The importance of purpose: An interview with Acha Leke

A senior partner in McKinsey’s Johannesburg office and chairman of the firm’s Africa region shares his views on purpose, untraditional paths, and why people must be not only good mentors but also good protégés.

Acha Leke spoke with McKinsey partner Monne Williams about his decision to live in Africa, how purpose guides his decision making, his concept of risk, and the way he stays creative and forward thinking. An edited transcript of their conversation at a recent Black Leadership Academy session follows.

Monne Williams: Over the last couple of years, McKinsey has spent an increasing amount of time thinking about our role in society and if we are doing what must be done to bring about broad positive social change. Many people are involved in these discussions—and our guest today has been for a long time. Acha, would you like to introduce yourself?

Acha Leke: Thanks, Monne. I was born in Cameroon and grew up in Montréal while my parents studied medicine in Canada. We moved back to Cameroon for a while; then I went to high school in Belgium and to the US for undergraduate and graduate school. That’s a good bit of moving around, but once I got to McKinsey I stayed and have been here for more than 20 years. I started as a summer associate in our Johannesburg office and joined full time in our Atlanta office. After a couple of years in Atlanta, I moved back to Jo’burg for what I thought would be a year. That was 19 years ago, and it’s still the best professional decision I ever made. I also spent time in Nigeria, setting up our office there. Now I’m based in Jo’burg, working across the continent. So that’s me in a nutshell.

Monne Williams: You mentioned a few milestones in your life and career path. Can you share one or two that stand out as pivotal in your career?

Acha Leke: Yes, one pivotal moment was when I decided to move to South Africa. At the time, nobody was moving to the continent. When my parents were back in Cameroon they said, “We sent you to the US for college. Why do you want to come back to the continent? Stay there, make money, and send some back home.”

However, my main thought was that if those of us who lived outside Africa didn’t come back to contribute, how would things get better? I felt it was our responsibility, our obligation, to come back even if I didn’t know exactly if I could have an impact or how to start. I decided to come back, but I said, “I’ll move with McKinsey.” My lesson then was to take a risk but manage the downside. That concept of assessing and managing risk has been crucial for my career and life.

If those of us who lived outside Africa didn’t come back to contribute, how would things get better?

Monne Williams: You say you didn’t know how to start or what going back would look like. How did you start?

Acha Leke: I gave it a lot of thought and landed on an objective to help expand McKinsey’s footprint across the rest of the continent. That was my mantra, and I started sharing that with anyone and everyone in the office. I remember there were six partners in the office. I went to each of them and said, “Hey, this is what I’d like to do, this would be my platform.” Three of them said, “Why don’t you focus on serving your clients in South Africa. Once you get elected partner, you can go and follow your passion.” The others said, “You know, it is an untraditional approach, but if it’s something you want to do, we’ll support you.” Out of that came my fundamental question, which was “do I follow the traditional path or the road less traveled?”

I remember thinking, “How do I make that decision?” I thought about how, once you get elected partner, there’s a memo to the entire firm about your election, with a bit about your story. I felt strongly that if my story was “he got elected because he served clients and he had a certain expertise,” that’s not really me—that’s not my whole story. But, if the memo said, “Acha got elected after helping to expand our footprint across the continent,” that was the story I wanted written about me. So I decided to take the nontraditional path and follow my passion.

Monne Williams: As you were rallying your sponsors and getting advice, how did you convince the people who were less sure this was a good idea?

Acha Leke: First, decide who you want to convince. The question is who are the decision makers you need to get on your side or at least make sure they’re not blocking you? Some people were very supportive. For the others, I wanted to be straightforward about considering their advice and my decision to choose a different path. I went back to them and said, “I respect your perspective and thank you for your advice, but this is what I’ve decided to do.” And, honestly, they were quite supportive. I heard, “If it’s what you want to do, then good luck.” I didn’t need to spend time trying to convince them and was intentional about acknowledging their input.

What is critical is to understand who stands where: who would naturally be supportive, who needs to be convinced, and who will have a different perspective than yours. And that different perspective is OK too.

