Exclusive interview: Elisée Sezan

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER | GAS POWER, SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA OF GENERAL ELECTRIC (GE)

Elisée Sezan is an energy and finance executive with over 20 years of experience in finance, business and market development in the financial services and energy sectors. Prior to becoming Chief Executive Officer, for GE-Gas Power for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), Elisée was GE’s Managing Director for Power Services in SSA. Born and raised in Côte d’Ivoire, he obtained a Bachelor of Science in International Finance from the Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU THE MOST IN LIFE?

My father. He was an immigrant who moved to Côte d’Ivoire when he was only 17 years old. He had only an engineering diploma with which he set up his electrical components business. He grew this business model into a distributorship with big brands like Schneider Electric, Telemecanique, Merlin Gerin and Legrand and went on to open another company in Benin.

My dad taught me the value of hard work and being able to dream and aspire to great things. He has always been authentic in his relationships with people irrespective of their age and status. He taught me the value of family and the importance of education. He sent my siblings and me to top notch schools around the world, always committing to giving us the best possible opportunities to get ahead in life.

WHAT’S THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ THIS YEAR AND WHAT WAS YOUR KEY TAKEAWAY?

I’m currently re-reading Negro Nation and Cultures by Cheikh Anta Diop. Even though the author was only 27 years old at the time he wrote the book, it is the fruit of phenomenal research aimed at restoring the long-ignored history of black Africa and gives the black man his rightful place in the history of mankind. In the context of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, the book re-emphasises the importance of knowing your origin and where you come from in order to find solutions for today’s challenges and to prosper.

WHEN MEETING OTHER LEADERS WHAT DO YOU ASK THEM?

One question that is always top of mind is what their biggest challenges in life have been, how they have overcome them and what they have learnt from them. I strongly believe that we learn more through challenges. If I can learn through their experiences and lessons without having to make the same mistakes, this would accelerate my learning and growth as a leader and as a person.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE AND WHAT LESSON LEARNED DO YOU CONTINUE TO PRACTISE TODAY?

When I was 17, I moved to the United States for further studies with a very limited English vocabulary and even less knowledge of the systems. I had finished as a top student from one of the prestigious high schools in Côte D’Ivoire. Overnight, I moved from being the top and brightest of the class to a regular student who could barely hold a conversation. It taught me humility and I have carried this with me through the years. The assumption that you don’t know anything is the best lesson I have learned so far. You have to learn to ask the right questions, connect with the right people and have a full picture to be able to make the best decision.

IS A LEADER BORN OR MADE?

Definitely made!

WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A SUCCESSFUL LEADER?

I believe that everything can be learned if you commit the time and effort to learn it. The challenge is to know what you don’t know. Three things constitute good leadership for me. First, a good leader starts with the humility to admit what they don’t know and is willing to take the steps and leverage the expertise of others to close the gap. Second, they must be aware of the gap and third, they must have the commitment to work on it.

Leaders have to be willing to stick with the programme as most skills are learnt over time versus overnight and require focus, commitment and practice.

WHAT INDUSTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INSPIRATION?

Today, I draw a lot of inspiration from the sports industry. I played football a lot as a child and currently, I play a lot of golf. I’m particularly interested in sports where you must work as a team to be successful. I love the industry because of the way it’s set up. Every weekend, whether its football, soccer or other sports that operate as seasons, you are able to see your performance on a weekly basis and quickly reflect on what needs to change or what new strategies to adopt.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?

In 2008, the world experienced a major recession. I was working in Europe with GE Capital at the time and witnessed some of the devastating effects first-hand. Markets shifted, stocks crashed, and many companies went bankrupt. In the midst of all the changes, the opportunity for me to make three life changing decisions emerged. With no knowledge of the power sector and only my finance background to tout, I joined GE Power, took up a sales role and relocated to Accra in Ghana, driven by the sole purpose of making a difference on the continent. Over the years, we developed greater roles and greater jobs, localised resources and planted our flag in many countries.

IF YOU COULD WISH AWAY A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BUSINESS OR THE INDUSTRY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

The lack of project development expertise is one of the major challenges that is holding back rapid growth and industrialisation in Africa. The more people that know how to get projects done in the private, public, or finance sector, the faster we will find the right solutions for the continent. If we gain more expertise, the result will be that our projects will get much shorter turnaround times. For example, instead of taking 5-7 years to put a power plant on the grid, we would be able to do it in 2-3 years.

