12. Racheal Wanjiku Kigame: Leading a non-profit in Kenya

Racheal Wanjiku Kigame talks to Sue Stockdale about leadership and how working as Country Program Director for Help a Child Africa in Kenya enables her to make a difference and help the most vulnerable in society, having grown up in a slum herself. Find out more about Help a Child.

Racheal Wanjiku Kigame Transcription

Sue: [00:00:00] Hello everyone. Sue Stockdale here from access to inspiration. Today I’m discussing the topic of leadership with Racheal Wanjiku Kigame, Country Program director of help a child in Nairobi, Kenya. As a child,  Racheal grew up in a slum and knows first hand the challenges that most vulnerable people in society can face. Now, with a master’s degree in public health, years of leadership experience working in non government organizations and a keen interest in all leadership related topics. Racheal knows just how important education is in helping you get out of poverty. Her favorite leadership lesson is learn to have a seat at the table. And if you don’t, you need to bring your own chair. So I’m curious to find out what about [00:01:00] that and why she believes that good leadership can make such a positive impact within organizations operating in Kenya. So welcome to the podcast, Racheal Kigame.

Racheal: [00:01:09] Thank you, Sue. Nice to talk to you.

Sue: [00:01:12] So, Racheal, as a leader, tell us about your leadership journey. Where did your career start?

Racheal: [00:01:17] Actually Sue. I come from Kenya in Africa and I grew up in a polygamous family and my dad passed when I was pretty young, seven years old, so I grew up in a slum and in abject poverty. So growing in poverty, I only had one dream. I wanted to get a good education, a good job in order to escape poverty, and having gone through university. I would say that straight from university, my first role that I got was to mandate something bigger than what I thought I could. So it was during the post-election violence in Kenya. I got this opportunity to lead an entire operation in our [00:02:00] region, and this was my first opportunity in face with leadership.

I didn’t know I was a leader, but given an opportunity that was larger than life. Ignited a passion for leadership in me. So from then on, I learned my first most important lesson that strong leaders see potential in people and they help them to unlock it. And my first boss, saw a leader in me. While I didn’t know I was a leader, and from then only Sue I’ve never looked back. I’ve been in the leadership journey since then.

Sue: [00:02:31] Wow. What a start to life, Racheal. I love the way you just say, and then I went to university as if it just happens to everybody.

Racheal: [00:02:39] No, doesn’t cos’ as I said, I grew up in poverty, so I got a lot of help to just get through education because my mom could not afford it and that’s why I just stayed. My escape from poverty and a good education really turned out for me.

Sue: [00:02:53] So Racheal as country director for help a child, what does that role involve?

Racheal: [00:02:58] As a country program director [00:03:00] for help a child, I am providing leadership for the country office in Kenya to be able to address the root causes of poverty that will keep children in prohibition for my team. So we do this by strengthening all the communities to be able to make sure children in their communities can have a good future.

So it’s mostly strategic leadership and all around support for the team and the partners we are working with to give children a promising future.

Sue: [00:03:29] What are some of the challenges you face as a leader?

Racheal: [00:03:32] The challenges are many Sue, but I would say the main ones. Number one is we find that funding is very limited and it means as organizations, you must be agile in diversifying our sources of income.

So the needs are very many, but the funding is limited. So for us, we are always looking out for strategic partners to help us address the root causes of poverty in transforming communities for the long term. The other challenges you find that with donor [00:04:00] funding, we have a huge corruption burden or mismanagement of resources or lack of integrity at implementation level. So you really want to work with partners who are transparent and who are accountable and who can actually give you value for money. So there are a lot of integrity issues around the aid funding that’s provided by donors. And the place that’s transparency and accountability actually plays to securing those kinds of funding.

And the other one I would say mostly is about leadership and governance. Sue you’d agree with me, everything rises and falls on leadership. So when the leadership and governance is compromised, then everything downwards will also be compromised. So I feel like we are struggling with a lot of leadership challenges.  I know, yes, money’s limited, but even when it’s more than it needs to be well managed. I would say those are the main challenges I’m facing as a leader.

Sue: [00:04:56] In terms of you having been inspired and somebody saw the talent in [00:05:00] you as a young leader who helped you to flourish, what are some of the things that you’ve learned about leadership on your journey so far?

Racheal: [00:05:09] For me, my first important lesson was there’s no excuse in life. Because a great future does not depend on a great past. And having gone through poverty, it made me experience poverty firsthand, and it’s now helps me in my current role as the country program director for Help a Child to be able to address the root causes of poverty.

So in Help a Child, we implement sustainable initiatives so that we can improve the social and economic opportunities for the most vulnerable. So ideally, I would say my past has a huge role to play because actually right now every experience I’m using is what I went through, and I can actually have the hands on knowledge and skills to actually help people to also come out of poverty.

