Sunday, October 17Inside Business Africa
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Life coaching, the substratum of career growth – Bukola Seun-Oloruntuga

What inspired you to go into coaching and mentoring?

I would not say it is an inspiration. I think coaching and mentoring found me whilst I practiced Law. I like young people. I like helping them to get better at whatever they are doing; I like helping them to find their purpose. I like helping them to move from where they are to the place where I believe they can be and most times it’s usually from the lowest places to places they could never have imagined they could be. Moreover, I noticed that I could do that and I enjoyed it whenever I was doing it. It made me very happy and very excited and I always looked forward to doing it because it came to me very effortlessly.  Consequently, I started to pay more attention to it. For instance, in the firm, I worked in Apapa, I usually chatted with the clerk that was just a secondary school leaver about many other things he could do, and by the time I was leaving the firm, he had decided to sit for the University Matriculation Examination. The next time I heard from him, he was already an undergraduate in the university. To think that when I met him the thought of returning to school had not cross his mind at all.  But the three months I spent with him changed that. It was from this type of experience that I realized that I had a thing for young people and because I was seeing the changes and the impact that I was making, I decided to pay more attention to it. Hence, every opportunity I had to relate with young people, and I had a lot of opportunities because of my profession; Law, I maximized it.

As a lawyer, I always have young lawyers around me and there’s this thing that we do as lawyers. When you’re in law school, you have to spend some time in a Law Firm to see how Law Firms run.  About 12 or 13 years ago, the Law School sent law students to the law firm I was working at the time, it was the first time the firm was assigned Law students. This first set just sat down in the library studying. An experience similar to the one I had many years before that.  When I was in law school, I was posted to a Law Firm in Ilupeju and I think we were supposed to be there for like six weeks but they just made us sit in the library. It was so boring because the managing partner said we should study. At the time, I usually thought, “Excuse me, I read every day. How can you make me sit down in the library for six weeks reading my books if the intention of the program is for me to see how a law office runs?”

Therefore, when they sent the second set of law students to my employer, I decided that I could not let what happened to me happen to them too. This is because I believed that I could have learnt more at the firm I externed because it turned out that the firm had a law report publishing company. I wondered why we did know about it or allowed to go there to see how law reporting was done until a week before the end of the externship. So, from the moment the second set of law students were assigned to my employer, I decided that they were not going to have the same experience. Consequently, I suggested to the Managing Partner that we could structure the firm’s externship experience differently. In other words, we could make it more educative and rewarding for the students and ultimately achieve the purpose of the externship program. I noted that since the intent is for the students to experience how a law firm works firsthand, the only way they can do that is for them to be actively present amongst us and for us to be deliberate about making that happen.

To achieve this, I created a structure that helped them to learn through modelling. For instance, they had to resume when we did so that they could understand that when you are working in an office you have to resume on time. They also had to attend meetings with us so that they will see how we conduct meetings and take minutes. We also had regular teaching sessions on their law school courses and from then on, every set of law student assigned to the firm after that had a fantastic experience. We constantly improved on the structure because I think in the following year, we decided that instead of just having one supervisor for the students, each student was assigned to a lawyer as a mentor so that someone is holding that student’s hand during the externship.

Therefore, when you ask what inspired me? I would say again, that I don’t think anything inspired me. I think mentoring and coaching found me and it found me when I was practicing law. I say coaching found me because when I meet young people that need help, young people that do not know their true potentials, I help them move from one stage of life to the next.  And the kind of progress they make when they interact with me is usually the type of progress I made after spending so many years because I didn’t have people to guide or mentor me. There were no coaches while I was growing up, there were no mentors, even the older ones were not mentoring us intentionally. They would tell you, “Look, everybody has gone through this and you are just going through something similar”. I didn’t like that and when I became older, I decided that if there was a way, I could help a young person avoid the same things I went through, I would do it. Hence, every opportunity I got to do that, I seized it.

I give you another example. I met this young man; he was a cleaner. A very industrious and smart young man and we chatted a lot. This is because I get to work early and that is about the same time, he cleaned the office. Whilst he cleaned, we would chat. And on one of these days, I asked him these questions: “Is this what you want to do? If not, what do you want to do? ” And he told me, he wants to learn how to use the computer. Then, I said, go find out what you need. Interestingly at that time, the firm was going to stop contracting cleaning to a service provider, and directly employ the cleaners. So, what did the office decide to do? The office decided to offer my young friend a job as a cleaner. When we were having one of those early morning conversations, he told me that the office had just offered him a job as a cleaner and so I asked him, “what are you going to do about it?” I was so glad when he said he won’t take the job. He left to pursue his interest in the computer and I think I saw him like two or three months ago. He is married, now works in an IT firm, because he went to learn how to use the computer. Just imagine I was like every other person in that office who saw him as no more than a cleaner.

