- LoginAccess your ApplicationOr learn more about our programmes and applyAccess MyINSEAD
Women Leaders Programme:
“Treating every challenge as an opportunity”
Chief Executive Officer, Zambia National Commercial Bank
Past participant of Women Leaders Programme
Mukwandi Chibesakunda is Chief Executive Officer of the Zambia National Commercial Bank – a national institution with a central role in bringing financial services to the country, and driving its economic growth. It’s a role that she has held since October 2020, and one that comes with tremendous responsibility, she says. Not least, because of the visibility she has as a role model for other aspiring female leaders.
”There are around 18 major banks in Zambia and of these, three are led by women. So the spotlight is really on me and my other female colleagues who are leaders in financial services, not only in terms of delivering results and positive impact for our community – but also in driving change and positioning ourselves as role models.”
For Mukwandi, the stakes couldn’t be higher. All the more so because she took up her landmark role in the very midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, a time of extraordinary uncertainty and turbulence. Helping her to weather this storm and cleave to her vision for the bank, she says, is an unwavering commitment to diversity, and the belief that “difference makes us stronger.”
“Leaders have a responsibility to determine the best way forward and to model the kinds of values, strengths and possibilities that inspire others to follow suit, even in adversity. And that’s who I am, as a woman and as a leader.”
As a woman in banking in Zambia – one of only three chief executives – Mukwandi says that her success is at least in part due to a refusal to acknowledge the so-called glass ceiling. Hers is an attitude that is more about looking right through the glass ceiling, and striving for what’s beyond it; an approach that is fuelled by positivity and determination.
“It’s hugely easy to get stuck in negativity, but experience has taught me that when you embrace the positives of any situation, the outcomes are invariably better. Sure, women have to work twice as hard. We have to earn respect and then earn it over again. But keeping the focus on getting things done and taking a step back where necessary to rethink the path forward.”
It’s an approach that worked and that has borne fruit throughout her career. That said, there is also an onus on organisations and incumbent decision-makers to smooth the transition of women to leadership roles; to capitalise, as she says, on the promise of half of the population.
“Organisations really need to look at how they empower all people – women as well as men – to achieve their fullest potential. So that means shifting mindsets and it means investing in capability building. If everyone is given what they need to grow and to contribute their fullest, just think of how much more we could achieve.”
Mukwandi cites a business case commissioned by her bank to track loans made to men and women in the recent past. Crunching the numbers, it turns out that women were statistically more likely to fully repay loans. They were also much less likely to receive the loans in the first place. In other words, women were being shortchanged when it came to the opportunity to show what they could do.
Tracking operations, looking at results, pausing to ask the right questions and dig deep into the answers are all important in addressing the opportunity gender gap, says Mukwandi Chibesakunda.
“So much is down to awareness. I’ve also been guilty of discrimination, even as a woman myself. We, all of us, me included, need to be deliberate and intentional about institutionalising equal access to opportunity.”
For Mukwandi, this also means rising to the challenge of being a role model; telling her story both deliberately and intentionally, and seeking out opportunities to share her experience with other women who aspire for success and influence.
“I will always accept an opportunity to speak at an event now, if I’m asked. And I participate in as many movements and organisations as I can. I’m a speaker at Women for Climate here in Zambia, where we have the highest levels of deforestation in Africa. Adding my voice means I can give something back to my community. And it feeds into my professional and personal life. It’s about harnessing the privilege of my position to drive positive impact; it’s about defining your legacy.”
Part of this legacy for Mukwandi, is a new initiative that she is spearheading. From 2022, the bank will be looking at making unsecured loans to women – a response to a long-standing issue in Zambia. Women have historically not owned land or other collateral and have therefore been excluded from the credit market in their droves. Mukwandi hopes this inititative will be a “game-changer.”
“I think we have a real duty to try to be a force for good on a day to day basis”, she says.
This sense of duty, of giving back, was critical to her decision to join the Women Leaders Programme at INSEAD in May 2022.
“The programme really resonated with me and with my ambition to work towards a common good, to look at the systemic issues facing women and to be part of a network of problem-solving together with other women. And the experience was just eye-opening in how much insight you get – into the world of business, into other people and into yourself."
The programme was like a re-set. An opportunity, she says, to rethink her habits, her own mindset and to adopt the habit of revisiting goals and challenges on a daily basis.
“Going back to what I said about refusing to see the glass ceiling, the programme gave me the tools and the support to shatter that glass ceiling every day. It was a lived experience in getting to know myself better and achieve the goals and dreams I have with courage. And for anyone who like me wants to serve their organisation, their team and their community better, it’s an amazing opportunity. It’s the power of coming together in action.”