Coca-Cola Beverages Africa Communications Director Susan Maingi Talks About The Impact Of Mentorship For Women In Leadership

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Susan Maingi is an accomplished executive with over 15 years of experience in various senior leadership positions of increasing responsibilities. She is currently the Public Affairs and Communications Director at Coca-Cola Beverages in Africa. Before this Susan was Director – Corporate Affairs, Communications & Sustainable Development Kenya at LafargeHolcim after working in the same organization as the HR and Organizational Director for Kenya and Uganda. She has extensive experience as an HR consultant before switching to public affairs and communication. She has worked at KPMG and TACK International in HR.

Tell us a little bit about yourself

I work at Coca-Cola.  My role is Public Affairs and Communication Director for the Kenya business. This involves supporting the business in the regulatory and policy space, driving the sustainability agenda as well as support in terms of external and internal communications agenda.

I’ve had an interesting, diverse career. My previous role was similar. I was in public affairs, communication and sustainability at LafargeHolcim, a cement manufacturer. I have also worked in HR, managing people in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda for LafargeHolcim.

I have also been an HR consultant for KPMG working with multiple diverse clients and in multiple countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

So the diversity of experiences and being able to work with blue-chip companies, has been a fantastic opportunity for me. There has been a lot of learning: from being able to work with diverse teams, working in cross-cultural environments and sectors like FMCG and manufacturing and also understanding different work cultures.

How did you get into this field? Is this what you had wanted to do as a child?

You can have a dream as a child but it does not have to be cast in stone. Some people actualize their dreams but others take a different path.

My first role was actually as an accountant. An opportunity came up after university and I took it. This is when I began crystallizing where my passion was, much later than traditionally people do.

Looking back, it was one of my best experiences. It helped me appreciate some elements of numbers and the value of numbers in a business. But it also helped me realize this was not my space and not what I was passionate about. I realized I liked working with people and I was thinking, ‘how can I grow people and develop them?’ That is how I ended up in HR.

It is important to note that I had great mentors. Mentors, who you can engage and sound out, who can give you ideas can be great for your career growth because they will guide you and also encourage you to take up opportunities.   This is how I have had a fantastic career.

In HR, I was able to engage in a broad range of best practices. I was passionate and I also got opportunities to grow in LafargeHolcim. Even before that, at KPMG, I was able to engage in a lot of organizational design and assignments. I honed my skills in talent acquisition, assessments, talent development and succession planning agenda, and employee engagement.

People perceive HR in one line, but it’s a business so you have to be looking at it from a business perspective, and a longer-term perspective. The experience I had in quite a diverse organization, cross country, the cultural cross country experience was, was fantastic.

When I was in HR, I was able to work with a business to build a significant pool of talent for the transformation of the business. I was part of the team which drove that transformation. Many of the talents, if I look and reflect now, are actually holding leadership positions in different organizations across Kenya and Africa. When I reflect back, I feel it was a really significant move.

Something I feel is important as part of your development process is to gain experience in another function, which will make you an all-rounder. You can be able to look at issues from a different perspective and be able to enrich your current skill set. That’s where the role within LafargeHolcim opened up doors for me. This is when I said let me take this, although it was a risk to change because I could have said that I am in HR, this is my comfort zone and my space. But I saw opportunities to say, how do I broaden my skills and competencies as well.

I took the role to build a team, and part of it was leading and managing the transformation of the environmental company which the company had in Mombasa. We had a timeframe to transform it into a business that is now breaking even and is more attractive.

I think that it is an important challenge because it creates and builds a different skill set as well. How do you manage an operation? How can you deep dive on P&L? How do you look at the business even from a strategic perspective, apart from, of course, all the regulatory issues that the role of Public Affairs needed to engage with engagement with government engagement on policy, specifically. So I believe that is where now I evolved.

An important thing for me and a lesson I would like to pass on is never fear to learn and relearn because that role was a role of learning and relearning. Never fear to be hungry to know more and don’t be afraid to say I don’t know. Don’t be afraid to pick up and learn a new skill, because it always makes you better.

My journey, I would say has not been a traditional one, but I feel like there is no one size fits all approach.

What challenges have you faced in your career? Are there any that have been specifically because you’re a woman?

There are challenges in leadership across the board, whether you’re male or female, I think there are some core challenges you always have in terms of leadership, which are common across.

For me, I look at it in terms of how can you meet the challenges? I look at it from an interesting concept, which is called the three C’s of leadership. How do you leverage the metrics related to character, which is an important part of leadership? How do you ensure that you have built on your competencies? How are you able to communicate, either your individual vision, or the vision for the company, or the vision to your teams that you work with? So those three C’s of leadership cuts across whether you’re male or female. I think as leaders, we need to really strive to achieve the 3 Cs at all times.

