Rachael Akidi Okwir is head of East Africa languages for the BBC World Service. Based in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Rachael is leading the corporation’s expansion and digital transformation in the East and Horn of Africa. Prior to this, Rachael worked for the BBC in London for 15 years. We spoke to Rachael about her career journey, the challenges she’s faced and the importance of self-belief.
How did you get where you are today, and who/what helped you along the way?
I’d say that my success has been a result of several factors, including hard work and consistency. I believe anything I do must be worth my time and the output must be something that I am proud of. I think it’s important to set your own benchmarks for success and to use them as your guide to whether you’re doing the best job you can.
I’ve also been very fortunate to have always been surrounded by people that believe in me and want to help me realise my potential. My late father was one of them. In fact, he was the man who saw the BBC job advert and encouraged me to apply. I remember laughing out loud at him – I’d just finished university and had limited work experience and took his suggestion as a joke. Disappointed by my response, he looked me in the eye and told me to believe in myself and to highlight my potential as well as the experience I’d gained, so I applied and got the job.
Looking back, I think this marked the beginning of my journey in overcoming self-doubt. He taught me to be self-confident. He was my biggest fan and critic. He always gave me honest feedback on my radio performances and my news articles.
Besides my Dad, I was also lucky to meet some people along the way who mentored me. I think we all need mentors, people who can see what you don’t see. People who have walked the path you’re walking and can both coach and advise on how to deal with some of the challenges you might encounter. We all need that person who can be a sounding board and sometimes a cheerleader.
What advice do you wish someone had given to you earlier in your career?
I wish that I’d focused on enhancing my strengths, rather than trying to improve my weaknesses much earlier in my career. I wasted years ignoring my strengths, but now I know that no one can be good at everything, and you offer far more value as an expert in an area you excel in. Similarly, I wish I’d learnt earlier in my career that you don’t have to be loud or an extrovert to lead. Again, you do a far better job doing things in a style that suits you.
What challenges have you faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
I was blessed to be entrusted with authority in my early twenties. However, when I look back, I realise I was young and perhaps slightly naive, and I’m not sure I had even figured out who I was. So, it was a challenge leading people who were older and more experienced. Even if I succeeded; with hindsight, it could have been a lot easier with more wisdom.
It was such an incredible moment when I realised it was ‘not just me’, and that challenges were actually a huge part of the leadership package. So, I suppose it was interacting with other leaders that made me fully understand the essence of leadership.
I remember one of my managers asking me how I'd assess my first year. And I laughingly said “when I became a journalist, I never imagined I’d become a manager, a psychologist and a philosopher."
What have you learned about leadership and mentoring others?
It's a continuous journey of self-discovery and education. You not only learn a great deal about yourself, but you learn an enormous deal about people and the human mind. I now understand why leaders are referred to as servants of the people. Leadership can humble you. It is extremely challenging, but also very rewarding trying to bring out the best in people. I’ve learned that every experience, however challenging, somehow prepares you for even more challenging tasks ahead. No experience is wasted.
Have you personally experienced implicit or explicit gender bias? If so, did you feel able to challenge it?
It’s something I’ve experienced during my travels, especially in Africa and the Middle East. I’ve visited offices with male colleagues, where the officials seemed to be more interested in speaking to the man in the group, even if you had arranged the meeting and will be making the decisions. Some won’t even make eye contact. It might be a cultural thing. One time a colleague politely told a man ‘she’s the boss’, pointing at me. But I usually try to understand the context of the environment or culture in which I am operating.
In your experience, what are the key hindrances affecting women’s career progression?
I think most women are perfectionists. We believe in being the best and doing our best. I mentor several women and I've experienced this again and again. I once had a pep talk with one woman who thought she would be ‘blagging it’ if she applied for a role that she felt she was under-qualified for. She had ruled herself out because she didn't tick a couple of boxes in the job description.
I’ve also faced these internal battles myself. I was being head hunted for a big role a few years ago, and I remember just telling myself there’s no way I’m capable of doing this. I felt I would be an imposter if I accepted the role, so I turned it down. However, after some internal deliberation, and soul searching, I began to believe my husband’s argument that the reason I was approached was because they believed I can perform at that level.
Imposter syndrome is real. So, I always say if you’re interested in a role but are in doubt, speak to someone you trust.
What do you do personally when recruiting to encourage diversity?
The publications you decide to advertise in can determine the type of applicants you receive, so I always look at how I can ensure a job advert travels and reaches as wide a demographic as possible. Even if the roles have nothing to do with me, I will share adverts and ask my networks to also share.
I've met a few people in London who are surprised that I work for the BBC. I remember one lady telling me that she didn't think it was even possible for someone like her to get a job there. Some feel certain roles and organisations are just out of their reach or league because they don’t see people that are like them working at those organisations. For this reason, I always look for ways to reach out to people who might not think of applying and tell them to go for it.
What are your three top tips for women wanting to succeed in their career?
- Do your best in everything you do and be consistent in striving for excellence.
- Don't become too comfortable. It’s really important to regularly challenge yourself with something outside your comfort zone. Similarly, you should monitor the trends in your industry to ensure you keep ahead. Technology is developing at a rapid pace, so ensuring you keep your skillset up-to-date has never been more important.
- Finally, believe in yourself, even when the world doesn’t believe in you, because, ultimately, you’re the one that’s responsible for your career trajectory.