Guinness Nigeria is celebrating three top women in its management chain. These women are sharing their inspiring stories rising to the top.
Graham-Douglas is the International Premium Spirits, Reserve, and Modern Trade (IRM) Director. She holds a Bachelor of Law from the prestigious Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, and a Master’s in Business Administration at the Sheffield Business School, United Kingdom in 1999. Graham-Douglas bagged a second Master’s Degree in Investment Management from the CASS Business School (Formerly City Business School) also in the United Kingdom. She joined Guinness Nigeria in June 2017 as Corporate Relations Director, and on March 1st, 2021, she became the IPS, Reserve, and Modern Trade (IRM) Director.
Chinwe Odigboegwu, Legal Director, Guinness Nigeria is a Barrister and Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. She joined Guinness Nigeria in February 2019 as Senior Commercial Legal Manager after leaving Nigerian Bottling Company – NBC (Coca-Cola Hellenic) where she was Head, of Litigation and Dispute Resolution. Odigboegwu is a natural teacher, renowned for her ability to communicate with people of various ages, cultures, and educational backgrounds. She recently authored a book on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitration Awards. A recipient of prestigious awards including ESQ Nigerian Legal Awards, Top 40 Lawyers under 40, she was appointed Legal Director for Guinness Nigeria Plc. on 1st March 2021.
Ayodeji Ajibola, a Human Relations lawyer, initially trained as a lawyer, graduating from the Nigerian Law School as a Barrister. She then decided to pursue a career in Human Resources, gaining a Master’s degree in International Employment Relations & Human Resources Management from the London School of Economics & Political Science.
She started her HR career in Phillips Consulting before progressing to a role in the Human Capital Management Group at Oando plc, at the time one of Africa’s largest integrated energy solutions providers, & the first African Company to have a cross-border listing on the Nigerian & Johannesburg Stock Exchange. From there, she spent five years in GE, initially as GE’s first Employee Services Leader in Nigeria and then as the HR Compliance and Localisation Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa, before joining Microsoft. She left Microsoft as an HR lead in the Middle East and Africa’s Multi-Country Cluster. In this role, she operated as an HR leader across 19 diverse countries.
Deji joined Guinness Nigeria in April 2020, with a wealth of experience across several industries and Global companies. Her career has shown her to be a strong partner and trusted advisor of other leaders, someone who champions the development of talent, a strong advocate for Inclusion and Diversity, and the principle of “bringing your whole self to work”.
In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, the inspiring women address issues of challenging life and career stereotypes, driving diversity and inclusion of Guinness Nigeria
Viola Graham-Douglas, ‘I MUST KEEP SUPPORTING YOUNGER WOMEN TO OVERCOMEPREJUDICES AND STEREOTYPES’
Take us briefly through your career journey up to this point, how has the journey been for you?
I would say the journey has been really exhilarating. I started out with a degree in Law and went on to get two finance-related master’s degrees, as well as my Chartered Secretaries (ICSA) certification. I’ve built a career that spans several industries and roles such as banking, audit, general management, corporate relations, and sales over the last 20 years.
It has been an interesting yet fulfilling journey. Many of the industries where I honed my professional skills are renowned for being male-dominated, but with determination to succeed, my love for facing challenges head-on and the desire to win each time have constantly pulled me through. All of which are driven by my life purpose, which is to leave a positive impact everywhere I go.
You have worked across different industries over the years, how best can we create workplaces where women can thrive?
There is a popular saying that organisations thrive when the women in such companies thrive in their careers. I agree with this popular saying, as I believe that to create a conducive workplace for women to thrive, three key factors must be considered.
First is freedom from all kinds of gender stereotypes, biases, insecurity or perhaps intimidation from others. Second would be Flexibility. Organisations need to create flexible work policies for the benefit of all, and to remove those barriers that may hold women back. An example for me is the fact that about three years ago, my company Guinness Nigeria Plc introduced 6 months paid maternity leave for women and one month paid paternity leave for men and also introduced flexible working hours for employees.
The third factor would be Trust and empowerment. Once someone is employed into your organisation, then you should trust the person’s capabilities and empower them to succeed in the job irrespective of gender or nature of the job. I believe everyone should be respected and valued for the work they do, the effort they put in and the successes recorded, regardless of gender.
Looking back, what three key things would you tell women to do to advance career-wise?
Looking back, I will say that a lot of things have influenced my career growth positively. First is to constantly equip and arm yourself with knowledge so that you can be the best at what you do. If you don’t know how to do it, find someone who does and learn.
