Her parents’ words helped set Oluchi Ikechi on the path to professional success, but it was hearing her communities’ stories that inspired her to help guide others.
Oluchi Ikechi, Managing Director, Accenture
Oluchi Ikechi’s parents told her when she was a little girl that the colour of her skin meant she would always need to put in more effort than other kids to succeed.
“I was taught from a very young age to work harder than my peers because I'm the only one who looks like me,” recalls Oli, whose Nigerian parents moved from Brixton across London to predominantly white Wimbledon in search of better opportunities for their five kids.
“‘You've got to be on top of your game,’” she remembers being told. “‘You can't wait for your teachers to tell you to study. You've got to just study.’”
Always take the initiative was the message. And that lesson helped fuel her career. Now a Managing Director at Accenture, she built and leads the firm’s Financial Services restructuring business in the UK and Ireland and last year was named one of Britain’s brightest female business leaders under 35 by Management Today magazine.
Her parents bolstered their advice with powerful personal stories. Oli’s dad came to the UK on a scholarship to do a PhD in maths and engineering in the 1960s. Her mother lost both parents and one of her younger sisters in the Biafran War, a three-year war for succession in southeast Nigeria. She had to raise her surviving younger sister after the conflict. She was also determined to study, and an uncle sponsored her to go to university in Paris.
With their support, Oli graduated with a first-class honours in information systems at Brunel University. As part of her degree, she worked at Lloyds Banking Group for more than a year with additional stints with Credit Suisse and Morgan Stanley, giving her an overview of the global banking industry.
Upon graduating, she joined Accenture and thrived by applying her ‘can-do’ attitude. Eventually, she found her passion on a project involving restructuring in 2010, where she had to cut a path through territory that Accenture had not charted.
“'Okay, there's nothing here, there are no resources,’” she remembers thinking as the lessons from her childhood kicked in, spurring her to craft her own methodology. “‘I should just package a lot of this knowledge and do it again.’”
“Again, it was: ‘Don't wait for your teachers to tell you.’ I'm not going to wait for someone to sell the work. Because I want to continue doing it, I'll go out there and sell it.”
This is how Accenture’s fast-growing UK and Ireland business restructuring unit was born.
As a leader, Oli’s turning point hit when her father suddenly died in 2013. Having never known her grandparents, losing the family figurehead was a shock but it awakened Oli’s connection to her family’s Igbo culture, her family’s tribe in Nigeria.
“All these people kept coming to the house, which is another great thing about the culture – you're never alone,” she recalls. “They were coming to our family home on a daily basis for about six weeks, visiting every day, making sure we were okay, and I'm not talking about one or two people, it's like 20 people, bringing food for us, caring for us, praying for us and I would just hear all these stories that I didn't know.”
“I just remember thinking: 'Damn. Now that's a legacy.'”
Oli considered her own legacy. “If anything happened to me, who's going to sing and come around to the house?” She decided to reciprocate to the Nigerian community and carry on her father’s legacy. She joined a non-profit youth organisation called the Igbo Cultural Support Network. Within six months, she accepted a seat on the executive committee. She enlisted American Express to sponsor members to attend their global leadership training programme. At the same time, Oli absorbed the language and history lessons the organisation offered.
“There was definitely this element of getting to know more people who are from the same background as me and there was absolutely an element of, ‘Okay, I want to go do more.’”
That desire to give back has extended to Accenture too, but it took time for Oli, who said she never felt the need to join women’s or ethnicity network activities at work.
“It wasn't calling me. Then there was one event I went to and I remember before going, a senior MD at Accenture said to me, 'Hey, have you ever faced any challenges being a black female?'”
“I paused and said, 'No, not that I know of,' and it was funny as, on this particular day, I’d decided to attend my first Accenture African Caribbean Network event.”
Walking into the room, Oli recalls the smiles on the faces of the 40 people assembled, all in deep discussion, sharing challenges they faced day to day. Things like feeling reluctant to bring food from home because it’s different, or avoiding afterwork drinks because they don’t drink, or being afraid to wear your hair in its natural form.
“Hearing these people talk, I realised: ‘Okay, this is not about me. It's about others and some people may still have that complex that I partly had when I was growing up,’” she says. “I really wanted to try and help.”
She leveraged her platform within Accenture to support the wider black community by sponsoring the Accenture African Caribbean Network. She now coaches Accenture staff on both sides of the Atlantic and learned that simply telling her story offers people hope.
“If you are not sharing your lived experiences – you are not sharing your stories – you're doing a disservice,” Oli says. “I don't say that lightly. It may be because you struggle to share a story and it may be because you don't recognise that sharing something can really help somebody else. I definitely went through a period where I just didn't recognise it would be useful, but now I long for these moments. They give me a real sense of impact and purpose.”
OLUCHI IKECHI’S ADVICE FOR UNLOCKING YOUR POTENTIAL
Examine how you think
Your mindset will set you free to do a lot of things. For me, it's always about the long-term goal. What is the goal? Being very clear on that will help you get direction. Then, there's also the massive aspect of being authentic and just being you. Know your story and write it down. Be entrepreneurial, take risks. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. If you don't like presenting, talk more, write down your script, say it out loud to somebody else, do it in front of the mirror. Sometimes you've got to get out of your comfort zone. Take a risk. It can be fun.
Understand how others see you
Meetings are where first impressions form. When I look at my diary, meetings are more important than all the other stuff I have to do. Those encounters become important, particularly if you're going for promotion, or if you are new. You're trying to suss things out and people are sussing you out. People don't forget an encounter with someone who made an impact. They may forget the person who wrote a paragraph in a document that they've never even opened. Every time you meet someone, think: What's the purpose of the meeting? What are you asking for? How are you going to make that meeting effective?
Decide how you want to engage with others
We need our future leaders to think about their brand. Who are you? What's your identity? People are not just going to follow you because you've told them to and because you've got a really big project. Maybe they will follow you for a bit, but they won't stay with you. What is it you represent? It's always important to know your brand within your company and also in the market. Why will people want to engage with you?
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