Mfon Ekpo is the CEO of The Discovery (Training and Development) Centre, a founding partner, and an Executive Director with the John Maxwell Team. She is widely known by the moniker- The Excavator however after a riveting evening with her in Abuja, I’d add to that list, the title- Mental & Emotional Architect.
As a certified human behaviour consultant, development strategist and professional negotiator, she has served as a member of the President’s Advisory Council and is a two-time recipient of the ‘Golden Quill’ award by the National Academy of Bestselling Authors in Hollywood for co-authoring two bestselling books with renowned leading experts such as Brian Tracy and Robert Allen amongst others.
She has spoken and taught at The University of Oxford, Yale, Harvard, Howard University, The University of Southampton and High Point University, North Carolina amongst others.
Mfon serves as an advisor to leaders around the world, a Mentor on the Tony Elumelu Foundation Entrepreneurship Programme (TEEP) and sits on the Board of Directors of Wentors, an information technology organization with a mandate to increase the rate of participation and retention of Women in Technology.
You are the founder of The Discovery Centre. What exactly is its mission?
The Discovery Centre is a human potential and performance Coaching, Training and Development organization. We specialize in developing effective systems, strategies, and structure for individual or organizational development.
Based on years of evaluating the huge reserve of latent talent and possibilities within Nigeria’s demographic composition, especially with women, our core focus over the past 7 years has been helping women from diverse backgrounds and varying levels of expertise investigate, excavate, and harness these latent capabilities and then translate them into profitable, impact driven ventures.
Although we focused on women initially, the continuing demand resulted in our programs being opened to men also.
In these times when the general idea of motivational speaking has been reduced to an “Aspire to perspire” rhetoric, how do you separate yourself and your calling from the rest?
First, in spite of all the clichés that surround it, motivational speaking has and will always be pivotal in galvanizing action and driving change. From Lincoln’s ‘Gettysburg address’ to Mandela’s “I Am Prepared to Die” speech at the Rivonia Trial. Words alter mindsets, challenge human consciousness and are by far, one of best methods in painting a picture of possibilities. Think of Queen Elizabeth’s 1588 speech to the troops at Tilbury,
“And therefore, I am come amongst you at this time, not as for recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust.
I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a King, and of a King of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonour … I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your General, Judge, and Rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field.”
What power. What a tool. What a speech!
So, I very much wear the ‘aspire to perspire’ badge attached to motivational speaking with honour but also with an intrinsic of understanding of its power and how to harness it.
To that end, I don’t seek to separate myself from the rest, I seek instead to do my job of speaking, training, and coaching so well that it produces the results that it needs to deliver. That is the separator, I guess.
Can you recall the exact moment you decided ‘The Law’ could not and would not be the career path for you to follow till the end?
Oh, you never fully ‘leave’ law, if you really studied it as I did from Business law to Public and International law, to Maritime law and Aviation law. It never really lets you go; it follows you everywhere like a jealous lover.
I was my mother’s legal handbag and through her, I developed the love for law. She was a Legal Adviser and Director in the Ministry of Justice, and I was studying law so it we were a tag team of senior lawyer and baby lawyer. We had our plans – everything from opening a law firm to becoming a SAN but I knew very early I was not going to actively practice law the way practice was known at the time. I was more fascinated in teaching it, writing about it or just exhaustively pointing out the loopholes in it. I considered dropping it all together, but my mum encouraged me to complete the study of it because I was good. After Law school, precisely on the day of my Call to Bar, after I had been presented the award for National Overall Best Student in Professional Ethics, she said “You have done that which I have asked, never once complaining, you now have a knowledge of law and you have excelled at it. I am certain that in a world that trades on power no one can intimidate or diminish you.
So, give me this certificate and go do whatever you want to do with your life, your bases are covered”.
I knew she still worried about what I would do with my life and what a speaker’s career trajectory was, but then in 2013 she accompanied me to the International Maxwell Certification in Orlando Florida. I was billed to speak and sharing the stage with John Maxwell, Les Brown, Nick Vujicic, speaking to over 2000 leaders from over 54 countries.
When I finished and got off the stage, she said – “I was wrong to worry. I just watched a young African woman who happens to be my daughter hold a room of leaders from around the world spellbound. This where you belong– on stage, speaking to people’s hearts and minds and I’m glad I got to witness it. So do it and never look back”.
I have never looked back.
Why did you decide to study under John Maxwell and how exactly did you go about making it happen?
I have always been fascinated by human behaviour, personal development, and its connection to the transformational development of a country or continent.
John Maxwell was the prime example of the impact one man could have in the lives of individuals, organizations, and countries. I wanted that. I wanted all of that and I wanted it direct from source. I wanted to be taught by the best, so I packed my bags and went in search of him, got into the program he was offering at the time.
I was one of the first Africans to join his team, became a Founding Partner of the John Maxwell Team and a member of the Presidents’ Advisory Council, working closely with him at mentorship level, and travelling with him to countries like Guatemala, Costa Rica , Paraguay at the invitation of their governments to conduct nationwide transformational leadership trainings.
Why has it been so important to you to focus on women in your work?
