Empathy in the Boardroom
Seated in Bo’ Jangles Restaurant, Lowani Chibesakunda, CEO of Citi Zambia, emanates vitality and an infectious charm. Despite my role as the interviewer, she effortlessly draws me into a conversation, displaying a sincere interest in my story — a trait I soon discover is one of the driving forces behind her success in her professional journey. The air within the restaurant is refreshingly cool, starkly contrasting the sweltering Lusaka heat outside. Bo’ Jangles transforms into a sanctuary in this serene setting as Lowani shares her narrative with Nkwazi.
A self-described extrovert and optimist, Lowani’s climb to the upper echelons of Citi began over 23 years ago, contributing her expertise across various countries. Now, as the pioneering Zambian woman at the helm, she holds the esteemed position of President of the American Chamber of Commerce. Lowani also has a great passion for education, sitting on the boards of several prominent educational institutions. Citing her family as her greatest treasure, she has always harboured a longstanding ambition to forge a career in the financial services sector. She drew inspiration from her father, a seasoned banker, whom she admired for his work ethic and passion, ultimately leading her to follow a similar path.
During her childhood, Lowani spent time shadowing her father; despite not grasping the minute details of banking, she shared that she loved what she saw. When pursuing her higher education, she opted for studies in financial services. After gaining several years of experience in finance, she amalgamated her education with a general MBA, thereby enhancing and expanding upon her previous qualifications.
Born into a family of five, Lowani was raised in Lusaka amidst a family passionate about education. Her mother, a teacher, guided her early educational journey at St Mary’s School. Completing her secondary education at Roma Girls’ School, Lowani reflects on the experience, noting that it imparted several enduring lessons that she continues to carry with her to this day.
“Upon reflection, I recognize that those experiences served as an initial introduction to adhering to rules and policies, an integral practice in the corporate world. Roma Girls’ School taught me how to relate to people from all kinds of backgrounds and instilled in me a work ethic that has fostered a resilience to hard work. Consequently, when I entered university, the adjustment was easier.
“I am not afraid of hard work; it’s essential to achieving goals and getting things done.”Lowani Chibesakunda,
Citi Zambia CEO.
Joining Citi Zambia as a fresh graduate, she did not consider the prospect of working in a high-pressure job, so she set her sights on something ‘easy’ and applied for a role taking part in a three-month customer satisfaction survey. However, the minute she walked through the doors, she had a change of heart; her mother’s lesson to “pursue excellence in all things” resonated in her mind. Determined to make a lasting impact and showcase her abilities for consideration in a full-time position, she shifted her focus. Twenty-three years later, she now leads the institution from the helm.
As a global banking entity with a presence in 95 countries, Citigroup ensures a pervasive presence worldwide. Zambia-based clients can always expect excellent tailor-made products that adapt to their needs. The interconnectedness within Citi ensures that if a parent company holds accounts with Citi anywhere globally, its Zambian subsidiaries can expect consistent service and access to systems available across the board. Citi Zambia prides itself on providing an exceptional customer experience, focusing exclusively on corporate banking. Its service portfolio extends to multinational corporations, local corporates, the public sector, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
In 2020, Lowani made history as the first female Zambian CEO of Citi Zambia, marking a milestone in her career. At Citi, the women’s agenda takes a central role, and Lowani proudly highlights that the Citi Zambia management team is gender balanced with a perfect 50-50 split. The commitment to gender equality is further exemplified through a dedicated Citi Women’s Forum, which facilitates ongoing discussions and activities encompassing engaging and substantive topics. This includes initiatives focused on fostering financial literacy and featuring contributions from external experts. The bank’s commitment to empowering women isn’t just a local effort; it resonates globally.
“Citi Zambia’s first female CEO was Kenyan, and her appointment was a powerful reminder of my personal aspirations. When I was appointed, I promised myself I would not only exceed my expectations, but also those of others and demonstrate exactly why I was selected for this role.”
Taking over Citi Zambia at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lowani often had to adapt her leadership style to match the global environment and ensure her team could maintain their outputs.
“During that time, my leadership style was structural to work effectively with my team. When you’re a leader, teamwork is cardinal. I recognised that I had to provide direction through those unprecedented times while ensuring we adapted to the circumstances and continued our strategic objectives for the year.”
Lowani’s leadership style evolved following the post-COVID era, adapting into a coaching model incorporating a participatory element. “In this context, teamwork is crucial, requiring individual attention and ensuring team members align with our established objectives.
“Despite these variations in my leadership approach, leading with empathy has consistently stood out as my guiding principle.” Echoing the words of Jane Fraser, Citigroup CEO and the first female lead of a Wall Street Bank, she states, “We are a bank with a soul.”Lowani Chibesakunda,
Citi Zambia CEO.
As a creative in a technical career, Lowani prioritises creativity, consistently introducing innovative products and methods to enhance the client experience at the bank.
“I truly believe that you have to find joy and fun in what you’re doing. Otherwise, you may be overwhelmed by monotony and lose motivation. The only constant in life is change and change in the technical field is innovation. We are continuously innovating and being creative because the world is constantly evolving, whether in AI or cyber security; we build on the foundations of banking and create services and systems that make us stand out.”
Lowani remains a lifelong learner, consistently broadening her knowledge base by actively seeking out new information. She places great importance on maintaining an open mind, drawing insights from her team, exploring short courses, and engaging in conversations with the younger generation to understand how to stay relevant. Most crucially, she emphasises the significance of stepping into uncomfortable zones, particularly in the realm of innovation.
Recounting her father’s wisdom, who once posed the question, “Who learns to ride a bicycle without falling?” Lowani shares that her most significant mentors are her parents, who imparted the invaluable lesson that success takes time. They taught her that it’s okay to experience setbacks and failures because what truly matters is the knowledge you gain along the way.
Looking ahead five years, Lowani’s most significant project is seeing the fruition of her current efforts, particularly in the personal development of her team and peers. Additionally, she’s looking forward to leveraging her role to impact the country’s economic recovery positively in the coming years. Outside of work, Lowani finds joy in gardening and cherishes spending time with her family during their weekly Sunday lunch.
“My mother always emphasised the importance of giving my best in everything I do. She encouraged me to reflect at the end of each day, knowing that whatever I engaged in, I had given it my utmost effort and that it positively impacted me and those around me. This philosophy continues to be my guiding compass.”
For the People, By the People
Lowani is passionate about people’s career growth and development. She derives great satisfaction and reward in supporting and watching her team aspire to bigger roles and exporting Zambian talent to other Citi entities.
A Leader in All of Us
Lowani’s most significant tool in identifying a future leader is listening more and harnessing emotional intelligence. She deliberately seeks meaningful conversations with her team to identify those up to the task.
A Global Network
Lowani believes experience is the best teacher and greatest asset. Working in various Citi entities globally, she leverages these experiences to identify and patch gaps in the Zambian market. Her exposure to bigger markets has enabled her to expand her network and work under pressure.
Lowani is passionate about family and enjoys spending time with her parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and two grandchildren. When the going gets tough, she finds encouragement in a quick phone call to her parents or quiet contemplation in her parental home.
Take your senses on an unparalleled dining experience. Bo’jangles in Lusaka’s Longacres Mall offers a sophisticated dining experience with diverse menus, live jazz, and celebrity bands weekly. The restaurant combines sophistication and warmth, whether having breakfast, lunch or a cosy dinner. The skilled chefs craft meals from around the world, promising a delightful culinary journey in a harmonious setting.