As the CEO of Deloitte East Africa, Joe Eshun is a passionate leader with over 25 years of experience in the public and private sectors. Having led the training of dozens of senior managers and directors in Europe and Africa, he firmly believes that success depends on the strength of one’s relationships. A devoted member of The Room, Joe shared with us his perspective on mentorship, leadership and the secret of sustaining meaningful connections.
Looking back to the start of your professional journey, did you aim to reach the heights that you’ve achieved in your current position?
I wasn’t explicit about being a CEO, but I had a vision board from an early age and wrote that I wanted to become a partner of a professional services firm. I was very clear about wanting to serve clients and help in the transformation of organisations or governments. I think when you put it on paper, it has a way of driving you to do it. I still show my kids and colleagues what I wrote in my early 20s — I may have been one or two years late in achieving my goals, but I got there eventually!
Last Christmas, I started imagining what my retirement would look like and wrote it down, and I hope that this also materialises. I have clarity in terms of what I want, but I’m not stubborn about it; I’m willing to change.
What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the course of your career?
I think the biggest challenge was taking on the leadership role at Deloitte in 2018 when four of our senior partners were retiring at the same time. The professional services industry was going through a lot of changes and scrutiny (and it still is) — and I therefore had to make some tough structural decisions. Nobody wants to lead an organisation where you must make big changes from the start! We’re still going through our change journey, but now we can see the light.
To enable me to deal with the challenges I had to engage a lot with our partners and staff and leveraged some of my previous relationships within the firm. My focus during these times was to rally around the purpose of our firm and its values, instilling the right culture. I also needed to be very clear about the vision I had for the organisation; I used to call it ‘what the promised land would look like’.
I am where I am, because of relationships.
As you know, we’re all about building impactful relationships in The Room. What role has relationship building played in your life?
I am where I am, because of relationships; they propelled me to levels that I never expected. Of course, in my line of work, relationships are key. I always knew it, but it became even clearer around 2010, when I was part of the Deloitte Global Young Partners Advisory Council. We were advising the global CEO on how to work closer as a Deloitte global firm. Our conclusion centred on three things: networks, relationships and trust.
You need to build a stronger network and develop relationships within that network. Through this, you will develop trust that you can then utilise in whatever you do. When you have relationships built on trust, you develop a larger emotional bank account with individuals, that can be leveraged upon in the future. You cannot build relationships only when you need something. This has become my mantra: networks, relationships and trust.
Having travelled and lived in so many different places, how do you sustain meaningful connections?
It’s a challenge to keep in touch. I’ve lived and worked in more than five countries and visited over 54 countries in my short life. I have hundreds of friends and many networks that I developed in the process. So, in the last few years, I’ve used social media to keep in touch. I’ve also been intentional about connecting with people in my networks. Whenever I travel, I make a point to connect with my network over food and drinks. Sometimes I bring multiple networks together to help form meaningful connections.
The other thing I do is try to rally around common causes with my networks. For instance, When Fred Swaniker invited me to join The Room, it was at my busiest time with Deloitte, but I knew this was a cause I could support and believed in. Overall, the best way to sustain meaningful connections is being deliberate about your engagement. One needs to be consistent which takes a lot of time and effort.
Leadership is not about one person; it’s about the need to create more leaders through effective collaboration.
Would you say that relationship building has become even more important during the pandemic?
More than ever, we’re seeing how important networks, relationships and trust really are. If you didn’t have the network and you didn’t have the relationships, would you now try to build trust over technology? That will really take a long time.
COVID-19 is therefore a test of those who built stronger networks and relationships prior to the pandemic.
You play an active role as a leader in many organisations, along with developing leadership skills in others. Where does your passion for leadership development stem from?
Nothing happens in this world — whether at home, in school, in church, the office or in your community — without leadership.
I learned this during my early years in Ghana in the 1980s. My family lived in a pleasant middle-income community with the right amenities, called Kaiser Flats. Over time, I saw the deterioration of the environment and became really unhappy about it. I thought that nothing could be done, but then I decided to take action. I was in secondary school at the time, and I decided to start a small organisation called the Kaiser Youth Association. The goal was to clean up the area and help transform it. This experience made it clear to me that if you want to make something happen, you need to step up and lead.
From my perspective, leadership is not about one person; it’s about the need to create more leaders through effective collaboration.
What do you think it takes to be an effective leader?
There are many leadership styles that work in different circumstances. For me, to become an effective leader, you need vision and empathy. Your effectiveness comes from your ability to have a clear vision, be able to communicate and to show empathy for those you’re leading. Ultimately, leadership must lead to an improvement in the lives of others. If I can have the people I engage with feel like I’ve transformed their lives in some way and helped them grow, there’s no greater accomplishment than that.
Leaders should embrace the need to have mentors and coaches to make them stronger and more effective.
Have you had mentors in your life who’ve helped shape your journey?
Definitely. When I was younger, I built relationships with people who were older than me because I needed wisdom. In fact, when it came to my choice to join Deloitte, mentorship was extremely valuable. When Deloitte approached me in 2001, I had made up my mind to move from large corporates to start my own business. I had a small firm already established in Tanzania, and I thought the business I was trying to set up could be bigger and make the right impact. But when I spoke to my mentor, and heard the insights he shared, I realised that it was better for me to join Deloitte and still be able to make an impact. The rest is history.
I believe that leaders should embrace the need to have mentors and coaches to make them stronger and more effective. Of course, I’ve now grown up to learn that mentors and coaches should not be just people who are more experienced than you. I have younger people as my mentors, and they bring so much energy and insights into my life. I mentor them and they mentor me in return.
Looking ahead, what’s on your post-COVID bucket list that you can’t wait to do?
One of the things that’s moved to the top of my list is learning how to swim. I’ve had the opportunity to visit some amazing resorts on the coast in East Africa but I could never enjoy the beach or the pools because I couldn’t swim. During COVID, I started swimming and even had my first competition with my 9-year-old daughter. I am looking forward to improving my swimming skills ahead of my next holiday.
The big bucket list item is to travel through Ghana with my family. I don’t think I’ve spent more than a month there since I left in 1993! So much has changed in that country and there are parts of it that I see through social media and I’m wowed as I cannot recognise it. I plan on exploring it before I turn 55 — which gives me only 2.5 years.