Leadership-Made-In-Africa: When the student becomes the master: growth is messy and painful in the middle

the fuel crisis

One of the greatest joys for any mentor or teacher is to see the fruit of their labour manifested in a mentee or student who demonstrates growth and starts to perform at their full potential.

I stumbled upon the transcript of a speech delivered by one of my former MBA students that not only inspired me and helped me along my growth journey, but it also left me bursting with unbridled joy to see her achieve her full potential. Any attempt to paraphrase her speech would have done a great disservice to the quality of her delivery; so with her permission, I am ‘reprinting’ her words in this article.

First, a little stage-setting. Her name is Diana Mulili, and she is a Kenyan graduate of the African Leadership University School of Business (MBA programme) founding class of 2018. She gave this speech at the graduation ceremony for the ALUSB MBA Class of 2022. The title of her talk was ‘GROWTH IS MESSY AND PAINFUL IN THE MIDDLE’. Please read on…

“My name is Diana Mulili from the ALUSB graduating class of 2018, the founding class. It is such an honour to stand before you, the graduating MBA class of 2022. Muraho! Amakuru? When I enrolled in ALUSB in 2016, I was restless for greater impact. I had figured out “my why,” my reason for being. But I had not figured out “how” I would achieve it. At the time, I was working with a technology company, running its business development and strategy across East Africa.

Exciting, however, I was hungry to work in a role that would see me create a greater impact across the continent, specifically for the youth. I believe that’s why most of us, why most of you, enrolled in this MBA programme. We live with the challenges the continent faces, every day. We all want to be part of the solutions that are desperately needed. For that to happen, the radical shift must start at the individual level. That’s what this MBA programme does for us. It challenges our thinking, what we thought we knew, exposes us to what is possible, and stretches our ability to take on and do more through the heavy workload expected of its students.

In 2018, when I was graduating, our then Dean, Dr. Modupe, told me about the two hallmarks of a transformative MBA programme:

  1. It will stretch you beyond what you thought you’re capable of. It is why they never relent on the workload. Trust me, we actively lobbied for a lighter workload, unsuccessfully so…
  2. During or right after the programme, you will get a promotion, change jobs or even better, become an enterprise founder, with a resulting increase in income.

I was very lucky to have achieved both during the programme. By the time I graduated in July 2018, I had been headhunted to be the Business Development & Innovation Director of an economic development organisation involved in economic work that catalysed job creation across East Africa. While doing my MBA, I had also graduated as an Executive Coach and successfully completed another leadership programme certification. All while being a mother to two amazing children. When your capacity gets stretched by the workload, you can take on more. ALUSB had led me to my “how” and I was in my element!

Growth, it appeared, came easy to me. But as I came to learn, real, disruptive growth is painful and messy in the middle. The only way to learn that, is the hard way. In 2020, I was the interim CEO of the economic development organisation, doing work I loved. Then COVID struck and we lost substantive funding from one of our two funders. Tough survival decisions had to be made for the organisation and I led those. In August 2020, I left the organisation. I declined a job offer made, confident that I would find a role better aligned to my values, my purpose, and my hunger to scale my impact across the continent.

In any strategy, there are always key assumptions that form the basis of your hypothesis. When I left the economic development organisation, one of the assumptions I made was that I would find the role I really wanted in 3-6 months. That was not to be. It took me a year, amid a global pandemic. If you’ve ever been unemployed for an extended period, you know very well how uncertain things get.

Having it all happen during a global pandemic made it much worse. There were many days when I doubted myself, my abilities, and the grand vision I still held onto. My finances were greatly strained while I remained the sole breadwinner of my family. It is very difficult maintaining grace through fire. Funny, retrospectively it now looks like it wasn’t too long after all…

What kept me sane during that season? Three key things kept my head up:

  1. One, my daily routine that’s made up of meditating, working out and keeping busy with my family and passion projects. My passion projects saw me still contribute to the work needed to solve our socio-economic challenges.
  2. Two, my network of friends. That really proved to me that your support network is indeed your net worth. For years I had been depositing into my social capital account with no withdrawals and no expectations. And when I needed them, they all came through for me. To date, I am deeply humbled by it all.
  3. Three, I kept on studying. I’m almost always in one class or another and even during that season, I never stopped. I see my education as a worthwhile investment. The returns have been ridiculously immense for me.

The silver lining in all of it was that my personal brand grew more during this period. Going on to show that when you have your north star clear, even when down, you never stop growing. You may be down, but you are not out of the game! So where am I now? As I speak to you, I am now working as a Director with a global financial services firm out to democratise and increase accessibility of affordable health, wealth and protection insurance solutions in Asia and Africa. I love my work which involves building a Pan-African digital ecosystem to drive purpose-led insurance penetration mainly targetting digital-native youth. What are the key lessons I have for you as you graduate, ready to take on the world? There are four of them:

  1. One, go forth, with determined conviction that you have what it takes to change yourself first and the world, next.
  2. Two, the journey to fully maximise your potential will be painful. When things get painful, lean in, for that is when the magic happens. That’s the sweet spot, where you let go of who you think you are and become who you can be.
  3. Three, stay agile. Growth in life is not linear. You will never have it all figured out. There is always a curveball right around the corner, now more so than ever, in this VUCA era. In Kenya we say, “Utajua hujui!” meaning, “You will know you don’t know!” Like a river, flow with whatever life throws your way. See every challenging moment as a dance and fall in tune.
  4. Finally, discipline is everything. Keep your routine healthy and stick to it. Do not let the noise distract you.

I am immensely proud of you all for keeping at it and grinding through your studies despite the pandemic and everything else that came with it. It has proven your resilience. It is the main reason why I wanted to be here, sharing this graduation with you all. For I know, after what you’ve been through to get here, your class will be the best ALUSB graduating class we are yet to see. Go forth and be the agents of change Africa needs. From Africa to the World! Welcome to the ALUSB alumni network!”

The nuggets of wisdom shared by Diana Mulili resonate strongly with the concepts that I have shared in previous articles about the pre-requisites for leadership success and leadership in a crisis situation.

Self-discipline, resilience, vision-focus, continuous learning…these necessary qualities are all reflected in this graduation speech. Dear African leader, if you are going through a season of unprecedented challenges or a plateau period, remember that you are still responsible for making wise leadership choices…first to lead yourself and then to lead others. You are still the key decision-maker whose choices will influence the outcome of your organisation.

You can still be on the road to success even if the road feels bumpy and rocky and the path is unclear or muddy. Keep this article and read it a few times when you find yourself on that bumpy road; use it as a GPS system to guide you to your destination. Africa needs you to make it to your desired destination!

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