Lessons Learned: Finding Good People

In certain industries in America, working hard pays off.  You are treated as an equity shareholder — sometimes better than one — and you work like the company is yours.

For example, on Wall Street, human capital — aka people — are the most important asset.  They represent the most significant element of the cost structure.  For instance, labor cost at most investment banks’ is around 65 percent of sales.  There is a direct relationship between sales generated  and compensation.  Therefore, you don’t need to tell your junior assistant trader/analyst/back office personnel to hustle because they are highly motivated to make 50, 100+ percent of their annual compensation at the end of the year.

For start-up software companies across the US, I’m sure the software development cost aka programmer costs, also represents the majority of expense.  Again, these kids don’t need to be told to work hard because they all receive a bunch of company stock/options and are waiting for their IPO pay day, e.g. these Twitter folks.

In contrast, in Ghana, people seem to be just another line item in your P and L (profit and loss) statement.  Banking in Ghana is dominated by retail banks; investment banking is very hard to do. Meanwhile software development hardly even exists.  Except for illegal activities, e.g. 419, there is no expectation of the big pay day.  No one has ever heard of the term “Internet millionaire” nor has a bag of derisive comments for Ghana’s investment bankers at the ready.

Thus, most companies do not pay entry level staff very much and sometimes not on time.  The high college educated unemployment rate makes Ghana a buyers’ market.  Fresh college graduates can make 600, 700, 800 cedis per month (net of taxes) at large banks, e.g. Standard Chartered Bank, EcoBank, Fidelity Bank.  Everyone else can get away with paying as low as 300 cedis per month.

Thus, one of the biggest challenges is leading, motivating, and managing good people.

It’s a challenge just identifying someone you want to hire.  Thank goodness Ghana has a liberal probation period — you can fire someone in the first 3 months without cause — because there are so many people who seem good on paper but are crap.

Recognizing that this is Ghana, these are the traits I seek in a new hire:

  • Initiative/hard worker: you will do something for the company even if no one has told you to do it; similarly, you work hard during working hours and you are willing to stay after hours or weekends
  • Obedience: you listen to what I say and you do not talk back
  • Time conscious
  • Common sense

Is this too much to ask?

Apparently, it is.  I cannot think of anyone I have hired who has all of these qualities. Our last office manager came pretty close but there were limits to what she would do.

Let’s get one thing cleared up.  I pay above what’s competitive but not exceedingly so.  I reserve the right to dash (tip) you if you’ve done something particularly well.  Once you pay someone too well, they lose motivation.

Initiative: you would think that in your first job out of college that you would take the initiative to prove to your boss that you are capable.  You would be wrong.

I noticed that once Ghanaians are hired, they lose all motivation to do anything above what will get them by. (Maybe this is a people thing not a Ghanaian thing.) You basically have to bribe them with more money to jump through one hoop or another.  I always feel like they treat this thing as “my company” rather than “our company”.  For instance, I have said I will double your salary if we reach XX customers.  Nothing.

Furthermore, no one works after 5pm.  I have seen it a couple of times but it is rare.  The reason is that there is no good transportation options after 6pm.  Let’s break it down: if the office lady makes 500-600 cedis per month or about 25 cedis per day.  Her transport cost each way is around 3-4 cedis.  If she leaves after 7pm, then it could go up to 25-30 cedis.

Do I want to bear that cost?  Plus, will she work that hard knowing that she could be on her way home.  I told her that we don’t do that in the States.  We go home when the work is done.  Of course, my salary is much higher relative to my transport costs and the long-term rewards are significantly greater.

I didn’t want to mention that I have investment banking friends who typically do not go home until after 2am.  Of course, they are being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Obedience: Ok, Ghanaian children are very obedient and many women are brought up to be invisible.  But I am not hiring children and I’m looking for strong (female) candidates.

More than many groups of people, Ghanaians like the sound of their voice.  I was told by a friend that you must tell a Ghanaian when you first meet him that you have to “go” within [30] minutes to create an exit for yourself; otherwise, you will have no polite way to excuse yourself from an interminable conversation.

From this culture of verbosity, I think, Ghanaians are prone to “talking back”.  Everyone wants to be heard.

I’m the boss and you work for me.  Unless I let you know, I don’t want to hear your opinion.  Just do what I say.

This is a fire-able offense.  In my culture — Oriental and American — you and your boss are not on equal footing so you cannot voice your opinion.  Thus, there are some people who just are not cut out to work for an obruni.

Time conscious: Be on time.  Finish the task as quickly as you can.

I always tell my staff when I hire them that they all know what time it is to “close from work” — 5pm.  Why don’t they know/respect what time it is to open?

Common sense: It’s like pornography, you’ll know it when you see it.  Is it a coincidence that pornography is illegal in Ghana and common sense is so rare?

These four qualities are what I look for in a candidate.  Thus, it was a surprise last week when Mutala, our 24 year old motorbike driver, displayed initiative, obedience, and common sense.  (There was no occasion to demonstrate time consciousness.)

We’ve been having trouble with our motorbike for several weeks now.  Since I’m not sure what to do with our business, I have been reluctant to replace the bike.  For three out of five nights, he had to push the bike miles to get to the office.  On one of these nights, he came back at 7pm to tell me he left the bike by the side of the road.  He asked for money to get a mechanic and then bring the bike back to the office.  After 9pm, he came back and dropped the bike off at the house.

Startled that he was closing so late, I asked about his background.  Turns out he finished senior high school and a certificate in hotel management.  Unfortunately, the only job he could get was as a motorbike driver.  Mutala also has some familiarity with computers for Facebook and Twitter but no real proficiency.

Since he usually closes at 6pm, Mutala is expected to show up at 10am.  Mutala confessed that he shows up late work because he frequently has nothing to do in the morning.  Good point.  I told him if he shows up tomorrow, then I’ll pay for the Internet time for him to learn to type.  He came at 10am and he took to typing pretty well.

Given how hard it is to find good people in Ghana, I’m willing to invest in them when I find one.


  1. Pingback: Africa Focused News | Africa

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: