Women Leaders In Africa: Walk-the-Talk

In this podcast, Africa.com talks with two of GE Africa’s high profile women leaders.

  • Welela Dawit Chief Financial Officer, GE Power Services – Sub-Saharan Africa, GE West Africa
  • Adesua Dozie General Counsel for GE Gas Power Systems and Services, Sub-Saharan Africa

The Exclusive Interview:

Welela.jpeg

My name is Welela Dawit, I have a dual role with the company I’m the CFO of GE Africa as well as the CFO of the gas power systems and power services business for sub-Saharan Africa. By having a dual role I have multiple capacities and understand areas of responsibility. First and foremost it’s ensuring the controller-ship of compliance in terms of how we work and record our financial performance, I am supportive of driving commercial growth initiatives particularly in our gas powered business and it’s also all about leadership development of our finance pipeline and ensuring we’ve got future finance talent growing within the system and being able to take on bigger and better roles down the road.

Adesua.jpeg

My name is Adesua Dozie and I have the dual role of general counsel for GE Africa and general counsel for the gas power systems and services business for sub-Saharan Africa.  I manage legal reputation and commercial risk across the continent ensuring that we’re able to do our business sustainably, managing the company’s reputation and ensuring that the growth and our future pipeline is protected and sustained. I also co-chair the GE Women’s Network for sub-Saharan Africa it’s an affinity group that promotes recruitment, retention and support of women across the continent.

Africa.com: GE is committed to the development of women leaders we’ve seen this over some time and the two of you represent two of the very senior women leading GE Africa, can you speak a little bit about how GE has supported you as a manager.

Welela: GE has definitely supported me as manager and in my career development as well and I’d say the primary way that they’ve done that has been through the opportunity of giving me challenging roles and responsibilities. The opportunity of moving back home to the region eight years ago and giving me significant responsibilities from a finance point of view in a region that you know we’d been president but really were trying to figure out how to be able to grow aggressively in a very challenging environment.

I would say giving me the opportunity, trusting me to stretch and challenge and expose me in a challenging and dynamic environment really supported my own development, helped me build up my own confidence, helps me realize abilities that I didn’t know I had and helps me develop a skill set that I find to be invaluable considering my age. ​

Adesua: GE has supported me as a manager in many ways, giving me challenging roles and exposing me to different opportunities. I came to GE from the coca-cola company as a senior member of the legal profession, it was a lateral move having very little experience in the industrial phase but GE had the courage to trust me working with many complex transactions and provided the support to enable me succeed. One of the things that’s most important about GE that differentiates working from anywhere else really is the culture you are encouraged to bring your whole self to this organization and that’s really important for me as a mom of three children. I have a 17 year old, a 15 year old and a 9 year old, you can combine your family life, your corporate life and bring all of yourself to work at GE and that’s really fantastic for me I really appreciate that.​

Africa.com:  Welela you’ve spoken about integrity can you please share your thoughts and observations around the concept of integrity and what it means to you and your role at GE?​

Welela: It’s very important that I walk the talk as well as the general counsel, the two of us have an important responsibility to be role models here and we take the spirit and letter which is our integrity policy very seriously and all that we do in a region like sub-Saharan Africa it is something that we’re very proud of, it distinguishes us from others and how we work.​

Adesua:  For me integrity is key, it’s critical to how we do business, it’s doing the right thing in the right way it’s not only what we do it’s how we do what we do. It also means for us GE being very conscious about how the decisions that we take every day will affect others across the value chain we’re fully aware of our influence across the continent we deal with large-scale projects and programs that affect the lives of hundreds and thousands of people and this is a big responsibility and we by no means take it lightly which is why we ensure that all the things that we do and the way that we execute them across the board from end to end is done with not only integrity but also with the hundred-percent best practices and a sense of social responsibility in the way that we undertake any work.

