A conversation with Linda Kachingwe – Head of Marketing: Africa and Private Equity Rand Merchant Bank

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LKS: Thanks so much for our conversation my leader and hearty congratulations on your 21st wedding anniversary!
 
LM: It’s my absolute pleasure, My Leader, I know that our conversation will help many young leaders on their personal and professional journeys. We thank God for his guidance on our journey of marriage with Sva, and hope to have joy, love and happiness for the next 21 years. 
 
LKS: Having worked in leadership roles at Pan African and global levels across various cultures, what have been some of the leadership lessons you have learnt over the years?
 
LM: These have been some of the most rewarding experiences in my personal and professional life, I have learnt so much and grown so much from interacting with people of different languages, cultures, religions and styles of work. These lessons have helped me to become a better leader, which in turn I hope will make me a better human being. Although I’ve learnt so many lessons, some of the key ones I would like to highlight are: 
 
• When being appointed into a role, that deals with a different country or culture or different regions, it is so important to understand your own personal prejudices, conscious or unconscious biases, preconceived ideas; well founded and not so well founded perceptions and your own personal beliefs. These provide the lens lens through which you see the world. That lens, if too clouded by your own prejudices, bigotry, beliefs and biases, it may distort your views and affect your judgement and decisions. Over time, I have worked a lot on this aspect of my life and my leadership approach and I have challenged myself to always clean my lens of unnecessary and unproductive prejudices. It is very important for us to “ suspend judgment “ about a country, region, culture, religion and practices of any environment you work in outside of your country of origin. You must learn to understand each world from the view point of those who live in it and not only from your particular vantage point. This has really helped me in my work, in my relationships, decisions and judgments. 
 
• I have also learnt that it is more important to always be “ a humble student” rather than “ an arrogant expert “ about the countries, regions, cultures and religions I am involved in. This has required the humility to ask questions, the curiosity to learn more and discernment to fully grasp the nuances that are not immediately obvious. I have seen so many leaders fail because of the arrogant posture they take about different countries, cultures and religions. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a student of different cultures, religions, countries and environments. This has given me a unique window into the very soul of many societies and have thought me so much about the uniqueness of each environment. 
 
• I have also greatly benefited from building deep and mutually beneficial relationships with people across different countries. This requires a heavy investment of time, effort, energy and commitment to really connect with people at a human level. These relationships are nurtured over long periods of time through honesty, transparency, respect, humility, and authenticity. They are built with people across linguistic, cultural, age, status, hierarchical and gender boundaries. Many of these relationships have lasted for many years, some have transcended corporate boundaries. I have watched in dismay how some leaders, with great promise, lose opportunities to succeed in different countries because of their failure to invest in quality relationships. The superficial, artificial and self serving narrow relationships have stifled many projects, business opportunities, mergers and acquisitions. 
 
• It is so important to fully understand the socio-economic,  geo-political, market trends, customer preferences, demographic changes and all other developments in the markets you are involved in. This requires a huge dedication of time, energy and resources to fully understand and appreciate the nuances of each market, each country, and each region within a country. Over the years, I have travelled the length and breadth of many countries, met hundreds of customers, interacted with many stakeholders; observed many cultural and traditional practices; visited numerous factories, business and trading areas. This has given me some amazing insights into the nuances of each market, client, community, city, region, stakeholder, political and economic policy positions and the future trends in these markets. I have seen so many research policy positions, documents from thinktanks and media conclusions about countries, markets, industries and business that are so far removed from the reality I see on the ground. 
 
• Lastly, one of the most important lessons is to understand that true leadership is about influencing and being influenced. This requires a leader to have key critical attributes such as humility, openness, approachability, persuasiveness, and the ability to listen, communicate and engage. God had a great plan to give us one mouth and two ears, in the leadership context, across different cultures and countries we need leaders to listen more, sense more and talk less. This ability to influence allows a leader to drive change, to achieve buy in, to inculcate a culture, to land big projects, to make mergers and acquisitions to succeed and to make a positive impact on others. On the other hand, the humility to be influenced enables a leader to change course, to adjust a strategy to local conditions, to take learning from one market to the next and to embrace the environments that I find myself in. So many leaders have failed because they use positional power, head office rhetoric, organizational hierarchy to advance positions, these are either rejected or those are sometimes met with silent resistance. In addition to this, those who cannot be influenced end up being one dimensional, set in their ways and have a one track mind about things. 
 