Following your purpose

Monne Williams: You have a reputation for being someone who follows their purpose. Can you talk a little bit about how you got that reputation?

Acha Leke: It’s critical for all of us to define our purpose in life. One question I ask myself every day guides everything I do: “Would it have mattered to Africa that I lived?” I realized early on that to really make a difference on the continent, I needed to serve the public sector, so I started pivoting my work away from telecom and other private sectors and toward the public and social sectors. My North Star was to help change the negative narrative on Africa. I spent a lot of time on that, including time with the McKinsey Global Institute writing a series of reports, like Lions on the move.

My question—“Would it have mattered to Africa that I lived?”—helped me make some tough decisions. For example, I was asked to run one of our practices across not just Africa but the Middle East and parts of Europe. It was important work and a growth opportunity for me, but not aligned with my goals and aspirations. My purpose—expanding our footprint across Africa and making a difference across the continent—made it fairly easy for me to say, “Thank you for the opportunity, but I’ll focus on Africa.” That’s how my purpose guided individual decisions then and continues to guide them today.

Monne Williams: We often hear that people feel uncomfortable or unsure how to have a conversation about individual purpose at work. As you tell it now, it seems you were pretty straightforward in your discussions. How did it feel then and what advice do you give others as they bring that conversation into their professional lives?

Acha Leke: I believe in being transparent. It’s part of my belief in bringing your full self to work or to anything you do. I’ll give you one example to highlight what this looks like in real life. For more than a decade, I traveled every week from South Africa to somewhere else on the continent. At one point, I was burning out. I decided to take three months off work and to focus on one simple goal—to spend 30 consecutive nights in my own bed. That goal was easy to think of and commit to, but I wondered if I should tell my clients and how they would receive it.

I told all my clients. I was then doing a lot of work across different sectors within a certain country. I organized and facilitated sector retreats bringing together public- and private-sector stakeholders for one full day, under the leadership of the president. At one point, we had not yet done the aviation sector retreat, and I said to the minister of finance, “If the date for the aviation sector retreat is set, can we please make sure it doesn’t fall within my 30 days?” One of my clients called me to ask how my break was going. He said that the aviation sector retreat had come up in a conversation. This client went on to share his message to the minister: “As you set the date, please remember Acha has to spend 30 consecutive nights in his own bed.” The lesson is be transparent, be open, and give people the chance to be supportive.

Monne Williams: That is a great story. Changing topics a bit, you are known as the most connected person in Africa. How did this happen?

Acha Leke: Well, that’s because it was the title of a news article. What I will say is I have consciously and unconsciously built a network across the continent and with folks who are interested in the continent. Being transparent about your purpose is helpful in building a network. People know I focus on Africa. I help clients in Africa. I want to help multinationals looking to expand in Africa. I want to help investors deploy capital across the continent. That purpose attracts a network that’s focused on the same goals.

Purpose attracts a network that’s focused on the same goals.

Monne Williams: What leadership skill do you exercise most? What’s the most important leadership skill for people who want to grow in their careers?

Acha Leke: That’s an interesting question because it depends somewhat on where you are in your career. The skills build on each other. When I was a manager, the core skill I developed was managing the team. As an associate partner, it was learning to develop clients, convince them we are the right firm for them, and support them in achieving their goals. As a senior partner, I focus on scaling our impact with clients, counseling them on their most important issues, and helping to build and strengthen the firm.

Be a good protégé

Monne Williams: Acha, pulling on that thread of coaching clients, where do you go for coaching and feedback?

Acha Leke: The first place I go to is my teams. In addition, I have my group of mentors and sponsors—people who will be honest with me and tell me the truth. That’s important for me to hear. Everyone should have a few people they can go to who will be completely honest with them, who will have your best interests at heart, and who know what you’re all about. That’s the set of folks I typically go to.

