WISCAR Interview with Thisday Newspapers
You are unarguably one of Nigeria’s most successful career women. Could you give us an insight into your story and some of the challenges you had to transcend.
Thank you for that wonderful compliment. I, in return, am unarguably flattered. That is not how I see myself though. I see myself as a hard-working and very fortunate career woman, wife and mother. I also see myself as someone who has had to work extremely hard and has had to make sacrifices. I have learnt through experience that nothing good ever comes without sacrifice, without determination, without difficult choices, without making mistakes and learning from them and without hard work.
I have had my share of tough calls. I have had to balance the nurture of a young growing family with the needs of a nascent career. I once had to go away for a whole year to refresh my education and reinforce my career prospects; sometimes the choices were gut wrenching but I have been lucky to have a loving and supportive family and friends. My husband and family have stepped in whenever I have had challenges and my children have been wonderful through it all.
At the end of the day, it is only in interviews on occasions such as this that the true story can be told. An apparently glittering and effortless career is in reality like a duck in a pond. On the surface, the duck serenely glides along seemingly without a care in the world. Beneath the surface, you see two webbed feet paddling away frantically.
What expertise/capacity did you develop along the way to achieve your goals and benchmarks?
The expertise and competences I had to develop along the way can be broadly classified into two categories:
- The technical or professional in law at first, then in banking, change management, HR, strategy, corporate affairs and social responsibility, general management and leadership skills. I believe that competency in each of your fields of interest is the base line. Basic capacity and competence to do the job you have been hired to do is the minimum requirement for any person who wishes to work in a profession or vocation or pursue a career. I always strive to be better today than I was yesterday.
- The second category is your personal development as a skillful manager of people and situations and the experience you gather on the job along the way which is priceless. I believe that without the capacity to identify goals, to plan and faithfully execute actions nobody can achieve any goals. I have never simply strived to achieve the targets set for me by my supervisors. Every year I set higher goals and benchmarks for my self which I strive to achieve. I have also been fortunate in the course of my career to have good supervisors who guided me and enabled me to excel. Along the way I have developed the capacity to think in analytical and structured ways, using well-proven and powerful frameworks, tools or paradigms to add value in the changing situations we all face in our work-lives.
So that, in essence, is my answer, I have had to learn to know myself, to learn to plan, to learn to effectively manage my time and focus on what is important and to clinically execute my plans and continuously improve to achieve my goals. I am simultaneously my own sternest critic and possibly faithful supporter.
You currently run a programme called WISCAR (Women In Successful Careers), for upcoming career females. What got you interested in this?
WISCAR is a structured mentoring platform that empowers entry/mid-career professional women with the necessary skills and capacity that enables them understand the corporate terrain, avoid identifiable pitfalls and navigate their careers successfully.
The concept of WISCAR was born out of a desire to solve a problem I identified in my interactions with numerous young women at various stages of their professional careers.
These encounters and discussions made it clear that most young career women in Africa do not have access to proper guidance or support at critical points in their professional careers. This gap affected their professional growth and development and often resulted in women with considerable potential dropping out of careers.
The difficult question, however, was how to fill the gap in a systematic and practical way? It is in trying to address this question that the idea of setting up WISCAR as a rich and intensive mentoring platform emerged. I love Oprah Winfrey’s definition of a mentor. She said:
“A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. A mentor is someone who allows you to know that no matter how dark the night, in the morning joy will come. A mentor is someone who allows you to see the higher part of yourself when sometimes it becomes hidden to your own view“.
That desire to help others excel is what inspired me and by an interesting turn of events, in 2008, I was presented the opportunity to achieve that desire. The desire was to develop a framework for enhancing the professional prospects of young women starting to climb the career ladder.
The fortuitous event that helped me to achieve my desire was in 2006 when I became one of the pioneer set of the Aspen Leadership Institute, West Africa (ALIWA) fellows. One of the requirements of the ALIWA Fellowship Programme was that each participant had to conceive of and develop a project that would contribute to the good society. My initiative was WISCAR and the idea has blossomed since then with people of like minds on the WISCAR Advisory Board and WISCAR patrons.
If I may ask, why the particular focus on women as opposed to a gender mix?
