Being the CEO of a leading membership organization may not be an easy task, but a visionary and deeply religious lady has more than what it takes to do so
By George Gichuki
There is no country that can take off economically without a very strong manufacturing sector. Kenya is not an exception. In the country’s economic blueprint (Vision 2030), manufacturing is one of the sectors (under the economic pillar) that have been identified as key drivers of the blueprint’s goals. In Kenya, the manufacturing sector contributes about 10% of our Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It forms part of the Big 4 agenda that President Uhuru Kenyatta has identified as priority areas for development in the next five years. “The manufacturing sector creates very many jobs and provides linkages to all areas of our economy,” says Phylis Wakiaga, the chief executive officer (CEO) of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM).Established in 1959 as a membership organization, KAM supports manufacturers and value addition industries in the country. Leading such an organization is therefore a great and challenging opportunity. To say the least, it requires somebody with a great mind, tenacious ideas and big dreams. Phylis Wakiaga has more than that.
Phylis is a lawyer by profession. She graduated with a law degree from the University of Nairobi and a diploma in the same field from the Kenya School of Law. After successfully completing her legal studies, she worked as a legal assistant in a private law firm for two years before being admitted to the bar. Upon becoming an advocate of the high court of Kenya, she joined Kenya Airways where she worked in the claims department. She later rose to become the manager in the government and industry affairs docket of Kenya Airways.
After a seven years stint at Kenya Airways, she joined KAM in 2013 as the head of policy research and advocacy. In April 2015, she was appointed as the CEO designate. “The tenure of the then CEO of KAM (Betty Maina) was coming to an end and since she had identified me as her successor, I became the CEO designate,” says Phylis.
Lessons from her journey
The first lesson is that mentorship is critical for growth. “ I have worked closely with all the managers and individuals who have been leaders in my sphere of influence and this has assisted me to grow fast in my career, “ she avers. “ When I joined KAM for instance, I worked under the leadership of Betty Maina who really inspired me to achieve my full potential,” she adds.
Secondly, she has also learnt team work is vital. “Both at Kenya Airways and KAM, I have worked with leaders who are able to harness and work harmoniously with their respective teams,” she says. “In the process, I have established that leadership is about how you influence others to follow your vision,” she adds.
The third lesson she has learnt is the importance of creating time for personal development. Even after studying for a degree in law, a higher diploma in human resource management and an MBA, when she joined KAM, Phylis realized that she was dealing a lot with trade policies, locally and internationally. She therefore did a masters degree in international trade and international law. “Pursuing further studies requires a lot of effort and sacrifice but it is worth it,” she avers.
Top in the list of the attributes that have contributed to her successful career journey is her God fearing nature. “I have a very close relationship with God who has been very faithful in fulfilling his purpose in my life,” she shares. “ Every single decision I make is based on the direction and guidance from God – I read my Bible frequently, do my devotion, besides meditating and listening to God’s still voice and that has enabled me to be where I am today,” she emphasizes.
Over fifty percent of Kenya’s population is formed by women. “When Barrack Obama – the former USA president – visited our country, he observed that it is not possible for a team to win when half of its members are not playing, in a strong message that emphasized on the need to empower women and grant them equal opportunities with men,” she says. “If the women with the skills, capacity and capabilities are not being fully engaged by the society, then as a country, we shall be leaving out half of our population from contributing to our economic growth,” she adds.
Even though our constitution is very clear about the two thirds gender rule, this has not been fully implemented. Failure to implement this rule has disadvantaged women. “Having adequate representation of women in the boards of various organizations as well as the political arena will go a long way in strengthening our economy and democracy,” Phylis observes.
By the same token, some cultural practices in certain communities hinder the growth of women as leaders at an early age. Some of these practices include: failure to educate girls and forcing them to get married at an early age as well as female genital mutilation. Against this background, Phylis is emphatic that we should have adequate female representation in all spheres of life in order to fully take advantage of their potential.
As the CEO of KAM, Phylis runs the secretariat on behalf of the board. “We have an 18 member board that meets every two months and it defines the direction the association should take,” she says. “Currently, we are implementing a business development plan for five years where we have identified five priorities: to grow the industrial sector in order to contribute 15% of the GDP, to grow our exports up to 33%, to contribute to skill based job development agenda, to recruit and retain a good membership base and to increase operational excellence of the secretariat and the membership,” she says.
On an annual basis, KAM develops a work plan which the secretariat uses in order to achieve the ambitions of the board. At the corporate level, her role is to lead and direct the organization through the heads of units and utilize the teams in order to achieve the big ambitions of the organization. “This cannot be done by an individual, it requires serious team effort,” she avers. In that regard, the association has assembled a highly talented and skilled team which receives a lot of guidance and mentorship from the board. The board comprises eighteen members who are mostly highly experienced business owners in diverse fields.
“Being a membership organization, we must constantly monitor their heartbeat in order to identify their needs and prioritize them accordingly,” she avers. The membership is divided into fourteen sectors. Before making any proposal to the government, the secretariat gathers views from all these sectors in order to arrive at a common ground. Job creation (especially for the youth) is among the top most items in KAM’s agenda.
Best foot forward
In as much as policies advocating for women to have powerful positions have been formulated, Phylis advises them to pursue higher education and get professional qualifications so that they can seize opportunities that may come their way. “Women must put their best foot forward even as they leverage on the opportunities created for them by favourable policies and provisions in the constitution,” she quips.