Passionate about her professional and career growth, hard working executive rises through the ranks of a leading bank to become its managing director, while still participating actively in charity work
By George Gichuki
Ascending to the leadership of a giant organization like Postbank is no mean achievement. It requires a lot of patience, hard work and discipline among other character traits. To say the least, Ms. Anne Karanja, the managing director of Postbank is an embodiment of these traits. “There is no silver bullet to success,” Ms. Karanja says. “I am passionate about whatever I set out to do and I always strive for excellence,” she adds. True to those words, Ms. Karanja was the first student at Githunguri Girls High School in Murang’a County to score a first division (equivalent of grade A) in her ordinary level examination. After that, she proceeded to high school, where she excelled in her advanced level examination and joined the University of Nairobi for her undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
After graduating from the university, she started her career as an auditor in the office of the Controller and Auditor General where she worked for seven and a half years. In 1989, she joined Postbank at a junior level as an auditor. “My work as an auditor stood out and I was therefore promoted twice within the same year which was very unusual in the organization,” she avers. “Since then, I have risen through the ranks by being passionate and excelling in my duties,” she adds.
Qualities of a good and effective corporate leader
Many employees aspire to become leaders of their respective organizations but only a few manage to do so. Once at the helm, a leader is expected to have some qualities in order to be effective. “A good leader should be able to steer his or her team to success by being visionary and setting the strategic direction for the organization,” advises Ms. Karanja. “ Every team member is very critical in the delivery of the vision and if one of them loses direction as a result of feeling like he or she has been left out, the team develops a weak link,” she emphasizes. Moreover according to her, the leader should build strong, competent and motivated teams, which should be empowered to deliver on the corporate objectives. Of vital importance, the leader should be passionate about excellence, be an effective communicator, besides building strong governance structures that facilitate orderly operations through effective checks and balances.
Ms. Karanja further says that leaders should be proactive and prioritize on what will speed up the attainment of the organization’s goals. In the same regard, leaders should embrace integrity as well as respect to staff, customers and all the stakeholders, besides being innovative while defining the strategic goals of their organizations. “ Lastly, effective leaders must walk the talk and keep learning because we are living in a very dynamic world and one should keep abreast of all the rapid changes,” she emphasizes.
Despite facing numerous challenges (most of them emanating from cultural stereo types), many women (both locally and internationally) have broken the proverbial glass ceiling. These focused and great fighters are today occupying top positions in blue chip companies. Nevertheless, very few of these heroines were born with golden spoons in their mouths and they have fought hard to land in these prestigious positions by excelling in their studies and their careers. “Women should demonstrate that they have what it takes to lead and therefore aggressively compete for top positions,” advises Ms. Karanja. “Internationally, we have had very successful women leaders including heads of state (currently they are twenty) and more in the corporate world,” she adds. In Africa, the prime minister of Namibia is a woman. Malawi and Liberia have also been headed by women.
“I am happy to note that in Kenya, women have broken the glass ceiling and the number in political and other leadership positions is growing – for the first time in the history of the country, we have three women governors and three senators,” she further says. Additionally, the number of women in parliament (members of parliament and women representatives) is growing and currently it stands at seventy. According to Ms. Karanja, this is a clear demonstration that the Kenyan women are taking leadership seriously as opposed to being satisfied with less demanding positions.
It has been noted that in boardroom and other high profile meetings, women perform very well because of their sobriety and level headed nature. Ms. Karanja affirms that. “Most women are endowed with empathy, compassion, good communication skills and they are able to discern the bigger picture of a situation without losing the small (albeit important) details,” she says. “In the same breath, women are good organizers, decision makers and they have a reputation of being very loyal,” she adds. Given all these positive attributes, she challenges women not to shy away from aspiring for leadership positions.
Her role as the MD of Postbank
“My role as the managing director is providing the strategic direction of Postbank in close consultation with the board of directors,” says Ms. Karanja. “I propagate the vision of the bank to all the staff members and customers,” she adds.
She also builds teams that can deliver the bank’s mandate, keeps them motivated and empowered by effectively communicating with them. In as much as she is the vision carrier and works closely with the board of directors, she tries as much as possible to involve other managers and staff members while making key decisions so that they can own and understand them.
It is also her duty to build a positive culture within the organization, in order to achieve exemplary results. “To build a positive culture as the leader, I am clear in my strategic direction, I also endeavour to be innovative and put my financial priorities right, while communicating the values of the organization clearly to all the members of my staff, so that we can work as a team,” she emphasizes. “I have a duty to create an enabling environment that facilitates the staff members to deliver on their individual and collective goals while always striving to exceed the customers’ expectations,” she adds.