WHAT TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE TO KEEP A TEAM MOTIVATED?

First, every leader must embrace empathy to be able to motivate and support their teams. As a leader you have to be close to the team, you have to get to know them, know what drives them, what they are passionate about, and what their hopes and aspirations are. Second, you have to make work synonymous with fun. We have a saying in West Africa, “It’s not that serious”, and, really, nothing is so serious that it cannot be made light-hearted and pleasing. Third, leaders need to have a clear vision and be able to articulate and share that vision in a concise and clear manner consistently so that it resonates. Team members want to believe that the work that they do is impactful.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE YOUR AND YOUR TEAM’S PERFORMANCE?

As a leader, I have lived by three major key performance indicators. First – what is the impact we have on our customers? How are we delivering for them, meeting their expectations, breaking new barriers, constantly innovating with products; but also with our solutions, critical thinking, attitudes and people.

Second – I always reflect on the number of healthy, constructive debates and dialogues we have as a leadership team. Difference of opinions, perspectives and convictions allows us to push the envelope every time and reassures me that we are constantly seeking new, and better ways to deliver value to our customers and our company.

Third – We have a mandate to deliver financial returns for our shareholders in terms of cash, profit, and top line growth in order to deserve the investment they make in the team and the business.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH UNCERTAINTY AS A LEADER IN A TIME WHERE LEADERSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?

2020 has been an unusual year and one that has been a year of learning, of discovery and of thriving or surviving in uncertainty depending on one’s circumstances. As a leader, the first step during uncertain times is to actively listen with intent and purpose and get closer to the team as much as possible. Next, you have to communicate more, possibly as much as twice or thrice the regular frequency and using several media from informal check-ins to planned meetings. This will also help you keep your finger on the pulse of the team.

You also have to be transparent in your communication and be open about what you do or don’t know. Lastly, you have to be vulnerable. You are sharing the same feelings and emotions that they are experiencing but in addition you also have to be the face of positivity and optimism because that is part of the leader’s job.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE YOUR TEAM PLAYING IN THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY OF THE 2020 GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

At the heart of every economy in Africa is power. Without power or electricity, our continent cannot grow and we are privileged to have the majority of the gas power generating installations running on GE technology. We have a significant role to play in ensuring that with everything running today we do our best to keep it running and producing the much needed reliable and affordable power on the grid.

In addition, we have to stay focused and keep pushing to add new megawatts on the grid for the remaining population, industries and economies that still do not have the power to achieve their national industrialisation ambitions or gain access to power for everyday life.

HOW IMPORTANT IS SCENARIO PLANNING WHEN IMPLEMENTING ANNUAL STRATEGIES?

Its critical! We plan for the worst hoping for the best to ensure an acceptable level of success. In 2020, we gave ourselves options by taking tough decisions to give ourselves leverage and execute for the best case scenario. We are focused about keeping our people safe. We are smarter about managing our costs and staying close to our customers.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DIGITALISATION, THE COMPLEXITIES AND INTRICACIES, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THIS AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR AFRICA?

The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to arguably the best opportunity to highlight the criticality of digitalisation in our world today. For the first time, we were able to leverage our digital offering to do remote monitoring for plants, especially in scenarios where we couldn’t get technical teams to site as we would in the past. During this period of uncertainty, power plant operators are re-evaluating emergency preparedness, employee health measures and the need to operate reliably with fewer on-site staff. We are seeing a major uptake in requests from customers for support, leveraging digital capabilities for power plant reliability and availability.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE?

I believe every leader in the African energy industry today is aspiring to be remembered for having contributed to adding reliable and affordable power to the continent. There is so much need and no effort is too small. I’m grateful for the opportunity of working with GE for the past twenty years across many continents but I think my time in Africa has been the most impactful and the most satisfying. In addition, developing amazing African talent through all our talent and localisation programmes and initiatives has been a key strategic focus for me. The more African expertise we have to develop and execute these major industrialiation efforts, the better we will be as a continent.

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