The World Bank in its 2012 Development Report stated that it was slower to implement women empowerment initiatives in Africa than in any other region of the world. That was shocking to me and so I set out to investigate that narrative, travelling to the various regions of Africa- from Kenya, to Uganda, South Africa, Ghana , Cameroon , Nigeria discovering it wasn’t that these women empowerment initiatives didn’t work but that there was little or no understanding of the socio economic, political, cultural or religious contexts of these women before interventions were prescribed or in some cases imposed to mark standardised developmental milestones.
Women’s empowerment, especially in Africa, is more complex, non-linear, and unpredictable than generic development models assume and understanding the underlying causative factors of their behaviour could speed up the process of change and development within their communities.
So, immersing myself in their communities, I worked within their contexts to create context specific developmental models, influence policy and drive socio- economic change.
This birthed the 7-year targeted development program for women called “The Blueprint of How”, which has now reached over 300,000 women-driven businesses not just in Africa but around the world. The McKinsey Global Institute reports that Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could grow by 23 percent—or $229 billion—by 2025, if women participated in the economy to the degree that men did. I think this picture is self-explanatory –except we begin to take seriously our focus on women we will always be behind the curve terms of development. That’s why I focus on women.
What have you found to be the most rewarding thing about the work you do now?
There is nothing like turning on a lightbulb in someone’s life that had come to accept darkness as their norm. Seeing people, especially women, move from accepting life as is, to creating the life they really want never gets tired for me. Witnessing the transformation and the impact of one person being on fire, Swiss Psychologist Carl Jung once said the most damaging thing in the life of a child is the unlived life of a parent. So, when one person gets it right, entire households are affected. Children send me notes of what they studied while their parents were on a coaching call. It is wholesome transformation at the most cellular level of impact.
Do you believe women can have it all and if you do, then do you have it all?
I think you can have it all – I do, the caveat is you just must define what “all” means to you and understand the seasons of how “all” may manifest. Some fruit doesn’t manifest as a fruit just because you want it to. It can first manifest as a seedling and if you understand that then you don’t keep complaining that you don’t have the desired fruit, you work with the seedling. It all doesn’t come at once, it really shouldn’t – it would be too overwhelming, but it does come. So, I don’t teach balance, I teach seasons. Your life can be so out of balance in one season, but that season can accommodate it in a way other seasons in your life may not be able to. For example, when a woman starts a business, in that season, something else may be deprived of time, but if she understands that she can prepare for it, prepare those around her to support her with what that particular season of her life requires and let go of the guilt of reduced availability. When we compare seasons and act like it’s all the same, we suffer. Life and nature revolve around seasons not necessarily balance.
The work you do sounds very high minded and complex. Have you ever suffered imposter syndrome and how did you overcome it?
Not at all. I think the rise of the feeling of Imposter Syndrome in our generation is the effect of certain causes, one of the major ones being Speed. We are geared towards speed -speed of accomplishment, speed of election, speed of positioning, speed of recognition and the list goes on. And while not altogether bad, speed comes at a cost, the cost which is the circumvention of the process one needs to go through to be ready for exposure, opportunity, position or recognition.
The process is the pruning period that eliminates ego , exposes error, uncovers your insecurities, reveals faulty conditioning then centres, teaches, matures, prepares you and helps you redefine meaning.
When you are ready, not perfect, but ready, imposter syndrome becomes an insignificant threat because anything ceases to be risky when you are equipped for it.
Ever felt imposter syndrome on the topic of brushing your teeth or bathing? You have done it so many times, in so many ways that it would be laughable to have imposter syndrome about that.
As simplified as that example is, the point is – The triune factors of Expertise, Experience and Time destroys Imposter Syndrome. But alas, speed doesn’t adequately deliver those – Process does.
Because I am keenly aware of this, I take my life and career processes very seriously. I can attribute the absolute lack of imposter syndrome to that.
Who are the kind of women (people) that need your services?
Anyone convinced there is more to them than what they are presently deploying. Particularly those who have reached some level of achievement or acclaim. It is the most dreadful thing to live in the prison of your own achievements. It becomes hard to even speak about it because everyone else thinks you should be grateful and excited, but you are really dying inside. Sometimes it manifests as overwhelm, the loss of joy at the present, dissatisfaction, lethargy, and just all-round discontent. Most people who haven’t experienced this can be completely blind to it so the lack of empathy is as crippling at that level.
What makes you so highly sought after in this field of personal development?
I would not presume to suggest there is a single answer to that or suggest that is the consequence of just one thing but this much I know: Results are the top of my value list. I am a dog on bone when it comes to getting results, I won’t let go. When clients trust me to help them figure out their lives or businesses, they are also in the same breath trusting me with their pain- the parts of their lives or businesses they keep protected and I am acutely aware of it. That is sacred, it is delicate surgery and requires an enormous amount of courage and trust. So, it’s not a prescriptive process from me in the sense that I don’t just tell them what to do, Personal development, the real kind, is not a walk in the park, its difficult enough on its own. So, its tag team once I get involved with a person or organization. I enter the trenches with them, walk the journey with them, face their giants with them, till the transformation they desire happens. Till water turns to steam.