Dunke Afe is a seasoned marketeer with over 19 years’ experience in the FMCG industry. During this time she has had an amazing career with Unilever, the last 10 years in the Home Care division where she held senior leadership roles such as Global Director for Brands and Portfolio, Senior Global Director for the Dirt Is Good brand and Regional Laundry Director for Africa
Dunke is also a certified executive and holistic coach. She regularly mentors and coaches younger managers, especially African talent on how to develop their authentic leadership style as they navigate their careers into senior management roles.
Topics covered in this podcast:
- Challenges encountered in her journey to become a senior leader.
- The impact of being an African woman may have on your career.
- Useful tips to make your career progress to reach your goals.
Hi, I’m Lauren Stiebing and welcome to this episode of the Career Success Podcast. Today we’ve invited Dunke Afe to discuss with us about the topic of Leadership Transformation for manager to senior leader. She is a seasoned marketeer with over 19 years experience in the FMCG industry. During this time, she has had an amazing career with Unilever. She’s held senior leadership roles such as Global Director for Brands and Portfolio, Senior Global Director for the Dirt is Good brand and Regional Laundry Director for Africa. Dunke is also a certified executive and a holistic coach. She regularly mentors and coaches younger managers, especially African talent, on how to develop their authentic leadership style as they navigate their careers into senior management roles. Welcome Dunke.
Thank you Lauren. Happy to be here.
Can you start off by giving us a bit of background on your journey into senior leadership and some of the challenges which you faced?
Sure. So, when I started working, I actually started as a management trainee on a graduate recruitment program for my organization. And so basically, I started right at the bottom and I had to work my way to where I am now. And when I joined, I was management training in Nigeria, which is where I’m from. And what you do is you work across all the functions before you kind of progress. Now, I did that for about two years and I worked across everything, but it was great because it gave me an opportunity to learn about the business that I was in and where my passion was. So early on in my career, I guess I knew that loving what I did was important and that kind of really helped me. So, I worked as a trainee for about two years and then I got promoted to a manager role and that’s kind of the standard for that kind of organization. And then as a manager, I started working across different categories in marketing. I worked in laundry, beverages, I worked in food, oral care, and I worked across local and regional marketing. Again, great experience, different kind of challenges.
And I think the critical thing was trying to always deliver the best that I could, considering all the constraints that we had. And I think what was pivotal for me at that point was I wanted a different kind of challenge in my career. I felt like if I continued, I would still be doing different kinds of categories but still marketing. So, I did what some people consider it to be a slightly risky move and I applied for a global audit manager role, which is in the finance or compliance part of the business. And I knew it was a side move at the time, but I really wanted a different challenge and I wanted a different experience of the business and I felt like in that kind of role, if you were a better business person, you could be a better marketeer as well.
So, I moved to London and I did that role for three years. And after that I wanted a different change. And you will notice a trend in my career and leadership journey is that I was always kind of challenging and looking for something else that would build my expertise and make me more well-rounded. I had done the audit role and I was ready to move back into marketing, but I also wanted something different. Again, I wanted to a global innovation role and because I felt in a global innovation role, you really have to work with a very different kind of team, different functions and you have to lead an agenda and I wanted that experience. So, I did that. It was on the back of that that I actually got my next promotion into a director role and then I was asked to lead the global brands business for Africa, and I was based in South Africa at the time. And I think that was a starting point of really feeling like a leader. I had a team that was reporting into me, a really big team as opposed to having two or three people previously. And I was engaging with managing directors of different company organizations. I was setting direction, I was taking risk, and I had a big budget that I needed to be responsible for. I was accountable for brand performance.
So you really felt like, oh, now I have to make some tough decisions. And I think that’s where, I guess the challenge has really started to come to the fore. And when I think about some of those challenges, I think one of the biggest ones, and I say this to anybody that’s ever transitioned from managing to leading, is moving from thinking about yourself to thinking about your team. And suddenly you have people that are looking to you for direction, for guidance, for inspiration, for recognition, for supports. And you have to make sure that you are in a healthy frame of mind so that you can support your team. And I would regularly remind myself that in that role it was less about what I was doing, but how I was enabling and unblocking things from my team. So that’s definitely one of the big challenges that I had to get used to. And I think any new leader; a manager has to kind of understand how to work in that space. I did that role and it was quite interesting, challenging, and then I moved back to London to kind of where I am now, where I’m leading a global brand and portfolio for the organization.
