Irene Wamakau is the Global Head, Conduct, Financial Crime, Compliance Advisory, Wealth Management at Standard Chartered Bank. She is a legal and compliance practitioner with experience in wealth management, retail and corporate banking segments as well as HR processes, pension governance and structures.
Can you tell us about your career progression into your current role?
After obtaining my bachelor’s degree in Law, I started working for the Kenyan government in the environmental services industry, before taking the opportunity to join a management trainee program at a multinational. My journey with Standard Chartered started with my role as the Head of Legal and Compliance for their retail business in Kenya and later moved on to cover the whole Africa market. In 2015, I moved over fully to Compliance, looking after the Africa and Middle East regions for the bank’s retail and wealth business. Then in 2018, I started to take on the role of Global Head of Compliance for the wealth business, which expanded to include conduct and financial crime at the beginning of this year.
Having worked in many countries, have you noticed any differences in terms of culture, and did that affect your management style?
All the countries I’ve worked in are quite different in terms of culture; whether it is how people interact with each other socially or the dynamics from an age or gender perspective. When you’re in the workplace, those cultural aspects play a part in how you relate with people and how you deal with them, and how you present yourself in front of different people then becomes materially different. Another thing would be that people in Kenya knew about my career progression so when I came in there’s credibility, as for everywhere else I’d have to start fresh, winning people over and showing them that they’ve got to trust me. Obviously, relationships also play a big role, having worked in the same company across three jurisdictions means I’ve got relationships so I don’t have to always start from scratch. But ultimately, culture plays a big part in terms of how I manage depending on the jurisdiction I’m in.
What one factor has helped you the most during your career?
Deliberately choosing to have a brand and having something that I am known for. What I’ve always said is that if I’m given an assignment, I’d want to be known as someone who gets stuff done to the right quality. That for me has been a critical factor. However, that’s not the only factor when you go up the ranks, as how you go about getting things done would also become materially important. And sometimes, it’s not about you getting stuff done yourself, but instead influencing other people to help you get it done – whether you do it in a manner that leaves people feeling good about themselves or leave a wreckage behind. And that’s where the growth is, as you learn to work with people and collaborate through different cultures and in new environments, getting things done jointly and successfully.
Have you ever had a mentor or role model in your career? What do you see as the value of having one?
I do and I’ve found that with every step in my career, I’ve reflected to see if my mentor is still relevant to what I’m doing or if I need to get somebody else to help me get to the next level. In taking up my global role, I have both a mentor and two coaches, one bank-provided and one personal. I’ve found that I could bounce things off any of them to help me better navigate through the challenges, and sometimes just to get the encouragement and conviction that I can do it. The importance of having a mentor is that you get a different perspective from the one that you see. While sometimes getting a mentor in your universe is helpful, I tend to go for ones who are not in my universe, partly because they can see the bigger picture much easier, and partly because they won’t get caught up in the politics. At the same time, I don’t think you should have only 1 mentor, instead you can have multiple mentors depending on the stuff that you’re doing. I personally have mentors from a career perspective, for my contribution to the society, as well as for my leadership journey, so that I have people who I can lean on for support for the 3 aspects of life.
As a mentor, what advice would you give to your mentees?
Everybody has a value proposition and it’s very important for you to know yours. As with the nature of the workplace, you have good times and bad times, and you’ll always question your value during those bad times. If you’re clear about your value proposition, you’ll remember what you bring to the table and survive those hard times. You’ll also be able to reflect upon whether the way you’re behaving is demonstrating your values or if you’re blinding everyone to them, thus disabling them to help you overcome that scenario. Having value propositions and being clear about them will also give you options in life. The options might not always be clear or apparent, but if you step back and have a think, you’ll always have options, in terms of how you think, respond to situations, speak to people, etc.
Do you have any specific advice for working moms to advance and progress?
