Rising to the Top: 7 Lessons from a Successful Black Woman Executive

Beatrice Nanyinza Mwila has had an elaborate career- from humble beginnings as personal secretary to the powerful position of Executive Director. This is an oddity for an African woman in a highly patriarchal Zambian society. I interviewed her to get an insight into what has contributed to her success and to appreciate what is holding other women of a similar background back. A woman who appears to have had the “Midas Touch” in every arena of corporate life, Beatrice summed up her learning and experience as follows:

Beatrice Nanyinza Mwila

Lesson 1- Self-Perception: Confidence and Determination

I am a continuous learner, a calculative risk-taker, highly driven, hardworking, focussed and confident. I have high achievement standards and I am in constant pursuit of excellence in any endeavour I undertake. Honesty, trustworthiness and reliability best describe what others see in me.

It Is important to have coherence in your own perception and those held by others. If the perception held by others does not fit your own it is imperative to work on altering their negative perceptions through the evidence of your own actions. For women, this means breaking the negative stereotypes held by men about what we can or cannot do in organisational work.

Of all the descriptors expressed- the two that stood out for Beatrice in having a direct impact on managerial and leadership success were the desire to continuously learn new things and confidence in her own abilities. With these two attributes, according to Beatrice, one makes themselves unforgettable and indispensable which are both important qualities for organisational success regardless of gender.

Lesson 2- Support Matters: How & Where You Start Determine Where You End Up

Beatrice reflected on her career over the 1990s (when she had her first managerial roles) and the 2000s when she got into senior management and directorship roles. Alongside these time periods, she considered her personal growth stages before marriage, whilst married with a young family and after the death of her husband.

Her early years and career trajectory were crucially influenced by her first work experience with what she described as a modern, forward thinking firm, Deloitte & Touche. This firm embraced young single women alongside men. The firm participated in the highly demanding audit sector and favoured young single women to take on roles with them as they had the capacity to dedicate time and effort to their work. This demographic was afforded more training and promotion opportunities. This encouraged the delay of marriage for women in this organisation, partly due to the sense of independence they enjoyed.

Deloitte & Touche senior management was majority white non-African male and their approach favoured women in comparison to organisations with black African males in senior positions. Parastatals, for example, were unfavourable for women’s growth. They followed the societal traditional norms of keeping women in the background. Young single women were not favoured for positions of responsibility whereas married women with grown families (and therefore less parental responsibility) enjoyed more senior positions.

Beatrice was fortunate that getting married and having a young family had no impact on management and leadership opportunities because she had already reached a senior position. Retrospectively if this were not the case, Beatrice still believes that her marriage and family would not have been a hindrance. Furthermore, she had the full support for her career from her husband throughout their marriage.

In 1999, Beatrice’s husband died. The death of her husband affected her career in that opportunities she desired were those that would allow her stay geographically close to her children. Every opportunity needed to be holistically considered i.e. its impact on career and family. She found herself evolving to become a risk minimiser, contrary to her go-getter risk seeking attitude when her husband was alive. She felt the load of greater responsibility following his death and her children became the focal point of her existence.

Beatrice developed a strong bond with her children and confided in them as stakeholders in her career decisions. This relationship is illustrated in her turning down of an international position with World Vision in the United States of America because the package offered did not include international schooling for her children. It is further illustrated in her continuous of taking risks, albeit more calculated, with her move from the Zambian Federation of Employers to the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia. This was a little-known Non-Governmental Organisation that was offering a better pay package. She went for this as any short-term dividends would sufficiently cater for her children until they completed schooling which was crucial given the uncertainty of the economy.

Beatrice characterised the 1990s work environments as highly male dominated. This resulted in little support for her first management role internally from colleagues but a lot of support externally from the organisation’s other stakeholders for her as a young female manager. The work environment of the 2000s still reflected male domination with some rare female leaders. What Beatrice experienced was that expectations were set very high for women in these token positions- it seemed they were being set up to fail. Over her 32-year career span in employment, Beatrice finds that Zambian society has not changed with respect to male domination in the workplace.

Men tend to support other men. What is an interesting observation is that women in positions of organisational leadership tend to enjoy support from non-African males but not necessarily from other women.

Overall, her early career moves were influenced initially by growth opportunities into management and leadership, then remuneration associated with positions held and later personal self-achievement. Her initial career experience influenced her overall trajectory. She was in a nurturing environment that allowed for progression and acceleration irrespective of gender. Even when she subsequently changed roles and industries, these moves were not barriers to harnessing the benefits of her initial grounding.