As young women climb up the corporate ladder, they find it more and more difficult to overcome the tangible and intangible obstacles in their way. Without any guidance and support they become confused, begin to feel isolated and suffer a loss of confidence in their ability to meet those challenges successfully. This either causes them to give up completely or just struggle along sub-optimally in relation to their true ability and potential.
Access to strategic advice at those difficult moments could make a difference in maximizing their unrealized potential and helping them progress their careers up the ladder on merit.
There is also a wider angle to the problem. In a developing country like Nigeria, the larger society itself is struggling to cope with enormous socio-economic challenges, which affect women more severely and reduce their ability to enjoy equal opportunities for advancement. These include low levels of primary school enrolment, low levels of economic empowerment and low levels of political representation. These factors exacerbate the gender problem and underscore the need for practical and effective solutions to be found.
Against such a background, it is clear that providing strategic career advice and support to women would be a way of contributing to national development. I therefore chose to focus on women because I believe women are the solution to our socio–economic challenges. The evidence abounds that a diverse workforce is more productive. “Women are agents of development and investing in women and girls has a multiplier effect on productivity, efficiency and sustained economic growth” – MDG summit 2010. I believe that the only way for society to grow is for as many of us as are able to look for solutions to the foremost challenges that the country is grappling with. Eventually, most of the challenges will be addressed and our great country will, at last, fulfill its true potential.
How do you pick your mentees and fellow mentors?
The Win with WISCAR mentoring program is conducted as a merit based open application. On a yearly basis, applicants indicate their interest by writing short essays. After the deadline, all applications are reviewed by a selection panel. Chosen applicants (mentees) are then invited to a focus group session and interviewed by the panel.
We select our mentors by formally writing successful women in different fields of industry who have indicated interest or believe in the WISCAR ideal. Our mentors are a carefully selected group of experienced, versatile, accomplished, successful and dedicated women with a special gift of giving who volunteer their time and resources to WISCAR. We essentially provide them with a platform and structure to serve as mentors and develop the next generation of women leaders. We are extremely grateful to them.
What are some of the challenges you encounter while trying to groom these ladies?
Paradoxically, our challenges have a lot more to do with the success of the programme than with any limitations. I am proud to say that the impact of the WISCAR programme has been to engender in the mentees a thirst for greater knowledge, an awakening of imagination and creative energy and a craving for growth and success. This has created the need for constant improvement of the programme.
Our biggest challenge is sustainable funding and some technical skills because we offer the program free to the mentees. We are focused on building capacity and capability to our target market. We desire to help and support those in need of the support. We rely on donors and friends of WISCAR to sustain the programme. I would strongly urge anyone with whom this noble quest resonates to please go to our website www.wiscar.ng and support a truly worth cause in any way they can.
Would you say you have over the years learnt anything from interacting with your mentees?
WISCAR is now in its seventh year and every year for the last six years, I have watched with joy and excitement 30 or so young women inducted to a program that began as a small idea in my mind and resulted in the establishment of a growing and scintillating network of competent, ambitious and talented young women. Indeed, I have enjoyed the privilege of watching these young career women blossom like caterpillars into beautiful, empowered and confident butterflies! Watching such transformations certainly leaves one with a few life lessons. My horizons have been broadened and my perspectives enriched. While counselling younger and often less experienced mentees, one is constantly reminded of how unpredictable and sometimes problematic life’s journey can be; nonetheless it remains susceptible to the solutions offered by the unending flow of brilliant ideas, thinking, views and bravado from these young vibrant minds. They keep me young and open to new ideas.
They are a growing and scintillating network of competent, ambitious, innovative and talented young women with the ability to self-organize, execute and indeed change the world. This is evident from the book: Briefcases and Blenders – Every Woman’s Guide to Success in Career and Life that was put together and published in just 3 months by the 2014 WISCAR mentees as their way of giving back to WISCAR. The book was presented at the WISCAR annual graduation ceremony in December 2014. Copies of the book which is a must read for both men and women are now even available on Jumia and Konga.