My second important lesson that I’ve learned is a seat at the table. So [00:06:00] if you don’t have a seat at the table, you need to bring your own chair. And I was really blessed Sue, to have very good line managers in my career. As I started off. My line managers who allowed me to bring my own seat and my own seat was the unique attribute.  That only Racheal could meet that need. So continuously identifying a need and meeting that need helped me to always have a seat at the table from a very young age in my career. So straight from university, I got a leadership position, a position that I was not even qualified to have. I self taughted myself, but my boss believed that I could actually do it and he really supported me.

So for me, I also learned, we just sit at the table, that when you’re promoted beyond your capacity, you grab the opportunity and you learn on the job. And that’s what I did with the help of my former boss. Looking at my journey, the ability for us to actually solve concrete problems that help us to have a consistent seat at the table. And even when that seat is not there, there’s no [00:07:00] one who’s impeding you from bringing your own seat.

Another valuable lesson for me in that leadership journey is that you must know your values and you must uphold them. So what I do is I communicate with the people I work with, what I can and cannot do, and for example, integrity. For me, it’s such a strong. Its a virtue I really uphold and hold dear. And for me it’s really important for people to know that I cannot compromise. So that from the word go, when they see me compromising, they will hold me accountable. So actually communicating your values and making people hold you accountable, it actually makes it very easy.

The other important lesson that I will maybe work to finalize this is about legacy. So Sue, what I normally do, anytime I’m appointed for the first time in any office, I identify and I groom a successor. And because I know when they give power away. And when I mentor my team and when they grow more leaders, it actually helps me now to focus on big agendas. So for me, I’m really happy when I see [00:08:00] people who can do and excel in what I’m doing so that they can quickly replace me. Because what happens when your goal is actually your legacy? And for me, I believe your legacy is every life you have actually touched. Sue those would be some of the most important leadership lessons for me.

Sue: [00:08:17] Well, there’s a lot of things for us to take from what you’re saying there, Racheal, and it seems to me that in order to have reflected upon those leadership lessons, leadership isn’t just about doing. It’s also about thinking. Would you agree with that?

Racheal: [00:08:35] Very true. You can’t separate them.

Sue: [00:08:37] And yet we all live in a very busy world and we’re expected to deliver results, which often then has a focus on doing and less so on thinking. So how do you go about reflecting so that you can continue to improve your performance as a leader?

Racheal: [00:08:56] Sue  what I actually do through, I believe that [00:09:00] learning or education, it’s not just book knowledge. For me, I believe the security guard, the gardener, the flowers, the butterflies, they all have valuable lessons that they can actually teach us.

So for me, how I continue learning and to keep learning is I invite correction on the spot. Cause one, I know I’m not perfect. So I let my team know. They can actually give me feedback because there’s recall bias. There’s also the perception when did, this happen. So actually giving them the green light to give me correction on the spot is a huge learning opportunity for me.

And also for me I also look at every experience and every person, regardless of their place in society or in their structure of the organization as a valuable lesson. if only you give them the opportunity. To teach you something. And of course, learning from experience, we are not perfect. We make mistakes. So I look back into what I would have done and what I would have done differently. And they also [00:10:00] help to actually improve.

But the one thing that has really helped me, Sue, is mentors. I feel mentors and coaches are actually a shortcut to life in this sense. I do not have to repeat a mistake that someone who had gone ahead of me has already done. So approaching mentors with major decisions  in my life and my career from the very onset of my career has helped me to actually make sure that I’m applying the best lessons and keep challenging myself. So my mentors are ahead of me they keep challenging me and they guide me in terms of being things differently.

Sue: [00:10:32] My sense is, Racheal, that you have a belief that there’s infinite amount of support out there that can help you to achieve your goal, that you could learn from. From nature, from other people, from other organizations in all different places. What could you encourage other leaders to do to be able to tap into a wider set of resources? Because my observation is leaders often don’t look elsewhere for help.

Racheal: [00:10:58] When you look at the [00:11:00] experiences of other people, when you look at something that is time tested, it saves you both time and money to reinvent the wheel. So for me, if it’s working and they’re good lessons, I can apply. I really want to learn from the best. So I would really encourage leaders, if you have an organizational challenge, benchmark and see which other organizations actually have succeeded in doing something that you’re interested in.

Of course to mention is there’s no one size fits all approach. Every leader must look at their context and try and custom make it a solution to what would work for them. But for me, I really feel there’s a lot of value in actually benchmarking with best practices, looking what has worked elsewhere and localizing this initiatives that are actually available.

And also Sue we are living in an era of technology. At a click of a button, I can get a book, I can get a video, I can get some guidance on how to do something that I do not know. So there’s the role of technology and [00:12:00] social media that can actually help lead us. To be able to keep learning other than just looking inwardly at themselves.

Sue: [00:12:07] So you really are grasping the world and the opportunities that are out there to help you to be most effective. Does technology play a role in your organization and what you do with Help a Child?