And do you think along your senior leadership journey that being female has had its unique challenges?
Definitely. It has. And you know, I think probably the biggest one is, and a lot of my female colleagues also tell me this, you know, being ignored, being overlooked, being spoken over because as a… I tend to find that certainly my experience is the style of leadership that a lot of women that I see exact in my organization, it’s quiet, controlled, contained, very explanatory, we tend to be much more temperate… I don’t want to generalize, but certainly that was what I experienced and as a result there was a tendency to be spoken over. I can’t tell you how many times in meetings you’re trying to make a point and nobody kind of hears you, you think. And then, you know, a male colleague would make the point and everybody thinks that’s the best thing that’s ever happened and you’re kind of like, but I just said that. So, you see things like that happen quite a lot.
And also, I think, my experience certainly for a number of years was being apologetic when I wanted to challenge somebody or you know, not feeling the confidence that I could challenge in a room. And I think that was also because there were few women in the organization at such a high level and it was very, you know, male kind of approach and male kind of style. And so those are kind of the challenges that you had to learn to deal with and cope with in a way that was authentic to myself for sure.
And how did you deal with some of those? What really helped you?
A couple of things, I think that probably the biggest one was having mentors that I could talk to. And this was something that I did; as soon as I became a director, I approached a couple of men and women who I admired and who I really liked their style of leadership, and I ensure that we had a really good relationship and they were mentoring me through the journey. So, when I started to experience this kind of instances, I would engage with my mentors and they gave me loads of advice because they’d been on the journey before. I think that was one thing. I think the second thing was really reflecting on the kind of leader I wanted to be and therefore if I wanted to be this kind of authentic, supportive leader, what were the behaviors I needed to enable for myself? So really reflective. And I think the third thing was looking after myself, because I always believe that if you are in a good mental frame of mind, if you are having a balanced life healthy, you have more energy to thrive when things are really hard. And I think it’s in the hard times that your true leadership style comes to life.
And in terms of other unique challenges, do you think that being African had any unique challenges?
Absolutely. I think, you know, right now in the UK there’s a lot of discussion about unconscious bias and I’m sure it is prevalent in America and parts of Europe as well. Unconscious bias is something that I’ve experienced ever since I moved to Europe and I think it’s one of two ways. One is the assumption that you are not as good as your counterparts, be it white-female or male. And you see that in the subtleties of how people speak, what they say. And then you’ll also find the stereotypes as well you know, there’s a very famous one that people talk about, the angry black women stereotype. And that comes across when you are impassioned or you’re speaking quite strongly about something and you see these, and I’ve learned to deal with it. And basically, what I do, like I said, you know, using those mentors, especially black female mentors who’ve gone on that journey ahead and have dealt with it. And so, you know that you’re not crazy and you’re not alone, you know.
I also had to reflect, as I said about how I like to lead. One of the things I always tried to do was not be reactive because it’s very easy to have a chip on your shoulder when actually it’s probably a mistake or actually coming from a genuine place. So being very calm and reflective rather than reactive is really good. And I also try to always speak up when I see such instances happen and I look at it as here’s an opportunity to educate my colleague who means no harm. I always assume positive intent, but I also make sure I do that in a very calm way. And I also stand up for others as well because some women who experienced this are in junior positions and they don’t feel they have the confidence to talk about it. So whenever I see it, I do try to stand up for others. And I think the last one is have a great network of people around you that you can tap into.
Well, thank you Dunke for your basically feedback; your tips on your success. I think is a great example even with challenges, unconscious biases. If you find the right resources, you can be just as successful as everyone else.
Dunke: Absolutely. Thank you so much.