13 years ago, Yvonne Manzi Makolo packed her bags and left Canada where she had lived for 10 years to return to Rwanda. Upon arrival, she worked in IT before she moved on to work with MTN- Rwanda. Today, she is the company’s Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) and also, currently the acting Chief Executive Officer (CEO). She talked to Nasra Bishumba about her journey and more.
Where did this journey begin?
I lived in Canada for 10 years working in IT as an application/web developer till I decided to move to Rwanda in 2003 where I worked with a World Bank project; an NGO called World Links, to computerize schools and train teachers on how to use computers. I joined MTN in 2006.
What life experiences/ influences have shaped your leadership style?
I was brought up by a single mum because my dad passed away when I was very young. I grew up in a family of very strong women and my mum, my aunts, my older sister were always good role models in terms of women being able to do what men can do and sometimes even better. I think that I have always gravitated towards that; because my mum brought us up to be very independent and strong women.
Your institution has a high number of women in management positions, is there a company policy to that effect?
MTN, as a company, globally is very open about giving equal opportunities to both men and women in any position. It is very big on diversity so it’s not a policy that the management team has to be, for example, 30 per cent women, but it’s about giving women the opportunity to compete for jobs and to grow.
Currently, the executive team has five women, but there are also many female junior managers right below us and there is a lot of coaching and training to build them into their roles as well.
People often tend to compare men and women leadership styles. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that there is some difference. I believe that women leaders are more empathetic, so they relate more to what’s happening in their teams’ lives. I think we have to be a little bit tougher, more assertive but we do have that soft side to us as well and in most cases, we manage to balance the two.
You said women leaders have to be more assertive, why is that?
Traditionally, people underestimate women in leadership and I went through that a lot when I had just started. I would walk into a meeting and I would be the only woman there. I find that it’s necessary that right from the beginning, you make it clear that you are not there to play; there is a reason why you are in that position and that you know what you are doing.
What are some of your favourite success stories of the women that you have worked with?
I have seen many. Our Head of Sales and Distribution started off in distribution in a more junior position and she has risen all the way to become the head of the department. There is also our Customer Experience Manager who has just gone for further studies. She started off as a service centre agent, then moved to finance, then to different departments till she took Customer Experience Management.
In Rwanda in general, I am always in awe of the fact that we have so many women in leadership positions, whether in government or private sector perspective. We have so many women leaders to look up to as role models.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
I think the toughest part is balancing it all. For me, it’s a constant juggling act, trying to balance work and family especially if you have children and not feel too guilty for not being there for them. Personally, I take it day by day. I make sure that at work, I am 100 per cent but I also have a cutoff point where I say at this time, I have to go home and see the children before they sleep. On weekends I have to spend time with the family and hang out with my friends.
What important management lesson have you learnt so far?
I have learnt that the toughest thing about being a leader is managing people. I have also learnt that you come to work to do a job not to please people or make friends. You shouldn’t obviously be mean to people but the mistake people make is to think that you can be everyone’s friend. Also, not everyone will like you and that’s okay.
What has been the biggest highlight of your career so far?
I think it’s about seeing how telecommunications has just transformed this country. Everybody has a phone, everybody knows the Internet and just seeing the transformation, especially here in Rwanda has been the highlight of my career.
What do you do to unwind?
Other than spending time with my children, I read a lot and I watch cooking shows.
What are you reading right now?
I am reading a very funny book by an American-Nigerian blogger called Luvvie Ajayi. It is a hilarious book about how people can do better.
What advice do you have for young girls who think that some of these jobs are out of reach?
What I tell my little cousins all the time is that they can do anything that they put their minds to and most of the time they can do it better than boys. It’s just a matter of knowing what you want and going for it. It’s scary sometimes. Up to now, I still get terrified about some situations but you must prepare and believe in it. No one should tell any girl, any different.