Second is to surround yourself with people who are success driven and have a winning mentality and/or get yourself a mentor who can coach you and once you have that network, you must learn to accept feedback from a few trusted people so that you don’t have a blind spot. Third, you must determine what your purpose is so that you can design a pathway to fulfilling that purpose. Understand your strengths and weaknesses and work on them to be the best person you can be.
‘Break the Bias’ is this year’s IWD theme, what does this mean to you and how are you exemplifying it?
Biases are delimiting factors to development, what this means is that as an experienced professional who is female, I must keep supporting younger women to overcome these flimsy prejudices and stereotypes, so we can all grow and achieve great things together. I am constantly doing this with young female groups and I currently lead the Spirited Women’s Network at Guinness Nigeria Plc, a support group for all female employees to foster career growth and development.
We do a lot of mentorship programmes, capability building sessions and lifestyle engagement. Your gender should never be a limiting factor for you. In fact, being female should be an added advantage for you in today’s evolving and inclusive world.
You affirm that you’re passionate about creating and leaving a positive impact, tell us the ways you are doing this?
Like I stated earlier, I am at the core of the mentoring engagements for younger female employees at Guinness Nigeria Plc and I also belong to other female professional organisations outside my company where I lend my voice to the professional development of women in the workplace.
In my spare time, whether employee volunteering or personally, I also support campaigns on female education, mentoring, and leadership programs to help women be the best versions of themselves.
As someone very active in leadership, mentoring and societal development, how are you advancing other women with these skills?
Most of my mentees are women and some of the core objectives that I charge them to achieve include knowledge sharing, mentoring and community development. My mentees are not only achieving success in their careers and businesses, but they are also paying it forward by being catalysts of growth and advancement for others. I feel blessed to be a mentor of mentors.
There are still some laws that subjugate Nigerian women to date, what can be done about these laws to improve them?
True, there are some women-limiting laws and policies that are overdue for amendment. For example, until a court voided the practice in 2009, the Nigerian Immigration Services (NIS) required a married woman to obtain written consent from her husband as a condition for the issuance of an international passport. We also have some outdated labour laws, which are subjects of debate, especially in the manufacturing sector.
I believe that to cause the changes required, there should be a dialogue amongst the relevant stakeholders and collective positive action. Currently, what we are advocating at Guinness Nigeria is a legal framework that gives women equal opportunities at work, including the free will to take on roles in manufacturing requiring night shifts, just like their male counterparts.
You’ve had a long and illustrious career in law, do you have any regrets or want to change anything?
I do not have any regrets whatsoever regarding my career; it has been a rewarding journey of learning and giving. Of course, the journey has not been perfectly smooth, as I have encountered bumps here and there, which have made me somewhat wiser and stronger. As every other human, I am not above mistakes and have made a few, but thankfully, nothing major to cause regrets.
If I were to add anything to my previous years, it would be to have written and published a lot more around my multiple competencies.
There are so many programmes, events, and talks targeted at women, yet real impact remains slow and almost non-existent. Why is this so and what would you suggest can be done differently?
I do not think that real impact has been slow and almost non-existent. Though a lot more needs to be done, I think that there has been considerable impact and the narratives are changing. However, we are not telling a lot of the stories that need to be told.
Women battle with impostor syndrome, amongst other things including what I call ‘humbility’ (a colloquial comical way of describing the act of hiding or not taking credit for achievements). We need to arise out of our insecurities, own and drive our initiatives for change, then step up to demand and proudly receive the accolades due us. My fellow women, rather than wait for change, let’s make it happen!
Tell us a couple of ways you would break the bias and challenge stereotypes in this profession?
I am happy and humbled to be counted amongst female lawyers who have broken some biases in the legal profession. Gone are the days of doubting a heavily pregnant woman’s ability to handle intensive court sessions, expecting a woman with young children to take a career break, and expecting a lawyer who transits from a law firm to a Company to wait many years as an In-House Counsel before being promoted to be the Head a Legal department.
I was already working with Guinness Nigeria when I published my book on Arbitration; I definitely broke the stereotype that to thrive as an Arbitration practitioner and author a book on Arbitration, one must be “practicing” with a law firm. I was a Senior In House Counsel and a Mum of four when I went to the UK to obtain my Master (LL. B) in International Business Law. I am glad that my organisation has hugely embraced change through our renowned Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, including our parental leave policy through which our women get six (6) months of fully paid maternity leave and our men get one month of fully paid paternity leave.
I will continue to break biases in the legal profession and the corporate world in general by speaking up, volunteering to support initiatives, creating enabling policies, and lobbying for relevant changes in our laws and regulations.
Why did you leave law for Human Resources? What informed this decision?
