As your read this, Dr Nancy Onyango sits in an office in Washington DC, having been appointed the director of internal audit and inspection at the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This comes after three decades of experience in audit in over 15 countries across Africa. She has sat on several boards, worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and Ernst & Young. She is also a gender leadership specialist and mentors women navigating corporate ladders, as well as disadvantaged girls.
She met JACKSON BIKO at the Gallery at Sankara Nairobi, a few hours before catching her flight out.
Is it really cold and lonely at the top?
It's lonely, but it’s not cold. It’s actually hot at the top. (Laughs) Hot and lonely.
What have your learnt since you went to DC to sit upstairs?
First, we tend to think we're from Africa so we don't have so much to offer in the highest of offices. I have learnt that we actually do. It’s like a doctor working in Africa and then moving elsewhere. They have seen so much, so they have experience. I've worked in the UK for a while, but the combination of the exposure that I have had has been mostly in Africa. In the UK, I was a little cog in a big wheel. When I came back to Kenya, I was the wheel. So you're thrown all sorts of cogs and you have to deal with it and grow. You're stretched. You're working for a global organisation so you have to offer world-class solutions, without necessarily having all the whistles and bells or tools. Looking back, there are very few things even now that will surprise me. It's comforting that I can be an expert, that I can even teach or let people see a better way, with my knowledge from Africa.
What's been the best advice you've received so far in life?
Learn how to listen. Listen to words. Look at the nuances. Listen to the silence. Never go anywhere and act as if you know, just listen first.
What do you think is your most grating character flaw?
I have such high standards for everybody. I'm almost, for lack of a better word, brutal with my assessment of people be it at work or my family members. One of the things I'm learning is to appreciate that people are different and people want different things for themselves. Not everybody wants what you think she wants. When I did my doctorate in women in leadership, I looked at the barriers women face in ascending to CEO position and what struck me is that there are many women who are not interested in becoming CEOs. It was awakening to me since I had imagined and expected women to work towards that.
Because you have such high standards and expectations of people, how did raising your three sons play into this? Did you drive them up the wall with your expectations?
(Laughs) It's very interesting because, I'll give you one example. I can always account for all the time in my day, right down to the minute, because I have a time sheet. One time I tried to introduce this to my sons. It backfired big time. (Laughs)
The men I interview in your position always talk about the things they had to sacrifice to get to the top, family time mostly. Have you sacrificed anything to get here?
My journey has been OK. I mean I have raised three young men — the youngest is 17, the eldest is 24. I have a husband, I'm still married. I think I just had to find strategies to work around the expectations. You know you're a wife, you're a mother, you're a counsellor, you're a driver at some point, you play so many different roles. I've been travelling my whole profession, spending time away from home. It’s important to get a great support structure; outsource, delegate. Get a good housekeeper. Put money where these things matter. Because until you're at peace at home, it's very hard to be at peace in the office. There's a book I read “Every Woman Needs a Wife”. Most successful men have a wife doing so many other things behind the scenes; we don't have that luxury as wives. So get the right support structure, invest in really good help.
Does being a mother and a wife slow you down from getting where you want to get faster in your career?
It does. Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote about it in an article “Why Women Still Can't Have it All.” Sometimes your career has to take a back seat because your children are young. I didn't do my PhD for years because I couldn't balance the multiple roles. Two of my sons have graduated; the last-born is in boarding school in St Andrews Turi. Now I have a lot more freedom to grab the opportunities I want.
Do you then look at your husband with envy, that he can just up and pursue his passion without much hindrance while you put your career life on hold to sort out the family?
(Pause) I think so. Especially when you're stretched, when you come home from work, tired and you're trying to organise homework, dealing with this and that and he’s stretched on the sofa reading and the children love him because he’s not harsh and doesn’t make them do the things they don’t like, like you do. Of course. (Pause) Maybe envy isn’t the right word. I have seen women who say, if he can sit back so can I, but guess who will be suffering. But also as a woman you have to do it because if you let the man do it, things would be chaotic. (Laughs)
Is there a particular type of woman that your sons will bring home to marry and you will say, “no, you won’t marry that one?”
(Pause) I don’t know. (Laughs) First, it’s not me marrying these girls but I have a view. I think my sons will have to bring home a professional woman. That's my minimum. However, they don't have to comply. As I said, they reject my suggestions.
When you say professional woman, you mean someone with a PhD? Maybe two Masters, at least?
(Laughs loudly) I mean someone with a career, a respectable career. But they'll probably reject this. Wait, should I leave that off the record?
No. That's beautiful. You know they say we all marry our mothers eventually. I don't know if that's true. But what do you think these boys have learnt from you?
I think my children don't think there's a big difference between men and women. That's a good thing. To them you can achieve anything, whether you're male or female. It's not about gender. The challenge comes in — like you say when you marry your mothers — if they start comparing their wives with me. I feel sorry for their wives, if they will have those expectations.
In your experience, what's the downside of success?
You get on top because you are result oriented and that means often you get tough with people. If you are female, you will be called bitchy, difficult, hard. You are viewed negatively. A man doing exactly the same thing is assertive, driven, focused. Success brings more put-downs for a woman.
When do you feel most intimidated?
Technology and my children. I always have to call them to start, stop something on a gadget. They always say, mom how were you the head of technology at PwC when you can’t sort out these simple things? (Laughs)
What would you do differently in your life?
I wouldn’t account for all the time in my day and sometimes just enjoy sitting down doing nothing or just smelling the roses. I think I've missed a lot of simple and precious things in life because of that attitude of accounting for all my time.
Are you changing that?
Yes. I'm just starting to learn about wine and wine tasting. I’m reading up on that a lot.
I’m trying to play the guitar. I got a music teacher to teach me. I go to the gym, I swim a lot. I do spin classes. I was told because of I’m go-getter I do very vigorous things.