As a woman, when I reflect on a job that was a challenge, it was working for a cement manufacturer, in an organization, which traditionally was heavily 80%, 90% male. Then I was a female, in the balance of 20%. A significant number of women in that organization tended to do what will feel as traditionally women’s role, the PA role or the secretary.

I came in a leadership role. Sometimes it can be lonely in the sense of, you are having to break ground. You are held at a higher level of standard, and you also have to meet those standards. Part of my role was to build up the percentage of women in leadership in the business so I had to be outstanding myself.  How do you attract women to business leadership? What policies do you have to develop and put in place? What mindset do you have to change to be able to do that? These were questions we needed to answer.

That was a big challenge because it was a heavy manufacturing firm where leadership was typically male.  The perception was this is a difficult role for women to work with and can women really make it? I am happy to say that my role was breaking new ground. I was the first exco member in the business for Kenya and Uganda. I am happy that we were able to bring more diversity and have two other women join on to the exco as well. We were also able to build the leadership levels at what we call n minus one, the level below the exco. Many more women leaders also came into the talent pipeline because of diversity. But that was a significant challenge. I have to say that change didn’t happen overnight.

It required a lot of investment in building policies, investment in changing mindsets, investments in engaging from an external level because part of it was also working with the commercial team on how do we evolve the brand. People had to perceive the brand as a very productive, progressive and attractive company for women to join the brand. So that was one of the challenges I face in terms of leadership.

The second is, from an individual perspective,  how do you find your true voice? How do you ensure that you have an executive presence? How do you own that space? It’s not traditionally easy for women, we tend to either shy away because of fear or imposter syndrome, asking “should I be here?” How will I be able to voice my opinion without being perceived as being too aggressive? You know, the traditional thing of where you say something, you might be perceived as too aggressive, or you are put into a box if I can use that.

I think it is a challenge for women across the board. A challenge even for those who I speak with who are informal mentors, who are already doing great things.  They are chairing boards, but when we have joint conversations or webinars where they’re part of the coaching process, they still mention this as a challenge. They have broken the glass ceiling and they are operating at such a different level, but they still have those challenges they have to face.

So my advice is don’t be too hard on yourself. Take all the wins, put them in your bag, and then just keep learning and growing. Make sure in this growth, you are also bringing up people behind you and creating a good basket. There’s a basket of people with who you can grow with and support each other as well.

What is a fond memory you have from your career and journey to the top so far?

There are many fond memories.  There has been serendipity of where you meet certain people in your career process. Like when I was transitioning and working in a consultant role. Part of my role was doing talent acquisition and placing people. I had a very good engagement. Then two years later, those same people are the ones who recruited me.

There is an expression I found very powerful from a colleague. In your journey, don’t be like crabs in a bucket that are trying to get out of the bucket but they are pulling each other down. It really resonates with me that throughout your career journey, no matter what position you’re in, or what the stakes are, always engage and treat your colleagues or subordinates with respect. Years later, they could in a position through informal networks or formal networks to be the one to recommend you.

I think that’s something which I hold very dear because when I reflect on my career journey, a lot of it is due to that sort of meeting people and engaging, networking and being supportive in different ways. Support can mean either through advice, or mentorship, or execution of projects or assignments, but in such a way that you create an informal network of people who can endorse you in different ways. So for me, that is one of the powerful reflections, I always have.

Secondly, it’s also you find a lot of endorsers.  In Uganda, while I was at LafargeHolcim, there was a graduate training program. We developed the trainees and even tracked their progress after they left the organization. I kept those relationships and keep touching base, especially on LinkedIn by sending messages. One day, I saw one of my former colleagues posted that he was now promoted to an MD position. So I sent him a note congratulating him and telling him how happy I was for him. He wrote back thanking me for the mentorship I had given him. That even when he was struggling, I still supported him, even though I was 3 levels above him in leadership. It makes you realize that this is where your purpose is in leadership, to grow people, develop them, coach them, even as you are learning and growing as well.

Now that we’re talking about mentorship, what is the place of mentorship in growing employee’s careers? Is it important to have an internal mentorship process as well as having external mentors?

I think it’s very important. You need internal mentors within the organization but also external mentors. Because a mentor helps you set your goals and explore your career options even internally within the organization. They can mentor you when you’re having conversations and touching base with your mentor. They can help you identify resources, or how you manoeuvre certain minefields as well.