Africa.com:  Are there any other ways that either of you would like to address about how GE recruits, retains and promotes women in particular, in leadership positions? ​

Welela: You know in terms of how GE recruit store chains and promotes women in leadership positions one thing is through the Women’s Network. We offer these employee groups that allow women to have the opportunity to be mentored, exposed, have leadership development opportunities and so forth but I would also say just particularly on the recruiting aspect of things is that we are quite intentional when it comes to ensuring that we have balanced slates. I know we do have diversity metrics that we look at, we do hold ourselves accountable and keep ourselves honest and ask whether or not we are doing enough and one of the ways we try and address that is ensuring that when we’ve got job opportunities coming up regardless if it’s a very junior analyst or a CFO, CEO, whatever it might be that we’re quite intentional about looking for diverse candidates to consider in those opportunities. ​

Adesua:  In addition the women’s network is a great affinity group because it provides an opportunity for peer to peer mentoring as well as developmental career support for those who have their eyes on leadership positions, or those who have their eyes on lateral moves so it’s a great network and a great support system. However, I think what’s also great part of GE secret sauce is that this isn’t simply a case of women supporting women which of course is essential and critical to development and retention and promotion, but even more critical is a sponsorship of men and I personally believe that we will never achieve diversity within the workplace and indeed a balance if we don’t bring men along the journey. I’m very proud of the GE men who actively champion, promote and support women, diversity and inclusion in the workplace. We see a greater impact, we see the commercial benefit to having a diverse workplace and it’s something that GE actively supports and promotes as part of our culture.​

Africa.com:  Adesua I just want to stay with you for a moment can you talk about some person who may have had an impact on you as a leader, a mentor. Talk about how a mentor may have impacted your professional life. ​

Adesua:  In my career I’ve been a lawyer for 24 years now and counting. I’ve had very many mentors, coaches, sponsors, but Alex Dmitri certainly comes to mind, he was our last general counsel and one of the things that he taught me was, soft power is still power. Often times women feel the need to be more than themselves, we feel the need to be seen and be heard especially in sub-Saharan Africa where society can be quite patriarchal or you get the impression that people don’t want to hear your voice or perhaps they disregard some of what you say because you are female or are often surprised by the value that you bring to the table because of your agenda.​

Whether that’s true or not that’s all in the mind.  Alex Dimitri is a very special man because he commanded presence, he is engaging, an amazing lawyer and he also had power which was very soft and he made it very attractive in the sense that it drew you to him. It was during a conversation with him that I had a Eureka moment, that I didn’t need to alter who I was in order to be seen and be heard; soft power is still power. I can wield that power with my femininity, my tact and all the soft skills, I don’t need to be anybody else I just need to be the best version of myself and that is enough.​

He was impactful in many other ways in terms of encouraging, he had a way of encouraging you to speak up and speak out, and he had a way of embracing vulnerability and leveraging that as a strength. ​

Welela: Similarly I’ve benefited from having many mentors and sponsors along the way and interestingly enough as mentioned before the support of GE men, one of them for me who also is no longer with the company anymore but who I keep in touch with is Shane Fitzsimmons. He was previously the CFO of our global operations. I remember one particular conversation I had with Shane around myself and my own development and we were talking about what I could potentially do as my next role, what I need to work on and sometimes I have a tendency and I think it’s not something unique to me but something women do is you underestimate yourself to a certain extent and you don’t realize exactly what you’re capable of. ​

He called me out on it and he was very direct and he said that I completely undervalue what I bring to the table and if I don’t take the time to take stock of what my value is nobody else will and unless I stand up for myself and I am very clear about Who I am and what I bring to the table my value to the company sometimes people won’t necessarily hear or see you. I was taken aback because I just can’t recall a leader being so direct with me in that sense but it made me pause and think to myself okay, I have to stop this and I have to actually be a lot more confident in recognizing what my accomplishments are, have been, and what my capability is because if this individual at his very senior level in the company can see something in myself that I’m not seeing that’s an issue. 