Consequently, when I see a young person, whether the person stays around me or works in the same office with me or is working with me on a team, I make it my business to bring out the best in them. And they may not like it initially but by the time I start helping you see that version of you that you did not know existed before, then you begin to cooperate. It works all the time. I have done it over and over again and I think what makes me very happy is that I see the results. I always believe that there’s more to everybody than what they can see, you just need somebody to help you see those things inside of you that you don’t know exists and that’s what a coach does for you. A coach helps you to bring out all your potentials, helps you to ask those questions that you don’t necessarily want to ask yourself.  So, when you come to me and say, okay, this thing, how am I going to do it, I will ask you? How do you think you should resolve this issue? It helps you to think. At the end of the day, you realize, you knew the answer to the question you just needed to apply some thinking to it. That’s why I say I help you to become the best version of yourself because the best version of you is that you that does something and gets better at it. All I do is help you to think of how to solve problems, and the more problems you solve, the better you become at solving problems.

What are the challenges you have faced with mentoring?

Okay, so the majority of the people I’ve coached or mentored have been people I’ve had to work with. For example, I could be your senior or direct line supervisor, and if I am not your direct line supervisor but we work in the same office, you would have to respect me or do what I ask.

As I progressed in my career as a lawyer, I realized early on that the best way to lead people is to influence them, and I say that because the other way didn’t work. Allow me to explain. I was promoted to team leader at some point in my career, and it came as a surprise. My supervisor had to leave, and the firm wasn’t ready to hire a replacement, so I wasn’t prepared for it. The firm told me that because I was the next in line, I would be in charge of a team of about ten people.

My supervisor at the time was a true boss lady in every sense of the word. I’m referring to how she carried herself, and how everyone respected her. I tried the same strategy, but it didn’t work. In fact, it was extremely difficult for me because, even when people did what I wanted them to do if I wasn’t shouting, I was threatening. And I didn’t like it because I kept thinking to myself, “How long am I going to do this? How many people will I threaten?

Consequently, I read books, leadership books, and there I saw the better way to do it: influence. In other words, I realized that I needed to establish myself as a person of influence. Look, people don’t care what you know; they only care that you care about them. That is exactly what they want to know. What you know is irrelevant to them. So, I asked my team to appraise me so that I could know what they thought of me. I asked them to be candid with me because I wanted to be a better leader and perform better. I told them, “Please be honest, I’m not your employer, so I can’t even fire you, no matter what you say.”

They gave me their feedback and it was not very pleasant. They said I was bossy and yelled a lot. I took the feedback and started making changes. First, I inquired about each team member’s birthday and beginning that month, I made certain that each member of the team received a cake from me on their birthday. Then I began to pay attention to them and also inquire about their well-being before we discussed work. So, when I talk to them, the first thing I talk about is not work. Instead, I inquire as to how they’re doing, how their family is doing, how their spouse is doing for those who are married, how their children are doing, for those who had them. And before you knew it, everything changed. They let me lead. They allowed me to lead and eventually mentor them. They became more open to listening to me and wanted to ensure that the team’s work was executed effectively and efficiently.

The truth is that humans are hardwired to be emotional. People will not follow you if you do not connect with them emotionally. They won’t let you mentor or coach them and you’re not going to get any results. You must connect emotionally in order to get results. They must be aware that you are concerned about them. They need to know that it is all about them, not you.  Although you are the one who gets the results at the end of the day; it has to be about them first.

How do you help young people to become the best versions of themselves?

Although I think I answered that question previously, I’ll just add this. I help you to become the best version of yourself by asking you questions that prompt you to think. It is always effective. You see, everyone has the potential to be great; I believe the problem is that we don’t always try hard enough. Also, we don’t have anyone who sees greatness in us or helps us see greatness in ourselves, and we don’t have anyone who holds our hands on the path to greatness.

Many of the issues that most people my age had to deal with when we were young were the result of a lack of intentional mentoring. We didn’t have coaches or anyone to give us advice. Yes, our parents were present, but I believe that for the most part, they believed that providing us with education was sufficient, and you can’t really blame them. They would have done better if they knew better.

