“Before women can change other people’s perceptions about women, they need to first change their own.”
Frances Mensah Williams is the CEO of Interims for Development Ltd and Publisher and Managing Editor of ReconnectAfrica.com, a careers and business website and online publication for African professionals in the Diaspora. Frances is a successful executive career coach working with clients across a range of sectors as well as with professionals seeking careers in Africa. She is author of ‘’Everyday Heroes: Learning from the careers of successful black professionals’’, ‘’I want to work in Africa: How to move your career to the world’s most exciting continent’’ and a novel, ‘’From Pasta to Pigfoot’’. In 2011, she was nominated as one of the top 20 inspirational females in the Africa Diaspora in Europe.
Vera: You are a multi-talented; what would you say are your career highlights?
Frances: Looking back, there have been so many highlights in my career. I’ve been involved in high drama situations, such as when I worked for Barings Bank in the City of London during its high-profile collapse, as well as exciting challenges including moving to Ghana for several years and working for two very different but very interesting financial institutions. A major highlight was when I set up my first business in 2002; another was expanding my portfolio of work into Executive Career Coaching a year later.
Founding ReConnectAfrica.com in 2006 was the culmination of my passion to give a platform to Africans to share and connect with each other and our experiences of living and working outside Africa. The most recent highlights came when I published my first book in 2012, ‘Everyday Heroes: Learning from the Careers of Successful Black Professionals’ and in 2014 with the publication of my second book, ‘I Want to Work in… Africa: How to Move Your Career to the World’s Most Exciting Continent’. This year I have published my first novel, ‘’From Pasta to Pigfoot’’
Vera: What do you say to young African women who believe their chances of success are limited unless they have grown up abroad or have international experience?
Frances: International experience doesn’t guarantee success any more than a lack of international experience should necessarily be a constraint. The key question that young African women should ask themselves is ‘How open am I to learning and to seeing things from a different perspective?’ The key value of travel, I believe, is that it opens the mind to greater possibilities than the environment we usually inhabit. Reading, learning, building networks and connecting with people from diverse backgrounds are all a possibility with the technology available today, no matter where we live. Having aspiration and a plan and staying focused on that plan is what I believe leads to success.
Vera: What principles do you live by?
Frances: The key principles that I would say guide me are a good knowledge of myself, a strong sense of ethics and personal integrity and a solid core of spirituality. I try to surround myself with people who have similar values. One of the many words of wisdom from my father is that ‘you only have your reputation to lose’. This means that if you want to maintain the respect that you have earned, you have to keep doing the work. If you want something, you have to do the work. Finally, I would say a key principle is recognizing that there are no short cuts. I’ve been very blessed with some of the experiences I have been able to enjoy, but it comes at a price.
Vera: Why is it so difficult for women to be seen as leaders?
Frances: I think that before women can change other people’s perceptions, they need to first change their own. Too many of us are shy about claiming the role of a leader and, as women, we often allow our honesty and modesty to hold us back in ways that many men do not. When we have true self-belief, we exhibit it and this invites others to see us as we see ourselves. Women do not need to try to mimic men to be successful, in my opinion. So I would encourage women to be themselves, to stretch themselves and their capabilities, to identify mentors who can help them navigate the challenges of career progression and to seek sponsors who can help to raise their profile in their organizations. No-one achieves leadership roles on their own and it’s critical to build and nurture supportive networks that can help women learn from each other – and from men – about what is needed to succeed.
Vera: How can established women like yourself help build more gender inclusive workplaces?
Frances: I do this in a couple of ways. Firstly, as a Consultant; some of the work I do involves advising companies on understanding the constraints women face and on developing strategies to widen participation. As a Coach, I work with groups/individuals to help identify barriers women face in making progress in the workplace. While there are sometimes real systemic barriers and workplaces that do not encourage women’s progress, I also find that some barriers are in the way we see situations and see ourselves. Sometimes, by changing those perspectives, and what I call the negative narratives, we are able to plan a way forward that allows us to be authentic as well as ambitious.
Vera: Your first book focused on careers of successful black professionals; what are the key bits of wisdom you learnt?
Frances: A number of things struck me in the course of interviewing the 16 people in the book. Having courage and taking a risk, was one. It’s always about learning something from trying. Being careful to surround yourself with positive and well-intentioned people was another. Asking for ‘stretch’ assignments that give you a chance to learn something new was also a piece of advice I always remember. Always being curious and open to learning from all sorts of sources is also a critical piece of advice for young women. I also think that, particularly for women, learning to say ‘No’ and worrying less about what people think about us is of prime importance.
Vera: How have you selected your own role models?
Frances: I was lucky to have an amazing role model in a father who has worked hard, achieved a great deal but remained grounded in his values. I also admire and strive to emulate women who achieve success by doing the work – businesswomen like Oprah Winfrey who broke new ground against all odds, fighters like Winnie Mandela who took on an entire political system and refused to be broken. I also admire writers and entertainers who have stayed the course and used their talents to enhance the lives of others.
Vera: If you could do one thing different that young women could learn from, what would it be?
Frances: Some years ago, I had the opportunity to buy a property which has since almost doubled in value. At the time I was hesitant as I didn’t know how to go about it and thought it was too much trouble and stress to find out. Out of that situation, I would say that there are two lessons; if you don’t know something, ask someone and find out – that knowledge could be very valuable. Secondly, seize the moment when an opportunity presents itself and don’t allow self-doubt to hold you back.
For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here