I appreciated his directness, candor, transparency with me, and his willingness to have that tough conversation because I don’t often times experience that when I’m having development conversations. That has stayed with me ever since and it’s something I’m extremely grateful for​

Welela: I think that sometimes you have to celebrate the greatness that lies within for African women there are a number of things that we Africans have to unlearn and I think one of those things is to be seen. When you teach a child to be seen and not to be heard, when that child grows into an adult and the child actually has to be the adult and he/she has to unlearn that behavior. Particularly for the African woman the number of habits that we need to unlearn, one of them is to speak up and speak out, the other one is don’t be deprecatory of yourself, have the courage to embrace your strength.​

Adesua: It’s interesting because I might have grown up in the US and had my American accent but I’m from the region I grew up in an African household, and in my household it was one of those experiences as you mentioned be seen but don’t be heard. ​

As you’ve said it’s just behavior I have to unlearn but at the same times you said to your point multifaceted there are other things that are strengths of mine that I wouldn’t necessarily have had growing up in the context of the region but that stayed with me and I’ll be still learning to unlearn that. ​

I think that’s a really important universal point for African women, women everywhere, for people everywhere.​

Africa.com:  Adesua help us understand how you helped to introduce new employees into the culture of diversity and equality that you’ve described at GE Africa.​

Adesua: We help a new employee understand the culture of diversity and equality at GE Africa by actually just living it. We don’t just discuss it or toss the word diversity around it is not a footnote in a GE contract or in the staff handbook or just something that we have passed around the office, we live it. At GE it’s something that you can touch, feel, smell, and taste- it’s imbued in every single thing that we do. We are a diverse team in every material respect and we actively promote and live in a diverse workplace and workspace.​

New members of the team can see how we do diversity and our hope and expectation is that they continue to go on to reflect this at GE. ​

Welela: One thing about our culture is that it is special and unique, especially as it relates to other multinationals or local companies that you find in the region; the culture that we have in GE Africa is very unique and oftentimes when new employees come in they’re trying to figure it out because it’s a typical, very familial, very comfortable, informal but professional but also just special.​

There’s a family feel, it’s intimate where it’s more than just work, it’s a second family. We’re protective of it, we’re also very proud of it and when someone new joins us- as we’re experiencing today we’ve got some new people who’ve recently joined our leadership team. Our new regional IT director is a woman and we’re spending time with her this week it’s impressive and something we’re proud of. We’re working to holding her hand a little bit because this company is a lot where we do so much and we’re very passionate about what we do but at the same time you know we want to make sure that she’s got the best possible start to her new career with the company and that’s helping her understand what we do but then also help her understand how we work. ​

Adesua: When people say family they forget the family sometimes can be uncomfortable and we are a family. Diversity inclusion is not a word that we actually speak about very often except when you have to call someone out on it, but we include you this means that we want different and diverse points of view because they help us be better. One of the things that is special about GE is, as you go along the journey you get comfortable with being uncomfortable because you know the outcome will be better, nothing grows in its comfort zone. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, get comfortable with the ride, get comfortable with the growth, get comfortable with this family of Mavericks, because they will irritate you, they will agitate you, but they will challenge you to become the best version of yourself.​

I think certainly when I joined GE six years ago I was not the business person that I am now it’s pushed me, challenged me to become a more rounded business professional, so not just as a lawyer but a business professional. A lawyer that understands the value chain understands commercial, risk, insurance. I have a CFO who doesn’t let me get away with not understanding the P&L and the metrics.​

Africa.com:  We’re sticking to this theme of women’s leadership and one theme that we often hear about being a senior woman leader sometimes the experience you have internally is different from the experience that you have externally with clients and other external stakeholders, does any of that exist for either of you in your current role. Do you experience being a man a female manager internally different than you experience it externally?​

Welela: I certainly do feel the difference in terms of how I’m seen internally as a female leader in the company versus how I’m seen externally and frankly, I frankly think a lot of it has to do with my age. I’ve benefited tremendously from the leadership development programs, the company throwing these really challenging assignments at me that have allowed me to be able to accelerate my career. I have credibility within the company because people understand how I got to where I am. I have benefited from the mentorship and sponsorship of men and women across the company and I’ve never felt undermined or added disadvantage being a female leader in this company.​

