Ajen Sita, Chief Executive, Ernst & Young (EY) Africa.
When it comes to conducting the business of providing assurance, advisory, tax, and transaction advisory services in Africa, Ernst & Young (EY) has long held the title of “go-to firm”.
EY stands out from the competition thanks to its integration across Sub-Saharan Africa. The company’s motto, “Unlock Value in Africa,” is a strategy that benefits the company’s customers, workers, and neighbors. A big part of this is the belief that the company can only reach its full potential and help Africa reach its full potential if it hires, keeps, and develops the best people.
Even as EY continually increases its investments in skills development through the development of the pipeline of future accounting, tax, and IT consultants, the ROI has been rather impressive, thus paving the way for more investments in Africa through negotiations with the company’s headquarters in London.
As EY’s Africa CEO, Ajen Sita’s biggest leadership challenge is driving EY’s goals in the region. He is a firm believer in a more integrated Africa as a region, as that presents EY with an opportunity to create significant market access gains. Ajen has been EY’s Africa CEO since 2010, casting his shadow over virtually every aspect of the firm’s business model.
With an abiding passion for promoting the African continent and transformation, Ajen convinced the global office of EY to invest US$100 million in the Africa operation, leading to the opening of new offices, recruiting people, and acquiring existing firms.
He now has his eyes set on driving the next phase of EY’s growth strategy, describing it as the “NextWave Strategy.” In this interview with Africa Executive, Ajen discusses how EY’s vision is shaping up on the continent, and how it is fulfilling its purpose of “building a better working world in the region.”
How is EY’s vision shaping up Africa?
EY has completed the integration of our country practices across Sub-Saharan Africa under a single leadership team. This structural change has been a catalyst for growth and transformed the way we serve our clients. We have moved to the next phase of our growth strategy, what we call NextWave Strategy, our strategy to transform elements of our service delivery anchored in providing our people with exceptional experiences, investments in technology, teaming, and client experiences. Our NextWave strategy brings together our purpose, our values, and our ambition of what we want to achieve, being the world’s most trusted, distinctive professional services organisation by creating long-term value for our EY people, the clients we serve ,and our society at large.
To what extent has EY fulfilled its purpose of “building a better working world in the region?”
As a firm we have committed ourselves to a purpose of ‘building a better working world’ and this commitment is more relevant than ever. Post the pandemic, businesses are dealing with some unique challenges. Talent scarcity and the Great Resignation are topics on the mind of every business leader. How to retain best talent to continue to provide exceptional service delivery to clients means that all leaders need to be thinking differently and innovatively about the career proposition that we offer our people. One size fits all is no longer an option. I am excited to see the progress we can make in this area. Equally, trust in the world is at an all-time low.
There is significant uncertainty about the future of the global economy where it seems that growth has been unequal with many left behind. How can we fulfil this purpose? I believe that we have a unique ability to bring our global insights to the continent and create value for our clients and society. We have long invested in and developed many programmes focused on developing women and entrepreneurs across the continent.
Our EY Entrepreneurial Winning Women programme identifies successful women entrepreneurs whose businesses show real potential to scale and provides them with the support, resources and access they need to accelerate their growth. Through our Global Entrepreneur of The Year programme, EY is recognised as a world leader in advising, guiding, and recognising the best high-growth entrepreneurs and their companies. We run this programme in 10 African countries. In West Africa, including Nigeria, we invested more than $20m over the last five years into developing local skills, new technologies and acquisitions.
How do you characterize “a better working world”?
We believe a better working world is one where economic growth is sustainable and inclusive. We look at this through three lenses: our clients, our people, and society. We work with each of them to solve their most pressing challenges. For our clients it is about innovating solutions to deal with complexity, for our people it’s about the learning and leadership opportunities we give them and for society it is about how we bring trust to the Capital Markets.
Why does EY believe that predicting the future is less important than creating”?
One thing that the past two years have taught us is that we are helping to navigating a world that is hard to predict. All we really know is that everything is constantly evolving. If you spoke to four different economists and asked them to predict something like the currency fluctuation you would likely get four different responses. So, while I think predicting the future is challenging, I think preparing and creating a new future is exciting for those who are willing to plan for it and are open to transformation. Companies know they need to transform.
They also know that to stay relevant they need to know where the world is going tomorrow. Some of the tools we are developing are testing assumptions about the years ahead. What will consumers value? What role might business play? What are the implications of change drivers — from AI and robotics to wider shifts in social structures and consumer aspirations? It is an exciting space to be operating in and I think we are helping businesses futureproof themselves to be ready for a different time.
How has EY unlocked new solutions whilst driving change?
The world is dynamic, and the needs of our clients are constantly evolving. We have responded to this in a few ways; firstly, and primarily, by listening to and talking to our clients. Too often, we like to package up solutions to present to clients without really listening to and understanding their business challenges. We have focused on this as we build our new solutions. Additionally, we have made significant investments in technology across our global and African firms.
