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The first female Managing Director and Country Manager of Procter and Gamble Nigeria, Mokutima Ajileye, reveals how her childhood and can-do spirit helped to shape her career, and shared her thoughts on gender equality and politics in the corporate environment

You became the first female MD of P&G last year. Did your appointment come to you as a surprise?

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When I started working, did I set out to be the managing director of Procter and Gamble Nigeria? I will not say yes, because I just started working and focused on my job, and P&G, being a promote-from-within organisation, helped me on that journey. So, if I look back on my journey, there are a couple of things P&G did to prepare me and things I did to prepare myself.

From the P&G end, I will say they created the opportunities through very deliberate career and assignment planning, exposing me to the different aspects of the business, expanding the scope as I grew, including sending me on international assignments to work in a completely different context.

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So, they saw the potential in me and kept stretching me, and they matched me with a mentor who helped me to chart the path. On my side, I delivered the results; I had the courage to take on those expanded roles to learn new things, and to say yes to potentially tough assignments. So, I think from my side and the side of the company, somewhat, I was prepared for this role. But did I sit down and say this (MD of P&G) was what I wanted to be? No, I will not say so. I prepared for leadership but did not know what form it would take.

 What impression do you have about being the country head of a global brand as a woman?

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 First of all, I really believe in representation because at the end of the day, seeing your equal in a certain position makes you believe that you too can do it. If I want to look at myself as a woman or a Nigerian woman, I will say that this is the kind of thing that I believe in, in having the right representation, in seeing people that are like you, in inspiring others to see that they can also do that.

So, at P&G, we always like to say that ‘we see equal’. So, equality and inclusion are fundamental parts of who we are and how we operate every day. And this appointment is also something that really rings true to our actions. I like to always say when there is a woman in a position, it is not honestly to tick a diversity box; it is the fact the organisation creates an equal opportunity and the woman that was deserving got the job. For me, that is the impression; create equal opportunities and the right people will emerge, irrespective of gender.

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 Before you became the MD, you served in other capacities. How did those roles prepare you for the responsibilities you currently have?

 The greater part of my career was spent in marketing. For about 13 years, I was in marketing. What did marketing teach me? The first thing is the power of uncovering an insight that will solve a problem – identifying the business problem, uncovering an insight from the consumer point of view, designing a strategy to be able to respond to that need, and then executing with excellence.

These are the things I learnt through different aspects of my job as a marketer. When I moved to lead digital transformation in our feminine care business in Switzerland, I was responsible for about nine European countries and they were very diverse with different consumer profiles, languages and cultural nuances. So, this role really helped me to lead across cultures, lead diverse teams and be able to craft a vision and communicate it with people to get them to communicate and deliver.

I was also a commercial leader at P&G; it is really like a mix of marketing and sales in some aspects. Here, it was about influencing different aspects of the business, whether it is from the supply chain part or the sales person, or a person working in a different country. So, I think the different jobs I did for 13 years in marketing, working in Europe, and coming back to lead the commercial team in Nigeria all contributed to where I am today.

 Which of those previous roles will you describe as the toughest?

That is a difficult question because every role, honestly, has its ups and downs and the challenges are very different. I will talk about my role in Europe not necessarily because it was the most difficult or because it was the most fulfilling, but because it was a lesson in change management.

To be able to do the job, I had to relocate with my young children from Nigeria to Switzerland. The relocation was quite tough because as much as I was learning a new role, learning about a new country, I also had to integrate my children into the country and help them to succeed at school. So, I think that assignment was tough mainly because of the different aspects of change that happened at the same time. But if I look back now, it was great because I really learnt to manage complexity in my personal life and children and learnt about different cultures with different languages in Switzerland where French, German and English are spoken. It helped me navigate difficult situations and manage complex change

 Was marketing an intentional career choice or was it something that came to you by chance?

