HOW TO EXCEL IN THE CORPORATE WORLD – MTN’s Kola Oyeyemi + I didn’t believe in God initially


I will come clean on this: I’ve always been a secret admirer and ardent follower of Mr. Kolawole Oyeyemi. But from afar. Meeting him eventually on Wednesday, September 17, 2014 at the MTN office in Falomo, Ikoyi, Lagos simply made my day. Simple, sound and sumptuous in his mannerisms, I almost didn’t want to quit his presence after almost an hour. Author, pastor, public speaker and General Manager, Consumer Marketing and Strategy Division, MTN Nigeria Communications Limited, Oyeyemi shared with YES INTERNATIONAL! Publisher/Editor-in-Chief, AZUH ARINZE, the secrets of triumphing in the corporate world, how to flee from scandals and more. Born on February 19, 1967 and educated at the respected Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Osun State, where he read Literature in English, the Modakeke, Osun State indigene combines what he does with pastoring Chapel of Uncommon Grace, which he founded, after hearing the call in 1994. His story…

What is your own personal definition of marketing?
Marketing, for me, is not different from what the universal concept of marketing is. It is the utilization of consumer insight to develop propositions that people call products and services to an identified audience and communicating the same proposition and making it available to that target audience in the way they want it, when they want it, how they want it and at the price they want it. And to do all of these better than your competitors can…


What makes a good marketer?
A good marketer must be somebody who has what I call both the scientific skills as well as the creative skills. I will call it logic plus magic. You must be able to combine both. You need logic to do the analysis, to get insights, to understand the consumers and you need magic to create the right propositions for the consumers, to develop effective communication for the consumers and also take it to marketing in an effective manner. So, it’s a mix of both logic and magic. You need the magic to solve the logic.

What is the costliest mistake that any marketer can make?
Assumptions! Assumptions! A lot of marketers think for the consumer, a lot of marketers assume for the consumer, a lot of marketers play god to the consumer and all of these crimes they pay dearly for. Because ultimately, the consumer is king and if you do not serve him the way he wants to be served, when and how he wants to be served and at the price he wants to be served, he will punish you by migrating his money to somebody else.


What is the greatest thing that being a marketer has done for you?
It has helped my faith interestingly, because as a person who follows Christ, as a person who teaches Biblical principles, both within a faith environment and in the way I live my life, marketing makes it a very integrated kind of relationship that I have between my secular life and my faith life, because it says to me that I must have a compelling proposition at any point in time. So,when I’m sharing the word of God, it’s got to be a compelling proposition and when I’m developing proposition for my customer, it’s got to be a compelling proposition, which means I must understand the people that I’m talking to and I must give them what will make a difference to them; what will make them to keep coming back. For me, that’s it. Marketing is actually a living organism. So, as long as I breathe, I will be a marketer.

What has it (marketing) not done for you?
Maybe it’s not made me very rich (General laughter), because I live by some values that are core to me. Integrity is critical to me, so I can’t mess around. Maybe that’s why I’m still a salary earner.


Some people attain success in what they do, but find it difficult to sustain it. Where do you think that they normally get it wrong?
If you allow the office to consume you, you’ll get it wrong. But if you have the right perspective that one, you got into that office not by your hard work per se, but by the grace of God; because even the most intelligent fail. But if you know that it’s the grace of God, then you are humble and that’s it. A lot of times people allow the seat to consume them. When the seat consumes you; you misbehave, you miss the point. You become a tin god and your way down is quite fast.


What got you interested in marketing in the first instance?
I have always loved marketing; all my life. Then I didn’t see it as marketing because when I was an undergraduate, we didn’t have a university in Nigeria that was offering marketing as a course. And so, as I graduated and found that I could do post-graduate studies in marketing, management, I went straight into it, because I love creating stuff; I love understanding people and creating things that suit or meet their needs, so I can make money from it. And so, early in life, I started trying my hand on business to say how do I create stuff that people can buy, and people will continue to buy so I can make money?

What do you like most about working for MTN?
The challenge!


What don’t you like about working for MTN?
For now, maybe the fact that I don’t have any private life again.