“If there are no challenges in life, it would be very dull,” quips Ms. Karanja. One of the major challenges she has faced as the managing director of Postbank is the rapid technological changes in banking. “Technology has greatly disrupted the traditional banking model (brick and mortar) in the country,” she says. “Nevertheless, Postbank has been a pacesetter in this space and it has pioneered many innovations (including paperless banking in Kenya) in order to keep abreast with the rapid technological changes in the market,” she adds. According to her, it is important for the leaders in the banking industry to have their ears on the ground and continuously acquire more knowledge in order to align their strategies with the technological changes.
Secondly, she says that as the vision carriers, leaders have to build teams that can rally behind them because they are bound to have a few distracters along the way. “I am fortunate because majority of my team members understand the bank’s vision and strategic direction and they follow that religiously,” she observes.
Thirdly, according to her, since customer preferences are ever changing, leaders should devise ways gathering market intelligence about what their customers want. This will help them in adjusting their product offerings accordingly. “ In the last five to ten years, the banking model in the country has changed a lot and most customers now prefer using technology to carry out transactions as opposed to flocking banking halls – Postbank is not an exception,” observes Ms. Karanja.
Against this background, the bank is continuously investing in research and development, so as to understand customers’ preferences in its bid to develop technological solutions that will enable it to meet and exceed their expectations.
Growing Postbank to the next level
To start with, Ms. Karanja as the leader puts a lot of effort in building strong teams in order to deliver Postbank’s vision. “ Postbank is renowned for training its teams very well and indeed, it has produced leaders who have held ( or are currently holding) key dockets in the public and private sectors including : Margaret Kibogy, the managing director of the Kenya Dairy Board (she was a member of Postbank’s management team), Willy Bett ( former cabinet secretary of agriculture and currently Kenya’s ambassador to India ( he served as Postbank’s marketing manager), Sarah Serem, the former chairman of the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (served as the bank’s director of human resources) while Dr. Haron Mwangi, the former chief executive officer of the Media Council of Kenya once served as Postbank’s public relations manager,” observes Ms. Karanja. “We have a very strong culture of instilling discipline and commitment among our staff members and we encourage them to learn continuously so as to enhance their performance,” she adds.
The organization has a good system for measuring the performance of its staff and assisting them to overcome their weak areas so that they can deliver exemplary results.
Postbank has also built strong partnerships with players from both the private and public sectors. Most importantly, the bank gives back to the community through savings and financial education, besides reaching out to the unbanked and under banked Kenyans by offering them innovative products and services. Recently, Postbank got an award as the best bank in the development of child and youth friendly banking products in Kenya. It has also been endorsed by the prestigious Child and Youth Finance International as a bank that complies with the child and youth friendly banking principles.
Advice to women aspiring for corporate leadership
Ms. Karanja advises women who are aspiring to be leaders in the corporate world to build confidence through continuous learning and believing in themselves. In addition, she encourages them to engage in community service at their personal levels. “When you serve humankind and put a smile on someone’s face, you are on the road to success,” she avers.
To exemplify that she walks her talk, Ms. Karanja serves as board member of many high schools in her home county – Murang’a. She is also sits in the education advisory committee of the Murang’a Catholic diocese.
Moreover, she is the patron of an investment club comprising over one hundred young people whom she educates about the values of saving and investing in order to be financially empowered as opposed to engaging in crime and other illegal activities.
Once they save, these young people are able to establish enterprises which support their livelihoods.
Postbank’s mandate is to mobilize savings among Kenyans, which are in turn used for the country’s socio-economic development. To that end, it has developed an array of innovative products. Its flagship product is Bidii Savings account which targets Kenyans from all walks of life. Another product is Save As You Earn (SAYE), a contractual savings account that is popular with civil servants, teachers as well as the armed forces.
Most importantly, Postbank has developed a product for women which is known as Waridi Savings Account. All its products are exempted from taxes as a way of motivating the customers to save diligently.
In the same breath, the bank is engaged in international money transfer services and it has partnered with three organizations to that end – Western Union, Money Gram and Ria.
The road ahead
According to the managing director, the road ahead for Postbank is bright. One way of strengthening this organization (with a rich brand heritage since it was established in 1910) is by initiating more public and private sector partnerships. Recently, the bank signed a partnership with the National Youth Service (NYS) for the payment of the latter’s service men and women allowances.
The bank shall also continue investing in technology in order to deliver effective services to its customers. In that regard, it shall continue researching and rolling out products that meet its customers’ needs, while recruiting and retaining highly talented employees. “All these initiatives shall be underpinned by our mandate of inculcating a savings culture among Kenyans,” she emphasizes.
Besides commercial banks, there are very many financial intermediaries in the country including microfinance banks and institutions, savings and credit co-operatives (Saccos) as well as insurance companies. Nevertheless according to Ms. Karanja, even as the financial sector evolves, commercial banks will still continue playing a pivotal role in its deepening. “Banks should continuously innovate and align their business models to changes in technology and customer preferences,” the highly experienced banker concludes.