In an exclusive interview with Justin Probyn published on How we made it in Africa, hear Michael Ugwu, General Manager of Sony Music West Africa talk about his African success story and the tough yet interesting journey to becoming a leading force in music business.
1. What was your first job?
I was selling ties at a shop called Tie Rack in Oxford Street, Central London. That was my first job when I was about 16, 17.
2. What parts of your job keep you awake at night?
I guess the key things would be keeping our artists happy. Our artists are extremely creative people, always on the cutting edge, always expecting the best – and because we sign and work with the best of the best, that definitely keeps me awake at night, wondering if we’re making them happy.
3. Who has had the biggest impact on your career?
I’ve run a few companies myself, I’ve invested in a number of companies, and for me it would be the staff – just the average Nigerian staff. It is a tough market, it is a really tough market. Having schooled and worked in the UK and moving to Nigeria and seeing what the average employee has to undergo – I think it is quite inspirational that they still get up in the morning and get to work, and still do a lot of things that they have to do with a smile on their face and are just really happy to have a job. I think that keeps me pretty inspired. They could complain a lot more. So a big shout out to the Nigerian labour force for doing what you do, for making Nigeria what it is – these are the unsung heroes.
4. The best professional advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received I guess would probably be quite cliché: ‘Think out of the box and take risks’. I think from a professional standpoint, and considering that I did come from a finance background, it does go against the grain in some aspects. But I think that obviously worked best for me – I had a particular boss when I was working in a stockbroking firm, and he was always pretty adamant about ‘think outside the box and take risks’. I think I have always tried to live like that, more so in taking risks. So I like to take the tougher path – maybe it is to prove something to myself. But at the same time you never know what you might find on that tougher path because it is a road less travelled – so there are always interesting discoveries to be had there.
5. The top reasons why you have been successful in business?
It’s been an interesting road. I would definitely say the experience of failing, of things not working out the way I planned it – and then never giving up. I know it is probably said a lot, but I can’t say anything different from that. I have been an entrepreneur in Nigeria – and when I came on board with Sony Music they were keen to get an entrepreneur on. I have been a music business entrepreneur, I have been in agriculture, I have been in politics, I have been in import-export businesses. So I think a lot of the time it has been, ‘Okay, where have I failed, where have I gone wrong?’ I have used that to teach me, to learn a lesson for tomorrow. So I guess I always embrace whenever things don’t go right. I’ve made mistakes and I think that is the best learning ground for me.
6. Where’s the best place to prepare for leadership? Business school or on the job?
On the job 100%. Business school is fantastic, kudos to everyone who has been to business school. I have done my Master’s, I did an MSc in Economics in London years back. I haven’t gone to business school per se, but I know that I wouldn’t have learned what I learned today if I hadn’t just got my head into running businesses. I think the great thing about business school is it helps you refine ideas. Someone who hasn’t been to business school is probably a little rough around the edges, but there is nothing wrong with being rough around the edges at all.
7. How do you relax?
I read a lot – always on my reader. I am definitely a movie person. I spend time with my daughter – I spend time with my girlfriend, and just do the regular things like travel. I do like to travel – meet new people, experience new things and just learn new things all the time. I invest in start-ups – it doesn’t sound like it is very relaxing, but it is always good for me to kind of get my head out of a certain industry like my day-to-day work in the music industry. So I do love tech start-ups and it obviously helps me learn new things – and it can be quite relaxing because I just love learning, and I am always on my learning journey.
8. By what time in the morning do you like to be at your desk?
I am usually up by 6am. I try to work out as well as possible because I know I will get lazy later in the day. I usually like to get to my desk by like 8am. I work a lot – I work pretty late, I work over the weekends – a lot of people do call me a workaholic. But I won’t say I have a regimented day because the business I am in is the entertainment industry and we do have a lot of different work to do. I am out of the office a lot, meeting new people. Travelling is part of work, so I could be anywhere in the world and wake up to a nice sunrise and get on with work. So it isn’t the run-of-the-mill type of regimented work that we do in the music business – it is quite interesting and quite varied.
9. Your favourite job interview question?
I would want to know where they feel they failed the most. I am not the typical interview person. The world has changed, I am not a super traditionalist when it comes to education, and in the same way I am not a super traditionalist when it comes to hiring. I do want to understand someone’s desires, what they want to get out of the job. If I understand where they’ve failed, I can probably try get a better picture of how they feel they need to make themselves better and then how they can potentially add value to what we do.
I think that is the best way to learn about someone – just pin point their honesty on where they have really, really gone wrong. I think it is always a good question to ask: it is a tough question to ask because you never know if they are telling the truth, but it is always an interesting question to ask, nonetheless.
10. What is your message to Africa’s aspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs?
I’d say continue doing what you’re doing. I would still say we are at the beginning of something very beautiful. I think for a long period in time we’ve been seen as the dark continent – but I also think that we are seeing a lot the growth spurts. We have been a continent that has suffered so much political turmoil that has affected business growth and economic growth.
I do think that we are at the beginning of coming into our own as a continent. In Nigeria we are coming into our own as a country, and I would just want to encourage everybody to keep doing what you’re doing. No one can understand the market like we can – keep partnering with our international partners, keep doing the things that we are doing to grow the market to encourage foreign direct investment. And remember we are Africans, we don’t have to do business the same way that everyone else does business. As long as we are doing business and adding value to the consumers – whether you are in the services sector, or you are producing products, it doesn’t really matter as long as you’re adding value to the consumer. And I think that is the right way forward.
Sony Music Entertainment opened an office in Lagos, Nigeria to serve as the new hub of operations in west Africa.