Then the external mentors are also important because they give you a different perspective from an external perspective and a different worldview. Because at times you may be looking at it very inwardly from one element, but they can give you another perspective from an outsider perspective. If you are at certain levels or roles, you will always want to benchmark, have a case study or identify potential opportunities. The external mentor can also give you a good perspective.

I believe you should have both. Also, mentors may not be the traditional career mentors, they could be mentoring you on family or spiritually. So external does not always necessarily mean it’s a career or goal-setting perspective, it could be on all these or it could be emotional support, as well. It could be role modelling.

So this is how we need to look at mentors. For you as an individual, I would say you need to determine what areas do you need support from mentors.  Be clear, and able to articulate what you want out of this specific mentor, and then be able to identify that support.

What would you say is your life’s philosophy?

Let me use two quotes that I use all the time. They capture for me, what I see and I reflect on as my philosophy. Maya Angelou said that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel. It captures my life philosophy.  How do I make people feel? Do I make people feel engaged and known? When people leave my presence, do they feel that they were seen as a person? Do they feel encouraged and that there was an impact from our meeting? I think that quote is a powerful thing to always reflect upon.  This became more powerful especially after a difficult 2020, when the things we thought were important were not when the world stopped. It helps you think through, what is it that people see as important?

The second one is an African proverb. I paraphrase “if you think you’re too small to make a difference, you haven’t spent the night with a mosquito.” I always reflect on it and repeat it to myself. You don’t have to be a big person to make a difference or have a lot of money. It’s important to note that small mosquito has an impact on the world, millions of people around the world have over the years died because of a mosquito. It is a small little insect, but it has such a huge impact.

I always reflect on that. Even if I do this small thing, how can it impact people? If I do it well, I can have a huge impact on people, on the organization and building leaders as well. I think those are my core principles.

So, the world is marking International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month. Does it hold any significance for you?

I think it’s important to raise the issues of women. When you reflect on the journey of women and even look at the statistics in the west, even on things like board diversity, there are very few countries meeting the targets of 50% women on boards. Even the US is lagging behind. Rwanda is leading the pack in terms of women diversity, in political spaces or board positions.

International Women’s Day is important because we have to still raise this important issue. But also in countries where we perceive that women are making progress, we recognize that they are still having challenges of how to break through the ceiling and how to really grow women’s leadership skills.

In Kenya, looking at the census, women were slightly over 50% of the population.  Women are the backbone of the economy, whether it is SMEs or smallholder farming, in agriculture and they bear the burden of care as well. It is still critical that we still raise the profile of women because this journey is still not done.  Women need to be heard and supported to be able to really achieve their full potential.

It is important to note, studies have been done by various groups including the Boston Consulting Group on diversity in boards The studies have shown that companies with diverse leadership boards with women in leadership, those companies are more profitable and sustainable than those without women. So we need to have more women at the table.

These are conversations we still need to have. We need to look and see what policies can be put in place to support that process. Because of different factors, whether it’s cultural factors or different barriers, we still need the support to be able to push the women agenda to the forefront.

How can corporates, make it easier for women to advance in the workplace and break the glass ceilings? How is Coca-Cola in particular, empowering its women in the workplace to get into management and have more women in the system?

One, I believe it’s important that we have policies in place. There are certain policies we need to put in place. Remember that some women have families so what are the policies we have on flexible working hours, working from home.

What are the even basic policies on maternity, childcare, flexi-time, working space which support the agenda to make sure women still remain in their career path?  That they don’t have to step out because of all these other issues, but that we have a supportive environment in place.

The second one is leadership from the top, where there’s common communication, a call to action, and walking the talk in terms of supporting women leaders. The leadership needs to be very clear that they support the women’s agenda.

Also when I talk about policies, I’m talking about structure. How you structure your talent management programs, because they need to support women. For instance, one of the issues I see is that with current career paths and roles, it may require people to be relocated to a different country. If you’re a male, it is straightforward, you just wake up and you go, and everything else works within that context. But when you are female, a lot of other things come into place. So how are the policies which we have in place support that common agenda? Because you find if a woman, for example, has a husband, the question is, you know, what will the husband do if you relocate? This is not the question that is asked when the husband relocates and the women have to join. So this is where the policy issue is, different organizations have been able to manage it well, but this is an issue that must be put on the table.

I’ve mentioned how we communicate as well. When we have webinars for women, we also need to invite men, so that they can understand what the issues are, the contexts for something they may not know about that you assume they know but they don’t always. So we need to have men also be part of these conversations.