The men at GE are very supportive but what exists internally is oftentimes different than what exists externally, this is a patriarchal environment and society. ​

I’ve been in external meetings where somebody assumed I was the PA of the CEO or the MD I’m accompanying with not realizing I’m in fact the CFO, or somebody has thought that I was there to provide tea to everybody in the session rather than actually participate in the discussion. Or when that business card exchange happens all the men will exchange with each other but they won’t come to you again not realizing who you are. I used to get very irritated but decided there’s no sense in wasting energy because as soon as the meeting begins and you do your introductions and you identify who you are and they realize I’m the one with the money then there’s the shame and embarrassment that comes across their faces just makes me feel good and it’s what I need and then from then on I get the respect from that other party.​

It is something that I do deal with but I try not to have such an emotional reaction because I know it’s not against me personally it’s a bigger thing, it’s a societal thing, it’s culture going back way before I was ever even thought of and will unfortunately continue to be a part of the way people operate. So I don’t take it personally I just choose to not be fazed by it anymore and as I continue to build my own profile externally and continue to engage more externally it becomes less and less of a problem but it doesn’t mean that it won’t be a challenge for those who come after me. ​

Adesua:  I have had similar experiences and I think we will continue to have those experiences. I like the fact that you talked about energy because energy is a finite source so I choose to handle this not emotionally but with grace and a sense of humor and depending on the circumstances or the circumstance to use it as leverage to get what I want, either out of a negotiation or a meeting or a transaction. I use it as leverage because often times people are just so embarrassed that they’ve mistaken me for the secretary.​

I think it takes it takes a knowing of yourself because often times what used to happen to me in the past was perhaps I felt insecure already and those occurrences only tended to exacerbate the feelings of insecurity I had or I was already unsure of myself; I can’t believe that I’m at this position and then when somebody behaves in that way it’s almost a validation of that inner voice in my head that’s saying all these things and I have found that shutting that voice down has helped me to find the humor in those situations.​

Welela: I agree we have big jobs and big responsibilities. So when someone behaves disrespectfully it may trigger you to make you think well maybe they see it.​

Adesua: I think we just all have to resist that temptation, discipline your mind to not react because it’s not a reflection of yourself, abilities, courage, technical skills or what you’re doing in this place at this time and at this moment, or indeed who you are called to be. It’s a reflection of none of those things someone just made a mistake based on their experiences but now you have the opportunity to give them another experience so that they don’t make the same mistake with someone else. ​

Africa.com:  Let’s talk a little bit about advice you might have for young women who are looking to climb the corporate ladder. Shall we start with you Welela.​

Welela: In terms of advice I have for women looking to grow in their career, team and advancing in leadership positions, the first thing very fundamental and core regardless of male/female at my feet is you’ve got to do your job, to execute at the very core of everything. You have to perform and that means not just doing what the job description says or doing what your deliverables are but going above and beyond and understanding the difference between what it is to meet expectations versus what it means to exceed expectations. ​

Sometimes I see particularly with a lot of young individuals who are starting off in their careers is that there’s a tendency to think ‘well because I did my tasks and responsibilities, I should get a pat on the head’. No you are doing your job, but there’s a distinction between doing what your deliverable is but then going a step above it and exceeding expectations whether it was completing it in before it was required, taking analysis to the next step without being asked, or exceeding the outcome that was expected. ​

I would also say don’t be afraid to take challenging responsibilities and challenging roles for your next job, you can’t ever get too comfortable – growth happens when you’re most uncomfortable because you’re challenged and that’s when you’re really tested to determine whether or not you can rise to the occasion. That’s when you really understand what your capabilities are and you realize that you’re in fact a lot more capable than what you expected. You demonstrate your ability to be able to learn, to get coaching, to be resourceful, and demonstrate your critical thinking by taking on these challenging assignments. ​