Our parents raised us by providing us with an education, a safe place to live, and food on the table. They did not, however, discuss many topics with us. They did not discuss sex. They didn’t talk about boys or girls, and we weren’t supposed to talk about them either. There were a lot of things that went unspoken when we were growing up, so we had to do a lot of the learning ourselves, and you know, learning is difficult. You learn from your experiences, whether they are good, bad, or ugly. But this generation, the young people who are growing up now, have a fantastic opportunity because many people from my generation are eager to share their knowledge and experiences. They are eager to assist you in shortening your journey because something that took me two or three years could be accomplished in a year now because I will tell you what I did and the consequences. The world is governed by principles and laws. They are unchangeable. Yes, there is now technology. There is so much globalization now, but the same principles still govern the world and how it works.

I believe many people my age would have been the best versions of themselves earlier if they had coaches and mentors. For instance, before I studied law, I would have discovered that I was a coach and maybe I wouldn’t have studied law at all. However, I had to go through seven years of training to become a lawyer, followed by another two or three years of working to discover that, oh, I have this thing for young people. You will agree that if it hadn’t been for my timely intervention as a coach to the office clerk and cleaner, I mentioned earlier, their lives would not have undergone the transformation that prevented them from spending the rest of their lives doing those menial jobs.

So, essentially, what I do is minimize your learning curve as much as possible so you don’t have to go through the same things I did or be as foolish as I was. You don’t have to be as stupid as I was; you don’t have to make the same mistakes I made if I can share my story, experience, strategies, and failures with you. When I listen to your story and can see my younger self in the story, I would probably tell you my story and then leave the decision to you. So, when you ask me, “what do you recommend I do?” I’ll ask a question: what do you think you should do?

Let me give you an example. A young man was accepted by my former employer for his National Youth Service, and since I was his supervisor, I began to mentor him. I shared my experiences and what I would have done differently if I had known better. And then, just before completing his National Youth Service, he told me that he planned to return to school for his Masters in Law immediately after completing his National Youth Service. I simply stated, “It’s not a good idea. I don’t believe you’re ready “. He asked why I said that, and I told him that, in my experience, you don’t really know what you want to do until you’ve worked for a while. In other words, you won’t know what you want to specialize in until you’ve worked. He heeded my advice and worked for a few years before going back to school. By that time, he had found his love for finance and was going to get a Master of Science in Finance instead.

Another young man was assigned to our firm for his law office externship. He was one of those guys whose trousers skipped at the ankle. I used to wonder why the trousers did that and would ask him questions like, “Is this a style?” He’d just laugh. I chastised him for it and told him he needed to dress better if he wanted to be a lawyer. Do you know that he is the only one I know who is practicing law out of all the guys assigned to the firm for the externship? The more intriguing aspect is that he has developed a fantastic relationship with me and “picks my brain” as a mentor on a regular basis. For instance, when he was job hunting, this was one of many times he did this. He had sent applications several applications without results, and then one day, he decided to pick my brain. After he explained his situation, I asked him, “What kind of applications have you been sending?” He tried to explain, and I told him to make sure he created bespoke emails for each firm he applied to because I had been opportune to see job applications intended for other organisations sent to the firm’s job portal. Then I inquired about his activities on social media platforms such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram (which was not really a thing then). I listened to him explain and then I told him what I did when I returned from Anambra State where I observed my National Youth Service. At that time, like him, I could not secure a job, so, I went for leadership training. As soon as I finished the training, I was eager to share everything I had learned, so I printed a newsletter and had it distributed to the Faculty of Law, University of Lagos. As a result, whenever I went for interviews, I would mention that I had a published newsletter and would share copies with the interviewer for confirmation. In the end, my proven ability to write and the initiative I took were some of the factors that got me job offers in the firms I worked. Then, I asked him once more, “What are your plans for Twitter and LinkedIn?” You don’t have to pay for it; social media is free, and anyone can write and publish, so what are you doing? It turns out that he had not considered using social media in this manner. He left me that day knowing what to do, and the next time I heard from him, he had just accepted a job offer from a firm that had read his article on LinkedIn. I’m sure you now understand what I meant when I said that the principles haven’t changed; it’s just the methods that have changed.

What are the criteria for being part of your mentoring programme?

In 2019, I launched a mentoring and coaching initiative for young lawyers and law students. All you had to do was express an interest in being a part of it. With the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that indicating interesting is insufficient. You must be dedicated to the process.