Lesson 3- Education: It is more than books and degrees, ambition matters

Beatrice makes a distinction between formal education which yields technical capabilities and skills and learned intuition which comes from experience. She found that both are invaluable and complementary in managerial and leadership success.

In reflecting on secondary school education, Beatrice highlighted the role of extracurricular activities she participated in such as The Junior Chambers (JCs) leadership program. The program held a nationwide competition when Beatrice was in the 10th Grade which tested scholarly aptitude in grammar and history, among others. She emerged top, resulting in appointment to the position of junior mayoress of Kitwe City. Essentially, this put her in the position of deputising the mayor with her own office and driver. This was her early exposure to development of leadership skills. In her role she had academic and political responsibilities. She had reporting lines to her and needed to engage with high level politicians. This role also presented her first out of country travel experience to Detroit City in Michigan of the United States of America as a sister city to Kitwe City.

Girl child education has been at the heart of activism in Zambia and Beatrice was fortunate to have the full support of her father for all education related activity including extracurricular and sport in an era when the girl child’s ambition was relegated to marriage and having children. Beatrice’s mother was a traditional woman who supported anything that her father supported. In this regard she had full parental support for her studies.

Her personal ambitions to have a career were inspired by interactions she had during her tenure as Junior Mayoress. She desired to be a general manager someday, to have total organisational control with subordinates serving underneath. She saw a business administration qualification as a pathway to this achievement as it covered all areas of organisational responsibility. Although she wanted to study business administration, her father wanted her to study law. No one in her family understood why she wanted to pursue business administration and she stood out as being a little weird.

She served as Junior Mayoress for 2 years and completed her 12th grade. It was a state requirement to perform national service and military training after completion of secondary school at the time. Acceptance into college or university was the only route to release from military training. Beatrice was keen to avoid this training and on receipt of her examination results she immediately applied to study the business administration course offered only at Diploma Level at Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka City. She received news that the intake had been deferred to the following year. She could not wait that long. She began seeking any opportunity to get her out of the military. She applied and got accepted into registered nursing. Her first official orientation was scheduled at a mortuary and the mere thought put her off. She quit immediately and had to return to national service but was determined not to.

She travelled to Lusaka, the capital city, from Kitwe without an accompanying adult with the hope of being accepted into a course at Evelyn Hone College in Lusaka. Only secretarial courses were available, and she registered for one, boldly demanding acceptance from the principal. He was amazed at her courage and referred her to the Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority. She was given a place at Luanshya Trades Training Institute. She completed the secretarial course but that was not her ambition.

She shortly secured employment with BP Zambia Limited where she developed an interest in accounting. She pursued an accounting education which took her to Deloitte & Touche. At Deloitte & Touche she began developing her academic qualifications. She took a break to start a family and continued after the birth of her second child. Success in accounts and business management courses built her confidence to pursue even further education in industrial relations, which was a trendy specialisation at the time. She eventually pursued her lifelong ambition to study business administration later in life.

Upon completion of the business administration program, her mentors in the audit sector urged her to pursue a chartered accounting qualification with the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants but she found business administration more intriguing with the multiple areas of interest. Business administration modelled who she became as a manager and leader in business organisation.

She pursued a higher degree to become more marketable. It was trendy for people to study further so employability now required it. Although attaining reasonable success with her initial degree, Beatrice was not comfortable. She wanted to be the best and operate at a higher level. She was further motivated by the higher reward prospects of having a higher degree.

On reflecting on the value of education for managerial and leadership success, Beatrice concluded that any form of education was valuable and could be applied in any context.

Formal education and experience are equally important. There is great complementarity when you have one and lack the other and your colleagues have the inverse.

Beatrice has always had long term education related goals written down and believes this has been an instrumental part of her overall career success.

Lesson 4- Career Choices: Keep it moving, onwards and forwards

To take up the first management opportunity that came along, Beatrice had to make an industry switch from audit to manufacturing. Later in her career, she would make several moves influenced by an array of reasons including:

-The job title move (she moved from Deloitte & Touche to Reckitt & Colman to acquire the title of manager).
-The career prospect move (she moved from Reckitt & Colman to PriceWaterhouseCoopers as it offered career prospects in business administration and finance).
-The diversity move (she moved from PriceWaterhouseCoopers to World Vision to have greater skills learning and enhancement in human resource management which she had developed an interest in).
-The network building move (she moved from World Vision to Zambia Federation of Employers to build her network of contacts in industrial relations).
-The feel-happy move (she moved from Zambia Federation of Employers to the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia because of a head hunt based on recommendation of project funder.)