 Interesting. So, I think I need to give a little bit of context so that you will appreciate it. For my academic background, I studied Food Science and Technology at the Federal University of Technology, Owerri, so I was not in business, or management sciences, and definitely not in marketing.

But if I think about it now, everything adds up. My science background gave me a fantastic background for a business career, because science involves critical thinking, developing a hypothesis, and evaluating data before forming an opinion and making a conclusion, and science fosters curiosity and experimentation, which are very important for innovation in the workplace. So, my science background prepared me.

However, the move from manufacturing to marketing was somewhat like stumbling into it. I was in manufacturing, anyway, for three years. That was how I started my career.

Fortunately, Procter and Gamble was recruiting and I decided to take a chance on myself and applied. During the interview, the interviewer told me that I would fit into marketing. So, moving to marketing was not intentional but moving from manufacturing was, and I ended up in marketing, loved it, and spent over 13 years of my life in it.

 What really drives and motivates you?

 I think clichéd as it might sound, challenges motivate me. I like solving problems. I like looking back and knowing that I have added value to something or made it better. That is why I always raise my hands for tough assignments because I think they get my juices flowing.

The second thing I believe in is the power of personal connections because even in the process of solving problems, no one has a monopoly on knowledge. So, I believe in asking for help and working with others; I believe in win-win opportunities and stepping out of my way for someone else.

I am also motivated when I see that there is a legacy to be created. I always believe in something being better than it is today. I believe that if people are struggling with something I can come in and help them navigate through that uncertainty and craft a vision for the future.

 What were the challenges that came with growing in your career as a Nigerian woman?

 I don’t think I have ever faced huge challenges in my career because of my gender and I think that is a big testament to the organisation I work in, and I also realise that this is not everyone’s reality. But having said that, one of the things I have faced is actually external, which is when I attend meetings or go out of my organisation; by default, if I am with a man (from my organisation) on that trip, people address him.

For some weird reason, they never really think I am the person they are supposed to be speaking to until introductions are made. I think this is really part of the socialisation in our society and people are still not used to seeing women at the apex of a career or business world.

I think it is something that will change as we continue to have the right representation. Has there been a particular challenge linked to my gender in the course of my career? I will say no. Do I sometimes face some situations because I am a woman? Yes, I do, but, honestly, it has not been a lot. Once we get talking and the business of the day is on the table, everybody adjusts and we all get on with it.

 What role do you think culture plays in this, especially when some people do not think gender equality benefits everyone?

Culture is a very deep thing because it means people have grown up with these things from childhood. So, you can’t change the culture in one day. Yes, culture plays a very big part. However, what organisations or governments, or societies can do is to try to change the narrative.

For instance, at P&G, we also use the power of our brands to purposefully communicate what equality should look like and you will see this in some of our campaigns like the Always Like a Girl campaign or the Ariel Share the Load campaign where we showcase through advertising that it is okay for men to also do the laundry at home.

As a company, we also work with our business partners to invest in the training and up-scaling of hundreds of women-owned businesses across Africa because supplier diversity is an important opportunity for us and we have the objective to integrate more women into global value chains. I am using these two examples to show that the government, society and groups can use the media to showcase what it should look like and can also go into collaborations with their business partners to really strengthen women in different aspects.

If everybody plays their part, we will then together as a society make progress. Imagery is super important, which was why I started with our brand and advertising platforms, because what you see sticks with you. So, whether in our storytelling in advertising, movies, or maybe music, we just need to show balance and that will really help in driving society forward.

 Speaking about the product, Always, you managed that brand, which is one of the most popular sanitary products. What impact has it had on rural women and girls in Nigeria?

 I think the part I really want to talk about is the purpose of the brand. At P&G and with Always, we aspire to build a better world free from gender bias and all individuals reach their full potential. A lot of girls across the world miss school, a minimum of four days every month because they don’t have access to sanitary pads.

We know that if we want to talk about gender inclusion and women reaching their full potential, education is at the very core of it. So, if a girl misses school four times a month and you multiply that by a year, that is almost two months out of school.

