By Harriet Ogayo
Naomi Munyi is the general manager, strategy and innovation, at ICEA Lion Group and the highest-ranking female officer in the organisation. With three decades in the industry, it has taken grit, sacrifices and hard work to get to this position. She takes HARRIET OGAYO down memory lane, recounting her greatest influences and her take on women empowerment.
Coming from a home where her mother was very hands-on and keen on her eight children making the best out of life, Naomi Munyi, 56, knew from a young age the importance of hard work. House chores and schoolwork took centre stage and at the instruction of their mother, the leader of the women’s fellowship at their local church, their duties extended to helping out at church activities every other day. They would particularly help out with cleaning and cooking for the elderly around their village.
“I think that experience and my interaction with the elderly is the source of my blessings today,” says Naomi.
Right from her secondary school years at Chuka Girls High School, Naomi excelled in accounting and it only made sense that she pursues it. After her A-levels in St. Mary’s Girls’, she went on to the University of Nairobi where she majored in accounting. She felt that her introverted personality suited accounting as it is consistent with people who are not very outgoing.
“I wasn’t the outgoing type so I directed my time and energy towards my studies. I also made a lot of friends who came from similar backgrounds. We would help each other with assignments and from that I made lifelong friends,” she narrates.
Back then, companies would recruit undergraduates as trainees while they were still in campus and Naomi was part of the cohort of about 20 people who went to the Kenya National Assurance Company (KNAC) as management trainees. It is here that she would get a foundation in insurance as in the one year that she was a trainee at the organisation, she got to handle the different functions of an insurance company, giving her a basic understanding of all aspects of the insurance industry. After her training period, she was absorbed into the company where she worked for four years. At the time of leaving, she had climbed up the ranks to senior accountant in charge of accounts.
“The way KNAC was structured, you only handled an element of finance – either accounts, cash office or investments. I found that arrangement limiting because as an accountant, you should be able to handle all aspects of finance. When ICEA advertised for the position of deputy chief accountant, I applied and got it,” she explains.
Making career headway
In 1994, she joined ICEA and within the first year, the chief accountant resigned. While it was inopportune for the company as it was during an auditing period, the timing was just perfect for Naomi as she was asked to take up the role. Confident in her abilities and those of her team, she happily took it up. Soon after, another staff member’s exit from the company saw her take up administrative duties, which had a more managerial aspect. With the influence of her mother and her experience as head girl during her secondary and A-level years, leadership came easy to her.
After about three years, a change in law required company secretaries to have Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Public Secretary (CPS) qualifications. As if by a stroke of fate, the then group’s company secretary lacked the qualifications which Naomi happened to have, as she had done them on completion of her university course. Having been promoted to financial controller, she once again took on the extra responsibility.
“When I became the company secretary, my boss then decided that the title – financial controller – did not fit my scope of capabilities and I was made the general manager, administration and finance. It was a bigger responsibility because it encompassed more departments, but one of my strengths is being able to work well with people whether they are directly under me or parallel to me,” expounds Naomi who considers her steady progression in the company as a milestone.
Cognizant that the position required continuous learning, she undertook an MBA in strategic planning from the University of Nairobi. In 2012, when the business was reorganised to form ICEA Lion Group, she became the general manager, finance and strategy, and oversaw the group strategy for 2013-2017, as well as the 2018-2022 strategy in her current role.
The true mark of a leader
Having been in a leadership position for a majority of her career, Naomi’s ultimate goal is to support others to become leaders as well. As such, she attests to having trained at least one person in most of the major insurance companies in the country.
As a woman in leadership, she is also happy to see more women are taking up leadership roles and that more and more places are opening up to having women at the helm. However, she cautions against tokenism as according to her, it slows down progress in society.
“I don’t believe in giving women positions just because they are women. In fact, I find that quite belittling because women are capable of getting there by merit. We might be disadvantaged because we are fewer in the decision-making process but it is something that can be undone,” she says emphatically.
With several people passing through her hands, she is keen that people who interact with her make the most out of their careers. Consequently, she advises young people starting out in their careers to always have the end in mind urging them to live within their means and save for the future.
“Start learning as early as possible the things that pertain to your profession as you interact with others in the field. You need to be focussed and have a personal plan that covers your career and social life. The problem is that a lot of young people are impatient yet career growth calls for some patience,” she muses.
And as the world gears to celebrate International Women’s Day, Naomi is grateful for the lessons from her mother who acknowledged the importance of the day and would commemorate it with women from her church. She also would assign her and her siblings equal responsibilities, regardless of their gender, which was empowering.
Passionate about the girl-child, Naomi is happy that it is truly coming full circle as she also mentors young ladies on life skills. She is also fortunate to be surrounded by great mentors herself who have been instrumental in her career as well.
She, however, decries some of the practices in the insurance sector such as competition over value to customers.
“Insurance is meant to build capacity for the citizens, government and other entities but sometimes the people in insurance devalue that aspect and compete based on price which is really disappointing,” remarks the seasoned insurance professional.
That said, she is excited for the opportunities that technology presents for the sector, especially as she is in charge of innovation.
While most would definitely term her career trajectory as a success, Naomi considers the fact that her two children turned out well as her greatest success. Despite challenges with work-life balance, she opines that motherhood is very rewarding, especially seeing the values she imparted reflected in their lives.
She also credits her husband of 32 years for being a strong support system. Her extended family and an empowered house manager also ensured that she did not drop the ball at work and at home. This especially came in handy when pursuing her Master’s degree and had to maximise her time, studying in the morning and at lunch hour to ensure she still had time for her family. Her friends, most from her campus years, were also very understanding as her social life had become non-existent and they remain as close as ever.
As such, she encourages those in her team to dedicate time to their families the same way they would to their work.
“I’m very supportive of families and I encourage my team to ensure they give time to their families. If you have a meeting at school, slot in it your calendar the same way you would a work meeting. With parenting, you may not be able to pick things up if you drop the ball,” she concludes.
This article was first published in the March issue of Parents Magazine