At the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia, she was offered a substantial monetary reward and a boost in her self-esteem because of the donor’s recognition of her skills. Although this was a ‘feel-happy’ move it was also a risky move. This was an organisation in trouble with labour disputes, a high turnover and a bad reputation. She however recognised that this was an opportunity to play a transformative role. This move resulted in her being the longest serving (5 years) Human Resources Leader in the organisation who went on to quit on their own. The tenure of her predecessors was typically only 6–12 months. She was appointed to be part of the senior management team and a strategic partner who engaged with the board and was able to influence the employment practices of the organisation. Her impact on the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia was significant, so much so that the firm is now considered an employer of choice.

It is worthwhile noting that all the career choices made were related to the desire for career progression. However, she emphasised that she would never accept lower pay let alone a financial match for the promise of career growth. Pay and conditions of service differences between men and women in earlier roles influenced her moves. In Beatrice’s experience, marital status had an impact on entitlements e.g. married women could not receive housing, education and health allowances for their children as most organisations had policies stating that children ought to be claimed under the father’s employment. Finding an employer who did not follow this policy approach was essential to Beatrice. Financial progression has been an important influence in her career choices, more so after death of husband. Non-financial status symbols like job titles had greater relevance before his death.

To illustrate the last point, Beatrice accepted rank lowering from director to assistant director when she moved from the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia to Finance Bank. There was nothing ‘assistant’ about the role as the responsibility and reward were at director level. Taking on the ‘assistant’ title was a strategic approach because the organisation had been through a difficult phase and fallen out of favour with the national government. The bank required reorganisation and sought an organisational development expert. Beatrice was recommended for the role through at least 3 independent channels from Deloitte & Touche (as a finance and risk advisor to Finance Bank), from the Chamber of Commerce (as a national database holder of information around skilled professionals in industry) and the Ministry of Finance (based on prior engagements with Beatrice in her prior employment roles). She was initially sceptical about the job offer (she was being approached directly in a head hunt) and reluctant to meet the organisation’s representatives until she received a personal call from the bank’s chairman. She utilised her network contacts from the Central Bank for advice on the position. She was advised not to take up a full director position given the troubled state of the organisation. If the organisation had further trouble, they advised that she may have been spared the cull.

What is evident regarding Beatrice’s career choices is that stagnation was never an option. There has been constant evaluation of current state versus desired state and the flexibility to venture into unfamiliar territory to grow. All this has been fuelled by a sustained high ambition which it seems many women fall short of.

Lesson 5- Networks

Beatrice identified different types of networks that she has i.e. interaction with peers and superiors within the organisation, interactions outside the organisation with various stakeholders, interactions with government and interactions with international NGOs. All the networks serve for her as a source of advice and guidance.

Not every relationship ought to be a game changer- network connections may be your peers who may be of help in day-to-day work within your own office space.

On reflecting on how these networks came about, she emphasised that network building must be a personal initiative. For her, it means being intentional about forming and nurturing essential relationships. She summed up these key activities in strategic step-by-step formula.

Forming Tactics:
1. Identify key spaces e.g. workshops, professional attachments, conferences
2. Identify key people e.g. gatekeepers, solution providers
3. Make the first move i.e. you should not be timid, expose yourself and follow up on any introductions made
4. Establish your motives for the network relationship i.e. have a target and be strategic

Nurturing Tactics:
1. Follow up- be considerate about the life of a busy executive and this means not following up on a Monday or Friday
2. Push for a further follow-up date- get your target to commit to providing feedback
3. Allow 3 working days before you call again- demonstrate a balance of patience and focussed ambition
4. Rapport established- On completion of earlier steps, good rapport should have been established.

When reflecting on implementing these steps in practice, she shared her experience in building networks when she was doing finance work. She learned that that it was essential to know the key players in the field at the revenue authority and ministry of finance. To get to these leaders her first step was to acquaint herself with the Zambia Institute of Chartered Accountants through the workshops they hosted which in turn brought together these key people.

In Beatrice’s experience, gender plays a part in how networks are formed and how effective those networks are in contributing to your managerial and leadership success. She is a part of more male dominated networks because of the senior leadership positions she has held where most of her counterparts are men. She also is a part of a few female dominated networks and so was able to draw comparison on how these different networks function and contribute to individual success. Women seek her out to join their networks because of her connections.

She found that in network discussions, women tend to move from social concerns to business concerns whereas men tend to be more objective, commencing with business first and then social matters.