You happen to be one of the top players in the corporate world who so far we haven’t heard any scandal about. How have you been able to manage it? What are you doing that the other people are not doing?
I would not say that I’m doing anything that other people are not doing. All I will say is what are your core values? Okay! Three things drive my life. No. 1 is to please God. Now, in that simple expression is loaded a whole lot of things. If I’m gonna please God, it means I must live by certain values that are not negotiable. If I get home at night and I cannot lift up my hands and say Father, thank you today and it won’t look like I’m reporting myself, then I know that I’m still on track. But if I lift up my hands and say Father, thank you today and all I’m doing is just reporting myself to say look at how much mess I’ve created today, look at how I’ve disappointed You today, then I won’t be living the life that God has ordained for me to live. So, first, for me, is to please God; second thing is to fulfil purpose. I know why God made me, I know my assignment and so I pursue my assignment with every energy that I have. And the third thing for me is to impact humanity; to make a difference in the lives of men. Now, it’s not possible for you to have these three principles or pillars as your core values and not have integrity at the core of what you do…

(Interruption) – Could the fact that you are also a pastor have contributed to your scandal-free status in the corporate world?
I started my career in 1992 and I became a pastor only in 2003. So, my pastoral life is not a determinant of my values. Being a pastor is just a position; it’s an assignment. It should influence your values, but it does not determine your values. You are first who you are before you became a pastor. Nobody was born a pastor. So, if you have the wrong values and you still became a pastor, you will be a terrible pastor. So, the pastoral office does not change who you are. You’ve got to change first, so that your change can affect the pastoral office. If you say somebody is a bad guy; you say okay, if I appoint him a pastor, he will be a good guy. No, it doesn’t happen that way. You must be a good guy and then carry this goodness into that office. So, being a pastor does not have anything to do with who I am and how I live my life. However, it places greater responsibility on your shoulders, because now people look up to you. Yeah, people look up to you naturally, but now when they add the title-pastor – then it changes the colouration. And that’s why you hardly find me say I’m Pastor XYZ. No! I’m simply Mr. Oyeyemi. Meet me as a human being first. If along the line you discover I’m a pastor, praise God! But for as long as there’s no dissonance between the man you met before you knew he was a pastor and the man you now see as a pastor.


Being a pastor and the Marketing Manager of a big company like MTN must be very, very demanding. How have you been combining the two?
I think if you understand the leadership principles of Christ Jesus, you will know that it will help you both in the secular life as well as in the spiritual sphere. By the grace of God, I lead a group of people in my ministry who know their onions as believers; who are all top shots in their various areas of endeavours. There is no full time pastor in the church that I lead. Everybody is engaged in a job; they take the assignment seriously. So, I do not have to be in the church all the time. People are doing what they are supposed to and because they’ve been with me for so long, they understand the mission, they understand their assignment, they know their place in the vision, they are getting fulfilled in the mission. I don’t need too much encouragement to get them to do what they need to do. It’s leadership. The second point and more importantly is the fact that marketing is not too different from what I do in the ministry environment. I always say that Jesus is the greatest marketer ever to live. He marketed a brand over 2000 years ago; He’s been long gone, the market share is still growing (Laughter). People are still getting converted every day and so, it’s a living organism. There’s not a difference from what I do in my secular life and what I do in my real life. The only thing that is different there is that the products that I sell, the brands that I market are two different brands. But the principles of marketing and the principles of engagement with people in the field – meeting the needs of people – are fundamentally the same. Find out what their problem is and give them the proposition that will solve their problem and you keep them coming back. They are not different.