For any executive, spending time outside head office, or away from your country of birth is a huge opportunity for personal and professional growth. I have greatly benefited from this opportunity by working across a number of countries on the African continent and by working with colleagues across the world. 
 
LKS: Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?
 
LM: I have been blessed with some amazing people who have guided, moulded, and coached me throughout my life. Many of these wonderful people have been part of my leadership journey from a very young age up to today. They include priests, Sunday school teachers, sports coaches, veterans of the liberation movement, line managers, friends, comrades, colleagues, teammates and family members. They have been there for and with me through some of the most difficult times and through moments of triumph and victory. 
 
The person who has had the greatest impact in my life as a person and as a leader was my late father, Mzwandile Wellington Mali. There are so many things I can mention that demonstrate how he moulded and guided me into who I am today. For the purposes of our conversation, I would like to highlight the following : 
 
• My father inculcated a culture of lifelong learning – he insisted that I learn about a range of interests from politics, arts, culture, wildlife, geography etc. Most importantly he encouraged three important attributes- firstly, to have an inquisitive mind that seeks new knowledge and in depth understanding about my environment and my world, and secondly, to formulate, listen to, appreciate divergent views from a wide variety of sources, this gave me the ability to research in formal and informal ways in search of knowdge and thirdly, he inculcated a culture of reading, reading material from a variety of sources with different topics- this helped broaden my intellectual perspective. 
 
• My father instilled in me very strong values and principles that he personally lived by. These principles defined who he was and he was prepared to stand by them, regardless of personal consequences. Some of these principles  and values are probity, humility, selflessness, gender sensitivity, cultural awareness, integrity and a deep care about the welfare of others. He used to tell me often that “ principles don’t bend, they break”. These values and principles have held me in good stead on my leadership journey. As I grew older and had more responsibilities, I truly appreciated the importance of these principles on my leadership journey. There have also been moments where these principles have been tested, and his teachings have been invaluable in those moments. 
 
• My father simply loved people, he was like a magnet that attracted people, from all walks of life. He taught me to treat everyone with respect and dignity regardless of race,gender, status, age, nationality or religion. He exuded genuine warmth, cared immensely about each person and always made people feel special. I was able to watch and learn from him at a very early age – I did not understand then, that these were invaluable leadership lessons. 
 
• My father was a man of words, be it a speech, a conversation, an argument, a perspective or story. Being with him could range from a deep conversation; a hilarious comment, a fascinating story, a history lesson,  or watching him holding court with family and friends. I learnt so much from each of these encounters and over time I realized how these became part of my own DNA. Through these lessons, I learnt about storytelling; driving a message through humor; having deep conversations; teaching and coaching and building relationships with people from all walks of life. Through him I learnt the power of words – spoken or written, directed to one or to a few or to many – the use of words are a powerful and important skill for any leader to have. 
 
• My father had unbelievable balance between a global reach and deep roots. In terms of his global reach, he was a leader who reached large audiences; had interactions with many high powered stakeholders; was a founder member of many sports and cultural organisations; was a pioneer of many institutions yet he was very grounded in his identity, culture, family, and traditions. He has challenged me to stretch myself, to be the very best I can be, to reach global levels of excellence, in the same vein, he would hold me back, humble me, make sure I know what really matters. Through sheer force of example he showed me how to be a good father, a loving husband, a leader of our broader family and a committed community builder. Learning from him, I strive to have a global reach, but also to have deep roots in my identity, culture, traditions and my family. 
 
I was blessed to have a father like Mzwandile Mali, his true impact on me is getting clearer as I get older. Only now do I realize that I was learning at the feet of a true leadership giant. His leadership did not come from titles or positions held, It came from his profound influence on all those he touched. 
 
LKS: We have seen situations where two people who are equally ambitious, start a job under very similar circumstances and yet, one makes it to the top and the other one gets stuck in the corporate ladder. What would you say are the ingredients for progress and success?
 
