As we begin a new decade, there is no better time to address the ongoing challenges that mar leadership in Africa, be it in the corporate sector or political arena. Zimbabwe’s own Rachel Nyaradzo Adams has single-handedly made it her life’s mission to address these challenges that plague African leadership particularly in the corporate sector. Through her brainchild, Narachi Leadership, she has worked with leaders and organisations from 47 African countries delivering pioneering and innovative programmes and workshops that have dramatically changed the culture and efficacy of those organisations.
Rodney Rumbidzai Chawota
Rachel was recently named as one of the Top 100 Most Influential Young Africans of 2019 (Africa Youth Awards). At the peak of her career, she was the Associate Director for Africa at Yale University in the US, where she helped develop strategic partnerships with the continent. Prior to that, she worked at McKinsey and Co where she was the head of the McKinsey Leadership Program (MLP) which she co-designed, implemented and managed. She also worked at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation as Regional Program Manager for leadership and entrepreneurship for the Gauteng Region. Rachel holds a Master of Science in African Studies from Oxford University, an Honours Degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town and a Bachelor of Social Science in Anthropology, Media and Writing. She is also a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, a Desmond Tutu Fellow, a Mellon Mays Fellow and a Felix Scholar.
Rachel was born in Kadoma and raised in Gweru. She went to Cecil John Rhodes Primary School then Thornhill High. Her passion for education started at a young age and she concluded that she was always ‘arts and humanities inclined’. Rachel never knew
her father and was raised by a hard-working single mother in the first four years of her life. Later, her mother married a second time and Rachel had a total of 12 siblings.
“We grew up with some of us together, some of us not
because some of us were much older. I was a flower girl
at my oldest brother’s wedding so that can tell you the
gap. I was four years old when he was getting married.”
From her blended family experiences, she developed a keen interest in human dynamics as she experienced so many different personalities. When she was 19, she left for the UK where she lived for three years and studied for a part of those years. Her first job was sweeping floors in a bakery before she graduated to making sandwiches. She was also
a spritzer girl in Selfridges and other department stores. Undocumented at the time, her initial aim was to raise enough money to study at university but it became apparent that she could not study and work at the same time. This was despite being accepted at the University of Richmond. However, she still managed to go to a Bible college and complete a course in Charismatic Preaching. By chance, she met a student on their gap year from high school who posited the idea of her studying at the University of Cape Town where he was planning to study. It so happened that Rachel had saved enough money for a flight, accommodation and tuition for one-and-a-half years, so decided to give it a shot. She completed her undergraduate degree in Media, Writing and Social Anthropology there and later did her Masters in African Studies at Oxford University.
Rising to the Top and the Move Back Home
After her studies, Rachel rose through the corporate ranks and held some prestigious posts including one as head of the MLP. However it was not ‘till she was working at Yale University as Associate Director for Africa that she felt compelled to use her natural talent and abilities more fully to develop leadership back home in Africa, especially in Zimbabwe.
“I moved back to Zimbabwe because I felt a commitment to be engaged with the things that were happening in my country. My issue with Africa has always been that the best of us, when things get hard, we leave. The country is continually being bled of its best talent. And I started to feel a sense of responsibility around that. It just didn’t make sense to me and I thought, well, so then who fixes it? It’s a simple but hard question.”
However, Rachel is practical enough to acknowledge that the move back home is not an easy one for most people. Considering the current situation in the country, she sombrely concluded that it was not the best time to return home.
“And so, if somebody today for example, were to
ask me, should I come back home? No…and I feel
my heart really breaks having to say that. I actually
do feel quite teary about that. No…it’s because
the conversation that is valid in Zimbabwe at this
moment is a political one.”
She sees the issue as being the loss of a conscience in the leadership. “You have a group of leaders who started off well and then I think lost their own conscience. And the thing with losing conscience is that it is interlocked with shame. But people don’t often admit to shame. And then what shame does is it keeps you wanting to prove that ‘I am the best person to do this, you must see that I’m the best person to do this’. And the simple truth of the matter is we have a leadership who do not have the skills and the tools to transform this country”.
In her TED Talk in 2018 Rachel spoke on the ‘Crisis of
Courage’ in African youth which she said needed to
be addressed, particularly in Zimbabwe. She recalls a
conversation she once had with a war veteran. “And
he said to me, it stung me. He said,’My generation
would have never tolerated what this government is
doing. The problem is that you guys are cowards and
you should be embarrassed. I was 17 when I went to join the armed struggle. The first thing we were told when we got into the forest was that seven out of ten of you will die. And I still went. I’ve watched and I’m too old to fight now, so I’m not fighting anybody. But
your generation is so cowardly. You will not even consider what it means to fight for yourselves’.”