Why did you decide to be a pastor? What prompted it?
I never did. I did not…


So, how did you find yourself doing it?
If anything; I ran away from becoming one for 2 years. I never wanted to be a pastor. I love the Lord. I’ve always loved Him. In fact, what I told God, if He had heard me and agreed with me, was that I want to be a very wealthy individual. I want to support ministries, I want to support missions, I want to support pastors, I want to build churches single handedly. That was my deal with God. But God had a different purpose for my life and before I even became a Christian, I didn’t believe there was a God! I once wrote a thesis on the fact that there’s no God as an atheist. But God has His ways of moving people from one level to another and so when eventually I became a convert, I was like okay, fine, deal! But I believe God wanted me to use the same mouth I had used to say He doesn’t exist to now say He does exist (Laughing). And so when He said to me I was gonna be a pastor, it was a struggle. I actually ran for 2 years, trying to see whether I could dodge it and whatever. Eventually in 2003, I couldn’t run no more and I said okay…

Anybody who is interested in climbing the success ladder, what must the person do and also what must the person not do?
First, you must have God on your side. People say you need godfathers, but I say to people, you need God, the Father. I’m not against people who have godfathers, but you need God, the Father. Because godfathers can be removed; godfathers can be displaced. I’ve been in an organization where somebody had a godfather that was so powerful, but the day the godfather lost favour, he lost his job. So, for me, it’s not about so much of godfathers and all that. Mentors are important, coaches are important, but do not put your entire life in the hand of a man because as a Christian, the Bible says curse be unto him who maketh the arm of flesh his strength. So, the more you put your hope in a man, you are living on borrowed time. And it will catch up with you. So, the first thing you need is God on your side. The second thing you need is competence. If you are not competent, you can’t go very far. So, whatever you need to learn, whatever extra studies you need to become the best in what you do, don’t hesitate. Give it everything you can. The third thing is the power of relationships. We all need one another. No one is an island and more importantly, when you are on a higher pedestal; do not think that the people below you are nonentities. You must ensure that you are able to carry people along and the fourth thing for me is sterling leadership qualities. If you do not provide a charter, a pathway for other people to follow; if you don’t have a big picture, lifestyle, a vision that you can get people to buy into, you are not likely to succeed for too long. A whole lot of people who are technically smart in organizations, who do not have leadership qualities, if they are gonna go up, you need more of leadership qualities than technical competence, because at that level, your technical competence is taken for granted. It’s the leadership qualities that mainly becomes very demanding and respected at that point. You have a lot of people who are technically sound, but when it comes to leadership, they don’t have it. So, they can achieve an objective, but an objective with a dying company or they will have a pathway littered with dead bodies and dying human beings. Now, that’s never gonna be a great company. You can have a good company for a while; but to transform from being a good company to a great company, you need certain kinds of leadership. So, anybody that is going to get right to the top in an organization that believes in building sustainability, you need the right leadership.


How does one build and maintain a good name in the corporate world, like you have done?
Simplicity in your lifestyle and two, as much as you are competitive when you put on your garb of a marketer, don’t be competitive when you strip off that garb. Become a normal human being. The death knell for many people is that they carry the competitive mindset of business into living and so when your neighbour buys a house at Banana Island, you wanna buy a house at Banana Island; when your neighbour buys a porshe, you wanna buy a porshe; your colleague buys himself a house in London, you wanna buy a house in London. That’s what pushes people into messing up in the corporate environment. The little that I know of. But I’ve never lived my life on a competitive basis. If you buy the best car possible, it doesn’t make a difference in my life, because I believe that God has blessed you to go ahead. One of my pastors in church has a saying that if God is blessing your neighbour, it is a sign that God is in your neighbourhood (General laughter). So, as for me, that tells me that my time is coming. I’m not in a hurry when it comes to life. Nothing trips me when it comes to life. Nothing trips me when it comes to material things. No! No! No! And I believe that if you buy your car before mine; it means I’m gonna buy a better model. By the time I’m buying mine, yours becomes an old model and you will envy me then.

Other than our Lord, Jesus Christ, who else has impacted your life the most?
My late father. His name, when he was here, was Pa. John Oyeyemi Isharinade. He’s made the most impact in my life as a growing child. He was a very comfortable man when we were growing up. His businesses ran into bad times. He lost three businesses under 2 months and things were really, really, really, really, really bad! Really, really bad! For somebody who grew up as a privileged child to now get down to zero, it was bad. But in the midst of it, he was broke, but he was not broken. And so he became my hero because he taught me that you can be down, but not out until you agree that you are out. And he got up again!


