Finding Me, Viola Davis’s intrepid autobiography, sits comfortably on Anne Aliker’s nightstand, the latest read in the bibliophile’s treasure trove. It’s prophetic in a way – the book chronicles the obstacles Davis has overcome as a black woman to gain acceptance and acknowledgement, a journey that reflects Anne’s own career path, all this while being a mother to three young children who’ve now matured into their early twenties. In this heartfelt conversation, she reflects on her professional experience and her learnings from them.
With a career spanning over three decades, she’s witnessed the transformation of the workplace firsthand, and the growth of Standard Bank into the African powerhouse it is today.
“When I first started working, many professional environments were very male-oriented, whether you joined an audit firm, went into banking or the legal profession. So, working in a male-dominated environment wasn’t new to me.”
Her unconventional route to financial services, including being the CFO of a poultry farm, helped her understand clients’ challenges beyond the numbers. Joining Standard Bank, Anne was drawn to the organisation’s vision and purpose of driving Africa’s growth.
Despite initially feeling like an outsider as one of only two women on the team, she realised that building strong relationships with her male counterparts was crucial.
Stanbic Uganda also marked the first time she worked for a well-established bank with universal brand recognition in a country.
“We were a big bank, and clients have high expectations when you’re the largest bank in a country, You have great access, which is wonderful, and that comes through in a confident stance taken by the team. And I think you can use that confidence in many ways.”
AWAKENING THE AFRICAN GIANT
“The Group was changing. The strategy across Africa becoming a reality and taking shape. In Uganda we were starting to feel not just a shareholder’s interest from South Africa, but the real desire to work more closely. A real desire to pull African businesses closer into the Group so that we become more integrated. Secondment opportunities felt very real.”
Born in Kenya, she found the move to Nairobi invigorating. The investment banking team consisted almost entirely of women, with only one man among them. Their unique composition garnered attention and curiosity, securing invitations to every RFP and gaining a reputation for delivering on mandates.
“I found it interesting that the Group continued to integrate during that period. It meant more policies and procedures to consider. However, I think that was an excellent thing, as it ensured consistency of both the products and the quality we delivered to the client.”
RISING ABOVE THE NOISE
The importance of gender diversity continued to be evident as she progressed through the institution. Standard Bank has undergone significant changes, but gender disparity still exists
WHY DOES THIS PERSIST?
“My own view is that it comes from two places. One is simply muscle memory. We find it easier to understand people who, in some form or other, share our interests and approach. Two, the image of authority, seniority, success and assertiveness has been depicted as male… it has most definitely had a male ‘persona’.”
“Rising above the noise requires those of us to acknowledge this. That the traditional image of seniority and leadership is still male. So as we rise, enter the room, whichever phrase you may wish to use, we should recognise that we may feel uncomfortable and that is okay. We should use that discomfort as a source of empowerment rather than allowing it to hold us back.
“Embracing the discomfort and recognising that being different brings a fresh perspective, a voice, and a lens to conversations. This ability to operate and deliver whilst feeling slightly uncomfortable, and in the process including others, fosters diversity. It is important.”
LEADERSHIP AND EMPOWERING WOMEN
Having a supportive female boss who provided valuable feedback and invested in her growth highlighted the significance of women empowering other women and building the foundation for effective mentoring.
She gave Anne this important advice many years ago: “People buy into and listen to other people. Anne, you tend to approach things from a technical perspective, you’ll find it easier to gain traction if those you are talking to have a sense of who you are. Find a way to share something about yourself… make it easier for people to engage with you.”
Anne mentions that being vulnerable means being authentic and open. The power of vulnerability when displayed by people we work with, be they leaders or team members, makes it easier for us to empathise with them. This facilitates stronger connections, making it easier for us to collaborate and truly listen to one another. Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness, instead, it is a strength to be embraced.
“Vulnerability isn’t always about what hurts you. It should also be about what really drives you.”
ADVICE FOR YOUNG WOMEN
“Do the work. And I’m not saying that because women don’t do the work, but I say this to all young people, and importantly, be comfortable being uncomfortable. Crystallise, in your own mind, what capabilities and experiences are required for your current job and the next one. And then try and get the experience. Asking to join project teams and getting that early experience is critical in picking up skills and will really make a difference in your progress. Upon reflection, I didn’t do this often enough.
“The glass ceiling is tricky, because sometimes it isn’t that clear. I say don’t confuse the grunt years with a lack of progress. And what do I mean by the grunt years? There’s a period in your life, particularly if you have a family and are raising kids and working very hard – it’s a lot, and you feel it. There is a great deal to get through, and sometimes it feels like a bit of a slog. Even while all of that is going on, you gain extensive and invaluable experience during this time, even though it may not seem like you’re progressing fast enough.
“To women who want to progress, I’d say your desire and your ambition are natural. Secondly, be yourself, even though it may not always feel like the right thing to do. If you experience bias or discrimination, you must find a way to have that conversation. Nevertheless, keep going.
“Have people you can rely on, be they in the office or at home. Having that support network is vital – and it’s not only about who takes care of the kids, but also people you can turn to when you just need to stop. Lastly, find a group of young women you can give back to because you’ll find them energising. When you’re helping others, it puts into perspective what you’re facing and trying to achieve.
“Be ambitious. I’m expecting your generation to really shift things.”
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