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Table Talk with Herman Kasekende

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When preparation meets opportunity

I met the CEO of Standard Chartered Zambia, Herman Kasekende, at The Retreat at Roma on a humid Friday afternoon. Known for his punctuality, he was already sitting at a table enjoying a pot of tea when I arrived 15 minutes early. I introduced myself and was met with a warm smile and a strong handshake; two things I deduced must be part of the secret to his success. We moved from the poolside seating to the indoor area, though both seemed ideal for our chat.

Born in the Buganda region of Uganda, and raised in a family where he is one of eighteen children, Herman Kasekende shares how coming from a big family was competitive and this helped shape him. He shares, “I spent a big part of my life raised by my mother. I had a father who valued education and academic performance. My mother on the other hand understood hard work and was a small business owner who went to work six days a week, she believed you had to work hard and sweat for what you wanted.” The values of hard work and academics, along with his own life experiences, formed an important part of who Herman is today.

At the start of his career Herman worked in corporate and institutional banking as a relationship manager in 1998. This was in line with what he studied in business school. However, his CEO told him that in order to become a well-rounded banker he needed to move over to retail banking. He wasn’t pleased initially. He tells me: “This was not my cup of tea; I didn’t even understand the dynamics of the tellers and the managers, let alone being the head of a branch or sales and services.”

Herman quickly found that it was a steep learning curve and went on to spend over twelve years in retail banking. This was where he gained knowledge in sales, distribution, wealth management and SME banking until he became the head of retail banking. He notes, “I had a chance to do different things before fulfilling my role as head of retail for four years, which led to my regional role based in Kenya.”

After serving as CEO of Standard Chartered for four and a half years in Uganda, in 2017 Herman assumed the role of CEO of Standard Chartered Zambia. Looking back on his move to Zambia he says, “It was not a major cultural shock. We are similar people. With languages, if you listen carefully you will not struggle to understand the messages, so it was a smooth transition for me. Managing at the same level in Standard Chartered means the transition was seamless as we are quite a standardised institution. The difference might only be to do with size of business and different people, but the structures remain the same.”

Herman has had his fair share of challenges, but his philosophy is that challenges are an opportunity to learn and stretch your mind beyond the status quo. Being asked to head branches and take a leadership role in retail with no experience was a challenge and it taught him that humility is a virtue.

It’s not surprising that Herman’s personal principles of leadership are holistic. He shares, “Doing the right thing and having integrity are key. You have to be able to make the best judgements using the tools and the information that is available to you – that is very critical. I also believe you have to be passionate about people; they are your most important asset. You have to see people as individuals, they all come from their own history, backgrounds, homes and cultures and therefore have different views. You must respect that in order to work well with people.”

Standard Chartered is present in more than ten African countries and plays in diverse sectors of the economy; they were the first bank to open in Zambia in 1906 in Kalomo District giving them a legacy of 113 years. Herman elaborates, “We have been very active in the communities, with campaigns like ‘Seeing is Believing’ where more than a million Zambians have benefitted from free eye testing to help avoid different forms of blindness. We also have the GOAL Project which helps young girls stay in school by providing financial literacy, life skills and employability training to low-income adolescent girls. We have also focused on financial literacy with our financial education for the youth; giving them the skills that will enable them to be more entrepreneurial.”

When asked what his proudest accomplishments with Standard Chartered have been, he enthusiastically shares, “The launch of our mobile app in June, the first of its kind in Zambia. Clients can now open a bank account using an Internet-enabled smartphone within 15 minutes – and all they require is an ID and a TPIN. That is one of our key achievements. Our Airtel partnership and collaboration with the UNHCR Community Connectivity Fund, which was set up to improve digital financial access and services in Meheba refugee settlement is another source of pride. We have also launched the head office project in Zambia because we believe in this country as a business destination. Standard Chartered deserves a new home right here in Zambia.”

Herman’s advice for success is simple: “To be successful you have to be ready to partake of the opportunities, that is, preparedness meeting opportunity. For Africa there are currently so many opportunities especially with the Internet. It has brought many opportunities if you have access, but you must be prepared to grab them. In terms of policy, we have to ensure our education system must be aligned with the current required skillsets and should empower the younger generation so that they can be ready for opportunities that present themselves.”

At this stage we are nearly done with our meal having thoroughly enjoyed our food and the atmosphere of The Retreat. We both left satisfied with our meals at The Retreat and feeling refreshed as we headed out to our respective meetings scheduled for the day. Before parting ways, we discuss our hobbies and Herman tells me he is an avid runner. He finds it cathartic and has participated in several marathons. Herman is also a keen Rotarian. He says that he’s not much of a reader but he regularly reads financial and economic journals. However, he loves autobiographies and his favourite one is A Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. I smile quietly while thinking to myself how with such a fascinating life and career, one day the world will probably read about Herman in his own autobiography.

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