CFO Andrew Bugembe divulges the best ways to manage a crisis

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At MTN, CFO Andrew Bugembe has been through the trenches across the African continent, the least of his challenges being culture shock.

"Let me go home before my visa expires, try to find a job," this was the thought playing on Andrew Bugembe’s mind in 1997 when he planned to board a flight for Kampala from Australia. He had just graduated with a master’s in management accounting degree from the University of Wollongong.

On arrival, Andrew saw an advert in the newspaper and on a billboard in Kampala, of a company launching in Uganda for the first time. “I walked straight to the head office, met the executive secretary and told her I wanted to speak to the finance director,” he recalls.

“She asked, ‘What for?’ and I said I was looking for a job.”

The secretary laughed and asked if he had an appointment. Despite him answering in the negative, she called her boss, possibly because she knew that her superior had a good sense of humour and would likely chuckle at this hubris of youth. The finance director was impressed by the young man’s courage and weeks later, Andrew had a job as a fixed asset controller at MTN!

“Today, one would wonder what I was smoking!” Andrew says about his entry into one of Africa’s largest mobile network operators,

Continental cultures

At MTN, Andrew has been through the trenches across the African continent, the least of his challenges being culture shock. Before returning home to Uganda to take up the role of CFO in April 2020, he had a decade long journey across the continent.

In Rwanda, he stepped in to set up business plans for a subsidiary of MTN in financial planning and analysis. From the land of a thousand hills, Andrew next took the trip west to Ghana as general manager in charge of financials and operations and later financial planning and analysis.

From the lures of the Gold Coast, Andrew went further West.

“This is the worst financial crisis, that’s why we are sending you there” were the words from his bosses when he found himself in then Ebola-stricken Liberia. His final stint abroad before he went back to Uganda was in Brazzaville, Congo, a French speaking nation.

Throughout his rise to the corner office at MTN, Andrew has picked up on key lessons in navigating through turbulent times.

All about people

In Ghana where he spent four and a half years, Andrew’s task was to turn the operation around to create what he refers to as an MTN culture, an MTN style of working. To begin with, he had to understand that he was in West Africa, a culture totally different to his native East. That was made even more abundantly clear on his next assignment in Liberia.

In a country suffering through the terrifying Ebola fever which caused the initial departure of UN personnel and inevitably foreign exchange, Andrew found that he still had to endear himself to the people and learn the culture if he was to fix things.

Once the cultural hurdle had been overcome, Andrew’s next step involved bringing stakeholders together to see the vision and agree with the soon-to-be implemented plan.

According to Andrew, the worst thing to happen while navigating a crisis is an executive acting contrary to the plan. “If you have a disengaged manager, believe me, that filters down to the team and the rest of the organisation,” he says.

Andrew also proposes tugging at the heartstrings. At the height of Ebola in West Africa and COVID-19 in Uganda, he sold the company strategy with this pitch, “This is for survival think about your family. This is only for a while, just to get out of the woods.”

Human nature

As the team navigates through the initial rough patch, things begin to improve. “Once you start to see a bit of that dim light and you share that across to a team, you will be surprised because [according to] human nature, everyone wants to win and when they know they were part of that, then it’s a lot easier,” Andrew adds.

But it is not that simple, some tough decisions will have to be made during a crisis. “If you need to get rid of one or two of the staff who have not bought into the vision, then you have to do that early before the virus of negativity spreads,” he advises.

At the risk of "fixing something that is not broken", Andrew notes that wherever he’s gone, he’s always made changes on arrival because there is always room for improvement.

His final lesson relates to investing in people. “If you don’t get this investment right, you pay a high price. Either you will be reviewing a lot of work or there will be endless debates with little work getting done,” he concludes.

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