Rachel feels that the reasons behind this cowardice
are complex. “So I think that people found it much
easier to rally around an enemy that quote-unquote
‘looks different’. It’s a perception of the brain. It’s
easier to register that but it’s much more difficult for
you to consider the enemy as somebody who looks
like your grandfather. We are challenged at challenging
She also feels that the youth are distracted. “For
many of us, things get hard, we move. And if we can’t
move geographically we move mentally. So if things
get hard, I get on my phone, I go on WhatsApp and
I watch Olinda or whatever her name is who is very
famous at some point. That’s what we do. We’re
so disconnected that we don’t feel that upset long
enough”. Nonetheless she is certain that violence is
not the answer.
“I don’t believe that the movements of the 21st century
are violent. Violence is the most primitive thing that
we go to, because that’s what our brains know to do. I
believe that there is room honestly, for leaders to wake
up to their consciences.”
Narachi Leadership provides leadership training and coaching for emerging leaders all over the continent with two branches in South Africa and Zimbabwe. That is the extent to which its reputation in the industry has grown since it was founded four years ago. Rachel is surprised that a lot of her clients initially think it’s an institute of sorts. Far from it – Na-rachi is literally derived from her name. Na is Shona for ‘with’ and Rachi is short for Rachel. Rachi is what her family calls her. So it literally means ‘with Rachel’. She registered the company and worked on her own until recently when she coopted Reena Thaker-Desai as her Chief Operating Officer. The workload was such that she now required an extra hand. Rachel does not believe in wasting resources and she actually has a perspective on why some big organisations face challenges.
“I believe that 50 years from now, the world will wake
up to the fact that part of the reason why businesses
are finding it so difficult is because organisations are
just too large. It’s unsustainable. Industrialisation
has taken us on an interesting road where you have
these large institutions with so much dysfunctionality
within them. I know this because I worked in
corporate but I also noticed when I work with corporates
and you can just see that they get too big.”
However, Narachi Leadership keeps a close network of consultants who come on board occasionally to do some specific work at specific times. Rachel calls this an ‘ecosystem’. She is however aware of her own limitations. “I cannot take on projects of 20,000 people.
That doesn’t make sense but I can certainly run very effective workshops, very effective facilitations, very effective coaching, sometimes even culture transformations for organisations that are below 1000 people.” Despite this Narachi has been able to stamp
its foothold firmly in the market. “So McKinsey is bidding – we are also bidding. I’ve just come out of a process with a client in East Africa where it was McKinsey, Bain and me.”
Rachel puts her heart and soul into her work to deliver to a high standard. “And so for me, Narachi actually represented and has come to represent even for my clients because they give me this feedback all the time, that if I am in a room, I’m going to give you
everything I have. It’s for me about transformation and impact because for me, I believe that if you can transform the person, you can transform the institution that they are in.”
Rachel is inspired by the leadership qualities of icons like Thomas Sankara, Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel Mandela, Martin Luther King and Claudette Colvin, to name a few. “The reality that stood out for me was their courage, the ability to do that thing that was inconvenient because it was right. But I also admire the leaders who can see beyond the now, who are able to think about what is for the greater good. So I think we’re in a world that is plagued with selfishness. We’ve lost that beautiful ability to just be altruistic to just do something.” One such person is Michelle Obama and she recalls meeting her.
“She’s a highly educated Ivy Leaguer, very smart but I kid you not, if you are with her in a room, she is just so present with whoever she is with. You know, she gives the most warm hugs. She’s not in a hurry. She talks to you, looks you in the eye and she will do it for
a line of people. The way I experienced her energy is, here is a person who’s just willing to be altruistic. A good human being, you know? How did we lose that?”
Rachel also admires leaders who know when their time is up. She gives the example of David Cameron who left office as Prime Minister in the UK after he felt he could not deliver what he had set out to. Her feeling is that leaders are both born and created – born and created in that we all have the innate leadership qualities within us but we also need to spend the ‘10 000 hours’ perfecting them.
“There is room
honestly for leaders
to wake up to their
Women in Management
Rachel believes that there have been improvements made when it comes to women attaining leadership posts in Africa – more so in government than in the corporate world. She has a different angle on this matter. “I’m not a feminist. And I say that because
I disagree with some of the tangents that some of these conversations around women take. I think that they are self defeating. All research shows us that diversity trumps ability. So the more diverse people you have in a room, the more likely you are to be able
to solve difficult problems.” There should be more opportunities for men and women to learn from each other rather than exclusive clubs where either men only or women only are interacting because there is a chance there will be ‘bashing’ of the opposite sex.
Rachel has been with her partner, Joseph Hundah, for the last 6 years and there are no plans for marriage or kids either. Rachel believes she is too focused on her career and would not make a good mother. “Not everyone is meant to be a mother,” she says. However, she speaks highly of women who still play both professional and motherly roles with ease. Rachel also plans to write a book which she says has been long-awaited and that she finally feels ready to write. On the horizon are also public workshops as well as more collaborations across the board.
“There is power in collaboration”