LM: I think there are many factors that determine success or failure; these may range from : 
 
• ability to work with others; 
• ability to execute; 
• performance history; 
• relationship with peers and stakeholders; 
• interpersonal skills; 
 
The vast majority of people have dreams, goals and ambitions about their lives. In my life, I have learnt to be more critical of myself, to have ambitions that are aligned with my values, to always receive and take feedback and to keep improving myself. This has allowed me to “ run my own race”, focus on my own development, and making choices about my career. There have been moments when an organisation or those closest to me wanted me to take up a particular role, but I would not take up those roles, because these were not part of my career plans or journey. There have always been moments when I wanted to be involved in a particular project or to do a certain role, but the organization or its leaders would choose somebody else- those are moments that tested me, fortunately there was never a moment that was so bad that I wanted to quit. Finally, I am more aware of my strengths and limitations, the roles that I would be suited for and what would give me job satisfaction and fulfillment
 
I would advise people thinking about these issues to dig deep and ask themselves some questions about success, failure, growth, and corporate mobility : 
 
– What is your ambition, is your ambition linked to your skills and performance ? 
 
– What gives you job satisfaction, are you sure that the job you seek will give you job satisfaction and fulfillment
 
– How important is money and status to you, would you trade those off with happiness, a balanced life, job satisfaction and fulfillment and a sense of purpose? 
 
– If you feel stuck in a corporate setting, what are the objective reasons why you feel you are stuck, have you discussed these with your line manager, peers, colleagues, mentors or coaches ? What do they say? Do they mostly agree with you that you are stuck, or do they tell you, with various reasons that either, you are not ready, are not performing at the level required, that you maybe lack initiative or that you lack emotional intelligence. These are periods of deep reflection, painful introspection and willingness to receive feedback from others. These are the “ person in the mirror “ moments, where you have to take a long hard look at yourself, and make a sober and dispassionate assessment of your key attributes, recognized strengths, God given talents and obvious and so less obvious areas of development. In addition to this, you may have to reflect on the feedback given by your peers, line managers, stakeholders and other interested parties. This feedback may be disappointing, sometimes painful or humiliating – the key is to really be able to sift through all the feedback and use them as a learning tool. Sometimes the feedback is real, and taking it means more patience, more reflections, a change in approach or style or a change in roles. In other times, the feedback may couch prejudices, favoritisms, victimization, falsehoods – a response to such feedback may range from challenging it, or exposing the unethical conduct or may result in a person living a company or a business. 
 
Over the length of my professional career I have given so many of this feedback to Colleagues, friends, team mates, team members, relatives etc – such feedback is sometimes welcome, yet sometimes is not welcome. In the end, all I can do is to answer three basic questions:
 
• Was I fair, objective and truthful ? 
 
• Did I give the advice without being influenced by any undue influences or prejudices? 
 
• Was the feedback given with humanity, sensitivity with the person’s best interests at heart ? 
 
I hope that each person would also look at their situation with an open mind, being more critical of themselves and doing a lot of introspection. From there it’s easier to make decisions about your experiences, the feedback you have received, the choices you have and the steps that need to be taken. 
 
LKS: What are a few resources you would recommend to someone looking to gain insight into becoming a better leader?
 
LM: There are a lot of resources out there. These resources help leaders to become better at their craft and to continuously improve, some of my favorite ones are : 
 
• Now Discover your strength – Marcus Buckingham and Donald O.Clifton
• The Leadership Challenge – James Kouzes and Barry Posner
• Good to Great – Jim Collins 
• Leader eat Last – Simon Sinek
• The five dysfunctions of a team – Patrick Lencioni
• Connecting the dots – John Chambers 
• Multipliers – Liz Wiseman
•The Pressure Cooker, 
 
I hope you will find them as useful as I have and use them to grow and develop yourself to be a better leader and a better professional, wife, Mum and a valuable member of society. 

LKS: What advice would you give to someone who is currently working in a job in Mzuzu, Malawi or Port Harcourt, Nigeria but has dreams of being in a leadership position at Pan African or global level?
 
LM: I was brought up to focus on the job at hand, do your very best at it and not make my dreams of the next role to affect my current role. I was also taught that the path to the next role is paved by my success in the current role. My father used to say, “ Do your very best during the day, everyday in your role as if it’s the only one you will ever have, but dream every night, about the future job you desire, but at the crack of dawn, think about how you will show up for success in your current role”
 
With my father’s words constantly ringing in my head, I have just always done my very best in all my roles and the bosses have always come to offer me new roles. As I grew older, ambitions about job types, roles and status disappeared, my dreams also changed – they became more about my wishes for my family, my marriage, my children, my society and the world. The ambition and dreams became about being a better person, making a difference in the lives of others and living a life of purpose. 
 
