Seven young business leaders in Kenya share the best career advice they ever received

Seven young business leaders in Kenya share the best career advice they ever received

1400 933 Yvonne Kilonzo
Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

Good career advice is magic! Whether you are just getting started or at the peak of your career, insightful professional advice will not only help you excel in your day-to-day but also see you through career transition and advancement.

At Shortlist, we are consistently inspired by our clients and partners who have made their mark in Kenya early on in their careers. Like us, you might be wondering — how did they do it?

We asked seven young business leaders in Nairobi to share the best career advice that has propelled them to rewarding and impactful careers.

Tweet us at @Shortlisthires with your favourite one!

Christopher Madison, CEO — Dentsu Aegis Network

Christopher Madison is CEO at Dentsu Aegis Network, a Marketing and Advertising company that innovates the way brands are built. Dentsu strives to make its clients’ brands win in a changing world. Chris shared his perspective with us:

“The worst business advice I ever received was “do what you love” at my New York University graduation-commencement. I have since learned “do what makes you money” works much better for me. I know, I know — it’s not exactly the stuff that makes a good Instagram post. And on one level, this approach goes against everything our culture tells us we should do with our careers. But there’s something to be said for financial stability.

To a greater extent than most of us want to admit, you’re only as principled and independent-minded as your bank account allows you to be. “Do what you love” is probably much better advice for someone who’s born rich, or holds a tenured academic position, than it is for the rest of us 99 percenters.

Besides, are we really so sure that the best thing to do with passion is attempting to monetise it, anyway? Why assume it’s easier to turn passion into money than it is to turn money into passion? Why not side hustle for love, and enjoy your career to make money?”

Lelo Koinange, Regional Operations Manager — Humanist Institute for Co-operation with Developing Countries (Hivos)

Lelo Koinange is the Kenya Regional Operations Manager at Hivos, an international organisation that seeks new solutions to persistent global issues. Hivos works on projects that are against discrimination, inequality, and abuse of power with the aim of moving to a world where all people have the same rights, irrespective of gender, beliefs or sexual orientation. Here is Lelo’s advice:

“I had a great HR mentor earlier on in my career; she was both fire and wind on any given day. What resonates with me till today was her opening and closing statement at literally all meetings and that was, “Go the extra mile, never settle for what’s expected of you” by Nadya Salim.

I know you’ve heard it a million times, but the truth is if you want results you have to be willing to put in the work — and more. Develop a great personal brand that’s based on working harder than everyone around you. A few guidelines for this:

  • Get in early
  • Ask the questions no one wants to
  • Do more research than what’s requested
  • Understanding the business of the organisation no matter your position in the organisation
  • Take risks early on in your career
  • Identify your skills and utilise them
  • Acknowledge that mistakes are part of learning

…as long as you never ever settle for what’s expected.”

Wawira Njiru, Founder and Executive Director — Food for Education Foundation

Wawira Njiru is the Founder and Executive Director at Food for Education Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation in Kenya that provides heavily-subsidised meals to students in urban primary schools. The firm sources fresh food directly from farmers and uses a central kitchen model to deliver the nutritious meal. Here is what Wawira had to share:

“I was lucky to discover what I wanted to do early in life, but along the way, like any other young person, I found myself distracted by other interests I wanted to pursue. I started a Masters in Public Health thinking I wanted to get into the health system but discovered that I was not as passionate about that and decided to focus on building Food for Education and providing meals to more children.

It’s easy to get side-tracked especially if you’re talented (or think you are) in many things, but there’s a lot of value in mastering one thing and learning how to do it well.

There’s also a lot of value in consistency and learning how to do things excellently. It may sound boring but doing the same thing over and over will help you become better and a master in your field.”

Ariane Fisher, Managing Director, East Africa — Shortlist

Ariane Fisher is our Managing Director based at the Shortlist Nairobi office. Shortlist helps growing companies in Africa and India build and develop world-class teams. The Shortlist platform screens candidates using predictive chat-based interviews and online competency-based assessments, letting employers skip the most time-consuming and bias-prone phases of hiring. Here is what Ariane shared with us:

Surround yourself with the right people — There is no single greater influence on who you are and who you will become than the people you spend time with. Surround yourself with people who you think are doing interesting and important work, who you can learn from, and who you can grow with.