Whaaooh! Where did you grow up and what fond memories of your childhood do you still carry with you?
I grew up a little bit on the barracks and then outside of the barracks in Ondo State, in Oyo State, in different parts of Nigeria, at different times. My fond memories, I will say, are the ones when I was very little and my father used to wake us up very early in the morning and make us read, because he was a reader when he was alive. So, you had no choice but to read and he will make you sit on a three-legged stool early in the morning. If you doze, you know where you will find yourself (Laughs). So, those were fond memories, but he got me to become very addicted to books or to knowledge.

Other than the Bible, which is the other greatest book that you have read? The one that has had the most impact on your life, your person, your career…
Hmmm! That’s tough! Because I read a lot of books. To point to one particular book is exactly a big challenge. But I read a lot of leadership books…


Who is your favourite author?
That’s also tough for me. But Dr. Myles (Munroe), Bishop David Oyedepo are my favourite teachers and mentors, so I read their books a lot. In the business world, I read a lot of books, reviews, professional books, management books. I read a whole lot. I mean, I’ve read quite a number of books within management environment, so I can’t pick and say this is the particular one that has done it for me. I just pick knowledge from wherever I can get it.

Of all the books you have written, which one excites you the most and why?
Ah! You don’t ask a man which of your children is your favourite? (General laughter). Each one has its own purpose for me. When you look at my first book, which is Beware of Pastors, Pastors Beware, it was a book that God made me write to warn the Body of Christ. Not just pastors, but to warn members of the church that if you are not careful, you can create monsters out of your pastors and if you are also not careful, you can destroy your pastors. So, how your pastors turn out, you are also culpable. And also to pastors, don’t prey on your people and watch out that you don’t get destroyed by the same people who can turn you to a demi-god and everything you do or say is right. They can lead you to hell. That was a book that God made me to write for specific purposes. The one that came next was The Winning Mentality. It is exploring the mind of a victor, which also has its foundation in Biblical principles. For me, that is a book that any young person who is hungry for vision should get. Because if you want to be successful in life, you want to be victorious in life, you want to achieve something in your life, you want to fulfil destiny, fulfil purpose, you need such a book to at least give you a charter on how to arrive. The third one which was very controversial when it came out was Wealth Without Theft. You can be rich without stealing. It tells us that it is possible. Bible says righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any person. But we’ve been raised to believe that it is not possible to be righteous and be wealthy. But that’s because the definition of wealth itself is wrong. People think it’s when you amass billions or stash millions of Dollars in a foreign bank account, that’s when you are wealthy. No! If you can feed yourself, feed your family and have some little change to take care of somebody else, you are a wealthy person. So, a salary earner can be a wealthy person. It doesn’t mean until you have all the houses in Ikoyi, all the houses in V.I, then you are wealthy. No! That’s why a lot of people kill themselves in the pursuit of this ephemeral wealth. It’s not a matter of how much you have. It’s determined by the condition of your heart and that’s what that book talks about. It talks about how you can actually be successful, be wealthy, God’s way, and the principles that make it happen. When Dr. Myles Munroe who wrote the Foreword read it, he was very, very, very excited and he said look, this is the first book that will deal with this issue in such an exhaustive manner. The fourth is Pitfalls To Destiny Fulfilment. That one looks at what the Bible calls the little, little foxes that distract. Those are the things we do almost without thinking…The first time I taught people that it’s possible to have negative faith, they didn’t believe it until I showed them. There are people here today who if they are going out and they hit their foot against a stone, they will say ah, it’s bad omen. Maybe that’s a day that fortune is going to smile on them, a day that God has ordained for their blessing to come. They say it’s bad omen and they go back inside and they lose the opportunity. People have negative faith. Some people believe that oh, if somebody wakes me up in the morning in a particular way, it means it’s a bad day. But God never made a bad day. So, don’t tag what God has not tagged negative.  It deals with a whole lot of things – your attitude, your behaviour, your relationships, everything that when you look at and you work on those things, people will think you are a superstar. Because you will suddenly discover that you have fewer enemies around you, people have better relationships with you, people communicate better with you and your life becomes a lot healthier than it may currently have been. So, each of my books has a specific purpose. And the latest one! I’m very excited about that one, Kill or Get Killed – The Marketing Killer Instinct. This is my first professional book and it’s the first of its kind marketing book by any African endorsed by the US Library of Congress; endorsed by the Institute of Marketing Nigeria, the Advertising Practitioners Council of Nigeria. Widely reviewed, and they gave me A++. I’m so excited about it because outside of the shores of Nigeria, the endorsement that has come is not by people who know me. The initial endorsement came from people who have never met me, who have never seen me, but who have seen that this is a qualitative work that is very, very good and global in its orientation and it talks about marketing. It sees marketing as warfare, it sees marketing as a field where there are no sentiments, there are no emotions. You either kill or you get killed…

