The Smell of the Place. First impressions are everything. During the World Economic Forum, Professor Sumantra Ghoshal gave the career-making speech in which he discussed “the smell of the place” as it relates to the corporate environment and senior management’s responsibility in creating a context that enables success. While this speech was delivered approximately two decades ago and Professor Ghoshal is no longer with us, his message still holds true and is cited as one of the best analogies for describing how a corporate culture can either allow employees to stretch or to be constrained. Ghoshal starts the analogy by describing how he feels in the summer in Fontainebleau, France – where he used to live. He notes that when taking a leisurely walk in the forest of Fontainebleau, he cannot help but feel invigorated and energized. He juxtaposes this with his description of his hometown of Calcutta, India, a place that he frequents every summer. There, he feels fatigued and not inclined to go outside and explore. He likens these two places as two bookends to the spectrum of corporate environments. He attributes Calcutta with “constraints”, “compliance”, “control”, and “contracts” while ascribing the Fontainebleau-like environment with “stretch”, “self-discipline”, “support”, and “trust”.  He asserts that a management team, whether by creation or inheritance of a company whose smell left little to be desired, can achieve genuine and lasting change of the direction of the company by creating the right context for employees to thrive.

The Smell of Atlas Mara in Dubai. As I land in Dubai on a hot and humid late Sunday night after a sleepless 16+ hour flight, I was feeling pretty tired and groggy. My night was juxtaposed by the next morning as I arrived in the office. Everyone knew to expect me, my work phones were ready, my email set up, my laptop provided, and a structured 2-day agenda of on-boarding sessions provided. I felt more like a long-term employee than a fellow. That against the backdrop of an office that was designed more like a trading floor without cubicle walls and very few glass (and transparent) offices – it felt and smelled like a highly functioning startup. Being the vertically challenged 5’3’’ person that I am, I wore heels my first day and noticed that most of women wore flats. I asked one of them why and she replied “I stopped wearing heels shortly after joining the firm, we’re so busy running around from place to place!”. That impression holds true as I am writing this post.  

Ok I Get the Smell but What is Atlas Mara? Just a little background on Atlas Mara. If I had to sum it up to one word it would be “unique”. Where else can you find a firm that’s less than 3 years old, publically listed on the London Stock Exchange, led by captains of industries like Bob Diamond, Ashish Thakkar, and Arnold Ekpe that that’s buying banks in Africa?! Let alone a company that has made acquisitions year after year and has successfully integrated its subsidiary banks as part of one firm. Now add the additional caveat – Atlas Mara is not a private equity firm. It is not focused on the exit, on making short-term decisions for a quick buck or two. It is focused on truly changing the smell of the banks that we’ve bought as we strive to follow the company’s motto of “building the best bank in Africa.” This motto is even on each of our WhatsApp profile status!

Here at Atlas Mara, I work within the Office of the CEO, which is comprised of the CEO, Head of Strategy and Planning, and Chief of Staff. This is so cliché but my day is never the same. One day I am drafting a speech for our CEO to present at an international conference and on that same day, I am combing through each country’s income statement and balance sheet and presenting a summary of our financial performance to our management team. The best way that I can summarize how Atlas Mara smells is through the key terms that Professor Ghoshal attributed to a Fontainebleau work environment:

Stretch: The advice that I was given early on was to lean in as much as possible until I get directions to slow down or stop when trying to find solutions to meet our objectives. By not defining the parameters in which I have to operate within and instead, posing issues that we would like to solve or processes that we would like to optimize and giving full reign to solve it, I have never felt so challenged yet excited and confident in presenting my ideas and running with it.  

Self-discipline: Our team is spread out all over the continent. It’s very rare for all four of us to be in the same country at any given point. Seeing my bosses work across different time zones and making themselves available and also being alone at times has motivated me to mirror their sense of self-discipline.

Support: There is no such thing as a dumb question and no tasks is below anyone’s paygrade. When there were instances of juggling multiple top priorities, my bosses would help carry other projects or take the lead for the time being. We try to be as interchangeable as possible and always ask for a second or third pair of eyes to look over things.

Trust: Being alone at times and traveling from place to place – it’s not uncommon for the team to not have face-time on a weekly basis. However, we have calls usually twice a week and there’s no micro-managing because we usually are all kept in the loop.

Bonus: What I love the most about my time here so far is that despite being so busy and juggling a never-ending list of things to do, we all take the time to self-reflect. An example of this is at times, each person takes a turn in sending a thoughtful article (usually from the Harvard Business Review) focused on strategy and execution. We independently take the time to read it and a few days later, we get together over lunch or coffee and discuss key points and more importantly, apply the lessons or advice to how Atlas Mara should move forward. We also self-reflect after huge projects are executed and usually pose the questions “how can we do better next time” or “what did we do well and how can we apply that to our next project?”. It doesn’t hurt that we usually do this over a few glasses of wine. I haven’t gone to business school (yet!) but I imagine that this is what it would be like to some level.

What I’ve Learned Revitalizing and motivating people has a lot less to do with trying to change people themselves but rather, changing the context in which they operate and work in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve definitely “revitalized” myself through exploring the nightlife of Dubai and hanging out with a great group of non-work friends that I’ve made here.

I will soon be splitting half of my time here at Atlas Mara between Dubai and Johannesburg. Follow me as I smell the next place! 

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