I will share a concept that’s been helpful to me. Byron Auguste was the first Black senior partner at McKinsey. Byron always told us, “We talk about finding good mentors and good sponsors. But remember that you also need to be a good protégé.” What kind of protégé are you for your mentors? What do you do for them? Do you know what’s important to them? Do you know what will help them be successful and how you can help them in their journey?

Monne Williams: Now that you’re a senior partner and chair of the Africa region, I assume it’s easier for you to get support. But how did you find mentors, and who were they, when you were starting out—when you were in the Atlanta office, for example?

Acha Leke: When I started in the Atlanta office there were about 15 partners, and 14 or so of them were White males, and maybe 75 percent had gone to Harvard Business School. I was the Black kid from Cameroon with a PhD in engineering.

What I realized is how important it is to get to know people beyond the surface. Even though I assumed we didn’t have much in common, the truth was that a few of them had been to Africa and were quite excited about the continent. They were very excited by my purpose. As I got to know them, we talked quite a bit about Africa, and some of them knew more about the continent than I did. Others were leading the Telecom Practice, and I’d just done a PhD in telecommunications, so we had that in common. They wanted to work with me and felt my expertise could be valuable. And, thankfully, there were many others who just wanted to help. All these connections in my earlier years made me think broadly about how you reach out to sponsors and who these sponsors are.

Managing the potential for risk

Monne Williams: Earlier, you mentioned managing the potential for risk, including the risks in career choices. It’s important to judge the risk in a situation to make an informed decision. How do you evaluate and manage risk?

Acha Leke: When people face a decision, it’s possible to both under- and overplay risk. The perception versus reality of risk is a real issue. I see this is many areas. In my case, I was working at McKinsey and wanted to move to Africa. What was the real downside? If I relocate and I’m not successful, will I get fired? If I didn’t enjoy it, could I go back to the US? The way I thought about it was to be clear about the real downside and to determine if it’s a downside I can live with. In my experience, some unexpected decisions can turn out to be for the best.

Monne Williams: You’ve been in consulting quite a while now, so I wonder how you stay creative and forward thinking?

Acha Leke: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I traveled a ton. Today, I travel a lot less—maybe a week a month. For thinking and creativity, I realized planes were my place to think. Without that plane time, I’ve had to create new times and places to think. I started being conscious and deliberate about it and even just let my mind wander. We all have to figure out where and how we get our “aha” moments.

Monne Williams: In hearing your story now, I’m curious about how you’ve managed fears or nervousness about your skills or your decisions.

Acha Leke: Looking back on anyone’s path, we can see it as smooth and not appreciate the fears—real and imagined—that accompany many days and many decisions. I remember when I was a manager, I was not very good at public speaking. I don’t think I’m great now, but I’ve made progress. Because I wasn’t good at it, my easy answer was to let the associate or analyst on the team present when we had a steering-committee meeting. My story to them was about giving them the opportunity to grow but, honestly, it was because I wasn’t very confident about my presentation skills.

I don’t know who gave me the feedback, but they said, “You’ll never get better if you don’t practice.” Of course, that is true, so I made the choice to take on the next presentation myself. The first time was nerve-wracking, and I didn’t feel I did well, but the second time I was a bit better. Now I’m OK at it. My advice is to push yourself to recognize and accept your fear. Being self-aware is the first step.

The second step is a willingness to address the fear. In some cases, you’ll need external help. I’ve used coaches in my life. I’ve used a therapist at some points. Be willing to explore whatever you need to overcome your fear. You have to work at it and find opportunities to practice and maybe even to appreciate and look forward to what you used to fear—or at least to appreciate not fearing it anymore.

Be willing to explore whatever you need to overcome your fear.

Monne Williams: You’ve had a storied career. Can you talk about pitfalls you faced and how you’ve overcome them?

Acha Leke: How much time do we have, Monne? While my story looks great now, there have been challenges along the way, for sure. My main lesson is how we recover from challenges. Can we grow from them and learn from them and move to the next level? You learn from those hard times and mistakes, you pick yourself up, and you move on. You don’t lose sight of your purpose. Even better, you help the next person to avoid that pitfall or to recover faster and more easily.

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