Racheal: [00:12:18] So at Help a Child, we are now in the process of developing our strategic plan for the next five years. And among the conversation we are having, if you were to just check the trends that actually happening, technology will be a huge defining factor for success in the next decade. So for organizations that are not already using technology, it’s a call to action to really beginning that. And I’m very glad that at Help A Child we’re already making use of social media. We are making use of fundraising using digital platforms, mobilizing resources, sharing our reports, using online platforms, and we hope to even do more in terms of using the technology in the next decade.

Sue: [00:12:57] It’s really making a big difference to how you [00:13:00] operate as a leader.

Racheal: [00:13:01] Very true. And also just to mention, if you are not aware, Kenya has been in the lead in terms of technological advancement using mobile platforms to both share messages, to send money to even give relief instead of handouts. So you just send money to a family. So technology is the now and is the future.

Sue: [00:13:22] Tell us more about that then in terms of how it helps families.

Racheal: [00:13:25] Previously when we would have an emergency, the ideal way would be you would have to go to the market, buy whatever the family actually needs, package it, put it in a truck, transport it to communities that are maybe 500 kilometers away.

The roads are not very good. But now with the mobile platform, so we have a system called MPesa. You’re able to actually put all your beneficiaries in a database and actually send them money. So you empower the households by giving them dignity of choice. So by choice, you’re telling them, I cannot [00:14:00] determine what you want as food, but you know what you actually need and what’s your priorities? So giving them the dignity to make decisions concerning the money. So it’s more respectful of people who are in need other  than them queuing for loan to receive relief aid. So mobile platforms of money banking has really come a long way to help NGOs in Kenya and globally to reduce the cost of doing business by making sure we have value for money when we are helping the most vulnerable.

Sue: [00:14:30] Therefore, the sense of empowerment is not something that just is relevant in the organizational workplace. You’re really empowering the beneficiaries as well by the sounds of it.

Racheal: [00:14:39] Yes. And actually mobile ownership in Kenya is very high, so they actually have power in their hands, so when they have money in their phone. It gives them power to make decision to resolve the issue that actually affects them.

Sue: [00:14:51] That’s a really powerful message. As a leader then I’m sure your leadership journey hasn’t finished yet. Racheal, what do you continue to [00:15:00] do or where do you look to for inspiration for the future?

Racheal: [00:15:03] So for me, I have several leaders I look up to and that I greatly admire, and two of them that stand out for me is the late Dr. Miles Monroe and John C. Maxwell, they are great leadership gurus, and through what they write and how they teach and how they impact communities. For me, I’ve really found a lot of valuable lessons from these two.

Sue: [00:15:26] What are the things that you bring that give you confidence that at any table you could sit at, you would add value?

Racheal: [00:15:32] So for me, the ability to understand the problem and not just focusing on the problem, it’s also bringing solutions. So for me, I believe when I solve a problem. I have a permanent seat at the table. When I add value, the question is what can we do to make you stay? So for me, continuously adding value. And solving problems and being uniquely me because everyone else is taken.

So for me as a person I know the [00:16:00] strengths I bring to the table, I know my limitation, but I am solution oriented. So for me, let’s look at the problem. Let’s understand it. And before we can go and implement a solution, it’s the right understanding that the people who are facing the problem, are actually the ones who are better placed to solve.  So for me, my role as a leader. Is to cocreate the ideal future with the people we are leading so at least there is good ownership. I would say my great strength and skill at the table is my problem solving skills so that we can be able now to address the root causes of poverty holistically.

Sue: [00:16:36] That’s amazing. In terms of having work life balance which is another facet that is talked about a lot these days, how do you manage to get any of that?

Racheal: [00:16:47] Sue I must say it’s not easy, but I try to keep work at work and home at home. So for me, I really love being a wife and a mom. I love traveling. So one of the key things that give me energy, is [00:17:00] service and I serve in my local church where we do a leadership program that reaches out to inmates in prison, in schools and communities. But when I’m not doing my voluntary leadership training, I’m happy being at home with my family and also traveling. But I must say it’s not easy. You must be really deliberate to have a good work life balance.

Sue: [00:17:20] And if you were to give some top tips to future leaders who may be listening to this podcast from the things that you’ve learned over the years, what would be your offering to them?

Racheal: [00:17:32] So number one, just be authentic. Everyone else is taken, don’t copy paste. Don’t try being someone else. Be authentically you. Number two, as long as you’re solving a problem you are in it for the long haul.  And number three, let your values drive you. Don’t compromise on your values as a leader and as a leader when you compromise on your character and integrity, people cannot forgive that. The one thing people cannot overlook are [00:18:00] shortcomings in character and integrity. Guard it with all that you have because once it’s gone, it’s gone and it’s more easily kept than recovered, and of course always leave a legacy. What happens when you’ve gone is your legacy. We might not be here for long, but just do something that will show you’ve actually touched a life.

Sue: [00:18:20] Racheal, that’s brilliant. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been great to talk to you.

Racheal: [00:18:24] Thank you. So really nice having this conversation with you. [00:19:00]