There are many aspects of African culture that are admirable and have tremendous merits, e.g., our respect for age, our appreciation of community, recognition of marriage as a union of two families and not two individuals, etc. However, there are aspects of our culture that contribute directly to our poverty. One of them is our discouragement of persistent questioning from children.
Over a decade ago, I relocated my children, who were born in the USA, to Africa and enrolled them in primary school in Africa (Sierra Leone, to be exact). It did not take long for their teachers to chafe against their persistent questioning, especially their use of their favorite question…”Why?” One teacher complained to one of my friends (who reported it to me) that “these American children are too bold, and they ask too many questions.” Think about that! How can a teacher, paid to unlock and expand the minds of her/his students, complain about the student engaging in the act that serves as the fundamental precursor to the expansion of knowledge…asking a question?
One of the most difficult jobs that I have ever done was cold-calling over the telephone. I engaged in this ego-diminishing role when I was hired by an international consulting firm while in my late twenties. The CEO and founder of the firm, a renowned international businessman and successful entrepreneur, told me that he wanted to groom me to open his company in Africa. There were many plush roles in the company – analyst, trainer, energy expert, operations staff, procurement, project manager – but the founder of the company informed me that because he planned to have me expand his company into Africa, I needed to learn everything about the business, and the place to start was in selling. “If we don’t sell, there is no company” he would often tell me. I thought sales would be a glorious role until he placed me to make cold-calls to company executives to book meetings. Every day, I was required to make at least one hundred phone calls, and typically I would get over ninety outright rejections, and of the ten that gave me three minutes of their time, I would typically get nine-and-a-half “thank you, but I think I will not be available for this meeting that you have proposed.” In other words, I would get one meeting per two hundred calls that I would make. It was humiliating and I hated it and my CEO insisted that I do it. “You have to learn how to deal with rejection and how to persist through the rejection, Modupe” he told me. “The sale only starts after the customer has said ‘No’”. It took me a while to develop the teflon skin that was necessary to handle rejection and to deflect it and persist with asking more than once, but I learned a most valuable lesson during my time as an “account executive” with this company: you can get anything you want if you are wiling to ask for it and ask again and again and again for it.
Recently I watched a Ted talk during which the presenter shared this piece of amazing knowledge in a very succinct way. She shared that you can get anything you want in this world if you are willing to do two very simple things:
ASK for it.
ASK ten times for it.
It is so simple it is easy to miss. Indeed, most of us Africans do not get what we want because we have been conditioned to be afraid to ask for what we want. We simply do not ask for it. When we are presented with an opportunity to speak to someone with access to a resource that we need, we are hesitant to be direct and ask for what we want. This stems from our conditioning when we were in school and were taught by teachers (and parents) that it was rude to ask. Well, think about this…it may be rude to ask, but it is also the path to poverty and failure. When we do not ask, we do not get. It is not just a global principle, it is also a biblical principle. “Ask and ye shall receive”, we are informed in the bible. We are also taught about how to ask multiple times. Jesus shared with his disciples the story of the widow and the wicked judge, who got asked so many times for justice by the widow that he finally relented just to get rid of her. Now, why is this knowledge important for African leaders?
It is important because as leaders of organizations, one of our primary responsibilities is to ensure that our organizations have enough resources to perform their functions. These resources may be people, equipment, energy, software, materials, cash, or credit; no organization is always in full control of all the resources that it needs to perform its functions. Therefore, the leader must learn the skill of acquiring these resources. The process of acquiring resources that your organization requires the leader of the organization to learn to ask for them, and to ask without relenting.
Moses in the bible asked multiple times for the Pharoah of Egypt to let his people go. He asked it, and was rejected several times, and he never relented.
Nelson Mandela of South Africa asked for black South Africans to have the same rights as white South Africans. He was rejected and vilified several times, and he never relented.
His Excellency Nana Akufo-Addo, President of Ghana, was rejected twice at the ballot box when he asked the Ghanaian citizens to vote him in as President. He never relented.
Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, applied ten times to Harvard University. Even though he was rejected ten times, he says that the experience prepared him for making Alibaba successful because when he asked for funding from Silicon valley for Alibaba and was rejected he was undeterred.
Remember that in the race for success, the winners are not the fastest or the smartest, but those who simply never give up asking for what they want.
Dear African leader, if the vision you have for yourself and your organization is compelling enough, you are going to need access to resources that you do not control. These resources may appear accessible or appear to be locked behind a fortress and steel doors with heavy-duty padlocks. Either way, the way to access them is to ask for them, and even after you have asked five times and been rejected five times, ask again. Until you have asked ten times for something and been rejected ten times, you have not tried hard enough. Your success is just one more ask away.