How Transformational Women Leaders are Built

January 16, 2017

Institutions set themselves up for greater success when they have women in leadership positions: recent studies by Credit Suisse and other institutions show that companies with women leaders earn higher returns on equity. But to achieve results, it’s not enough to hire more women or promote them into top roles; women leaders need the kinds of support structures that any leader needs to excel and drive the organization forward.

In our “Supporting Women Leaders, Transforming Institutions” webinar, we featured two pairs of women leaders who recently participated in our “Leadership and Diversity for Innovation” program. The goal: to hear what insights and tools from the program have been most crucial to their leadership and their organizations. Carol Furtado, head of HR at Ujjivan Financial Services—a newly licensed small finance bank in India—attended the program in 2015 along with a high-potential woman leader she selected: Aditi Biswas, Ujjivan’s National Manager of Operational Risk and Compliance. Emma Kimani, CEO of K-Rep Fedha Services (KFS) in Kenya—which provides services to the country’s community-based financial institutions—attended in 2016 and invited Faith Wambugu, the projects and operations lead, to join her. During the program, each pair worked together on a strategic business challenge facing their institutions, a challenge that impacted their own leadership as well as their organizations’ success in serving women clients. 

Supporting women leaders matters

Sarah Buitoni, a Specialist with Women’s World Banking’s Leadership and Diversity team, kicked off the conversation by asking why gender-diverse leadership matters. KFS’ Kimani said diversity “helps to bring in people with different competencies,” motivates staff to reach their full potential, and helps institutions serve their customers better. Ujjivan serves nearly 100 percent women clients so similarly, for Furtado, diversity brings a “more holistic approach” and results in products and services better customized for clients.

[youtube ]Biswas made the point that serving women clients and staff better requires more than just appointing women to leadership positions. “At Ujjivan we consciously engage [staff] to enhance their skills so they can contribute in a meaningful way.” She also pointed out how cultural obstacles and bias can be overcome through supportive policies within a workplace: “in the [Indian] subcontinent, we…face discrimination and sexual harassment. Ujjivan has a very effective harassment policy,” which helps women air issues without hurting their chances of promotion.

Applying leadership training in real time

For the leaders, skills built in the program have contributed to personal effectiveness and to solving their real-time business challenges. The Ujjivan team’s challenge was how to transition from a microfinance institution into a small finance bank with minimal disruption to operations. Furtado has had to lead in a rapidly changing environment while keeping Ujjivan’s business thriving, its staff motivated and its customer loyalty intact. To help smooth the change management process and minimize disruption, Biswas spearheaded a framework to understand the operational risks of transformation. Being a part of the transition team, she added, “has helped me to work as a facilitator” and step into a more strategic role within the organization.

Keeping with the theme of managing change, the challenge for KFS has been to keep operating at its highest potential as the organization’s mission grows and shifts. “At the point when we joined the program, we had just finalized drafting our five-year strategic plan, and at the same time…the institutions that we work with [were] becoming regulated,” Kimani said. KFS leadership had to “make sure we have an optimal, competent, self-driven and productive workforce and the structure to deliver” on their own strategy while meeting the needs of their evolving client organizations. To achieve this goal, both Kimani and Wambugu have adopted a coaching approach to leadership, engaging their teams and empowering them to step up and lead. Wambugu noted that she has committed to building leadership in herself and others at KFS, and has seen her style shift from just managing to inspiring.

Most impactful modules

Asked to highlight the modules from the program that impacted them most, themes around the importance of coaching, building support networks, negotiating, and reflecting on one’s own leadership style and how it affects others emerged.

For Wambugu, it was Building Relationships. “It has to be clear who my support network will be, and that alone, I cannot be the leader I want to be.” Biswas said the Negotiation module helped her to gain confidence “as well as the buy-in of different stakeholders in implementing my strategic business initiative.”

Kimani said she valued, Handling Difficult Situations. “You have to have listening and questioning skills. You’ve got to hold conversations with people you are working with on an adult-to-adult mode,” in reference to Erin Berne’s Transactional Analysis model of communication. She also emphasized the importance of “coaching the leaders of institutions into becoming more transformational leaders” to better tackle tough business challenges and build productive relationships with staff and clients.

For Furtado, reflecting on her own leadership style has translated directly into better results: “I found that there were very simple solutions that were easily executable if I could just make a little time for myself to think out loud and get a lot of perspectives.” 

Advice for burgeoning women leaders

To women who want to advance in their careers, Biswas advised, “Introspection and understanding yourself is very important.” Wambugu added, “Believe in yourself. If you think you can do it, even a little bit, go for it.” Kimani said, “Have a vision of who you want to be, and no matter the challenge, just keep focusing and keep doing what you have to do to get to where you want to go.” Furtado agreed: “Stay focused in your goals, and do your best in all that you do.”

Finally, Wambugu added. “For me, I’m looking at the world from a very different perspective thanks to this program.”

Women’s World Banking is currently seeking applications for the Class of 2017. Learn more about the program here or apply now!