Qualified Lawyer & Project Manager; we interview Obinna Okonkwo

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Obinna Okonkwo is a qualified Lawyer, Project Manager and Seed-stage Venture builder. He currently heads the Project Management Department at Funema Group, a Lagos-based Growth Consulting and Venture Building firm.  He is also the founder and Program Director of a startup social enterprise, Change Lead Africa.

A Law graduate of the University of Benin, his previous roles include serving as Project Lead for a South-African Consultancy, Beyond Tomorrow and a Nigerian Strategy Consulting and Business Support Services firm, Ignite MINDs.

He is a trained Project Management Professional and is a Certified Member of the International Strategic Management Institute (ISMI). He is also a member of the prestigious YALI Network (Young African Leaders Initiative Network). Obinna Okonkwo was recognized by a Pan-African online community of African Motivational Speakers-www.motivationalspeakersafrica.com- as one of the fastest growing Leadership and Business speakers/trainers in Africa. He is passionate about Peak Performance, Personal Effectiveness and Productivity.

Obinna typically enjoys travelling, reading and watching football.

Please note that all opinions expressed in this interview are the opinions of the individual interviewed. They do not necessarily represent the opinion of their employer or of Legally Engaged.

Please give a brief overview of what you do

I am a Project Manager and Seed-stage Venture Builder. Currently Leading the Project Management Department at Funema Group, a Growth Consulting and Venture Building Firm based in Victoria Island, Lagos. In my Project Management role, I initiate, plan, execute and coordinate in-house projects and external projects, usually for client organizations.

Why did you decide to study law?

My foray into Legal Studies was inspired pretty much by my admiration for the profession. Law vests an unrivaled prestige on any one individual. That was enough inspiration for me to persevere through the gamut of studies both at the university and Law School.

Why did you decide to leave legal practice?

The decision to leave legal practice was purpose-driven. I had begun my journey in Management Consulting, Project Management and Corporate Training as early as my second year at the University of Benin. I knew exactly what I wanted and why. So I began working, as an intern, with local and international consultancies usually in project support roles. I grew from there.

Would you advise someone with similar ambitions to practice law for a while or not at all before exiting?

Well, I ventured into professional project management right after Law School. It worked for me because I had a clear path to follow and available opportunities- cultivated opportunities I should say.

Legal practice was not in my itinerary. But my experience is by no means a template. I think one should have a clear-cut understanding of what she wants and begin early, even while in school, to cultivate opportunities.

The availability or otherwise of opportunities greatly influences one’s decisions after graduation. You can stay in control of the opportunities available to you by actively identifying and cultivating your opportunities early in the game. In other words, gain an advantage over your peers by positioning yourself in your area of interest. This would, almost always, afford you a head-start at the point of graduation. You can achieve this by building productive relationships with successful individuals in any field that interests you, ask for mentorship and politely engage your mentors while you study. These individuals are giants on whose shoulders you need to stand. I call this, the “Unfair Advantage”.

How would you describe your workload?

It’s a lot of work, you know? Project Management demands a high deposit of Emotional Intelligence because it comes with a lot of responsibilities.

As a Project Manager, everyone is looking up to you to make important decisions, to step up and lead, to pay a very great attention to details and to spearhead the team’s efforts for nothing short of excellence. The success of any given project, internal or external (for clients) literally hangs on the shoulders of the project manager. So as you might imagine, it’s a high stress, high-pressure endeavor but absolutely rewarding. It’s thrilling to be responsible for the success of any endeavor. That’s leadership in its purest expression.

I have a 60-hour work week, 12 hours every day. I work on weekends when there are deadlines to meet. Many times though, I work remotely on those weekends; it’s a little more flexible.

 In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of working in your field?

The most challenging aspect of working in Project Management is building and managing relationships. It is finding a way to build productive teams and keeping them motivated until the project objectives are achieved. This can be a tough proposition.

I miss the adventurous nature of legal practice. A lawyer gets to work on different issues per time but a project manager is usually restricted to a niche or at best a few niches. Project Management is industry-specific. I have a rich project management experience and expertise in building and scaling companies to the point where they become attractive to venture capitalists (we call it “taking a company from 0 to 1”). I can’t boast of expertise in managing projects in Real Estate or Oil & Gas for instance, but, I miss sailing on the adventure waters of legal practice, especially early-stage legal practice before one begins to specialize.

In your opinion, what is the most rewarding aspect of working in your field?

It is most rewarding to oversee a project to success. A few things could give one more joy than managing a project which turns out to be a success. This is rewarding as it is absolutely a confidence booster. It’s the attraction I have for project management- the acute leadership responsibility that flows with it.

If I were in legal practice, I may need to depend on a number of seniors to make decisions while I execute. Typically, this status may be the same for some years, perhaps 5 years. I surely do not miss this aspect of legal practice.

 What is the most memorable thing that happened while working in your field?

The most memorable experience I’ve had thus far in my field was when I learned I’m on course to becoming a Vice President at our firm, running point on all projects in Nigeria and South-Africa where we are fully operational. It was a scary discovery really. Scary because the workload I’m currently handling is quite overwhelming. One wonders how it’s going to be when I begin leading teams across 2 countries. Scary but exciting!

 What advice would you give to aspiring lawyers looking to work in your field?

I believe that Project Management is the real deal. Many companies, especially professional services firms, are in utter need of project managers globally. The demand is crazily high.

About 30% of partners in McKinsey & Company, a renowned multinational Management Consulting firm, comprises lawyers? The Law degree is a passport to any destination you can think of. With it, you can apply to work in any organization under the face of the sun.

Place a laser-sharp focus on being the best at your level. If you find yourself attracted to project management, begin to carry out research on the field. Take courses on the subject (avail yourself of online courseware like coursera.org and futurelearn.com). Who says you can’t go for a PMP certification before you’re done with Youth Service? The PMP is the certification of most distinction in the field of Project Management.

Begin early to cultivate your opportunities. Take internships in project support roles if you can. Ask to work for free. Volunteer, volunteer, volunteer!!! You sure won’t regret it. Project Management comprises experience, proven leadership abilities and raw doggedness.

Would you say that skills gained at Law School or legal practice have been useful in your field?

Absolutely! Being a lawyer is an added advantage to a project manager. That explains why firms like KPMG, McKinsey & Company, PwC and other top-tier consulting firms appreciate applications from lawyers. The training format for a lawyer affords him the best shot at analytical and strategic thinking. These are the tools of a Project Manager or Management Consultant.

In hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently?  

No, there isn’t anything I could’ve done differently. For one, I don’t regret studying Law. I am happy I am a member of the noblest profession in the world. If I have the chance to do it again, I’d take it!

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