Investing in women’s leadership makes good business sense

An incident in my earlier career.

I had just been appointed Office Manager in a Danish company in Uganda, after being with the company for about a year. My initial role had been to train the company’s customers on the use of a computerized accounting package the company sold. I had a Degree in Education specializing in Economics and Business Studies (including accounting) and this had given me a vantage position in onboarding our customers in the use of the business solution. Besides day to day running the office, my role as Office Manager also involved -among other things- overseeing the work of a team of software developers and IT professionals, whose tasks I had no clue about, because I did not have an IT background.

The IT division of the business was struggling, and we were just not making the numbers. Early in my assignment I realized that if I did not quickly bridge the knowledge gap to understand what the programmers (or brogrammers as we tend to call them) were doing, I would fail in my role. The MD of the company, a Danish national, was very demanding but also believed in me. I booked an appointment one afternoon to request that the company sponsored my going back to school for a Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Science. Everyone was surprised when he said YES to my request. I later learnt this had never happened before; that the company would sponsor an employee going back to school. I also learnt later that NO ONE had ever asked before! And to think that the boss did not even hesitate to say yes. It’s like he was ready to say yes and was just waiting for someone to ask.

I graduated a year later from Makerere University, having gained an understanding of all facets of IT. I took an active role in engaging the programmers, as now I understood their jargon and what programming was all about. During my usual visit to their desks, when I heard we had a “bug in the code”, I would respond with “can you run the debugger we have a look?”. I could see the surprise on their faces, when they understood I had a clue about programming! I sat around when they were going through endless lines of code, looking like I really understood what they were doing. I had been thrust into the deep world of the IT field as a novice, but I had learnt to stay afloat by gaining an understanding of the nuances and I began to engage with the employees constructively. I was no longer a clueless observer standing at the touch lines but could now empathize, listen with understanding and be a valuable part of the solution delivery. One time I developed a report from scratch (with the help of a wizard) and the customer paid for it!

The results? Let’s just say a transformed organization. Before long, we were delivering to customers on time, customers were happier, and the company’s fortune was turning around! To cut the long story short, when the MD left to go back to head office, I was asked to become the Country Manager. The results spoke for themselves. When you have teams that are diverse (gender, age, social backgrounds, religious beliefs, cultures etc.), productivity is enhanced because everyone brings a different perspective to problem solving and, in the end, you achieve more. For my company then, the result was more satisfied customers and more new-business!

Other quick lessons I learnt here are the following. Always REQUEST; the worst that can happen is to get a no for an answer. Take advantage of opportunities, those you create for yourself and others created from elsewhere. When an opportunity passes you by, you don’t lose it; it will simply find the next person who is prepared for it.

Author: Wambui Mbesa