As he worked his way up through positions of increasing responsibility, several events in which Agbaje played a leading role shaped his thinking about GTBank’s future: the initial public oﬀering in 2004, listing on the Lagos stock exchange; entering the international capital markets with a Eurobond issue and listing on the London Stock Exchange in 2007.
“Those transactions exposed me to the international ﬁnancial markets and the people who worked in them – merchant banks, investment bankers, lawyers, investors,” he says. “It gave me a better understanding of what people wanted from a ﬁrst-class bank and best-in-class practices. It also encouraged me to think about the bank as an international institution, rather than just a Nigerian institution, and what it took to compete in the global economy.”
Agbaje became CEO of GTBank in 2011 and won the coveted African Banker of the Year award the next year. The award recognises ﬁnancial industry leaders throughout Africa who have exercised “good vision and leadership” in guiding their organisation to strong ﬁnancial performance, as well as having contributed to the impact of Africa’s ﬁnancial services industry internationally.
During his tenure as CEO, the bank and Agbaje have won numerous awards. What is particularly interesting is the trend in types of the award since GTBank has been under Agbaje’s leadership. Awards for ﬁnancial performance have been joined by Innovative Bank awards, Best Mobile Banking and Mobile Money awards, Best Digital Bank awards and, most recently, Digital Wallet of the Year award.
‘I’m not sure that, if we removed the word “bank” in five years, we would be losing anything. We might actually even be gaining something’
The reputation of bankers and banking took a knock following the global ﬁnancial crisis and Agbaje is well aware of the challenge banks face in terms of their relationship with the societies they serve. “A banking licence is a privilege, given to you by the regulator. Banks owe a social responsibility to the communities within which they operate,” he says. “Just as we monitor proﬁts, costs and return on equity, we must also monitor how much we give back in terms of social responsibility.”
This is not just talking. The bank interacts with the community in many ways, from football education programmes and tournaments to its internationally renowned annual conference on autism (now in its ninth year); from its You Read Initiative aimed at promoting a culture of reading to the Social Impact Challenge designed to unearth ideas that can enrich the lives of local communities.
He is just the leadership role model that the younger generation needs. “My values are simple ones. I believe in hard work, humility, integrity, discipline. Those are the things that drive me,” he says. “If you have those values, show them, inculcate them into all the decisions that you make and you will be ﬁne.”
He has naturally given some thought to what he might do after his time at GTBank: “Maybe I will get another platform to do something in the private sector. It could be in a completely diﬀerent sector to banking. My ﬁrst choice would be an Africa-focused organisation. A second option would be something, if not solely focused on Africa, with an emerging market emphasis.”
He would also be interested, he says, in mentoring young people with small businesses; helping them to think about organisational structure and governance, for example.
But for now, with two-and-a-half years left on his contract, he is fully focused on the transformation underway at GTBank. “I’m not ﬁnished,” he says. “We are trying to build a great African institution; putting the bank in the position I think it should be in – not just ﬁnancially, but socially, being a well-run enterprise.”
Agbaje is not someone to trumpet his achievements, but if his vision for the future of one of Africa’s largest and most important banks comes to fruition, more plaudits are likely to be heading his way.
Agbaje on leadership:
“My role is first to set the tone, to talk the talk. When we set a vision, goals, objectives, values, I have to be seen to live and walk those.”
“I like to be involved in a lot of the key decision-making. So it is a balance: being really hands-on so that I know what is going on, while also giving people a large degree of autonomy because the number of people reporting to me means that I cannot micro-manage them – I rely on their abilities.”
“I believe in a flat organisational structure. I don’t believe in creating silos. I would rather have a squad as opposed to a team, which means I probably have more direct reports than most CEOs.”