BARBARA A. HARPER, group head, Human Capital Management and Development (HCMD), First bank of Nigeria, is a unique woman who has created a remarkable brand with herself. In this interview, she tells FUNKE OSAE-BROWN about her job and how she is living life to the fullest.
As I walked into the large office on the seventh floor at the First Bank of Nigeria’s head office on Marina, Lagos, I wondered why Barbara A. Harper would have her desk moved from the inner office nearby. But there she was that morning looking bright as the rays of the bulb above caress her tender skin making it glow like that of a newborn.
As the newly appointed head, Human Capital Management and Development (HCMD) at FirstBank, Harper takes over from her predecessor, Ayodele Jaiyesimi. Even though she has just taken over the leadership of HCMD, she has been in the system for six and a half years.
Her impeccable style of speaking for about an hour our interview lasted and her mode of dressing that morning tell of a woman who knows her onions and the importance of personal brand.
Dressed in a beaded navy blue jacket with a polka dot scarf neatly tucked in through the slits on it, her black Versace glasses sit perfectly on her face as she spoke. She understands the bank’s vision and how it aligns with her role as head, HCMD.
“Even though I am just coming into this position,” she tells me, as soon as the interview began, “I have been into this for about six and a half years now. I am not totally new to the policies and practices of the Human Capital and Development in FirstBank. I have also acted severally for the previous group head so I am not totally new to this system.
“However, in pursuit of our vision in Human Capital Management, our vision is to try to be the number one talent pool hub in the financial aspect in the entire nation, and this you can see that we have started achieving and so the whole essence is to sustain that leadership.”
She explains that running a transparent system is at the core of the bank’s human resources guiding principles.
“We run a very transparent system. We have laid down processes that are available to everybody to have them on auto, which means that all staff members are aware of our policies and procedures. We run a very performance driven system. We adopted the Call Card method in 2010, that ensures that what our staff members’ contribution to the system is properly measured and rewarded accordingly.”
According to her, FirstBank has created a friendlier environment in other to continue to engage its staff. “We have various initiatives in this bank that ensures that our staff members are fully engaged. For instance, we have a scheme called H.R At Your Doorstep, that means weekly we go around the bank touching at the branches to know how staff members are faring.
“We also have village meetings. We have brand champions all over the branch, head office department. We have change leaders. We run a mentoring scheme. When you come into the bank, you are attached to a mentor, a senior person. You are also attached to a buddy who is your friend so that you are properly inducted and properly handled and oriented into the system. We operate an open door policy. That is why I say I am not in an enclosed office, so you are free to express yourself.
“We have various avenues of engaging our staff members. We adopt what we call the whistle blowing policy. If you have an issue you can whistle blow anonymously, which means that you get attended to without fear of favour.”
For Harper, FirstBank is doing so many things differently from other banks when it comes to HCMD. Currently, the bank is ahead of the other banks when it comes to certifications. “We are ahead of competition in terms of perception. In terms of how the outside world perceives us, all the banks look up to us. We are a benchmark, we are pacesetters.
“For our staff perception, FirstBank has moved away from old bank perception. Skilled workers are struggling to work with FirstBank because it is a brand that they want to identify with. We have a young workforce, they need to come into FirstBank and see the workforce that we have now.”
Harper says the First Academy, the bank’s training school, has won several laurels. Recently, it won the Global Corporate University award. We are the first Nigerian organisation to win such an award. When we went to Paris for the award, we were the only African nation. That means we must be doing a lot of things right.
We just won CIPM accreditation, which means that our courses can actually, like if you do some of our courses from our banking school, CIPM can exempt you. So, what ordinarily could have taken you two or three years to achieve you can do it in 12 months because you have done some courses. I think that is one achievement that is laudable.
FirstBank HCMD’s vision and values are anchored on people, says Harper. “Creativity and values are central to our Human Capital vision in terms of how we achieve, what is it that drives us? We concentrate on excellent service delivery. We talk about integrity, which is very important to us.
Of course, I have spoken about corporate governance and we have what we call the gold standard and that gold standard refers to being excellent in everything that you do.”
Harper says her gender has nothing to do with the task ahead of her as she seats shoulder-to-shoulder with her male counterparts without any sense of intimidation. “Luckily, I am a female and to be honest when I am sitting among the male executives I don’t see gender. I see us as performing roles. I could have been a man, but what role am I to play? Does it matter that I am a woman and therefore make less sense? It doesn’t. But what kind of contributions are you making towards what is being put on a table is the important thing, and not your gender.
Are you making valuable contributions or are you emotional about everything? Usually, the tendency is to think that a woman is so emotional, but that is not what it is all about. You can be emotional and firm; you can be emotional and be a stickler for decisions. So, it has got nothing to do with gender and you have to find the balance between your home and your work, otherwise one would suffer.”
She does not agree that women generally have powerful male sponsors to climb the corporate ladder. “What if your GMD is a female?” she asks rhetorically. “We have quite a few female managing directors in the industry, so while would it be a male. I don’t look at whether you are a male or female, and I don’t think you can sponsor anyone anywhere, your work should speak for you. It may take long but it will surely speak for you, do your work and let it speak, don’t rely on a sponsor, I don’t believe in that.”
And so, it is not a surprise when Harper says the aspect of her job she loves most is “making people smile.” One of the ways Harper says she achieves that is having a good listening ear.
“I am very emphatic,” she says frankly, “I listen to you and I try to resolve your problems within the guidelines of the bank. If I cannot do it and I need to tell you a no, I tell you a no in a nice way so that when you are leaving you are still smiling. So, what gives me joy most is making people smile, making my staff happy, making my staff look forward to coming to work every morning. Once I have done that 60 percent of my job is done, because a happy staff would be motivated and would be productive.”
If Harper is not in the banking industry, she tells me, she will be serving her state, Lagos, in an advisory capacity in sport.
“I was very sporty in my school days; I am still a little bit sporty. When I was in school, I was a national champion for squash, tennis, and hokey. I am a gold medalist of the Bankers’ Game 2013 Table Tennis. I think I have quite a lot to contribute to sports in this country.”
When Harper is not at work, on weekends, she watches football. She s an Arsenal fan. “Weekends, when the league is on I watch football, bond with my daughter and just rest generally. I like to rest because I think I work very hard in the week and so I recoup over the weekend. I watch Premier league, UEFA.”
Some people may consider it odd that a gentle soft spoken person like Harper whose favourite city in the world is Lagos, because it makes her think. “My favourite city in the world would be Lagos because honestly, I think I have travelled quite a lot and there is no place like Lagos. Lagos makes you think. You go to other country you don’t need to think, everything works.
You take everything for granted, but in Lagos you have to think: ‘is there enough diesels, is there enough petrol, the security, is it okay?’ For water, you sink your own borehole and you do the treatment. So, you are constantly thinking of creating and using your brain.”
As a high-flying manager, Harper is indeed unique in her ways and views. She loves to read but she prefers to read just newspapers and other articles online.
“I read the newspaper. I actually read more of articles and not books. I subscribe to some websites, H.R websites, and that keeps me up-to-date on what is trending. But to sit and read a book? I prefer to read articles. I find that it is catchier for me because it is short and straight to the point.
“If you read the book you will come across some irrelevant chapters that you would have the temptation to skip. If you skip it you might miss some point, but if it is an article or summary it has captured all.”