my function or role intersect with all aspects of the business and the external world?’. I have also explored that sense of adventure whenever I have travelled – I make sure I do or see something new and it has renewed my sense of wonder. During my last trip before lockdown, I visited the Triumphant Scale exhibition by renowned Ghanaian artist, El Anatsui, at the Arab Museum of modern art in Doha. What magnificence!

Any advice to someone who is confused about their career planning?

Don’t discriminate against opportunities. Our perception of a perfect career evolves, and it is important to be open to trying out a variety of opportunities early and not pigeonhole yourself before exploring your other talents. Each opportunity represents a chance to learn, grow and explore other areas that you can contribute value – you never know what you’re capable of if you don’t leave your comfort zone.

Be clear about what each stage represents, even when you don’t have the bigger picture. At each stage of your career, you should be clear about what that stage of growth represents in your professional journey – don’t be afraid to set these goals, no matter how trivial they may seem. At one stage of my career, I knew it was a period where I needed to become less conflict-averse and I had to work on it!

If you had a minute to coach/ advice a tertiary student about work readiness, what would it be?

Be willing to do everything,

Be proactive

Be unafraid to ask for help.

Be humble

Never settle for good

Knowing what you know now as a high-profile professional, what would be your advice to a rising young professional you are mentoring?

Intentionality will get you far in your career journey – At each stage of your journey, identify the skills that you need to build to challenge yourself and will allow you to achieve clearly defined goals. Establish a routine where you regularly take time out to assess your growth areas, your strengths and progress against these skills. As a starting point you should think about what’s going well, what you can refine, and what you need to do to get to that ‘next level.’ Assessment tests and feedback evaluations are great reference points you can work with.

If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong place – “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with” according to motivational speaker Jim Rohr. Want to have a culture of excellence? Then you must surround yourself with a network of smart & inspirational peers and mentors even those who are different from you.

Your circle should only include people who edify you, constantly challenge you to think bigger and don’t allow you to be complacent and ever think you have “arrived.”. Additionally, It’s important to seek feedback even from those who ask tough questions and may seem critical. They are the ones who help you to identify your blindspots and refine them.

Define your values early on, they will shape your journey – Clearly articulate and write down your values. Use them to be your guide as you seek out opportunities and make decisions. If you’re not sure where to start from there are many tools out there, you can read this as a starting point.

Leadership is not only about titles, lead with authenticity and respect – It’s important to defer not only to those with titles – more often than not, those who have the ear of decision makers and the bosses have non-descript titles. And in your own journey, don’t wait till you become a manager, project lead or director to lead. Ask questions, be proactive, take initiative and fix what is broken without being asked – that too, is leadership.

Akua Ampah

3 Points

One thought on “Mawulom Essel-Koomson. Chief Operating Officer, African Leadership University – Mauritius.”

  1. Ekow says:

    Thank you once again Akua. Thank you.

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