But as a Christian, is that justifiable?
That’s what I said to you before that when you wear your marketing garb, you are in warfare. But when you remove that garb and you become a human being, you don’t go around carrying guns. You go around showing love to one another.


Now, outside of work, what do you do with your time?
I write, I sing, I play drums when I can, I love playing with my children, my family and I love travelling.


Can you tell us more about your family?
I have a beautiful family that I give God praise for. I have three children. My wife’s name is Adenike, my children’s names are Boluwatife – that’s my girl, my first child. Then, Oluwademilade is my second and Timiloluwa is my third and my last child. I’m blessed because I have a healthy family and a loving family; a close – knit family. We are really a close-knit family and God is really, really in us and for us and with us.


It’s obvious that the Almighty God has been nice to you, what more do you want from Him?
He’s been great to me, not just nice. Fantastic! Awesome! The grace to fulfil purpose in its entirety and the grace to continue to please Him and the grace to make a difference to humanity more that I’ve ever done.

Why should I subscribe to your network?
It’s the best network in Nigeria, it’s the widest network in Nigeria, it’s the greatest brand out of Africa that I’m proud to be associated and to be working with. And more importantly, it is one of the few companies in Nigeria where the governing rules is global in its orientation, where you work and you are proud that you work in an organization that has a global orientation and that has propositions that can rival any propositions from anywhere in the world and it’s the first global company out of Africa.


At the end of your tenure at MTN, what would you want those you would be leaving behind as well as those that have passed through you to say about you?
He’s a man who added value to our lives. Every day, I live my life for all the people that work with me. I must not leave you the way I met you, because that’s the third leg of my vision – impact lives. So, if you work with me, I’m gonna hold on to you, drill you until I can put you on the stage there, relax and watch you shine and if they say who is this, if you are humble enough, you will say that’s my coach (pointing to himself); if you are the proud one, you will say ah, I did it! I don’t have a problem with it. But I know that you can’t work with me and remain the same. Everybody who has done that with me, wherever they go to, they keep saying that’s the guy.

A gifted staff who is not disciplined, how do you handle that?
You correct him with love, if he’s amenable. Discipline is a Siamese twin to success. So, if somebody has a potential, but he’s not disciplined, you got to get that discipline into the person. You can’t be in my team and have that in you. It’s not possible…


So, how do you inject that discipline into them?
First, you have to live a transparent life. If you are not disciplined yourself, don’t expect people to be disciplined. If you don’t have values you live by, don’t expect people to have values to live by. People learn more by observation than what you teach them. Sometimes when you teach them anything, it’s just theory. But when they watch your life, they take cues from your life and that works faster and more explicitly and more impactfully than your theoretical teachings. So, what I do here, I teach. I put my people in a board room, I teach them principles, I share knowledge with them, coach them. Then, my life is an open book. The way I live my life, they know. In my team, people can close at 11pm without any grudge because they know that I’m either gonna close with them at that 11pm; even if I’m not there, I have done worse than 11pm on my own. So, they know that when there is something that needs to be delivered, we will give it all that is required and I go a bit personal with you because I believe that behind the official you is a private you and I know that if that private you is not well taken care of, the official you cannot deliver. So, I’m interested in you from an official perspective and also interested in you from a private perspective.


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