5 min. read
Xena's Leadership Award Winner 2023
Chiedza Muguti on leading by means of 5 principles: empathy, consistency, dignity, fairness and respect
It’s time to start giving recognition where recognition is due.
Women in tech face many challenges ranging from biases such as technical credibility, gender stereotypes and imposter syndrome. We get used to being constantly criticised instead of being our own cheerleaders but enough is enough – that’s why we’ve teamed up with Uber to celebrate the best female leaders in tech in Europe.
We are proud to introduce Chiedza Muguti, Chief Product Officer at Alteos. Chiedza is an established product leader that has built her career based on two things she loves: People and Creativity. She leads by means of 5 principles handed over to her by her Grandmothers and Parents: empathy, consistency, dignity, fairness and respect.
What inspires you to push equality in tech?
The tech industry is constantly evolving and it is such a unique field because you can recreate yourself or re-skill over time and as your interests evolve. There is a false perception that you have to be good at maths or science to be successful in tech. Tech has many different facets and a big element of creativity – if more people believed this, we could attract a more diverse workforce. At the end of the day, we are trying to innovate our tech, systems, services and approaches –therefore, we need different perspectives and backgrounds for this to power economies and move the world forward.
The more diversity we have, the better.
From a people perspective, opening it up and offering that spectrum of opportunity for everyone will lead to a win-win for all. We are developing products and services that are serving humankind and they must reflect us all. From an economic perspective, it is a well-paid industry and we need to make sure we are giving everyone the opportunity to have improved economic outcomes, participate and build generational wealth for themselves and their families.
Which professional milestones led to where you are now?
A few years ago, I was working on a project and the lead at the time was transferred to another assignment. This was an opportunity for me and would be the first time I was getting the chance to lead. However, 1-2 weeks in, a senior was brought into the team to lead the project. At the time, it was difficult because it felt personal and I didn’t take it well. I didn’t appreciate that I needed some guidance, I was still growing and even though this is an odd milestone to share – this situation helped me understand it is important to pause before reacting and to open up a communication channel with your Manager to have an honest conversation if you are in doubt. It prepared me for the future when I joined an established team to lead as an external. This was influential in my career because I know firsthand how it feels and when I became a leader, I wanted to be able to manage those feelings within the team and be open. These are choppy waters to navigate and I am trying my best to handle this better every time.
Another milestone is when I became the Head of Product at Penta. Joining a startup that was rapidly scaling and trying to develop and evolve processes to increase alignment and efficiency was like learning to drive when the car is already in motion! Settling into a new job; a new team; understanding the direction we were going in plus providing leadership to the wonderful product team during a pandemic (I started in June 2020) was a lot. You think you are okay at handling pressure until you’re under a new type of pressure where you see yourself differently and learn big lessons that will set you up for life. This was an enriching experience close to my heart and I am forever grateful for the opportunity. Not just to work on a very cool and innovative product, but also the privilege of working with really amazing people who have left a lasting impression on me.
Last but not least, my current job at Alteos is my first C-level role and the first time in 14 years that I changed sectors. I forgot how steep a learning curve understanding a new domain is and it has taken its toll, thankfully I have a great team around me who are helping me find my way and settle in.
Going through all these different experiences is the reason I can connect with my team and others. I can relate to many things they are going through themselves having done the job from the very start of my career and moving up the ladder. I don’t pretend I know everything, I am still growing as a person and as a leader – it never ends!
The more human you are, the more others can open up to you.
Additionally, I take it extremely seriously that I am being trusted with people’s careers and supporting them to reach their professional goals and have the impact and future they want for themselves.
What are the most important skills to be a leader in tech?
• Empathy. It goes without saying this is THE MOST important skill you need to have as a leader. You have to figure out ways to understand your team as individuals and everything about them. What motivates them, what they find challenging, and how they can grow. They are the ones who build the products that are so often integral to the organisation’s success. If you don’t have empathy, it is difficult to build a relationship with and develop trust.
Being a leader is like being the main person in charge of a busy central station where multiple trains are coming from different directions at the same time. The trains might not know about each other but you need to make sure you understand them and the bigger picture so you can make sure every train gets to its desired destination on time and if not, find ways to mitigate the situation and minimise negative impact.
It is also important to empathise with yourself. As a leader, at any given time, you could be under a lot of pressure. Making sure you give yourself grace or ask for support when you need it helps to maintain balance and keeps you mentally and emotionally fit for the challenges.
• Active listening. If you only listen to respond,you will lose out on hearing much of what people are trying to say and diluting the substance of their message. Most of our communication misses the nuance that is needed to build understanding as we prioritise our own interpretation and yearn to know and understand everything. You need to learn to take everything in, avoid interrupting others as they speak and ask follow-up questions to confirm you are understanding correctly and draw out more information – only then it is easier to make better decisions. Open the door for people to communicate and openly share what is on their minds. Ask them what they want: do they want you to problem solve with them or just for you to listen. Agreeing on this can do wonders for a conversation and how someone feels afterwards.
• Radical collaboration. You are in charge of bringing everyone together. You need to be able to work with people and encourage others to work together. This can range from introducing tools, processes and introductions in order to foster collaboration at work. It is crucial to role model this as well to show that you are doing exactly what you have asked for and there are no double standards.
• Being open, humble and vulnerable. This applies to everything, the good; the bad and the ugly. You need to be a role model and encourage the behaviour you’d like to see by doing it yourself –if I’m not transparent then others won’t be either – how can I expect them to be? You need to make sure your team knows that they can come to you and ask for what they need. This requires asking for feedback and not giving up when you hear “everything is fine”. Probe respectfully; share specific situations and ask for their impressions; ask leading questions. Make sure to regularly check in with your team and not wait until an evaluation period when it might be too late.
You can learn more about Defining Your Leadership Style In Tech in our past Meetup in partnership with Native Instruments.
How do you guide your team in overcoming challenges?
First of all, when someone comes to you with a problem, make sure you make it clear that you understand their perception is their truth and do not try to talk them out of it or convince them there is no problem. Next, ask them to walk you through the problem and make sure to ask clarifying questions as they share in a gentle manner to better understand their perception. When someone has a problem and they share it, it is a vulnerable moment, these are the moments where trust is built or broken. Always be
aware of this delicate situation.. This is the moment when you can support your team’s orientation about whether it is a serious problem; something that can be solved relatively quickly or it could be they are being too hard on themselves or indeed others. The end goal is to continue to build trust and rapport, keeping an open door policy and enabling your team to do their very best work.
You do not need to necessarily come up with the solution, in my experience, it tends to be that the solution is already in the person and you are just a catalyst.
When it is a recurring challenge, try to find the common theme and understand the dynamics at play. It might be the case that it is a company strategy/alignment issue rather than a specific team problem. There might be a missing link that you need to find and make sure you are all on the same page driving the company forward.
As a leader, you are required to encourage your team and enable them to make sure they can empower themselves to excel. This is a 2-way street. As a team, you need to keep your guiding principles in mind; support one another and push towards the company goals to be successful. During different points of the year, there will be peaks and troughs, for as long as you are kind to each other, especially during the challenging times, focus on being aligned and empower yourself with information and then the sky really is the limit.
As much as I am talking about what leaders have to do, I would be remiss to not mention that leaders are people too. We have good and bad days and need support and feedback as much as everyone. If you have a leader and you feel like they are doing a good job, let them know. They probably rarely hear this affirming feedback from within the company and your words would do them a world of good. If you think there are things they could improve, proactively share this with them too. I know it is not always easy but the reward of having a better working relationship or communication is so great and can only be beneficial for you both and the organisation at large.