From the progress of all past 98 WISCAR mentees, I know the power of the program. I have learnt that it has the potential to transform careers and lives of our mentees. Indeed, the program has been designed to boost the confidence of mentees in their ability and capacity and to give them the toolkit to make rapid progress in their chosen professions and careers. This has taught me that nothing is impossible and with dedication and application to a cause, we human beings have almost limitless ability to develop and grow and to improve our lives. That has given me great hope for our ability, through WISCAR and other such ventures, to develop women to build a better nation.
What in your opinion are the gender stereotypes hampering the growth of career women? And how can they be best combated?
I believe that the most corrosive assumption that hampers women in their career progression is that the only worthy goal of a woman is to get married, bear children and nurture a family. This assumption is often seen in the negative sense that those aspirations are insurmountable obstacles to women achieving their career aspirations.
From the point of employment, through to selecting postings, determining promotions and identifying top executive material, these assumptions work against women. What is interesting is that most men also want to get, married, raise children and nurture a family. However, with men, it is a positive element for their career progression. When properly examined, we will see that the assumption that the wish of a woman to raise a family works against career progression is merely an application of that age-old stereotype that a woman’s place is in the home. It is merely one more excuse to reinforce that old stereotype. When a man mentions that he has a young family, the conclusion most often drawn is that he needs his career in order to look after them. However, with a woman, the assumption is that she ought to sit at home. We can only change these stereotypes by sensitizing society of their existence and prevalence. We must also let society know of the debilitating effects of ruined careers and limited human capital development that is wrought by these stereotypes.
There’s a prevailing school of thought that states that successful career women do not empower other women. Would you discount this as a myth? And what has WISCAR done to help change this impression?
This is merely one more manifestation of the under-dog myth. By this I mean the myth that members of disadvantaged groups always work against each other. There is no doubt that the response to limited resources is usually a visceral fight for those scarce resources. That fight is more evident in those who have less to share. The truth is that a majority of women fall into the category of the economically disadvantaged. They therefore have to fight harder to secure fewer returns. Nevertheless, I believe that women are by nature less combative and more cooperative than men. Indeed it is because a combative nature is unusual in women that any woman who exhibits that nature stands out and draws comment. ‘She is an amazon, a fighter. She is too aggressive’ they say. The WIN with WISCAR Mentoring programme has continued to equip several professional women by deploying competency based training programmes to build skills and capabilities to develop, support and promote the emergence of top female talent. Also highlighting the importance of mentoring and encouraging women and organizations to mentor the next generation. WISCAR by its very nature and existence (women mentoring other women) continues every day to try to dispel that myth.
Asides your mentoring programme, what else have you done to help open the door for young and upcoming career women? And how best do you think other successful career women can follow suit?
Beyond the WISCAR mentees, WISCAR has helped to develop thousands of young and aspiring women through its high-quality training programmes, seminars and events from the WISCAR School of Excellence carefully designed to enhance strong leadership skills, build individual capacity for personal mastery and overall workplace effectiveness. Furthermore as a career woman and the HR Executive of MTN Nigeria, I am proud to say that MTN is a very gender friendly organisation and non-discriminatory employer with policies, practices and processes that provide an equal opportunity for all employees to excel. It is an IIP (Investor in People) organisation and is the only company in Nigeria that has been so far recognized with the IIP standard accreditation. MTN was also the winner of the 2014 CIPM HR best practice Award in the Telecoms category. I keep an open door policy and make myself available to provide guidance, support and encouragement to all staff.
I see the development of women as a journey that will span many years and several generations. It is a journey that will have many twists and turns. The WISCAR communities have on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis taken steps to try and remove the pitfalls and barriers to progress. Through speeches from high-profile keynote speakers, panelists and successful career women at our events, our commitment, reach-out programmes, mentorship and encouragement. Ultimately, any woman who is shown that a goal is achievable is half way to achieving that goal. I therefore believe that my greater role is as a cheerleader for up and coming career women and I am committed to always playing that role.
What are some key attributes in women, which are necessary for career growth?
Every woman who wants to grow and succeed must understand the value of personal development, must nurture relationships, have emotional intelligence, be focused, committed, loyal, have a volunteering spirit, be open to new ideas, be prepared to make certain sacrifices and seize opportunities, be ready to work hard and make a unique contribution.
They should also have the following attributes:
Empathy – The ability to put yourself in the place of other people. This attribute allows women to draft win-win solutions to sensitive negotiations and business relationships.