I think Coca-Cola has been very, very clear in terms of how they want to develop the women agenda. This is reflected in the franchise, the bottling plants and in the leadership when you look at the leadership of women in different countries globally. Locally, you can see there is a real drive and an agenda to ensure women take leadership positions. That has been seen very clearly, even recently. The last VP for ECAF Coca-Cola was a woman, the current ECAF VP is also a woman. There is a clear agenda, and we can see it across the board.

Even at the bottlers, that is one of the key agenda’s is that they want to drive by 2030. They want 50% of women in leadership targets to be achieved. Here in the country, we are focusing on achieving 35% as a big step of women in leadership either at what they call the CMT level, that’s the exco level or the level below ensuring that we reach 35% between 2020 to 2023.

That means we will be investing in the talent pools and investing in the brand. We are looking at how to bring up women and looking at the women pool of talent internally. How do we create structured career plans for them and support them within the organization to be able to achieve that? We are having leadership coaching or coaching sessions. The leadership circles are important because that is where their informal coaching sessions are held.

It is important for me where I sit, and this is a continuing journey that may have bumps along the way. But as long as we ensure that we keep focusing on what is our endgame, I think that is the critical thing, and making sure the supporting structures are there.

This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge. How have you chosen to challenge yourself this year in your professional and personal life?

One way I’ve chosen my challenge is that I will be part of and am already part of broader networks where we have conversations on how to support women leaders both as individuals and leaders in their journey. There is one by Doctor Patricia Murugami.  We think through things like what do we want our legacy to be. For me, my challenge is to be part of those networks and be able to contribute to those conversations, but also be able to identify, support and mentor that group of women in every way available. That is key for me.

The other dare to challenge is about how can we find our true voice. You have to build and create your own space in terms of you being in the organization.

The third important challenge for me is, how can I be a supporter of the organization and within my team, in terms of accelerating women in leadership. How can I accelerate women in leadership all across the organization by being a spark or support?

In summary, owning my space and voice, and building up the voice of the network of other women and also accelerate women into leadership positions.

What have you learned in your journey that you think people should know especially women? Tips to get ahead in their careers and also just be able to be more effective leaders.

For me what I’ve learned is about the power of having mentors, people who you can lean into for different aspects of yourself because it’s important how they can support you to remain centred.

For women, the importance of raising up our hands. We are so busy ticking our competencies and skills to do a role or project so that if we are not 100% sure we have everything we don’t apply.  Well, men could only be able to do 20% but they will raise their hands up and they will run with the project. I think it’s important for women not to overthink it. If we have some of the skills and competencies, let’s not have the impostor syndrome and let’s just raise our hands. I mean if you have 60% or 50% raise your hand. Go in, you’ll be able to engage and build a pool of people who can support you.

So, it’s important I think to raise your hand up and also lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg said. Put your hand up, and don’t overthink things. Also, have very good mentors in different areas, intellectual, family, spiritual, career, work, each will have a clear role in keeping you centred.

An important thing for me is always building people because when you build (whether you’ve got a team of one or a team of hundred), they will also help you rise because you will be now engaging in other conversations, build your other skills, or other competencies. You will be able to breakthrough. So, build people because these people will also be your endorsers as you grow as well.

Do you have any quick tips for people on how to build other people? Some people are scared to build others because they think that if they do the other person will steal their job or opportunities. They see things as a competition instead of working as a team to become better.  So, what tips would you give to somebody who has not learnt how to be part of a team because we are taught to struggle for ourselves and get ahead.  

You have picked out a very valid point. You know that’s a typical thing. We have all gone through that because you will always have the fear that if this person does better than me, I will not have a job, or they will take my job so let me just keep them down. I think we’ve seen it and let’s be candid there’s one time or the other each of us has had that thought because of the fear element that I need to secure my space. It’s the exact instinct from you were a kid that you need to secure your cake and you need to secure the cake at all costs.

I have seen that approach in different organizations.  But what does it mean for you? It means that you do not have the opportunity to grow. It makes sense that one year that everything comes to your desk and you may not be able to go on leave because everyone requires you. Then when you are on leave or out of the office, there is a joy that people are calling you. You feel good that you are the one who is required or needed but what does it do? You find that maybe 2-3 years later when opportunities come through, you do not move whether it is laterally in your organization or outside the organization or grow vertically because people think that if you move away from that role, everything will collapse.

So, what happens, is that you remain in the role. You are not growing because you created that space and narrowed your perspective on how people perceive you. You know everything but you can’t move from that position. You restrict yourself because if there were some opportunities that you would have been eligible for, you can’t get because nobody wants to move you.

I think it’s important that we are conscious of that. A key thing for me is, what is on your vision board? Do you have a vision board of what you want to be, with your purpose, mission, and goals for where you want to be in the next three to five years?

