Johnbull Okpara, chief accounting officer and controller at Citigroup, recalls a defining moment from earlier in his thirty-year-career. He was working at American Express and doing pretty well—or so he thought.
The CEO had organized a lunch meeting for high-potential employees, and he asked Okpara what feedback he was getting from his own team. “I told him that I had not received any constructive feedback, and that everybody said I was doing a great job,” Okpara recalls. “On top of that, I had recently been promoted. He said, ‘Listen, if people are telling you that you are perfect, then they are lying to you, because if you were, you should be the CEO. Even beyond the CEO, perhaps retired already.’”
Feedback, Okpara says, is a gift. “I encourage young folks to seek feedback, take it on board, and leverage and work on it. I call it ‘feed-forward,’ which translates to, ‘What am I going to do next time?’ To me, that is much more important than ‘What did I do wrong the last time?’”
Born and raised in Nigeria, Okpara is the middle child of nine. This, he says with a laugh, might account for his competitiveness. He credits his parents for his work ethic and intellectual curiosity. His father was a professional photographer. His mother, a lifelong chef, ran the most popular restaurant in town. “She was up at 5:00 a.m. and went to bed past midnight,” he says.