As part of an ongoing strategy, we saw a need to provide our clients with innovative offerings using the latest disruptive technologies. We have built new technology-based services and solutions in areas such as financial services, cyber, risk management, managed services, software services, digital tax, and audit. I am excited about the innovation that this brings to our clients and the response that our clients have to these new offerings.
How is EY managing some of the disruptions caused by technology in emerging markets such as Africa?
We are embracing it. Over past centuries, disruptive innovation has resulted in improved living standards in the long term. Businesses and governments have vast opportunities to help drive the economic growth that comes with innovation. Technology will be a significant differentiator in Africa and we are investing significantly in digitizing our own business and in solutions that we develop for our clients. Across the world, new technologies are revolutionizing businesses and transforming entire industries as they address digital disruption.
We believe that disruption paired with these new technologies will give rise to vast opportunities across the continent. We are privileged to have strategic relationships with our technology alliance partners and together we can help our clients solve the challenges caused by disruption to help them create new value. Some new thinking around analytics and cyber technologies can help organizations innovate faster.
How should we define business responsibility in the digital age?
In the digital age, business has a real role to play in partnering with society. Traditionally, the primary responsibility of a business was to create financial value for its shareholders, and that was enough. I think in this age of sustainability, digital things are different. Today, companies should create value for many stakeholders to succeed. Shareholder value is still critically important – but isn’t separate from a company’s impact on its people, its communities, and more. Businesses can fulfill this responsibility in several ways, whether through employees serving as ambassadors to customers and their communities or through their social impact by sponsoring education, mentoring, and other community initiatives with other organizations.
We have an exceptional programme called EY Ripples where we’re working to help young people gain skills and support high-impact entrepreneurs around the world. By 2030, our goal is to positively impact one billion lives. When companies invest in their people or communities, it doesn’t just create new opportunities for those who directly benefit. It also helps build a stronger workforce and a better overall business environment, creating a win-win for stakeholders and shareholders alike.
How important is innovation for EY?
It is part of the DNA of our business. EY has been in operation for more than 150 years, and innovation is the one common thread that has ensured continued success. By constantly innovating, and investing in new markets, new technologies, and new solutions, we have been able to remain relevant and distinctive across the markets that we operate in.
Why is consulting shifting from ideas to outcomes these days?
Fundamentally, people want results and execution over theory and ideas. We realized this some time ago and introduced our wave spaces, which are essentially spaces designed to generate possibilities in your business, find answers faster and align people for decision-making—whether your goal is to grow, transform or disrupt. We like to bring people from our client organizations together with us to interact with ideas, technology, and each other. The difference is that this interaction is not only an idea generator but solves problems and leads to meaningful outcomes.
What is your biggest leadership challenge driving EY’s goals in the region?
I believe that we need to see a more integrated Africa as a region. I think we have an opportunity to create significant market access gains but we need to have better trade committees, infrastructure, and investment in place to make this happen. EY has a strong presence in Africa, operating in multiple countries with a strong leadership team in place who are excited about the potential the continent can bring.
How has EY managed to sustain its relevance with clients?
Primarily I think with a trusted relationship. Our clients trust that EY has their best interests at heart and this is demonstrated in the type of work we can do. Through our purpose and our intent to be distinctive in our markets, we are focused on remaining relevant to society. This may mean that clients appreciate our ongoing investment into new solutions or leading with our digital transformation efforts or other things that may be relevant to them. At the end of the day it comes down to trust.
What’s EY’s philosophy on the best way to train employees to be better leaders?
We invest heavily into the training and development of our people but it really comes down to four things; learning, experiences, coaching, and relationships. Our learning programmes are best of breed and we require our people to be on a continual learning journey at EY. However, this can take many forms and whether it is a training course, an international assignment, or a leadership development programme – our people have access to them all.
Our employees are looking to us to educate and empower them and so we have also introduced digital credentials known as EY Badges to help people develop skills related to emerging technologies that will benefit them throughout their careers. I take a personal interest in coaching our future leaders and expect the same commitment from my leadership team.
What are your ideas about the workplace of the future?
I am personally inspired by the workplace of the future. We have a young demographic in our business and a truly globalized workforce. This enables us to make agile decisions around our spaces which are embraced by our people and supported by our clients which is encouraging. We have worked hard to make our environments flexible including our office locations, enabling our people to “work from anywhere” and digitally enabling our workforce to ensure they have the tools they need to do their job effectively.
Is there anything that scares you about the workplace of the future?
Primarily that it is coming too slowly! Talking about it and delivering against it are not always the same thing. If we are to continue to attract the best talent and deliver the best solutions to our clients, we need to enable our people in the best way that we can.