Susan Ngula: To succeed in life speak up and be self-aware

Wednesday March 18 2020
Susan Ngula Pic

Susan Ngula is the president of International Coaching Federation-Kenya. PHOTO | COURTESY


Susan Ngula, the president, International Coaching Federation, Kenya Chapter, is our personality of the week.

What has your career journey been like?

In a nutshell, I have been a banker for over two decades and then shifted to coaching. I founded Kindle Coaching and Consultancy Ltd. My career in banking started when I was in the university. I went to the University of Nairobi for my undergraduate in Bachelor of Commerce, Marketing option, and then later did a Masters in International Business Administration (MIBA) with a concentration in Strategic Management at USIU-A.

By the time I graduated, I had worked with at least two banks. After I graduated, I got employed by Commercial Bank of Africa. I joined them as a management trainee. One truly learns banking at the teller line -- you learn how to be very detail-conscious, customer-oriented and risk-consciousness. I did not learn these skills at the university, I honed them at the teller level. I thereafter became a customer service supervisor at the head office, rose to branch manager then senior service delivery manager, running all the branches. I worked with CBA for 13 years, after which Stanbic came calling. I joined them as the head of operations. While at Stanbic, I went for an international assignment in South Africa for two years. I worked at a centralised processing centre in Pretoria then took up the role of Head of Enablement Supporting in about 11 countries in South and Central regions. I experienced coaching to become a better manager -- to have a coaching mindset, which I apply in the conversations I have with my team. Experiencing coaching and seeing the benefits helped me and made me interested in coaching as an area that I wanted to explore. I signed up for a coaching course once I came back from South Africa. I joined International Coaching Federation three years ago as the secretary to the board. And rose to be president. 

Do you have a mentor/coach?

Let me first of all make a distinction between the two. A coach is someone who takes you through a process where you create awareness and are able to make conscious decisions to reach your highest potential. A coach need not be a subject matter expert on the subject. A coach does not tell you what to do, he draws the answers from you. A mentor can share from their own experiences. I have had both. I have a mentor who is much younger than me. The way she does things helps me appreciate the world we live in better. She is the kind of mentor who will help me de-clutter and learn how to use digital apps. She makes me aware of things that I would probably not be aware of because of the space that I am in life or the people that I am engaging in. I have a mentor who is older and is running a coaching school. From her, I am able to learn more about the new path I have chosen -- coaching.

What does it take to build a career such as yours?

Your mindset. The attitude you adopt and the mindset you have can either make or break you. As someone who has been involved in recruitment, I find that we may hire for skills, but if somebody comes with an incorrect attitude, it becomes very difficult for them to succeed. But people with lower qualification but who are teachable will excel. You also have to put in the hard work. For many young people, there is a drive to achieve too quickly without putting in the hours and learning at every stage. Creativity, problem-solving and the ability to handle complex situations are critical. You also need to be self-aware: appreciate your strengths, areas of development and circumstances you work best in. Having that self-awareness ensures that you play to your strengths. Sometimes we concentrate too much on our weak points when really, with your strengths you can achieve more, and for your area of weakness, someone who is strong in that area can complement you.

Did you want to be a banker growing up?

No, I wanted to be a lawyer. Actually, I wanted to be a judge but I had been advised that to be a judge, I would start by being a lawyer. I thought that there was a lot of evil in the world. And there are people who I really wanted to put behind bars. But when it came to choosing university courses, I put Bcom before law and I ended up in banking and loved it! So the shift was accidental.

Where do you mentor?

I am on the team of mentors for SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities), a Kibera-based NGO that provides education to girls. I also mentor through a church programme where they put people who have just completed high school through some training. At the work place, women wanted to learn about my journey as a leader and woman executive, and how I manages to have a family and a career. I am also an adjunct executive mentor with Strathmore Business School.

Why is it important to have a mentor?

During your career, you will almost always need three types of people. A mentor, a coach and a sponsor. All these things could be in the same person or in different people. You will learn from the experiences of your mentor, a coach will make you understand your potential -- help you see and prospect your future. A sponsor is that person who will represent your interests and talk about your qualities. A sponsor has access to forums where you are not invited and they advocate for you. When you are just starting out, you may not know who your sponsor is, so you will work more closely with mentors and coaches and as your career gets clearer, you can begin looking for a sponsor relationship. For a sponsor to bet on you, you must prove yourself. So do not expect to get a sponsor on day one of work. You have to build mileage and credibility so that you also give the sponsor something tangible to work with.

What was your greatest challenge as a young professional?

I wanted to have consensus in decisions. I also did not want to have difficult conversations. Even if I had 80 per cent support, I would be more focused on getting the remaining 20 per cent. I learned that leadership is not a popularity contest. I expected that my hard work was all I needed and that opportunities would come because of it. Some did, some did not. One of my bosses made me aware that I have to express what I really want. There are some moves that I would have made a lot earlier in my career if I had verbalised my aspirations and used my networks more.

If I met 10 of your undergrad friends today, what do you think they will remember you most for?

Hardworking. I would go out but I was not the all night partying sort of person so they’d say I was controlled, friendly -- I can get along with everybody, so to speak. I was helpful because sometimes you are the one who needs the help.