Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer, GE Africa, Patricia Obozuwa, in this chat, shares her experience as an ambitious executive, with over 20 year-record of building the communications function and teams at some of the world’s leading multinationals operating in Africa.
BY CHARLES KUMOLU, Deputy Editor
You started off as a curator but found fame and fulfillment in the corporate communication business. How did it happen?
In searching for a job after my National Youth Service , NYSC, scheme, I started working as an assistant curator at a Nigerian Art Gallery called Nimbus. It was just opening at the time but it grew to become very popular. I worked there for two incredibly enjoyable years before moving on to my next job at the British Council. There I managed the arts programme for Nigeria and implemented some of the most rewarding initiatives across music, drama, literature, art and photography – all strategically aimed at changing perceptions of the UK in a way that appealed to young professionals who were the new target demographic at the time. This is where I started to consciously build my communications expertise in a structured manner. I started honing my skills in formal and creative writing, managing press briefings, posting stories on our website, updating arts information, and bringing all of that together with my arts strategy to build the image of the British Council in Nigeria. This experience and accomplishments put me in a good position for my next job at Procter & Gamble where I built the West Africa Communications and Public Relations function and team from scratch. I worked there for a little under seven years before moving to my current role in GE.
You are a successful PR executive, to what extent did your background influence your career path and other choices you made?
With my background, PR and communications would not have been the obvious career path for me. I studied Accounting in university even though very early I knew I didn’t want to be an accountant. None of my parents or siblings involved in any marketing communications job. I sort of stumbled into this career path after realising that building image and reputation always seemed to be at the core of my successful projects and accomplishments early in my career. I decided to explore this path further.
I was born in Lagos. I have a twin sister and we are among the youngest in a large family. My father worked for the Nigerian Police and was transferred to different locations in the course of his career. I consider myself a very well-rounded Nigerian as I have been privileged to live and study across different parts of Nigeria including Cross River, Akwa Ibom, Borno, Edo, Osun and Lagos states. I have travelled to many more states in the earlier part of my career.
Actions and choices
I had the most amazing parents and being from a large family, I had several role models and a great deal of accountability. The principles of hard work and personal achievement were always deeply entrenched in my family. There was always the unwritten rule that even though everyone is extremely supportive of the other, each person must find their own personal abilities and chart their own path to success. These values continue to guide my actions and choices today.
As a female achiever in a male-dominated field, do you see gender as a determinant factor on how far a woman can go in the workplace?
Communications is typically not as male-dominated as a lot of other fields. But you’re probably referring to having a seat at the top. Several studies show how poorly represented women are at executive level – apparently about 23 percent in Africa and even worse at CEO level where it is just five percent. There is definitely a problem that needs to be fixed. There is no doubt that it is more difficult for women to rise in the workplace given the traditional roles in raising a family and combining that with the demands of work and career. In addition, women often have to work twice as hard for our efforts to be recognised. But we as women cannot afford to accept those limits that have been placed on us. We must strive to reach whatever heights we set out to. Everyone has their different goals and aspirations. I have been extremely fortunate to work at great organizations like GE, P&G and the British Council that truly value women and gender diversity in leadership. Some haven’t been that fortunate.
What gender narrative are you not comfortable with in the Nigerian society and how best can it be addressed?
I am passionate about gender balance and I advocate this at every opportunity I get. Here’s my vision. I see a future that includes balanced representation of both genders in the media and in the corporate world, not just at junior levels but in executive management and boards. In addition, when qualified women are promoted to an executive level, they should be given the power and the agency that should naturally go with such positions. Lastly, when women are represented and have the power and agency, they should be paid at par with their male equivalents. This applies not just to Nigeria, but everywhere in the world. Awareness has significantly increased and there has been some progress in women’s participation but we are still a long way off from gender balance in corporations, in politics, and in Nigeria as a whole. For us to make any real progress, not just women, but men need to join in advocating and promoting gender diversity. We have to be intentional and start taking concrete actions to create the gender balanced future that we want to see.
To what extent have you been valuable to the attainment of your organisation’s goals?
Now that’s a question you should ask my boss. Having a good reputation is always helpful to achieve an organization’s goals and I am fortunate to work for a company like GE that brings leading innovative technology and operates with utmost integrity. It makes my job easier. But I make sure to put in my very best and the company values this. Excellence is important. Nothing great comes from mediocrity. Commitment and resilience pays off better in the long run.
On challenges in life
My biggest challenge in life is to be the best I can be and take all I experience each day as a lesson to get better the next day. This is true for all aspects of my life, whether career-wise or personal. In life we face many difficulties. We expect a lot from ourselves and we try to meet the very high expectations of others. The important thing is to stay true to myself by staying grounded and keeping a clear head while navigating through career, relationships and personal values.
Can you share your most memorable experience and lessons drawn from it?
One memorable moment I always cite is the day I received my first commission on a sale at Nimbus Art Gallery. This was my first job and it came with a very small guaranteed salary but a promise to be paid a 10 percent commission on any new business I generate. Just a few days into my job, I brought in a new customer who bought two paintings that earned me a commission worth almost three times my monthly salary. It wasn’t a ton of money but it was significant because it established firmly in my mind, the relationship between putting in extra effort and reaping higher reward. For much of my life before that, I generally made the least effort required for anything and as you can imagine, the results were inconsistent depending on my innate abilities or how much pressure I was under. But from that day I earned the commission, I was motivated to always put in my very best to achieve exceptional results and of course, reap great rewards.
Communications in Nigeria and Africa
My wish or desire is to play an active role in challenging the negative stereotypical perceptions of Nigeria by communicating about this country in its full breadth. Proactively shaping perceptions by celebrating the amazing positive aspects that make us love this country and amplifying this side-by-side the negative narrative that is so often told and has indeed become how we are generally perceived. If we don’t do this, the Africa narrative will continue to be a by-product of ‘breaking news’ on political instability, we’ll-intentioned campaigns by development organizations and advertising by the tourism industry. We need to start telling a new well-rounded story if we are to change the narrative. It is important to have dignity in whatever job you do. Setting a high standard for yourself and never lowering that standard are important. Good reputation should be chosen over great riches.