If you have that clear vision then that means to achieve it, you need to do certain things. So, if you’re in a position of leadership and you have to deliver and execute certain things you have to ask what’s going to help me deliver. I need to have strong teams so that after XYZ number of years I’m able to move to the next position and leave a function. So, your vision board, which should be for all intents and purposes, your legacy, helps you plan.

It is important to think of your legacy as an individual, and how you will impact your organization. Your legacy at an organization can be to leave a thriving function or organization. If that’s on your vision board then you will have to invest in building a good team, transferring your knowledge skills which will help you move to the next level or different roles or different organisations or whatever you need to do.

What do you do for fun?

One of the important things we recognize is that we forget the value of having balance. You have to balance between work and your personal life because if in your personal life you have no joy or laughter, you finally bring it to the office.

For me, I have a circle of good friends and family with whom I can go and have a laugh. My friends are very diverse. There are friends who I can laugh with, talk about all manner of issues, and just do silly stuff. Which is fantastic because I am really able to get a very good perspective on different things.

Each different group does different things. I am a member of a book club with a group of friends, which gives me a different perspective. It also encourages my reading habit because I had realised that over the years my reading has gone down because as my social media engagement went up, I realized I become a lazy reader because I assumed, I was doing a lot of reading anyway.

Then there’s a group where I just engage. I am in this leadership group where we network, converse about leadership and influence and building a network of women. Then I have a group of friends where we do a lot of hiking outdoors at least once a month and just enjoy ourselves. So, it’s very diverse but I think that’s one of the important things and habits that I have.

I go for events, network, and build leadership circles so it’s a whole diverse group. Then being a member of a group of women corporate directors so there’s also some meetings we engage in where we are having those different conversations.

I like that diversity where I can get different experiences and learning journeys with these diverse groups.  But they’re all fun because of the people I engage with, one thing we recognize is that you need to laugh. Laughter is the best medicine.

How can women find balance as leaders so that they are not dropping the ball especially when it comes to taking care of themselves? 

There have been books that talk about balance, like Lean In. There are also opposing views, people have said the issue of balance is a pipe dream, that there will never be a balance. It challenges some of your paradigms because you always think there’s always some work-life balance. Now when I reflect and I look at different examples, you will never always have the balance. There will always be some element you may need to compromise as a woman but it’s how you minimize it. For example, how do you create that safety net around you which helps support some of those aspects?

I know some women working in top-notch roles in the UK, whose families are here.  They have had to set up incredibly good safety nets by having close family friends and domestic technicians who are part of the family, who make sure their homes are running like clockwork. They make sure they fly in regularly and they also make use of technology.

So, you will have to find a way of creating it, but I always believe there is no perfect science to get that work-life balance. The most important thing is what sort of supporting network you have because if you do not have that support network, that’s when you find a lot of challenges. There’s no one size fits all, I think everybody has to manage within their context. There is no perfect context but one thing I’ve seen is that if you create a good supportive network, it helps in managing those dynamics.

Everything is in context, look at the new VP of the US, Kamala Harris. She had built a supportive network that has supported her but even within that context, it is still quite difficult. You still have to manage certain elements which you cannot compromise on. It works, others have found the formula, others are still struggling. I think just be cognizant of what are the elements, what can you manage and what you can’t manage, then see how you can build that support network.

What books have influenced you greatly both in your personal and your professional life and if you had one book out of those books that you would tell people to read what would it be?

Jim Collins’s Good to Great is a classic. It is a powerful book that is timeless with great nuggets of wisdom about companies and organizations. There are nuggets in that book that are timeless.

Start With Why by Simon Sinek which gives you the context of your purpose. It gives you some thought processes into why and how you do some things. When you are creating your vision board you look at it, and it helps you think through issues.

Michelle Obama’s book Becoming. Her story is so authentic, and it makes me reflect on what authentic leadership is. Becoming gives you the context of a couple you thought had a fantastic life, but they struggled despite all the successes. You can see her struggles and how they able to come out of them. It shows that people you may think are making it big are also struggling and have challenges, but they are still able to make it to the other side. It gives you confidence that you will too.

Which book would you say is a must-read among the three? You also seem to like Lean In which you have mentioned before.

Read all 3, because each of them has got key nuggets that resonated with me and not a single one cuts across. I mean Lean In was also a great book. There are other books that are written extremely well and immensely powerful. I think those are the three I would pick for now based on my thought processes.

To read more about how Coca-Cola is supporting women read these article on How The Coca-Cola Company Enables Women Entrepreneurs and Coca-Cola surpasses 5by20 goal.

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