- Nurturing Attitude – This allows women to escape from the stock winner-take-all-approach of many men involved in negotiations/business deals. Women are often able to craft inclusive solutions that will ensure the survival of all parties.
- Multi-tasking – for most women, the ability to multi task is a survival strategy. Without that ability most women could not get through the day. When deployed into professional settings, it enhances their ordinary abilities and helps them to thrive in the accomplishment of tasks and achievement of goals
- Undiluted Focus – As compared to men, women often have a sharper and more clearly defined focus about their goals. This means that they are able to get going that much faster and to stay the course without being distracted.
- Reduced penchant to develop a cult of personality – what hampers many very successful business leaders is their tendency to develop a cult of personality. The hubris engendered by that often results in their downfall. Women are much less likely to get caught up in that trap of self-pride.
Spending time with you one can sense a deep desire to make a positive impact in the society, is this mainly in the line of duty or out of self-expression?
I believe that when critically examined none of us have achieved whatever successes we have purely through our own industry, intellect or know-how. We have been lucky to get to where we are. We have all at some point or the other stood on the shoulders of giants or courageous pioneers who preceded us. It is these giants who opened the paths we have trodden to get to where we are. We have no right to break the chain. Instead we have a duty to carry others on our shoulders. Nothing gives me more joy than to see others succeed. It is our duty to provide that extra link so that others may more easily and more assuredly traverse the route through which we have come hence the importance of mentoring. Indeed it is the only way to secure the future and leave a legacy’. That is why I see it as a non-negotiable and non-avoidable duty to always try to make a positive impact in society and, in Ghandi’s famous words to “be the change you wish to see in the world“.
So where do you see WISCAR in the next 10 years?
In 10 years’ time I see WISCAR as an institution noted for enabling and enhancing top professional women in the country to acquire the right goals, the correct ethics and the necessary motivation to develop our dear country. I see a WISCAR as a voice for change, for women in successful careers and a catalyst for mentorship. I see a storied WISCAR that is celebrated by its alumni and viewed by young bright and accomplished women and employers as a mark of quality and excellence. I see a WISCAR sustaining its standards, building coalitions and partnering to support more women. I see a WISCAR that has continued to develop its curriculum and that has directly or indirectly impacted the lives of tens of thousands of women in achieving their professional aspirations to be successful and is a household name and brand.
Your career as a corporate professional and a mentor definitely takes you away from home a lot. How do you strike a balance between time for work and time for your family?
I count myself as a very lucky woman. If you had asked me this question even 2 years ago, I would have recounted tales of juggling of time and schedules. That is because; at that time I still had a child in university. I am proud to say that all my children have left school. I thank God that I was able to manage things through those years. It was like a juggling act and I definitely occasionally dropped balls, thankfully none that I could not recover from. Now, my children are young career people and my main responsibility to them is mentorship and advice. My husband has always been very understanding and we both try to match our schedules to ensure we are able to spend quality time together as often as possible. But going back to the difficult days when we had growing children, my husband and I acted as a team for the care and nurture of our children. That way, we were never both absent. At least, one of us was always available to them, to instill discipline and the right values, to do homework, to give advice and to reassure them.
What’s a typical day like in the life of Amina Oyagbola?
Like everyone else in a leadership position there aren’t enough hours in a 24 hour day! There are competing demands on my time. I strive to strike the balance between my professional and personal life and my passion, WISCAR.
With MTN as the leading telecommunications provider in Nigeria and critical agent for economic development that plans effectively and clinically executes its plans to serve its customers, you can well imagine that my schedule is extremely hectic and would be impossible without the support of family and friends, colleagues at work and the WISCAR team.
A part of my day is spent on strategic forward planning and the other part on operational execution of plans to achieve results. How I plan my day is dependent of my workflow. Some things are within my control and purview while others are driven by business requirements and external needs and demands. Typically, there is a cycle and schedule of meetings, teleconferences, events and engagements internally and outside the organisation that require my attention. Essentially, Stephen Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people is my guide.
Any word of advice for entry-level career women?
Work hard, be true to yourself and always endeavour to help others whether at work, in your community or in the society at large.