I would simply say I didn’t ‘leave’ Law but only decided to pursue a career in Human Resources, because of my passionate interest in people and their professional development. I love to grow people; I love to see people develop their skills and maximise their potential.
I also love to help people achieve their personal life objectives, so Human resource was a natural option for me. Even if I were still practicing law, I would be dealing with people in organisations and society, because that’s what I am most passionate about.
As a strong advocate for Diversity and Inclusion, tell us the ways you are driving this?
I have been driving advocacy for Diversity and Inclusion at personal levels and in my capacity as HR Director at Guinness Nigeria Plc. In my role at Guinness, I ensure the execution of the strategic policies of Guinness Nigeria Plc’s Human rights and Dignity at Work policies; initiatives on Diversity and Inclusion, promoting work-life balance through parental leave policies, as well as employee training on inclusion and creating opportunities for differently-abled persons.
As a matter of fact, we have metrics to show how well we are tracking against targets in this regard at Guinness Nigeria. In my personal capacity, I am involved in initiatives and conversations that support D&I through engagements with professional women associations and networks where we support other women, including younger females on leadership growth.
How is Guinness Nigeria driving gender parity and increasing inclusion in terms of socially-valued opportunities, resources and rewards?
At Guinness Nigeria, we have an institutionalised Diversity and Inclusion agenda that is driven by a Diversity and Inclusion Board and chaired by the organisation’s CEO; that’s how seriously we take this. And there is so much we do in this regard. I can proudly say that, at private-sector level, we are one of the first organisations in Nigeria to give female employees six months fully paid maternity leave, and 4-weeks fully paid paternity leave for male employees.
By 2025, we aim to have 40 per cent representation of women in leadership roles, and for that to materialise, we have institutionalised a 50:50 gender balance ratio target in our recruitment and internal appointments. In the last year alone, 67 per cent of our external hires were female. Presently 50 per cent of our Executive Leadership team members are women, not to mention having a female Board Chair for the 1st time in our 71-year history. This has helped our organisation move from a predominantly male-dominated one (common in the FMCG sector), to an agile, progressive and performance-orientated business, with an inspiring workforce that reflects our performance ambition, our purpose, and our broad consumer base.
We have an employee support group for females called ‘The Spirited Women Network’, which allows for frequent and always-on communication and support for career growth and connection across levels. We also launched an all-female STEM Graduate Programme in November last year, as part of our efforts to promote gender parity & contribute to the growth of women in the FMCG sector. We are boldly leading conversations and initiatives on what many organisations shy away from or call taboo subjects.
In March 2021, we introduced global Menopause Guidelines that offer strengthened support and flexibility to employees going through menopause and which encourage all employees, female and male, to build their understanding of how menopause impacts individuals and they can support their colleagues/direct reports that may be going through it.
We have also launched Domestic & Family Abuse Guidelines globally, to outline Diageo’s zero tolerance for all forms of domestic and family abuse while providing practical guidance to employees and line managers on where to go for expert and confidential support. We also commemorate celebrations like International Women’s Day with creative campaigns to encourage women in leadership and work harder toward creating the required balance. There is so much more we are doing at Guinness Nigeria, but will leave it there.
What does ‘Breaking the bias’ mean to you and how would you use your role to implement this?
It is important to understand that the previously held erroneous beliefs working against the progress and development of women are being cleared and redefined. In my role as the HR Director, I am ensuring that we execute well-thought-out plans and initiatives that are aimed at clearing these biases, so we can create pathways for the development and promotion of women in leadership.
Campaigns like International Women’s Day also give us the opportunity to spotlight the positive examples we have across Nigeria and the world, so women can learn from and be encouraged by them.
In your opinion, how best can we get more women to the very top?
We can only get more women to top positions when women are encouraged to take on roles at the top. Gender should never be an issue. Can a woman do the job? Yes, then she gets the job. It really should be that simple.
I’ll also say that as women, we should continuously develop our skills so that we can be the best at what we do. Thankfully, there are so many women doing amazing things now, so I encourage every woman out there aiming for the top to take the bull by the horns and follow the footsteps of other women who are blazing the trail in diverse industries and professions in the society.
At the lower levels, more girls should be encouraged to go to school and pursue professions of their choice, regardless of the biases in society against such professions for women.
Tell us a few effective ways you challenge gender stereotypes and bias?
The most important way is to keep encouraging women to break those glass ceilings by boldly moving into male-dominated areas. As the popular Nike slogan says, ‘just do it,’ and in the words of one of our most iconic brands, Johnnie Walker, ‘just keep walking.’ Also, by telling the real stories and highlighting real examples. Finally, for women who have managed to break those biases, be a mentor and supporting hand to those behind you.