How to build relationships, learn as a leader and encourage creative thinking: Advice from CEO Jacqueline Opondo

Jacqueline Opondo is a hugely experienced business leader from Uganda. She’s led national and international organisations in both the public and private sectors. We were delighted to welcome her to a recent event and hear her advice on how to build strong networks, push yourself further and empowering young women.

Here are some of our highlights from Jacqueline’s question and answer session.

I think that’s a big mistake as a CEO, not investing in your people.

What’s something you wish you had known as a CEO earlier?

One of the things I would have learned and invested in more before is the benefits of networking. I found my circle of influence was limited to those I was related with in the revenue sector or from church. I am a very task-oriented person and sometimes I can be so focused on what needs to be done and deprioritise relationships. At the level of CEO however, what you need is more relationships. You build your team to do stuff, while you build the relationships.

What’s the worst professional advice you see or hear?

I think one of the worst pieces of advice I hear is that anyone can fit a role. There is a requirement for investing in people. The advice I see people giving is that other people will eventually get there, and you don’t need to invest in helping them get there. I think that’s a big mistake as a CEO, not investing in your people.

What is your career focus?

Career-wise I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do all the things I wanted to do. I don’t have anything left on my bucket list, so I should make a new list. One of the things I dreamed of was being able to work with an international organisation at a senior level. At a senior level, I worked with the Uganda Revenue Authority, and now I lead an international organisation. I desired to work with the World Bank and I have done that. I wanted to serve on boards of different sectors, and now it’s a privilege I serve on the board of a bank, a non-government organisation, a regulatory body and an international NGO - World Vision. I get to draw so much experience from that which helps me have a wide perspective of things going on across the world in my career.

What advice would you give your 30-year-old self?

Learn as much possible and invest in reading and growing. There’s a whole lot you can do that you look back later and say, I’m so glad I did that. I would tell her learn and invest in herself.

How do you know you are leading well?

When I see people I’m leading can lead better, I know I am leading well. How is my team growing to take over from me? But in addition, where are the results? Leading well without results is nothing. There must be consistency between the people growing and the results you are getting.

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What’s the hardest part of running your organisation?

The hardest part is bringing about change. As individuals, we don’t want to change, but also people get comfortable where they are. One of the hardest things is bringing about change. It must be thought through really well.

What’s the best career decision you’ve ever made?

To grow me. To invest in me. Most of us wait for an organisation to invest in us. Investing in terms of training courses, reading and growing as an individual to be a leader – that was the best career choice I made. Believing that I am worth investing in.

How do you push yourself not to settle for mediocrity?

Strive is one of my favourite words because it draws on my willingness to continue to strive for excellence. It’s a decision you make every day when you wake up in the morning.

What strategies do you use to build relationships?

I’m a very task-oriented person. Building relationships is like writing with my left hand. I know how important they are but I have to consciously build them. I schedule it into my calendar to make sure I follow through. I know it is not my normal way, so I have to make a conscious decision. Put it in the calendar. Make sure it is done.

How do you encourage creative thinking?

I ask the people, this is what we’re going to do, what do you think? I tell my team I do not have the monopoly of ideas. I have no monopoly over ideas. I give opportunity for the team to come up with ideas of innovation and then when they come up with those ideas, a number of people speak to them and then give the go-ahead and do it. I usually say I am a team leader, but I’m not a custodian of solutions.

What is one thing you are committed to being world class at?

I think one thing I am committed to being world class at is leading well. In my career, I started reading books by John C Maxwell and I have been mentored by John C Maxwell. About five years ago I became a certified coach and trainer, to help others.

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What does success mean to you and how do you judge success?

My definition of success is serving other people. How can I serve other people? That is how I define success. There is no doubt I see opportunities to grow other leaders. Our future as a country depends on our young people and they need people to invest in their growth. For me success is how can I help those people to become better leaders?

How do you run your meetings?

There must be an agenda that has been prepared beforehand. I also expect everyone to have read the minutes or the documentation that is required before the meeting. Right now, I chair the Capital Markets Authority Board, so most of the work is done through committees. As a chair my role is to facilitate through discussion, making sure each person contributes but in a structured way. I prefer meetings that are shorter but very focused.

What book do you recommend to others?

21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John Maxwell. It sets a basis for someone to grow their leadership and starts by how you lead yourself, then others, then how do you lead bigger teams. I believe in each person there is a potential for greatness. When that greatness comes out, you can become a better person who influences others.

How are you promoting gender equality?

When I look at an individual, I don’t look at gender, I don’t look at tribe, I look at what can this person be? I don’t differentiate if this person is male or female; I look at everyone as having potential. As a country I know there’s been a lot of focus – several initiatives focusing on empowerment of girls, but much more still needs to be done. We must make sure we do it intentionally, via legislation; sometimes it calls for that kind of thing. As leaders we must make sure we look at both sexes and say everyone has potential and look at that in everyone.

The Africa List CDC Group