How can she ever compete? So, this is something close to our hearts and what we do here is menstrual health management training both for girls and their school counsellors. So, this is something we are very proud of and continue to do every year to girls in school so that they can reach their potential.

  What aspects of your childhood do you fondly remember?

 I grew up in Akwa Ibom State. My mum was already the principal of a secondary school when I was born, so most of my childhood was spent living in most of the campuses of the different secondary schools she headed.

My childhood memory is really about vast playgrounds in the schools. It was a very beautiful childhood where my siblings and I forged friendships. There were many orchards in the schools, so I remember climbing trees. It was a different childhood from today. I spent a lot of time outdoors and forged a lot of friendships.

Another aspect of my childhood that is interesting is that I didn’t stay in one place for more than years because she kept getting transferred from school to school and we moved with her. I think that helped me to be open to change. It wasn’t something I had really thought about until you asked this question. I think it is something that has helped me till now.

I attended primary and secondary school in Nigeria. I attended St. Mary’s Science College in Akwa Ibom. I attended university in Nigeria. After my university education, I obtained an MBA at Warwick Business School and I have certifications in strategy from the INSEAD business school in France, and in digital transformation in Switzerland.

 Would you then say you were the adventurous, ambitious, or quiet type?

As a child, I used to travel with her to attend conferences and I went to over 20 states in Nigeria. I remember fondly when I did a road trip with my mum from Akwa Ibom to Maiduguri for a conference. It made me adventurous and appreciate Nigeria, because I saw different aspects of the country very early.

My mum was the first person to leave a strong impression on me because she made me realise that being a woman was not a disadvantage in any way. Thirty years ago, she broke barriers by being the first female President of the All Nigeria Confederation of Principals of Secondary Schools in Akwa Ibom. So, my childhood really shaped me and my outlook on life and perspective on leadership.

 As a teacher was she a disciplinarian?

 I think every African mother is a disciplinarian irrespective of the kind of career path they are on. My mother was a disciplinarian, especially because she was a principal. We could not be the ones causing problems in school. But she was very open-minded.

 What is the most important value you learnt from your mother that has been useful to you in many ways?

 There are truly several values that I learnt from my mother. The two I want to highlight are self-belief and courage. My mother was the first female president of ANCOPSS. This was 30 years ago in 1992 when the awareness about gender inclusion wasn’t on the front burner of social discourse.

She believed that she had the requisite skills to lead the association, believed she understood the dynamics of the stakeholders and knew she could solve the problems the association faced. She was then courageous enough to contest the position and didn’t focus on or even consider that she won’t get voted in because of her gender. And she succeeded!

So, I truly didn’t grow up thinking I was disadvantaged in any way because I’m female. This has followed me through life. I call myself an incurable optimist. I see opportunities, I see possibilities, and focus on the value that I can bring to a situation. I constantly draw on the power of courage and step forward to lead through difficult or uncertain situations.

  Do you believe in ‘office politics’ and do you think it is a requirement for career growth?

Office politics is a part of every organisation and unfortunately, the term has a lot of negative connotations. I think this is an important question because we need to reframe our thinking around how we understand office politics. Office politics is about stakeholder management – identifying these stakeholders, understanding what is important to them and how your job can add value to their priorities, and actively managing them through clear and regular communication.

It is about the relationships you have and build with the people you work with. If you focus only on your performance and not also on your work relationships, your progress may be slightly slower than you would hope. However, investing in your networks and building the connections that can speak for you and your work will have exponential effects on how you are perceived, not only by senior leaders but also by your peers.

 Your name and surname appear to tell a story about two ethnicities. What is the connection here?

 It’s a very straightforward connection – my husband is Yoruba from Ekiti State, while I’m Ibibio from Akwa Ibom State. So we are an inter-ethnic family.

Punch (with background reports by The Podium)


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