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‘Women need to develop role models that inspire when their spirits are down’

Owen Omogiafo, MD/CEO Transcorp Hotels Plc

The international women’s day was marked last week, and it was a chance to hear from women from all walks of life on their successes and challenges particularly in the corporate world. Owen Omogiafo, MD/CEO Transcorp Hotels Plc, in a chat with Caleb Ojewale, shared some insights on excelling in the corporate world as a female CEO.

How has it been so far since you took over as Managing Director of Transcorp Hotel?

I am now two months on the job as MD/CEO of Transcorp Hotels Plc, and we intend to be Africa’s foremost hospitality brand. So far it has been challenging, enlightening, at the same time very rewarding.

The hotel is a Hilton, managed by Hilton but owned by us and it has been interesting learning about hospitality from the technical aspect. Running a hotel is not just about putting up a beautiful building; anybody can do that. It is beyond the building, and even though we are proud of all the renovation we have done in the hotel from floors 1 to 10 with ultramodern, world-class bedrooms and meeting rooms, but it is beyond that.

It is beyond just having the beautiful building but ensuring the services our guests get when they come in at each contact point; from the security at the main entrance, being received by the concierge, all the way to reception and anyway where else within the hotel. What we want is that each guest that comes in has that distinct Transcorp hospitality touch so that when you leave here, you feel like you have gone through a very positive experience. As you can imagine, it is not the easiest thing to do.

When I got the appointment, a number of people were like,  how are you going to cope? You are married! (like it is an illness) you have children, what’s going to happen. You cannot take the job because it involves going out of town; what will your husband say. And my husband said: when are you moving? That was the only thing he had to say (laughs).

I have three children aged; 15, 14, and 1. My two older kids are in secondary school, and it will not really be in their best interest to start moving them now as it will unsettle too much. For now I shuttle between Abuja and Lagos running two homes.

Seeing you are able to balance work and family, what would your advice be to women who are getting into such roles, but have to sacrifice one for the other?

It is not easy being a woman in the workplace, but there is a cliché nothing good comes easy. As a woman, you first need to have a conviction of what you actually want to do. After that comes the how. Some people tell me it is easier for me because I am at the top of my career, earning more etc, but pretty much earlier on in my career, I had gone on to start having two maids at home. It is not as if I was making a lot of money because I was literally earning money and then using it to pay other people’s salaries.

But this was necessary to ensure efficiency at work was not compromised. Where I was working (at the time), I needed them to be able to rely on me. For them to be assured that if you give Owen a job to do, she will deliver, so that helped.

For women in the workplace, I often advice they should please plan a lot. These days with the school structure, children get their calendar well in advance, so have a conversation with your boss or whoever is appropriate, for instance that, in four weeks’ time, I might need to be out of the office for three to four hours because I want to attend open day at my children’s school. Two weeks, give a reminder, one week before, and even 72 hours ahead.

In essence, what I say to women is, learn to manage your time, and at the same time, manage the time and resources of other people so it will enable you succeed. There is one critical thing a mentor said to me a long time ago, and I shared this at the WinBiz conference last year. Work life balance is not daily. It is never really a balance so at times work may get more priority, and at other times, it gets less to other personal (and family) needs. At the end of the day, achieving average is what matters.

The average over a period of time is what one should target to achieve a balance. Where the variation between the time spent at work, and the time doing other (personal) things with one’s life achieves an equilibrium.

One thing women should always remember is that, as a woman, you are important. Many times women forget that, maybe because of the way we are wired as natural born givers. There is also a negative emotion that tends to hold us back, the emotion of guilt.

It is also important to have the right partner that supports you. I frankly would not have been able to achieve as much as I have achieved without the support of my husband. For those who are not yet married, these are important questions to ask.

How do you feel in a male dominated industry?

I grew up as an only girl among three brothers and three other male cousins, and it was only when I started working I realised, oh, I’m a woman, and I need to be different. This is mostly because my father made me feel like there is nothing I cannot do.

For me, I have always felt I can do anything a man can do, because it is how I have been brought up. I probably have an edge over the average woman who grew up being told: don’t climb trees, whereas I was encouraged to climb trees.

All the other limitations of what a woman shouldn’t do never really featured in my upbringing. So, coming into a male- dominated environment, and based on my background, I’m able to hold my own. Naturally, being a woman, there is always more that is expected of you, or even as a younger person generally. When people have doubts about you, ensure that when they engage with you, they leave with a different impression.

However, it has not all been rosy. Being female, they claim we know how to multitask and has conferred certain advantages. For instance in the hotel, my predecessor was fantastic and laid a very good foundation, but people come in now and say, we are seeing some feminine touch.

Considering your background and the upbringing you had, what will be your advice for young women aspiring to achieve similar feats as you have?

I tell people nobody’s circumstance can be the same as another person’s. Even children born in the same house leverage things differently. However, whether you are a man or woman, know where your strengths are, where your leverage points are, and then leverage them.

You also need to raise role models for yourself and this does not have to be someone you know or get a chance to speak. It just has to be someone you look up to. Get yourself a totem pole, a role model, so even on the days your energy is waning, you can look up and say NgoziOkonjo-Iweala, got to that position as coordinating minister of the economy and others, and vying to be MD of world bank, yet she had children, how did she get there?

In this digital era, most people are just a click away. I have some women I mentor but we have never met, we only just connected via social media. And there are so many other women like NdudiNwuneli, Mobola Johnson, Mo Abudu, IbukunAwosika, Bola Adesola and others.

Have role models and as you are developing them, surrounding yourself with people that can lift you up. You know birds fly in formation, because as they are flapping their wings, they generate wind together to keep themselves up and that is what you need to look for. Also, as a young person, it is very important to identify people who have PHD (Pull Him/Her Down) syndrome. There are those who never want you to climb out of the pit, yet, there are others who offer their shoulders for you to climb out and you can then lift them up in turn.

Being a woman in the workplace is not mandatory and not for everybody. However, top kudos to the professional homemakers. I have the greatest respect for the women who have also chosen to do that because it takes a lot to decide that I am going to dedicate my whole life to being the homemaker. Summary, know what you want, be committed to getting there, identify role models, set goals for yourself: professional and personal life, and then discipline yourself towards achieving those goals.    

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