Listen, listen, listen — Develop the ability to ask great questions, and truly listen to other perspectives. Build comfort with having your mind changed with new evidence, and for making everyone around you feel heard.

Learn how to give and receive difficult feedback — Developing the skill early to give critical and constructive feedback to those around you, as well as seek out and truly receive critical feedback yourself, will help you in your entire career.”

Christopher Mwirigi, Learning and Development Manager — I&M Bank

Christopher Mwirigi is the Learning & Development Manager at I&M Bank Ltd, a privately owned commercial bank. The bank is a dominant player in the Kenyan market and has been consistently growing by innovating the type and range of products and services it offers. Here is Christopher’s advice:

“For me, I remember being told that, ‘Always remember that integrity is something that nobody can ever take away from you. You always give it away willingly.’ That was from a professional mentor, and it is a lesson that has stuck with me for the rest of my career and life.

Another one I received from a very special leader I reported to called Hellen Akello was, ‘Never come to my desk with a problem only, always come with a problem and a solution.

She was a brilliant leader I must add, and that lesson has been with me ever since and will follow me for the rest of my career.”

Isis Nyongo’ Madison, CEO — MumsVillage

Isis Nyongo is CEO at MumsVillage, a vibrant online village in Kenya that enables mothers to access and share locally relevant content and products through peer-to-peer communities. The parenting website provides resources, support and expert advice for pregnant women and parents for them to relax and express themselves among a community of like-minded friends. Isis shared her advice with us:

“As I reflect on the advice I’ve received over the years, I consider myself quite fortunate to have a diverse pool of people in my life to seek advice from. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned along the way is to understand the perspective of the person giving the advice and how they perceive you.

For example, if your high school friend works in an industry completely different from yours, it may be more helpful to seek advice on navigating office politics (since they happen everywhere!) as opposed to advice on which graduate program to choose. The person giving the advice must be giving informed opinions and not just an opinion because you asked them for it or it was shared unsolicited.

That said, one of the best pieces of advice I received was from my brother almost a decade ago when I was deciding whether or not to accept an offer from a company for a senior role. He works in academia, and I work in tech so our fields and work environments couldn’t be more different. But this is what he said that helped me then and continues to help me to date:

“Know what people want you to do and if that is work you want to do.”

He shared examples of how when you get to a certain level of expertise, you’ll attract opportunities that want that expertise, but perhaps you no longer want to keep doing an aspect of what you’ve been doing so well.

For example, you may excel at building strategy documents but may get so tired of doing them that that’s the last thing you want to carry forward into a new role. This has helped me make so many decisions, big and small, about how I spend my time and also enabled me to open up opportunities to others.”

Fiona Mungai, Managing Director — Endeavour Kenya

Fiona Mungai is the Managing Director at Endeavour Africa Limited, a not-for-profit organisation that supports high-impact entrepreneurs around the world. Endeavour offers advice to entrepreneurs from a network of world-class business leaders with the aim of breaking down economic and cultural barriers to entrepreneurship. Here are the words of advice that Fiona consciously tries to live by and have this far healthily manifested in her life as a young woman in corporate leadership:

“There is no truism or realism in the pursuit of WORK / LIFE BALANCE — it’s a myth. In order to thrive, we should strive to integrate what really matters into ONE LIFE with harmony — everything you do complements your life’s work.

I received this advice from a Harvard Business School Professor — Prof Lynda Applegate during an Executive Education Program. I initially thought this applies more to women as there’s a lot of discourse on working women trying to balance life and having it all together. As I reflect more upon it, it definitely applies across the board.

An example I can draw from is when I decided to go back to Graduate School — I had attempted to combine both school and work but found that at any given time there was always a casualty to my juggling and that tended to be school. And because I was aware that the networks and top tier education were integral to where my career was headed, I opted to enrol to a full-time program at the London School of Economics (LSE) and quit my job at a leading Private Equity firm.

Looking back, that was probably the best decision of my life as the LSE created amazing opportunities and ultimately turbo-charged my career in ways that I would’ve never imagined.”

Thanks to the seven leaders for invaluable advice!

What’s the best advice you have received in the pursuit of your career goals? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section or on Twitter @Shortlisthires.

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