When you are a mom and choose to pursue your career, learn to ask for stuff. In a way, we tend to feel guilty for choosing to have the best of both worlds. If I want to be there for my son’s event at school and for some reason there’s a conflict with work, I’ll choose to go and I’ll explain, because invariably you always make up for that time. I also don’t believe that we should take work home because you won’t be present when you need to be. What you can do instead is choose when you stop feeling guilty. For me, it’s when I get home. From the moment that I’ve chosen to be at home with my family, I’ll stop feeling guilty and pick that guilt back up the next day, otherwise you’d be eaten by guilt and never get to enjoy it.
Being a career person and a mom, you’ll also have to learn to say no and begin to think of alternatives if you’re not able to. Also, be transparent with your current struggles because then you’ll find a lot of sympathy. Oftentimes, the person on the other side is a dad, so they’ll fully understand and can relate to what you’ve got to do and let you do it without feeling that guilt. All in all, it’s about remembering your value proposition and never having to feel guilty for wanting the best of both worlds.
Has your gender ever hindered or blocked any personal progression?
I haven’t experienced that, but I do know there are people from different organisations that have struggled to progress from the fact that they are of a specific gender. I’m lucky that it has never been a consideration for me, where people would say I don’t deserve certain opportunities for being a female or a mom. Gender parity is quite complex to achieve, but Standard Chartered is very deliberate in its effort towards it, especially in ensuring that females progress and get equal opportunities as their male counterparts.
In your experience, what are the benefits of having diverse teams and organisations?
People are brought up differently with different prejudices, and when you bring that together it should give you a superior product because all you do is to enhance your view based on other people’s views. By bringing different experiences and perspectives together, you are simply getting the best of all worlds.
What's your advice to leaders who want to create a more diverse and inclusive environment?
Understand the environment you’re working in and what the different cultures are. When you are in an environment where the culture is homogenous compared to one that is cosmopolitan with diverse nationalities and age groups, the dynamics would be maturely different and you’ve got to understand that. One of the books I read recently was “The Culture Map”, it talks about how it’ll be a lot easier for you to make the environment inclusive once you understand people’s backgrounds. If you don’t understand the culture, you might think you’re making the environment inclusive but the other person would be receding as that’s not how they’d like to be included. Therefore, if you understand cultures, you’ll understand how people want to be included. For example, some people are happy to be called out while others prefer you engage with them in private.
Is there anything you're doing right now to help emerging female leaders?
I’m involved in the mentorship program at the bank, both formally and in my personal capacity, helping up and coming female leaders in their journey towards leadership. Apart from that, with the support of my line manager and the compliance function, we also get groups of women within the function together and find senior leaders in the bank to come and speak to them. We’ve been fortunate to have the group’s management team and a lot of leaders come in and have sessions with them, open candid sessions, to share their experiences and get feedback from the females. Such a level of exposure is a fantastic experience for these emerging leaders, as it shows them that it is possible to get to the top. These forums that we’ve continuously hosted every month are popular, and have contributed significantly to how people enjoy engaging in the bank. Of course, I also help in supporting the Compliance leadership in the diversity agenda of the function.
Are there any specific challenges in terms of achieving gender diversity within the Financial Services industry?
There has been this perceived complexity regarding certain areas of Financial Services where only males can survive. Unless such prejudices and stereotypes are challenged and changed, they’ll continue to act as a hindrance to women’s progression.
Another challenge would be the long working hours. For females who have families, they’d want to spend time at home, but Financial Services moves so quickly that having to take time off to build a family raises concerns on whether their careers will be stalled, and if they’ll be able to come back and pick up from where they were. Fortunately, there’ve been steps to help make it better for working moms, for example holding workshops before they go on maternity leave and telling them that they can come back, allowing flexible working and opportunities to work from home, etc., all these contribute to making it easier for women who want a career and a family. While there are still certain infrastructural issues and stereotypes that will continue to make it a bit of a complex battle, the Financial Services has come a long way as an industry to make it easier for women to succeed.