It is amazing how most proverbial corner offices never exhibit any talismans, mementos or any form of grandeur that represent the adventures — or indeed misadventures — that have led the occupants there.
Joyce Msuya’s tasteful but modest office at the UN Environment does not tell a much different lore. The decor belies her over two-decade journey to this office as the acting executive director and assistant secretary -general of the UN.
Hers is a journey that starts after a Bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and immunology, through a gaggle of countries under the World Bank in China, Korea and ending in her previous position as the adviser to the World Bank vice president, East Asia and Pacific Region in Washington D.C. In between, there has been a Master’s degree and certificates from Harvard Business School and John Hopkins Universities.
She met JACKSON BIKO for a chat.
Do you sometimes look around your office, this great responsibility, and think ‘Oh my God, am I even worthy to be here? Do I deserve this? This is too big for me.’ I think they call it the imposter syndrome.
It’s a very interesting question because although I don’t feel the office is too big for me, I feel wow! Because the risks I have taken have actually paid off. My career path has been somewhat unconventional, you know, as the first African woman to be based in World Bank Group China office.
I’ve always done things that make me uncomfortable because I have learnt that I tend to grow much more when I get stretched.
To be honest, this particular position has been more than a reward, it’s a personal reward because I’ve worked hard since I left Tanzania in 1989 and I’ve gone all over the world. So this feels like coming home for a good purpose.
What has this long path to where you are now taught you?
Three things. One, resilience. I’m tough but I’m always surprised at how much tougher things got and how much tougher I emerged. When I went to South Korea, I was the first World Bank Group head of the office to oversee construction and hiring of staff. I never had a honeymoon period, just the deep end. That scenario teaches you things about yourself than you never knew, because you can’t drown.
Second lesson is that if you don’t take big risks you can’t have big rewards. I have always taken big risks in my career. Settling in China and Korea was not easy, not with children but I took them and it paid off.
Lastly, knowing who you are. I have never let any institution that I have worked for define my value system and my purpose. Ground yourself from inside not outside. Family has grounded me greatly; when I go home and I have to cook chapati , pilau and mbuzi, nothing else matters. I’m fully there as a mother, a wife and that gives me two feet on the ground no matter the storm I’m going through outside.
How have you been able to navigate those three responsibilities; being a professional, a wife and a mother? How have you had to spread yourself and is balance attainable?
If I was to draw a graph, it would be a wavy curve rather than a straight line. I have always made choices depending on what stage my children were in life. I have a 20-year-old daughter, a 15-year-old son and a wonderful husband. For example, when I had my daughter, it was important for me to breastfeed. So I chose a career in the World Bank that did not involve travel so that I could be home until my daughter was three years old. My career slowed down in pace, but that’s a choice I happily made.
I did the same thing with my son when he was born. Now that my children are a little bit older, I can take a high-demanding job like the one I have right now.
My children were born in the US and one of the main reason for me wanting to go to China was because I wanted them to experience a different culture. I believed it would help them in the long run.
I have always prioritised my children’s needs before anything else; soccer games, recitals, and I have been lucky to have worked with organisations that are child- friendly and a very supportive husband, a very hands-on father. My family is still in the US and when my son’s grades dropped I questioned myself, is it because I’m here? Could it have been different had I been with him? It’s a juggling art. You can’t have it all, of course, but I think you can have it in different paces.
Because you’ve worked in such diverse environments, Korea, China, US, Canada, Africa, Latin America, what type of reflections has those experiences evoked in you as a woman?
You know it’s a very interesting question and I’ve reflected a lot about this. That as women, as mothers and wives, we are more alike than we are different. We all worry about what our children will eat, where they will go to school.
I grew up in Tanzania during Nyerere’s socialism and my mum always worked. My father never asked my mum to stay home, but yet in 2000, when I was in South Korea, for example, one woman executive told me you know, ‘when I go home my husband is sitting watching TV and tells me, can you make for me rum and noodles.’ I have realised women across the globe go through the same challenges but also we share the same values. We juggle the same things.
I never thought colour would be an issue but sometimes even within the organisations that I work with, depending on who I deal with, I have been reminded of it. So, I walk in through the door and immediately I feel somebody has already made a judgment of who I am. Now, instead of taking that negatively I have always done 200 times more than expected in terms of preparation.
Also, unfortunately for me, I look younger than my age, I’m petite, so, I was in Saudi Arabia and Berlin recently, some of the men really assumed that I was in my 30s. It was only after I opened my mouth and started talking they realised there is a difference. (Chuckles)
What have you learnt about power?
Power can corrupt. It can easily get into your head. I have leaders that I look back with admiration because of their character and skills and identify what I liked about them and what I didn’t, and I borrow those qualities. I always use this as a meter. I have learnt; the more you stay closer to the people on the ground and you don’t live in your own cloud nine, the better leader you become.
What’s the most important book you’ve read?
“Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” by Richard Carlson. As women leaders, we tend to internalise some things, hold grudges and take stuff home. I’m very clear things to sweat out for, things to delete and things to store in my archives.
What’s your first natural impulse; to fight or to flee?
To fight. One thing I’ve learnt about leadership is you have to take a deep breath and reflect, especially when you are attacked. You need clarity and that comes when you step back and chill. I call it 10-10: Ten minutes you breathe in and if I still feel mad, I sleep on it for 10 hours. You will be surprised how you feel and act after 10 hours.
I love that, I need it especially. What kind of advice would you give your 31-year- old self knowing what you know now?
Chill out more! I was very feisty at 31. I would relax and not sweat the small stuff. Don’t bother pleasing everybody. The beauty about 50 is that you are confident, you’ve paid your dues and you know yourself more.
Have you found your purpose?
I have. My purpose is to be true to myself. I cannot be anybody else, to make a difference in a person’s life. I don’t take this job very, very seriously because I’ve seen also leaders who internalise their positions, titles and when the titles and the positions disappear and they lose themselves. So, for me, it’s people.
When were you happiest in your life?
When I became a mother 20 years ago. I married my high school sweetheart who we met in Tanzania. He went to Belgium after high school and as fate would have it, we got married after 11 years of dating. My mum was beginning to think I was being taken for a ride. (Laughs)
When I had my daughter, I really felt it was bigger than me and she completely changed my course of life, motherhood completely changed my priorities.