Finance is a notoriously male-dominated industry. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), women occupy less than 2% of bank CEO positions globally despite the fact that women in leadership positions at a bank is associated with higher bank stability and lower nonperforming loan ratios. It must be mentioned that lower- and middle-income countries are beating the global average with a higher percentage of female CEOs at banks.
One of these women is Mukwandi Chibesakunda, the CEO of the National Savings & Credit Bank of Zambia, known as NATSAVE. NATSAVE is a government-owned financial institution focused on financial inclusion. Since its establishment in 1972, Chibesakunda is the first woman to fill the top role.
How did Chibesakunda beat the odds to rise up the ranks in Zambia’s finance industry? Her secret is easier said than done; “Hard work and a can-do attitude.” Chibesakunda added, “Beyond just working hard, you have to have that self-belief and to follow through.”
Many women struggle with self-belief. While imposter syndrome, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills,” affects all genders, a study of 3,000 people in the UK found that 66% of women experienced it at work within the last year compared to 56% of men.
Chibesakunda has not let doubts overcome her. Shortly after starting her career, one of the leaders in the bank she was working at told her that the most she could hope to do was to be a clerk. She decided not to let this comment define her expectations for herself but fuel her drive to succeed.
Doubts tend to be stronger when someone has just gotten a promotion. “A lot of the time there is a focus on who else could have gotten the job and in doing that you start to focus on your own weaknesses,” said Chibesakunda. She believes that focusing on them manifests them. So instead, she has made the conscious decision to focus on her strengths and build upon them.
Chibesakunda sees her strength as an implementation, but it is more than that. She has the ability to make clear decisions and focus on them. When she was appointed CEO in January of 2018, she inherited a bank in disarray. In a story announcing her appointment, the Zambian Business Times wrote, “The odds stacked against the new Chief Executive Officer are daunting and will require a combined skill of deep banking knowledge and a politically shrewd posture.” Some of the “grave odds”, included labour unrest, auditor reports that the bank’s balance sheets were unreliable, and 13.9% of their portfolio at risk for credit default compared to the “acceptable industry threshold of 5%.”
One of their overarching challenges was that as a state-owned bank, they didn’t have a focus on profit-making in their DNA. In a display of focus, Chibesakunda said, “We operated almost like a social enterprise, although we are a commercial enterprise. You can’t have both; it’s either you are commercial or you are social. In the last year, I have been very clear. We are commercial.” It may not be a popular opinion, but in the long run, it will lead to more impact as NATSAVE realized that financial inclusion can be profitable. The bank itself is finally on the road to making profits. Chibesakunda stated that the trends indicate they will be profitable in 2 to 3 years.
This focus doesn’t mean you can’t do 2 things at once. Chibesakunda is also the mother to 4 children and was able to raise them while climbing the corporate ladder. On weekends, she focuses on family unless something on the weekend “checks certain boxes of adding value”. Chibesakunda believes that “whatever it is that you do, do it completely, be present, and be happy.” While this was advice from Chibesakunda to other mothers, working or not, it rings true for business as well.