When Michael Tobin was born, his father William was in prison for running an illegal entreprise — a gang that specialised in crime in a seedy part of East London. At one point, Michael's mother moved with him to Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, just to get him out of the social circumstances he found himself in as a boy.
Today, the former CEO of Telecity is one of Britain's leading entrepreneurs and the managing director of Tobin Ventures, a UK-based IT consultancy firm. He also sits in the board of 14 technology companies globally. No wonder he is a staunch believer in the mantra that one must not allow one's circumstances to determine one's fortunes life.
"Here is one guy who has beaten the odds many times and has never allowed his circumstances to define him, despite being rich or poor," said Ms Leena Gehlot, who is in charge of learning at the Entrepreneurs Organisation's Kenya Board, and who had invited Sir Michael to speak to business leaders in Nairobi last Friday.
A day earlier, Sir Michael — he was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014 for his services to the digital economy — had been named one of the world's most influential data economy leaders.
This was the latest in a long string of accomplishments. Last year, he was inducted into the Power Brands Hall of Fame. In 2017, he had been named influencer of the decade and also one of the world's top 25 Power Individuals of Industry in the Smith & Williamson ranking.
The one question that Sir Michael often grapples with is: How do business leaders deal with change? He believes that enterprises that thrive in a rapidly changing world are defined by their adaptability.
He also argues that having a vision for your business is more important than a strategy, for it is easier for investors and employees to identify with a vision than a strategy. And that was the message he had brought to Nairobi when he met over 70 business leaders affiliated to the Entrepreneurs Organisation, Kenya Chapter.
Sir Michael does not just theorise about change and how it affects businesses. When he was CEO of Redbus in 2003, he was instrumental in leading merger talks with Telecity, a fierce competitor in the market for data centres until the merger that led to the two former rivals sharing a board and the same work space.
After months of negotiations and just when he was about to ink the deal, he realised that his Redbus management team was fearful of the impending merger. He could see clearly that they posed a threat to the success of the new company, which was poised to become a market leader.
The Redbus managers feared that they would lose their jobs after the merger. Sir Michael had to do something. He devised a secret plan and took them to Edinburgh, ostensibly for training. Once the training was over, he took them to the Deep Sea World.
""Listen up," I said, "you are all going to be swimming with sharks,"" he writes in his book, Forget Strategy. Get Results.
He could feel their fear because they were going to swim without protective gear. Despite their initial protests, into the aquarium they went in twos, counting on each other for support. By the time they emerged after facing the danger, they had learned to conquer their fear, including the fear of losing their jobs.
He says the experience taught the team that "it is easier to confront reality than to dwell in apprehension". This is a reality that is all too familiar to many entrepreneurs and their employees when they are facing uncertainty and disruption.
But Sir Michael has a word of advice for those who find themselves in that situation: "Good business, successful business, demands the ability to encounter and confront tough business issues and decisions".
During his speaking engagement in Nairobi, he said: "We never fear the past or present. We fear the future. If you can do something to affect the future, do it; but do not worry about it." And that is his advice to entrepreneurs and business leaders who fear change.
As a business leader, he said, he values an employee's ability to evolve more than the ability to get a job done. Adaptable employees drive business growth in times of change or turmoil. Again, he was not speaking from theory but from his own experiences.
"At the age of 21 I was appointed MD of a French tech company. I didn't speak French. But I knew I could learn it there," he says in his book.
He arrived in Paris a day before the interview, not knowing anyone or where he would find an apartment once he started working. He went on to spend 11 years in France, working with various businesses across Europe.
Taking such risks is one thing, but a true business leader, he says, is one who can impart that sense of fearlessness in his employees and impart his vision in them.
Like Ralph Nadar, the American author, Sir Michael believes that "the job of a leader today is not to create followers, it is to create more leaders."