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How investment banking prepared Charles Adu Boahen for government

Former Ghanaian Minister of State for Finance actually never wanted to be in government, having built an incredibly successful career in finance and investment banking. But when the call to public service came, he readily answered. Here’s how investment banking prepared Charles Adu Boahen for the government.

Although – or perhaps because – his father was a History Professor who had also been corralled into politics, Charles Adu Boahen never really saw it as the life for him. His father had contested in the very first democratic election of the fourth republic in 1992 as the Presidential candidate. Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, Charles Adu Boahen chose to major in chemical engineering for his undergraduate degree at the University of Southern California, desiring to build things rather than govern them. His interests then led him to the financial world, where he obtained an MBA from the Harvard Business School and gained experience in investment banking and private equity. After running JP Morgan’s sub-Saharan Africa operations from Johannesburg, he returned to Ghana in 2007. He established a boutique investment bank called Blackstar Advisors and a real estate investment business.

It was not until 2016 and a change of government that he was asked to serve his country in a policy role. He served as a deputy minister for four years and was then promoted to minister of state. Charles Adu Boahen says his experience as an investment banker served him well throughout that time.

Between undergraduate studies and business school, Charles Adu Boahen worked at Salomon Smith Barney, a US investment banking firm. He was put in the investment banking group that covered chemicals and energy, which enabled him to use his background in engineering.

“It was a great combination for me in terms of combining finance with engineering,” Charles Adu Boahen said in a recent interview. “And I liked the fast-paced environment and the deal-by-deal transactional feeling.”

Charles Adu Boahen sees analytics and negotiations as essential
Even in those early days of his career, the lessons investment banking taught him were to be deeply analytical and apply your knowledge to dealmaking while being quick on your feet during negotiations.

“One of the things in being in an investment bank was that you were encouraged to start the day on the trading floor because every morning on the trading floor, they had a whole session where the research analysts would come and talk about the stocks that they believed would do well for the day, and how they should market them to their clients,” said Charles Adu Boahen. “It really gave you an insight into Wall Street and capitalism and finance. And often, you’d have read the Wall Street Journal by the time you got in in the morning. Then, you connect the dots to what is happening on the floor. It really was a very educational experience, especially for me. One reason was that barely four years before that, I was somewhere in West Africa with no knowledge whatsoever of Wall Street. And two, because my background was in engineering and not necessarily finance. So, it was a whole new world to me and one I’d never heard of before I left Ghana.”

Over the two years, he was at Salomon Smith Barney, he learned valuable lessons in preparedness, attention to detail, understanding the mechanics of a situation – and how to work hard. Eighty-hour weeks were the norm, and every day was a test of your knowledge.

Charles Adu Boahen learns a valuable lesson in building
After Harvard, which – believing he would always one day return to Africa – he chose for the brand recognition and relationships he could build there – Charles Adu Boahen went to work for a private equity fund in Washington DC that was focused on making private equity investments in Africa.

“I told myself when I got in business school, there was no way I was going back to Wall Street because there was no way I was going to be working 80-hour weeks and sleeping in the office anymore,” Charles Adu Boahen recalls. “I did that for about a year and then quit because I didn’t think private equity was the right model. The partners seemed more comfortable sitting in DC funding deals in Africa and preferred to fund American companies that were going into Africa. And I thought that it should be the opposite. We should be on the ground in Africa looking and identifying African opportunities and putting money behind them.”

For Charles Adu Boahen, it was an essential lesson in how economies need to grow and be supported from the inside, not from afar.

But he did also learn positive lessons from his time in private equity. And these lessons helped him to understand how government should also work.

Charles Adu Boahen learned that seeing things through is all-important
“What motivates me is execution. I think nothing is relevant if you don’t execute. Everybody has ideas, but they are useless or ineffective if you can’t turn them into something tangible through execution. And that’s a big difference between people that succeed and people that don’t. People who succeed execute. People that don’t, don’t execute,” said Charles Adu Boahen. “Execution means that you must be able to make decisions on your feet in real-time, typically with a limited amount of information. Some people keep second-guessing themselves and don’t pull the trigger until it’s too late and the opportunity passes them by – they are scared to make mistakes. You will make mistakes, but you have to execute, and to execute, you have to decide, and to decide, you have to be quick and understand exactly what is important with the limited information you have. You have to figure out what is relevant and what is not quickly. Weed out the chaff and figure out the key issues.”

Charles Adu Boahen also credits his business school education for instilling these virtues in him.

“Harvard uses a case model method, and with a case model method, it is written like a story,” Charles Adu Boahen explained. “You read it, and it’s about a company or govt entity, and then you have a debate in class; everybody discusses it and makes observations under the guidance of the Professor. By the end of the day, you would see that you have all drilled it down to the key issue that led to the company’s success or failure or whatever it is under discussion, or you have cracked the case, as they say in Business School. And that’s when you realize that it’s really about identifying the key issues and making sure that those are what – whether it is to do in an execution or a turnaround strategy, or whatever it is – that you focus on.”

Developing critical analytical skills, attention to detail, working out how to break down a problem, perfecting fast and knowledgeable negotiation tactics, and working hard. That’s what investment banking taught Charles Adu Boahen about government.

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