Many young people, in my opinion, are not committed to their personal development. They are not fully utilizing people who are willing to share their knowledge, experiences, and strategies. So, yes, I initiated the initiative, but after a while, I noticed that the students were no longer interested. They began to miss their sessions. I got all sorts of excuses, such as “I don’t have data,” but then you’ll see them updating their WhatsApp status, and I’m curious, where did you get the data to do that?

Essentially, there was a lot of sluggishness. And it’s the same thing, and I’m going to digress a little, with the political process. The youths are uninterested, but they are complaining about the leadership, the economy, and the system. For instance, I was on a bus full of young people last year, and after hearing them complain about everything, I asked, “How many people here have voter’s cards?” None of them had it. And I tell them that the only way to change the country’s leadership right now is through the political process.

Young people, in my opinion, are living in the best of times. I mean, there’s literally everything now. The internet, smartphones, and a vast amount of information available. Someone has gathered all of this information and distilled it for your consumption, but you refuse to show any commitment. That attitude begs the question, “What exactly did you guys want?” In light of this, I’ve decided that my mentoring programs will now require registration, a fee (depending on the category of participants), and a written commitment from the mentee to participate actively.

I’m a member of the Faculty of Mentors for a mentoring program for lawyers starting this weekend, and it is fee-paying. If you get to know me under different circumstances, perhaps it may be different but if you want to be part of a group, who will learn from me, be mentored by me, and have me help them become the best version of themselves, then you must demonstrate your commitment by registering, paying, and committing to participate actively. I have coaches and mentors too. Whenever I am tempted to slack off with my tasks, my brain reminds me, “BSO, remember the money you paid.”

Do you have any final words?

What are my final words? Hmmm. My final words are that young people should take advantage of us older people. They don’t take advantage of us nearly enough.

As I previously stated, our parents believed that educating us was sufficient, so we had to learn everything on our own. I believe that most people in my generation genuinely do not want young people to go through the same experiences we had. We don’t want them to have to learn the hard way. We want to educate them. On this journey, we want to hold their hands. So, young people must take advantage of the experienced people who are willing to teach them, individuals who are willing to mentor them. The truth is mentoring and coaching are extremely beneficial. They allow you to move quickly. They give you a boost and relieve you of a lot of stress. So much wasted time and money. That, in my opinion, is the most rewarding aspect of coaching or mentoring.

Now, let me close with this. When you want to embark on a journey you have not traveled before, who do you ask for direction? Is it the person who is accompanying you on the journey or the person who has been on the journey before? The person you ask for advice from is someone who has been on that journey before. Someone who has left and returned. That’s the person you go to for advice. Why go on the trip without inquiring when you could have? If you don’t ask anyone and just hit the road, you’ll have to deal with whatever happens. If you had asked someone and that person gave you some advice about the traffic situation, you would have saved yourself time, money (if you were taking public transportation), fuel in your car (if you were driving), and the annoyance and anger you might have felt if you had ended up in traffic. So, if you want to make the most of this journey called life, you must take advantage of the knowledge and experience of those who have gone before you. That is how God designed life; if he didn’t need us, He would not have preserved us; we would all have died before you were born.

On building her Career

Bukola Seun-Oloruntuga (Coach BSO)

Bukola Seun-Oloruntuga is a career and leadership coach, John Maxwell Team certified coach, speaker and trainer and the host of the BSO Podcast, a podcast for young people who want to achieve self and career mastery.

After graduating from the University of Ibadan in 2001, she proceeded to the Nigeria Law School and was called to the Nigerian Bar in July 2003. During her almost two decades of working in senior roles in top law firms in Nigeria, she discovered her capacity for coaching and mentoring young people to achieve self and career mastery and ultimately become the best versions of themselves.

The tremendous impact of her coaching and mentoring on the young people she had the opportunity to work with, spurred her to found the Leadership for Lawyers Initiative, a platform for mentoring and coaching for law students and young lawyers in 2019. Since then, she has organized and spoken at mentoring workshops and leadership seminars for law students in the University of Ibadan and Lagos State University. In February 2021, the Leadership for Lawyers Initiative in collaboration with the Legal Torch Initiative organized the first of its kind, Leadership and Mentoring Series for law students and young lawyers.

An erudite writer, her articles on specialized areas of law have been published in BusinessDay Newspapers and she has spoken at and facilitated workshops on finance, wealth managememt amongst others. She is happily married and blessed with children.

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