When I reached 50 years old last year, I felt content – I am married to my wife for 21 years, we have 3 beautiful children, I play a role in my broader community, and want to make a larger difference in my society. Sometimes the lofty job is a mirage, sometimes people give up so much in their quest or pursuit of that role, but find that when they get it, it’s not what it was meant to be, or find that they sacrificed so much in pursuit of this, and the price was too high to pay. 
 
I have been fortunate that my ideal jobs or role came whilst I was enjoying the roles I had; whilst I still had the love of those closest to me, and when my ambitions changed, I was even more content and in balance in my life. 

To the colleague in Port Harcourt in Nigeria, Mzuzu in Malawi, I would say: 

• Never let your dreams fade, be clear about your goals and ambitions, work hard and diligently towards them; 
• Make your current role an important bridge towards your next role, give your current role your very, very best and lastly 
• Always define success as being broader than s specific job, material possessions, accumulated wealth to more about overall fulfillment and joy of a life well lived, a life of substance and purpose. 
 
LKS: You have achieved so much both personally and professionally, what are you most proud of?
 
LM: My greatest pride professionally are the people I have worked with, that I’ve touched and that I have had an opportunity to influence. Watching them grow in their personal and professional lives is the greatest joy. When I see people like you Linda, one of the best marketers I know, doing very well at a personal and professional level, then I am satisfied and can wish you and others the very best. These conversations with young leaders, also showcase the depth of talent we have across the continent. I can look back with great pride and satisfaction on the hundreds of colleagues who have really achieved some wonderful things in their lives, their success and fulfillment is my greatest joy and achievement.
 
At a personal level, I have come a long way, at 18 years old I had been expelled from school, I was in and out of jail, I was involved in a criminal trial on trumped up charges, I was running away from
the police, I did not have much of a future. My father had this profound influence on me, and he encouraged and inspired me through those dark moments. He would tell me how far he thought I could get, and wanted me to go to Harvard University one day. This felt like a pipe dream, as my life was characterized by the strife and violence of the 1980’s. Later on at RHODES university I received a suspended expulsion for my student activism. 
 
Then in 2013, my line manager gave me an opportunity to go to the Harvard Business School to do an Advanced Management Programme ( AMP). I was later voted by the class to be the class speaker at our graduation ceremony. My life had come almost full circle, there I was at Harvard Business School, as my father dreamt, I had my wife and children to support me, and to be inspired in their own journey. 
 
My life itself is coming full circle- My alma mater,  Rhodes university, that had handed me a suspended expulsion awarded me their prestigious leadership award, the Old Rhodian Award for my leadership role in society. Later on my old high school, Ithembelihle High School, where I had been expelled honored me with an invite to address the Matriculants. These events closed very painful chapters in my life. 
 
Finally, watching my children excel in their own lives, and have their accomplishments has given me much joy. I have watched them blossom and grow as uniquely talented individuals. Lihle, my eldest daughter, is working hard in the corporate world, has made amazing strides as a property finance specialist, and is growing to become a fine young woman with a huge social and social media presence. Amara, my youngest daughter, is finishing her high school year, she has emerged as a deeply conscious, sensitive, passionate and artistic young lady. Liam, youngest child, is starting in high school, is already the captain of his basketball team, and is enjoying the life of a 13 year old young man entering high school. 
 
The proudest of all my achievements is the relationship I have with my wife, Sva. We have been blessed with 21 years of marriage bliss, most importantly, this year, we will celebrate a relationship of 30 years of being together. She has been my partner, companion, soul mate, and the love of my life. I am proud of everything we have done and achieved together. 
 
When I look at all these aspects of my life, I feel blessed and content with life, my life is finding its equilibrium. 

LKS: Which one thing do you wish you had done differently?
 
