Letting the next woman through the door
By Catherine Kuria
It is only possible for people to clearly see what your vision is if you have crystallized it to yourself in the first place. One person knows this only too well and that is Nkirote Mworia Njiru. She is the Group Secretary for UAP-Old Mutual Group.
One who will occasionally take to the dance floor and shake a leg, she was attracted to the company seeing as it was growing its foot print in East Africa and beyond. Biashara Leo sat her down to get a glimpse of her plans for her career and what she feels about the lot of fellow women in the corporate world.
Going down memory lane
She started her career right after university. Most of her work revolves around litigating on commercial and insurance contracts. She is also versed in family law involving adoption and marital property issues and has worked for Kencel now Airtel. It was very involving since they were just starting out. They had to start from scratch including obtaining a legal license. Her stint there for three years gave her the much needed experience.
After that, she went into the public sector; first at the Retirement Benefits Authority before moving to the Insurance Regulatory Authority. Both of these were in the financial services space. So, ten years later, she is a corporation secretary. What she likes most about UAP is that even as it grows into the region, it is still essentially a Kenyan firm that is also branching out to share its experience and services with fellow Africans.
“I saw it as a rather ambitious financial company which had different lines of business and I liked that about it,” she shares. Hardly did she know that within a couple of days after joining UAP, the due diligence of its acquisition by Old Mutual would come in. This meant a lot of work with the various legal issues around it having to be sorted out. “So now a few years down the road, we are one group with Old Mutual and Faulu Microfinance Bank and the journey still continues.”
She starts by saying that it is critical for every person who aspires to be a leader to deeply understand their purpose in the market. “I find that when you understand what you are in the market place to do, it will find a way to come out. You will have many opportunities not only to use your purpose to impact others, but also to grow a pipeline of leaders of the next generation, you are able to give back and grow a pipeline of leaders which I think is critical,” she observes.
The second lesson is that one needs to understand that in leadership, it’s really not about you. It’s about the people you are working with, the customers that you are serving, it’s about your country, your continent and your world. It’s about thinking about the impact you’ll leave on younger generations when you move on to a different phase in life.
With that thought in mind, it’s easy to be open to learning new things and developing yourself when new opportunities come knocking. “When I left the private sector, a lot of people were not in support of me going to work for the government but it was about being open to new experiences in life that helps you grow into a better person,” she emphasizes.
She was at the Kenya High School during the time when Mrs. Wanjohi was the principal. “During that time, career guidance was not a top priority. It was our favourite subjects that pointed us towards our future career paths,” she recalls. From Kenya High School, she studied communications while waiting to join university. This showed her that how one communicates may be more important than what he or she communicates. She then joined the University of Nairobi for a degree in law. She made a decision to go for masters in commercial and tax law at the University of Cape Town which she believes were one of “the best years of (her) life.”
When she came back and started working, she realized that learning keeps her on her toes. She has gone back to school several other times. “I have undertaken a higher national diploma in human resource management because I needed to understand people better and it has helped me in terms of labor regulations and how to manage people,” she says. “I also went back to school and undertook an executive masters in business administration since I was in the financial world and needed to understand a bit about numbers,” she discloses.
How has it shaped me?
She thinks it has been extremely helpful to attend different learning institutions in different times and different countries. One thing that happens is that one also builds a network of friends who come in handy later, as one progresses in his or her career. “To be a great leader, you cannot be isolated from people,” she affirms.
Hurdles along the way
“Yes, challenges are there and surely there is nobody who has never encountered them,” she quips. One hurdle has been having her profession taken seriously in the work place (where most of her colleagues are professionals in finance and insurance). “There is a tendency of sometimes looking at the legal function as being auxiliary, though it is very critical in the overall growth of the business,” she affirms.
“Although people talk about life-work balance, personally I don’t belong to that school of thought,” she says. “I once read a book by Sharon Sandburg that says there is work, there is life and there is no balance,” she adds.
She is one of the founders of The Women on Boards Network in Kenya where they are working to prepare a pipeline of women from all sectors in this country.
She’s grateful she took that step. Since 2014, they have interacted with almost 1000 women to impact some skills and knowledge and also give them an opportunity to network as they prepare to be board members or as they continue their journey as board members. “It has not been an easy journey, but with every challenge there are opportunities and also sacrifices,” she observes.
Nkirote and her team of 14 are the governance advisors of the various companies under the UAP-Old Mutual Group. The task also includes organizing board meetings, supporting the board and shareholders and also keeping corporate files up to date. They also ensure that the companies comply with rules and regulations that are applicable in the laws of the jurisdictions in which they operate.
They also provide legal advisory services. This helps to protect the group in all the lines of business it is engaged in as well as managing litigations and other disputes. External affairs also fall within her docket, besides managing mergers, acquisition and corporate financing.
What is mentorship?
The lady is an expert in her area of specialization. “Mentorship as a word is often just thrown around,” she says. “We really need proper understanding of what it means – it must involve opening doors both for yourself and those you intend to help and the person being mentored also needs the right attitude for the process to work,” she affirms.
According to her, women in leadership should understand the power of branding and networking. “Women are natural at the latter but they need to understand its power and what that can yield,” she emphasizes.
Advice to women
Nkirote advises women to be authentic and to aim for excellence in their field of expertise. In addition, they should try to make people feel good at themselves when you meet them. “People will remember you more because of what you make them feel, as opposed to what you say,” she observes.
In addition, they should build a critical support system around themselves. “An understanding husband, supportive parent and a devoted house manager have all supported in my career journey.”
Married to a loving husband and blessed with two daughters, Nkirote enjoys spending time with her family and loves her chapatis besides walking and a good drive in her SUV.
“This life is not a practice, but it’s the real deal – bring the real you to the table at any point. Live a life worth remembering and just be authentic,” she ends wisely.