Ajibola Ponnle is the Principal Director, Team Building Africa, and current President of International Coach Federation in Nigeria. In this interview with Eric Dumo, she shares her early childhood and some important lessons life has taught her
You had part of your growing up in Nigeria and the United Kingdom, what was the experience like?
My growing up was basically divided into two. First, I spent my early childhood in Ibadan where I was born. My father was a banker while mum was a teacher. He worked for the National Bank of Nigeria in those days, so after his transfer to the London office, my mum, two younger sisters and I moved with him while my elder brother and sister stayed back in boarding school.
So, I spent half of my primary and all of my secondary school years over there. It was a very happy childhood.
We moved to the UK when I was seven and I must say the environment, school life and general way of doing things were a bit strange to me. But in the end, I learnt to cope very well, posting some remarkable performances in my academics.
My father was later transferred back to Nigeria but I had to stay back in the UK with an uncle for one year to finish my secondary school. I came back to Nigeria to the University of Ibadan where I studied Economics before going on to become a chartered accountant.
Being a child of a banker in those days, you must have been spoilt a bit, was that the case?
My mother was a teacher, so there was a lot of discipline in the house. Even though my father was a senior management staff, he instilled the right values in us. He always told us that a good name is better than silver or gold and that we must always strive towards succeeding in life. These words have stayed with us even till this day and contributed to the success I have enjoyed as a person. So, no form of being spoilt.
Did the move back from the UK to the University of Ibadan affect you as an undergraduate?
Fitting into my new environment was quite tough for me at the time. When you are accustomed to washing machines, steady electricity supply, water and all the other basic things, coming back and living without those things was quite tough.
As an undergraduate, I had to encourage myself every day to be able to cope with the situation because it was a completely different life for me.
But one good thing that experience did for me was to increase my hunger for success. I graduated from the university at 20 and got a job even before I finished my National Youth Service Corps. I have never looked back since that period. It was God’s grace.
How did you manage to cope in the university environment as a 16-year-old undergraduate?
I never saw myself as being young when I entered the university at that age because I was always younger than my classmates. I was tough and resilient even though I looked and still look quite young for my age, so there was no chance for anybody to want to take advantage of my age and size. I also received no special treatment as a result of my age and size at the time I got into the university.
This fact really helped me to put in extra effort into my academics even though I attended parties and other social events on campus. In fact, some of my friends found it strange that I could still read after attending parties with them. It got to a point that they told one another not to get carried away or compare themselves with me because according to them, I knew what I was doing. That strengthened me more.
Were there crazy things you did as an undergraduate?
Well not really but there was a time I and my friends went for a show at Ife and two of us were mistakenly left behind by the people who brought us from Ibadan. We were stranded for two days over there because there was no mobile telephone at the time. By the time I got back to UI, my father had visited and left. My mother came the next day and refused to go after failing to see me. It was extremely embarrassing because most people on campus and even Ife got to hear about it.
At what point did you first have a real relationship with a man?
I was in my second year at the university when I had my first long relationship and we were together until after I graduated. After that I met my husband who was the second serious relationship I had.
How did you meet your husband?
I was already working with Arthur Anderson when we met. I was sent a Valentine package, a very big basket with all sorts of items, including a bottle of champagne by him. Though we had never met before that time, he had seen my photograph through a friend. He sent his contact card along with the present. Later he called and we had our first date.
On the day we had our first date, I had to go with my younger sister as a form of security because I didn’t really know who he was yet. After then, the friendship blossomed and the rest is history.
One remarkable thing however is that the bottle of champagne that was inside the basket of gifts he sent to me on Valentine’s Day was the same we used for our toast during our wedding which also took place on Valentine’s Day. I kept the bottle for three years until the day of our wedding before opening it. That, for me, was special.
What major lessons would you say marriage has taught you?
My in-laws who are from Ada in Osun State, are a very traditional family and having grown in the UK and in a non-traditional home, getting used to their expectations of a wife in the family was not tough but unusual.
But above all, I thank God for the experiences I have had. With every marriage there are tough and good times and we have together surmounted many challenges and are truly blessed.
At what point did you go into coaching?
I was in paid employment for 10 years, rising very quickly through the ranks. By the time I was 30, I was already a senior management staff at British American Tobacco, next level to Finance Director. I have always wanted to own my own time and I knew being a director in a multinational would not give me that option.
One of my guiding principles is, begin with the end in mind, so I decided to close my eyes and jump.
I didn’t go into coaching immediately but started printing social stationery, wedding and birthday cards and I soon realised that some of the people I printed wedding cards for would always ask if I knew a caterer, decorator and all the rest. It was from there the idea came to me that I should go into events management as well.
To expand my knowledge in this area, I enrolled at the George Washington University in the United States to get certification in global best practices in event management. It was in the process that I was introduced to team building which is essential in solving a lot of group problems today.
Later, I went to the University of London to do a Master’s degree in Organisational Psychology, and coaching came up as one of the ways to change behaviour sustainably. Basically coaching is to help your client unlock their potential. So, I can say I got into coaching serendipitously.
Did colleagues, friends or even family members think you were making a huge mistake for quitting your well-paid job to pursue private business?
Many people, including my husband, did not support the move because I was in a high paying job with immense potential. But I stayed true to my beliefs and values and I felt that having more time to spend with my children in their formative years was more important than a career which would have left me with little time to attend to what I believed was a more important goal.
What were the initial challenges you faced starting your own business?
Many challenges as expected of being the CEO, CFO, CMO, CHR. You were all things to the business as a new start up.
I was not used to going out to having meetings and secure jobs, so it was a huge challenge. I came from a professional background where we were given preferential treatment as auditors and respect associated with the British American Tobacco brand, so I expected it to be the same in self-employment. But soon, I learnt that as a small business in Nigeria, you have to stoop to conquer; so I learnt patience.
As President of the International Coach Federation in Nigeria, how have you been able to combine this with your role as a wife and mother?
I have always been a multi-tasker. For a person to be a certified coach, he or she must go through the process of unlocking their own potential. The results that I found through my personal experience made me to understand the essence of coaching.
I am able to cope but it is certainly not always easy.
Are there weekends for you or they are another time for work?
The fact that I am in control of my own time means I can afford to spend quality time with my family.
I love cooking; I can cook many dishes from around the world because I have flare for taste and knowing what is in meals by just tasting them. As a result of my love for cooking, I have taught my boys how to cook. My sons learnt how to make their own breakfast from the age of eight.
Of course I pamper myself a lot during weekends by going for massages at the spa but above all, I love to spend quality time with my family.
Which part of the world do you love to spend your holidays?
A few years ago, we went to Miami in the US and I fell in love with the city and its amazing beaches. I cannot also forget the experience when we went on a cruise to about five countries in the Caribbean. Every day, I look forward to visiting all those places, especially Miami.
Do you feel more comfortable in formal wears or casuals?
I feel comfortable in both formal and casual depending on where I am going and how I feel on that day. I dress appropriately for occasions and not necessarily to stand out. I like looking good and would say I have a more conservative style.
What is the predominant fashion item in your wardrobe?
Trousers! Jeans in all forms and shapes and styles, culottes, flares, skinny, bootleg, palazzos… name it. I think I was a tom boy.
But now, I find comfort wearing more appealing clothes that will not restrict me in any way or form, so loose dresses (whether formal or casual).
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Source: The Punch