Jane Karuku, managing director, Kenya Breweries Limited (KBL) has chalked up over 20 years in different organisations.
Before KBL, she was the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (Agra). She has held senior positions in Cadbury’s East & Central Africa as managing director before joining Telkom Kenya as deputy chief executive.
She was also at Farmer’s Choice and Kenya Co-operative Creameries and a former member of Barclays Bank of Kenya board.
When she is not working, she tells JACKSON BIKO, she plays golf passionately.
What’s the first question you thought I’d ask you?
(Laughs) I see you’re going to make me ask your questions. (Pause) OK, I thought you’d ask, “who are you?”
Well, “Who are you” is always a low hanging fruit, isn’t it? But how would you introduce yourself, something that is not already in the public domain?
I’m actually a very humble person. People call me “Madam Thatcher” or the “Iron Lady” because they say I’m tough as nails but that’s not me. I’m assertive, yes, but I’m humble.
Did your assertiveness come from your environment and experience as a leader or is it an innate character?
It’s both. First of all, you have to have the right fabric. You know like dressmaking, you can’t have a nice free-flowing dress if it’s hard like sisal.
So, there should be something innate in you that has the propensity to be decisive, tough and assertive, and then the rest comes with experience. Experience teaches you when and how.
Sometimes I can be very tough with my team, but they will walk out of the room laughing. That comes with experience.
What’s the line between being pushy and assertive?
Pushy gets negative connotations, because pushy could imply that you didn’t listen; it’s my way or the highway. I don’t think I’m pushy.
What’s the best decision you’ve made in your career?
Getting children, being a housewife and bringing them up. (Laughs) I stayed home for four and a half years to get children then went back to the corporate world when my youngest was three years old. I was in the US, which made it an easy decision.
Would you have made the same decision if you were in Kenya?
Probably not. But it was a great decision.
What part of leadership do you least enjoy?
(Pause) Dealing with conflict, especially when a person is refusing to do what should be done. Sometimes human beings refuse to do what is good for them because they don’t like feedback.
Who, or what makes you accountable?
Myself. If I tell you I’m going to do something, I will do it. If I tell you that I’m going to be there at 3pm I must be there by 3pm. My colleagues know this, if you’re late for my meetings, I charge you Sh2,000 and nobody likes to pay Sh2,000 so they are always on time.
So, where does the penalty go?
We give it to a charity or we buy a cake in the office or something.
What handicap are you in golf?
What have you learnt from playing golf that you would tell someone starting it?
Go and have fun. I play golf to de-stress, to enjoy the fresh air, to meet people, to laugh at myself when I make mistakes, to appease myself and to keep my competitive spirit going. Golf brings the child out of me. It’s like the childhood game, bano, but for adults.
What would like to undo if you were to go back?
(Pause) The only regret I have is I wish I had more children because now all of them are adults (28 and 30 years) and they have left home. I know, it’s selfish. (Laughs)
What kind of advice would you give younger women climbing up the corporate ladder?
First of all, define for yourself what you really want in life, especially as a woman; the balance between career and family.
Once you determine what you want to be at 70-years-old, work backwards to what you need to do.
Think of your life at 70, do you want to be a grandma or do you want to be single and lonely? Do you want to have wealth or do you want to be comfortable? What do you need to do now to be healthy at 70?
If you don’t want to be alone, the first thing you need to do is consider getting married. If you want a child to be visiting you at 70, get a baby now.
Most of these things are centred around loneliness and these conversations are great to have when you are younger. I will tell you one thing; the most successful women are the ones who are very well rounded.
To mean, they’ll probably have families. (This also applies to the men). These are people who are stable in relationships; they have a solid family foundation. You can’t be happy if you are not at peace, however you want to define that peace.
Do you or have you had mentors?
In my early career, I had a mentor, but as you grow older and become experienced, mentorship comes from everyday things. I was just talking to you about writing, you’ve already mentored me. I always wanted to write and I’ll seriously take it up.
Mentorship for me isn’t meet-ups, it is a way of life. Have you met a passionate waiter and you are like, oh wow, I wish I loved my job like they do?
There is this thing called the imposter syndrome, where you doubt your accomplishments and you fear that you could be a fraud. I’ve read many leaders who have suffered from it. Have you experienced it?
No. I think the way to manage that is to be authentic all the time. So, part of the reason one would fear to fail and be ousted, would be if you’re not genuine.
As a leader — like everyone else — you will fail but nobody fires you because you have failed. You get fired because you didn’t identify why you failed.
Has there been a conflict between your spirituality and the job you do, selling alcohol?
No. As a business, we advocate responsible drinking. Alcohol is not bad, the problem is when you abuse it. Our objective at KBL is to celebrate life everyday. How do you celebrate life everyday? By consuming alcohol, unwinding, relaxing responsibly.
Are you going to celebrate life today and with what?
Yes! With Ron Zacapa, it’s a rum from Guatemala, brewed and owned by a lady who is also the master brewer. The company was bought by Diageo. It’s a fine drink.
Is there anybody you would like to have dinner with?
Theresa May (the UK Prime Minister). I would ask her ‘what on earth is going on in your life? Everybody is fighting you, nobody wants to take responsibility or help?’