Name: Susan Kiamba
Current profession: Learning & Development Consultant & Corporate Trainer
What did you study in college/university? Was it what you wanted to study?
I studied Education and no it wasn’t my first choice. I initially wanted to be a psychologist, because I thought it was really cool. I was fascinated by how psychologists would say “Tell me more” and they sounded so deep. I was grudgingly convinced to take education. My relatives advised that if I really wanted to do Psychology it was actually a part of the Education course and I could always pick it up later as a specialization. I am a teacher by training. It took me a while to appreciate that you can teach without being in a classroom. This was because of the image I had of teachers when I was growing up. Teachers were always on strike and complaining about poor pay. The impact of a teacher is unforgettable. In the history of the teaching profession, never has a teacher been appreciated like in the season of Covid-19 because people have now seen that they work very hard, teaching is actually a very noble profession and has a lasting impression.
My father is a retired teacher; the reason I love to read is that he introduced me to books at a very early age. I had books everywhere, he would also say to me that if I did not know the meaning of a word I should underline it, get the dictionary and figure out what it meant. The fact that I have vocabulary today, I attribute it to him getting that reading culture going for me. Teaching, as I later learned, takes different forms, because what I do today is a form of teaching. I am still imparting knowledge and wisdom.
What was your first job? Any lessons to share from it?
It was a sales job with a local bank and the biggest lesson from that time was that sales is not about pushing products on people but about building relationships. The lesson did not hit home then but looking back, I realize any time I made an effort to build a relationship with a prospective client, they may not have closed immediately, but a month to three down the line, they would come back and tell me they had some time to think and they were ready to proceed which of course was counter to everything you know because at the bank it is more about pushing the numbers like “how many did you close today?”
I was under a lot of pressure to deliver numbers, I struggled but I still focused on building relationships. The irony of it all is when I was later transferred to a different department, (we used to be given handsets to make calls) the person who got my handset inherited all the relationships I had built, I think the first month he got more than 20 calls from clients I had built a rapport with indicating they were ready to proceed. He literally ripped the benefits of my relationship building. Focus on building the relationship first then the sale will follow.
Is there too big or too small a job?
I think that every job is important, and you can learn from any job. You don’t have to be the CEO of a company to impact people. Even a cleaner can impact people even more than probably the CEO and vice versa. Simply because I am the CEO and someone else is a cleaner, none of our jobs is too big, they are just different and have a part to play in the bigger scope of things because the one-time people realize they really need help is when the tea lady, for example, is unwell and people in the office notice there is no tea and there is no one to send for Mandazi, to ask or to buy from then you realize that she is really important. But when she is ever-present you think she is just a tea-lady, so you then realize she is as important as the CEO.
Describe a normal working day for you?
There is no normal day for me, I am ready for anything because plans often change, but there are a few constants such as 3 times a week I sit down with a group of ladies where we have something called “a writing room”. We are all committed to writing something, during that one hour every three times a week, we just write, someone is working on a novel, another a book and another an article so everyone is working on something; we write because we are committed to becoming better writers and then once we are done with our writing we have a debrief session where everyone comes in and shares what they wrote about it and then we ask questions, offer suggestions and appreciate the work.
I generally wake up between 3:00 to 4:00 am, my morning routine would be; daily devotional followed by workout then time to do my own writing. In the course of the day, I have different things which happen A typical day includes clients’ meetings, delivering training, client work, my own reading, creating my own content, supporting my children with their classes/learning activities, breaks, and family time.
What drives or motivates you?
The desire to help others grow, whether it’s personal or in business, whatever it is for me just wanting other people to grow and be better than they are.
Ever had a bad /good boss? Lessons learnt or advice to offer?
I have had both: From the good boss I learned that you have an opportunity to learn anywhere every time; meaning when things are going your way, that is an opportunity to learn and when things are not going your way like you get thrown a curveball or you are given something you think you can’t do, again that is an opportunity to learn and grow. So embrace whatever comes your way and try and find the good out of it.
My bad boss used to shout, lecture, and berate you. I remember a time he lectured me for an hour for something that was not my fault but more his fault because he failed to provide the information I needed to do the job well. This hit hard on my self-confidence and self-esteem because I believed I was a professional who knew what they were doing. By the time the conversation was over, I wanted nothing to do with him or the project at hand. I learned that you can get more out of people with praise (praise them for the things they are doing right) than with criticism. You can get more out of people with praise than criticism. If you have to give developmental feedback, do it in a way that addresses the issue and not attacking the person.
Your take on ethics and integrity? Is it important to you?
It is Important. I know sometimes there are grey lines but do the right thing even when it’s hard. Do the right thing especially when it is hard because others are looking up to you. And if we all did what we said we would, our societies would be a better place.
As a parent, I try and teach these things to my children, they watch me and they will call me on it if they feel I am not saying and doing the same thing. Meaning I have a responsibility to those who may not know the right thing to do and show them the way and to those who know the right thing but are struggling to show them that it is possible to do it even when it is hard.
When you are not in your work element what do you do for fun?
Anything active like Aerobics, Zumba, and walking.
Best money advice you received or would give?
I received it from my mother and it was “start early and don’t wait for millions to manage them”. E.g. if you have kshs5,000, use it wisely. If it means you need to set aside some to save, set aside to invest but just start early. I still remember when I got my first job, that was the first thing she told me to do. “start saving now.” At first, it did not make sense but when I went back and saw how that saving had grown over the years, it gave me a better appreciation. It helped me access even more funds, so start early with whatever you have.