She further found that the multiple roles women hold in family and societal life make meeting up a challenge and so their networks tend to lose steam. Marital obligations often are a constraint on network activity.

The biggest obstacle with women’s networks she found was the tendency to hoard information. Even when the networks exist to facilitate information exchange, it seems to be that women are unwilling to share information.

To illustrate this point, she shared her experience in being subcontracted by a male firm outside her network to carry out consulting work. The client who put out the tender recognised that Beatrice had the appropriate skills and advised the top bidders to subcontract her. Among the top bidders was someone belonging to a women’s network with Beatrice. This individual did not share the information with Beatrice. It seems to Beatrice that women consider their talented peers a threat whereas men consider them a complement. This is a contradicting position because women’s networks purport to exist to support other women. Men in a network on the other hand tend to help each other out.

Nonetheless, she argued that women’s networks could still be effective when the groups are kept small. She has found success in interactions with 3 likeminded individuals in a woman-centred network.

Within the workplace, Beatrice said women need to take precaution in forming networks.

Men sometimes misconstrue or take advantage of a woman pursuing a network relationship. However, men are viable network links as they are more aggressive in getting what they want.

The key to precaution is gaining what Beatrice terms ‘professional respect’. She cautioned against mixing professionalism with social life.

One needs to be wary of social contexts for networking. The behaviours of people change in different contexts. Women can take control of the networking situation by being the ones to extend the social invitation whilst maintaining professional parameters. Social relationships developed beyond the professional may be damaging later so it is important to establish clear boundaries as you network. Men in a superior position tend to be the ones to cross the line. They start off with compliments which may escalate to sexual harassment if not addressed early. Women need to have integrity. It is important not to show one’s vulnerability.

Lesson 6- Tactics for Achievement: No predetermined tactics, No mantras, Adapt

The achievements Beatrice has had are down to being able to achieve things on her own and through people. On her own, she has focussed on her own skills development relevant to her roles and continues to read widely.
Through others, she has focussed on developing teams. This has been accomplished through attempting to establish every individual’s agenda and working through unifying goals. In instances where individuals that are in her team are not pulling their weight, Beatrice has been known to take ownership of these roles for the sake of task completion. However, she holds those not pulling their weight to account after the task is taken care of. This may mean disciplinary action or a need to coach them in their areas of weakness.
Beatrice believes in a situational approach to her management and leadership style. As a result, she does not rely on any set philosophical approaches for achievement.

Lesson 7- Beware of the Queen Bees

For Beatrice, Queen bees tend to build a fortress around themselves, they consult little and this may lead to their downfall. Where there are women with the ‘queen bee’ syndrome, Beatrice has witnessed unhealthy rivalry and intense enmity. She recalls one organisation where all but 1 of 6 of the executive directors at the organisation where women and they were all targeting the Managing Director position. Whenever they were asked to act in the managing director role, they tended to backstab each other so that whoever was acting would not be asked to do so again. They were constantly trying to bring down each other. Beatrice finds that women are resentful of other women’s success.

A Successful Career Summarised: Work Experience of Beatrice Nanyinza Mwila

ATLAS MARA BANK ZAMBIA LIMITED (formerly Finance Bank Plc & Banc ABC)- Country Head Procurement & Corporate Real Estate Services

16 December 2016–18 June 2018

FINANCE BANK PLC- Assistant Director Human Resources, Training Capital Development & Facilities

13 March 2012–16 December 2016

CENTRE FOR INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEACH IN ZAMBIA (CIRDZ)- Director — Human Resources

1 October 2007 to 6 March 2012

ZAMBIA FEDERATION OF EMPLOYERS- Executive Director

February 2007 to 30 September 2007

WORLD VISION ZAMBIA- Director Human Resource and Administration with various Acting appointments as National Director and Southern Sub Regional Human Resource Director

18 March 2002–26 January 2007

PRICEWATERHOUSECOOPERS (FORMERLY PRICE WATERHOUSE)- Finance and Administration Manager, Administration Manager and Business Liaison and Development Coordinator

1994–2002

RECKITT AND COLMAN- Southern Area Region Manager

1992–1994

DELOITTE & TOUCHE (FORMERLY DELOITTE HASKINS & SELLS)- Administrative Assistant

1986–1992

BP ZAMBIA LIMITED (FORMERLY SHELL & BP ZAMBIA)- Personal Secretary

1981–1986

Dr Natasha Katuta Mwila is an academic in the management sciences. She is a senior lecturer at Leicester Castle Business School, De Montfort University