Mukwandi Chibesakunda
The trailblazer

People-oriented and committed to opening doors for others, Mukwandi Chibesakunda is one of Zambia’s leading bankers. She has been CEO of Zanaco since October 2020.

As a young girl Mukwandi Chibesakunda felt she didn’t have a lot of highly visible female role models in positions of leadership to look up to. Fast forward to the present day and Mukwandi is a role model to many. She has a long, distinguished career in banking and was the first female managing director of Access Bank, the first female CEO of NATSAVE and is now the first female CEO of Zanaco Bank.  

“Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re extraordinary. It just means you got an opportunity and you took it.”

While being the first woman to take on various high level positions in the corporate world matters to Mukwandi, it’s more important to her that she is not the last to do so.  She says, “Looking at my profile I wondered why I was the first in certain areas because when you look at Zambia, we’ve come over 50 years down the line. And we still have so many firsts. I think we should ask ourselves, if we are doing enough to just level the playing field. Maybe we are doing a lot more than we think because we do have these firsts.”

For Mukwandi, ensuring that she’s not the last woman to occupy certain positions in the corporate world comes down to working hard to succeed when given opportunities. “It’s not just about me. I’m representing everyone else who may be looking up to me so it can be a burden sometimes,” she shares. But while being a role model can be a hefty responsibility that comes with a number of challenges she also sees it as a privileged and fulfilling position to be in. Mukwandi explains, “It’s less about the challenges than how you react to them. If you fall down seven times, pick yourself up eight times. Because you have to go beyond the falling down. So seven times getting up is not enough, you get up the eighth time just to make sure that you carry on.”

Just as Mukwandi has a number of firsts to her name so too does Zanaco. She tells me the bank, established in 1969, was born out of a desire for Zambia to have its own indigenous institutions and has led the way in innovation in the banking sector. “The first ATM in Zambia, that was Zanaco. The first mobile banking solution in Zambia, Xapit, that was Zanaco in 1996 or 1998. We went digital in 2017, before COVID happened, because we know the future is digital. Zanaco has been an innovator and what this means for me personally is that we must build on that legacy of innovation.”

As CEO, building on Zanaco’s legacy means staying ahead of the curve and leading the market. Mukwandi shares, “Profitability is obviously a very strong measure for us as a financial institution. But beyond that, it’s also about playing our role in the community, making sure that we identify where the future is going and how we can participate in that. And I believe that that’s our vision of Zanaco for the future, to continue to lead the market and deliver to the Zambian people…Zanaco is unique in the Zambian banking sector because it’s indigenous. But it also has shareholding that is not necessarily indigenous. So we are on the cusp of both sides. And as a result of that, we have a critical role to play to raise the bar when it comes to indigenous institutions.”

“I’m very focused on delivery and on people, because you deliver through people. It starts with me. I don’t ask anyone to do something that I’m not ready to do.”

At this point in the conversation Mukwandi has brought up Zanaco’s role in the community several times so I ask how the bank is playing its part. She tells me Zanaco has recently donated goods worth K4 million to various communities negatively affected by COVID-19. They have also assisted hospitals that have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 by covering the costs of hiring additional nurses and other caregivers, no doubt helping to save lives in the process. She further adds that Zanaco has always done a lot of work in the communities it operates in but while they do publicise some of their community work, “We don’t make noise about it. Sometimes we do but what is important is that we play a role to change things for the better.”

I ask Mukwandi what she thinks makes her a good leader and she pauses for a few seconds before telling me she struggles with statements like that. She believes it is up to others to judge whether or not she is a good leader and that one must always maintain humility in leadership. “People assume that because you’re a leader you’re good at it but there’s so many bad leaders, so many examples of bad leadership. As a leader you must recognise that you’re in a privileged position. Being a leader doesn’t mean you’re extraordinary. It just means you got an opportunity and you took it.”

She may be hesitant to call herself a good leader outright but Mukwandi is eager to discuss her leadership style and how it has evolved over the years. She describes her leadership style as people-oriented, not just focused on the people she leads but also the customers she serves. “I’m very focused on delivery and on people, because you deliver through people. It starts with me. I don’t ask anyone to do something that I’m not ready to do.” She continues, “If there is something that is happening that you need to give feedback on, it’s actually kind to provide that feedback so that someone has a chance to do something about it. Rather than talk about them behind their back, I’d rather be honest and upfront and say this is where you’re failing, this is where you’re working well…I focus on the people and give people a chance. If those chances don’t work, then we move on.

As for the evolution of her leadership style, Mukwandi says it has most recently become obvious to her in how she has dealt with COVID-19. As some staff members fell ill and struggled with the financial impact of the pandemic it was decided that Zanaco would cover medical costs for staff and their families and also offer some limited assistance to the domestic workers of Zanaco staff members. Mukwandi states that five to ten years ago she would’ve been more focused on cost management. She notes as well that the systems set in place to help staff members cope with the effects of COVID-19 have not been abused. A lot of trust has been placed in the staff and they have only used the services when they needed them. “So at this time, when business is down, our numbers are up. And my view is it’s because we have treated our people with the humanity they deserve. The bottom line is important but people are part of the bottom line…And if you don’t respect what matters to the people, then you don’t respect that bottom line.”

So what does Mukwandi want her lasting legacy to be? What matters is how her family sees her. “My children, my husband, my family, I would like them to remember that in all this, I still cared for them. I think that’s my first priority, despite everything. And then I would like to also be remembered for delivery, that whatever it is that I set out to do I achieved.”

As my time with Mukwandi comes to an end I ask her what her greatest professional achievement has been. She says with a confident smile, “I think it’s still coming.”

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