LM: There are a number of things I would have done better, but if I had to pick one it would be to have lived a much more balanced life more earlier. There were times in my life where I was completely unbalanced in my family life, health and my finances. Through my wife’s support, guidance, cajoling and coaching, I am much more balanced in terms of my health, my family life and finances. It has not been easy, it required deep introspect, courageous conversations and vulnerability. It was easier to rationalize my actions, to make empty promises, but it takes real commitment, courage, honesty and leadership to change your ways. The reality is that you can’t lead anyone unless you lead yourself. I wish I had changed earlier, I am now happy because the choices I have made. I have just finished a thorough medical examination, I was so happy that all these efforts had paid off. 
 
LKS: What’s the biggest risk you have ever taken?
 
LM: The one that comes to mind was the decision to leave the legal profession to start a new challenge without an alternative job. My first job was as a Candidate Attorney at a reputable law firm,  Cheadle, Thompson and Haysom. This was a wonderful job with great prospects, but I kept on agonizing about whether the legal profession was the right career for me. I was very happy at Cheadle, Thompson and Haysom, I had amazing bosses, great colleagues and was involved in interesting work. But I knew that I was not fulfilled, I did not want to be a lawyer and did not want to continue to be in the profession.  

I wanted a challenge- I also wanted to play a role in the country’s transition in 1994. There were no job offers, no interviews lined up, but there was an opportunity to work for 3 months for an organization that was involved in voter education called IMMSA. There was no job security, there was no guaranteed pay, and you had to be contracted everyday to be paid. This was a huge personal and career risk, but this was a challenge and this would give me an opportunity to teach people about how to vote, and about the new constitution. This was such an exciting prospect and was going to be a consequential for my future. 
 
I was faced with many questions, how do I tell my loved ones, my colleagues, my bosses and other people I knew. My best option was to talk to my father, after a long conversation, he asked me three fundamental questions : 
 
– Why did you choose the legal profession ? I told him that I took the decision to do law when I was in jail, when I saw the injustice of the then justice system on young people who were awaiting trial. 
 
– What is it that attracted you to the law? I told him it was the sense of the need for justice, equity, fairness, and equality. 
 
– What did you want to achieve in your life ? I told him that it was to make a difference in the lives of others, and to my community, country and the world. 
 
Without him telling me what to do, he had helped me to make a very important decision that would shape my life. When I reflect on this now, this was one of the most important decisions I took in my career. I did not stay in the role because I had great relationships at work, I did not continue to be in a law firm because I was married to the status and prestige of being a lawyer and lastly, I did not stay in my job as the only way to give meaning to my life, I had committed myself to make a difference in all my spheres of influence and to live my values in any capacity I found myself. 
 
I remain highly indebted to Cheadle Thompson and Haysom for the opportunity they gave and to IMMSA for the challenge they gave me, my father for his sage questions and to Sva for supporting me through those interesting times. 

In the end, that decision paid off, I am very happy I faced those choices at such an early stage of my career. 
 
LKS: What’s the most important factor you consider when hiring someone?
 
LM: I think that there are always a number of key things that should be given such as integrity, competence, and qualifications, the thing that always sways me in the end is ATTITUDE. This is the most remarkable character trait for me as it gives people the edge; this ATTITUDE helps : 
 
• people to see customers as the reason why we are in business; 
• people see opportunities where others can’t ; 
• people to be resilient in turbulent times ; 
• people to have the courage to challenge the status quo; and 
• people to give us as leaders regular constructive feedback. 

So I would say a very positive, “ can do” attitude is a huge factor in my decisions. 
 
LKS: Finally, please share your thoughts or perhaps a secret recipe on how you win over people.
 
LM: Lol I am not sure if I have any secret recipe, all I know is that I always try to do the same things consistently: 
 
• treat everybody with respect and dignity regardless of their status, race, gender or religion; 
 
• be open to new ideas, always willing to engage and develop new perspectives through accommodating the views of others; 
 
• be visible to people, have time to get to know them and to have deep and meaningful relationships with them; 
 
• communicate consistently our challenges, our direction, our choices; 
 
• transparency and integrity on such difficult issues such as employment equity, rewards, performance management, appointments, promotions, recognition and remuneration; and 
 
• by just being myself, and relate people as Lincoln without titles, in an ordinary language, without corporate trappings such as offices. 
 
LKS: Thank you for always making time to mentor and share knowledge with us,you continue to be a true inspiration.May God bless you abundantly my Leader. 

LM: I should thank you, My Leader, for such an engaging conversation, I hope many young leaders and entrepreneurs, from across the continent, will find resonance with our conversation. 

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