Most notable achievements?
Two things come to mind. I have had the opportunity to set up departments from scratch twice and both were successful. The first time I was transferred to another department. I went to set up a helpdesk for them. I remember arriving and having all the pending work dumped on me. Yet, I didn’t understand what the department did. Or even their processes. I had to learn fast and on-the-job.
The other was setting up and aligning a training department for a client whose business did not have the right structure and was able to bring some order and proper system into the whole structure. I was happy to do it and leave them with something they are still able to use to date.
Lastly, when the pandemic happened there were a lot of desperate conversations in relation to job losses, people feeling helpless. I had the idea to put together a resource that would help someone who had lost their job to be able to bounce back. I wrote it in three days and the feedback was overwhelming. It brought a sense of happiness (been able to put tools in the hands of people that needed them) and pride (I was able to do it in three days) been able to achieve that quick turn-around without overthinking, it was truly an achievement.
Biggest challenge(s) faced and how you handled them?
The first 7 years of my career were the slowest years ever. I had had this dream of how my career would progress from one level to another, but that is not how it worked out. I was passed over for promotions more times than I could think of, I had to fight to be converted from contract to permanent and pensionable staff. I just kept finding hurdles along the way. For those years I felt like nothing was moving and more like things were going round in circles. I had wanted to work in the Human Resources Department for a very long time and every time I tried to break through, I just couldn’t. I would be promised a role only to discover a new person was hired for that role and was required to train them on what to do. That was the time I learned that you can create your own opportunities because by then I could do my job with my eyes closed. I began looking around to see what else in the department looked neglected that might be exciting for me to do and enrich my job. I found this project which I informed my supervisor and told him that I would be doing it over and above my work. He gave me the go-ahead. This helped kill the monotony of coming to work and doing the same thing. I made some great connections with colleagues from other departments and began to network as well as identify who could help me when and who I could help, when.
My journey on LinkedIn, started around this time as it was a way to vent out what I was going through. I wrote about it and got perspective. Part of that perspective was that growth is not necessarily vertical, it can also be linear. So, you don’t have to be moving up to prove you are growing, the question is what skillset are you adding that you did not already have before by having this linear movement that you are able to acquire. The other thing that helped was helping other people. When new people came in and did not know what to do, I would help them. I would do career sessions with graduates,3rd, and 4th-year students to help them figure their way out before they got to the job market. So I created my own opportunities, wrote about it, gained new perspectives, and helped others.
Is reading important to you? what are you currently reading?
Very important, it’s a habit I enjoy.
Who do you look up to for inspiration? / Most influential people in your life?
My husband and my children because they challenge me to be a better person. They push me to be better every single day. I have written what I would want people to say about me in my eulogy; but for me, the biggest sense of accomplishment would be if my children and my husband said those things because they are the ones who know me best since they spent the most time with me. They keep me agile, they will call me on something if I am not practicing what I preach.
Employment or entrepreneurship?
I think that everyone should do both at least once in their lifetime. My thinking behind this is, I spent about 10 years in the banking industry which was very orderly, well put together and structured organization. This meant you knew when to do everything, how to do everything and no thinking required. During my stint, I held several roles but never did I sit to think “how can we adjust ourselves and our services to be more customer-centric?” I never thought about how we could improve our processes to create a more enjoyable customer experience. Then I left the bank and joined a start-up. One of the things that nobody tells you about start-ups is you have a job title, but that is all it is. You will end up being everything! Some days I was the administrative assistant, other days the operations manager and finance manager. I literally did way more than the actual job description. For the first time, I had to think about the market for example, how could we position our solutions in a way that made sense to our clients. I had to think about how our clients were experiencing our service. I now was on the other side having to think about things I had never considered, having to put structures in place, manage consultants, develop strategy, business development, and create client proposals. Looking at my journey, I came from structure to no structure and then ventured into consultancy. Those three mindsets are completely different. How I thought as an employee in a bank/employer who had everything in place, how I thought for an employer who was a start-up who had to figure out a lot and how I think as a consultant who is running her own business. Everyone should experience both…experience employment because it gives you some sort of structure especially if the organization is structured, guidance, and direction of how things could look if they are done well. When you move over to entrepreneurship you are able to start off with some sort of structure that you can then build on. At the same time, entrepreneurship forces you to exercise your creativity. To see solutions in problems and how things can be done differently. As an individual, you need to do both as it will give you a perspective you would never have gotten before.
Your take on Leadership?
We are all leaders because leadership is about influence. For as long as you have even one person you are influencing, then you are a leader. Beyond the influence, you should be able to answer three things?
- Do you inspire that person to be a better version of themselves?
- Do you care about that person and do they actually know that you care about them? are you expressing that care in healthy ways?
- Can people trust your leadership through good times and when times are bad?
Leadership is also about identifying the areas that need improvement and working on them to be better.
Final words to young and upcoming professionals
Many times life doesn’t go the way you planned. You need to be agile and need to adapt. You can get good out of any situation. I consider my early career days to have been turbulent since things did not go as expected, but good things came out of every single role I held. In hindsight, I learned at least one thing from every role. You can get good out of any situation, even when it doesn’t seem like any good will come out of it. One of the mistakes I made earlier on but is clearer now is I did not have a concrete plan that was backed with activity, instead, it was more like a general goal of what I wanted to.
Have a plan, work the plan, adjust the plan, and have somebody to hold you accountable.