Other advice I have which I think is important is relationships; make sure that you nurture and build relationships and that you don’t let relationships of the past die. I’ve been with GE for 14 years now and people I worked with back in 2005 are still people I come across and engage with today, so if you’re not intentional about either building new relationships or and/or maintaining relationships of the past, it’s hard because you will come across these people down the road. These are people who can offer new opportunities, new roles for you, coach you. People who’ve seen you grow, who can be honest with you and if you don’t maintain relationships and maintain relevance in their eyes particularly leaders that you’ve worked for it’s very easy to oftentimes then be overlooked when new opportunities come up. ​

I’d say be good at what you do don’t just do the task at hand but do it very well take the challenging roles and responsibilities and maintain the relationships that you build along the way while also nurturing new ones.​

Adesua: Three things the first thing is I will adopt, copy and paste every single thing that you’ve said I endorse it. The second thing is that there’s an author called Carla Harris; I believe she wrote the book ‘Pearls of Wisdom’. This advice is for anybody who wants to be successful; what you do is important, who you know is important, but none of those things is as important as who knows what you know, and what you’re doing, and to be strategic and intentional about managing those things. ​

Carla talks a lot about reputation or currency and about how performance is a diminishing currency, it diminishes over time because people expect you to be a star so you’re not getting any extra credit for being a star and that’s exactly what will be articulated as you grow in the organization. You are going to have to leverage and sweat your relationship currency to make sure the right people in the right room know what your performance currency is. ​

Finally, I think it’s very important that we are who you are called to be, authentic and our true selves. I encourage women and men to be authentic to be the best versions of themselves and try to be teachable. Don’t try to become an extrovert because you think that is what the company requires of you, you will find grace wherever you are just be you.​

Africa.com:  If there’s one thought about being a female manager at GE that you would want listeners to recall, as GE Africa celebrates 120 years, what would that be?​

Welela: I would say we should be proud of the fact that we have as many women who serve as executive leaders in the region not just on the staff of our CEO but you know across the businesses, the number of women that we have in senior professional and executive band roles is remarkable and I don’t know if there is any other multinational out there that measures in terms of diversity the way we do; diversity meaning gender diversity, age, ethnic, diversity across the board. This is a company that talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to diversity and inclusion and that’s something that we have to be extraordinarily proud of. ​

Adesua: The tapestry is incredible and I find this question to be very deep because when I suddenly take time to reflect, I see the tremendous impact that GE Africa has held on the continent. When you pull deeper beneath that it’s generations as well. At 45 I certainly never imagined 20 years ago that I would be here general counsel of GE Africa, having had the experiences that I have had, worked on the deals that I have had, there is nothing in that would have made me able to predict this.​

I personally feel a deep sense of gratitude and I would hope that people listening to this understand that amidst the difference between Welela and I; coming from completely different backgrounds, different parts of the world, different orientation, now work together, learn together and have become the best of friends, it’s really a toast to the art of the possible. Everything is possible, everything good is here you just have to believe and this epitomizes GE, it’s your imagination at work. Anything that you can imagine, anything that your mind can conceive, can be achieved.​

Welela: Oftentimes with very senior women who work together in an organization there’s this stereotype or silly expectation that we might not get along or we might not love each other but it’s frankly the opposite and I’m happy that we can be an example of women who support each other, who work well together, who work hard and play hard together, truly support each other, teach each other to be vulnerable with one another. I can’t think of a better general counsel for me to work with than Adesua. ​

Adesua: It’s been a great journey, a great ride, and I mean it. I come from a humble background and even though my parents are academics I could never have imagined that I would be sitting here, I am humbled, grateful, thankful and blessed.​

I also really want to shout out you in Africa.com and everything that you have done on the continent of Africa; sharing stories, connecting dots, igniting imagination, inspiring & helping people to see what they can be and sparking creativity and imagination. I think it’s very powerful, a great calling. I thank you I salute you and your entire team.

Africa.com
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