Few challenges in the corporate world can be quite as formidable as taking the helm of one of the country’s leading state owned enterprises. This was the task set before Christabel Banda when she took on the role of Managing Director of Zambia State Insurance Corporation Life, ZSIC Life in 2017. Sitting down at the Hilton Hotel’s Garden Grille Restaurant in the heart of Lusaka, Christabel shared her thoughts on life in and out of the boardroom. We sat outside on the terrace, enjoying the calm ambience of the restaurant and the cool breeze as we took in panoramic views of Lusaka and the hustle and bustle of life below.
Though there was much on offer at the lunchtime buffet, we opted to order off the menu. Both of us chose a salad to start – chicken and feta salad for Christabel and a haloumi salad for me. As we waited for our orders Christabel spoke about her upbringing in the Copperbelt Province. She was raised by a single mum with a strong sense of purpose and a “hands off and nose in” parenting style. The firstborn of seven, Christabel found herself with the responsibility of helping to care for her younger siblings. “My mum is a very strong woman and seeing how she was pushing to make life better for her kids contributed to a sense of purpose and personal responsibility. She would give you the freedom to make your own choices but make you accountable for your actions.”
The influence her mother had on her is evident in her own management style. “I think it’s always better to give someone the freedom to work. You want them to be creative. If they say they want to do this or that give them the resources. That way they are more accountable and more creative.”
The task set before Christabel was not a small one. The potential of ZSIC Life is enormous. They are perhaps the only long term insurance provider that can boast name recognition in virtually all corners of the country. And that presents opportunities to reclaim a large portion of the monopoly enjoyed when ZSIC was the only insurance provider operating in Zambia. However, in most areas that must first be preceded by turning around the negative perception some have of the brand. As she received her order of a hearty beef steak Christabel spoke of the job she found in her in-tray. “What the shareholders and the board wanted was a major turnaround for the company. And we’re talking about a company that has been in existence for over 50 years. We have operations all over the country and a huge workforce. So when you are talking about turnaround, it’s a lot of work. You’re talking about institutional and cultural issues as well. And you have to ensure efficiency as you change.
“This meant we had to look at our internal processes. If you are spread in all ten provinces you need a robust system. So we re-engineered our processes to change how we were doing things. Reinforcing what was being done well.
“Our biggest challenge was the backlog of claims. Before anything, insurance is about paying claims. The industry operates on kept promises. So that was the priority if we were going to turn the brand around. The outstanding claims have been brought down significantly. And we have had to up our game in terms of client service.”
Improving client relations was a priority for Christabel as she took on her current role in ZSIC Life. In undertaking what was dubbed ‘Chitemene system,’ Christabel’s team toured the country to interact directly with clients in different parts of the country. A firm believer in inclusive leadership, the approach had all the hallmarks of Christabel’s take on building an effective brand. It is no wonder that Christabel was in the forefront of pushing for ZSIC Life to become a publicly listed company. “We’ve laid the groundwork for us to be able to reposition. The milestones we have hit are encouraging. And as a Zambian insurer we want to maintain the Zambian ownership. This is a Zambian company and people identify with that. So with guidance from the board we shared with the shareholder that we needed to raise capital from our local stock market. This was in line with reinforcing the need to strengthen the capital adequacy to unlock the value of the business. We proposed heading to the stock market so that we can reinforce the fact that the company is owned by Zambians. This fit into the plans that the shareholder had for the company so we were happy that when the 2019 budget was presented the Minister of Finance announced that our company was earmarked for listing. We celebrated because this meant the shareholders had confidence in the company’s potential and value preposition.”
Even with all the positive strides being made at ZSIC Life Christabel is aware of the bigger picture with regards to women’s representation in the boardroom. “One of the things I’m passionate about is women’s rights and empowerment. I believe that when a woman is empowered she makes decisions that will empower the family. I read a study by Goldman Sachs that proved the saying that ‘When you educate a woman you educate the nation.’ The study found it was because of how women spend their resources. An educated woman with children will be a lot more aware of the importance of child health and education. They send them to better schools and secure better healthcare. That makes for a healthier family. And by spending more on things that uplift the welfare of the family you positively impact the wealth of society.”
Christabel takes an active role in mentoring young women and helping to equip them for life in corporate Zambia. “It’s incumbent on all of us to extract that valuable contribution from upcoming women. When women are in leadership positions they often have to work that much harder to prove that they deserve to be where they are. I’ve been called ‘Sir’ a number of times when my PA puts someone through because people expect a man to be in the office.”She shares her thoughts quite freely on what needs to change in the Zambian corporate culture to accommodate and nurture more successful women. From raising girls to be ready for more leadership roles to the recent positive policy changes that have seen more women appointed to high level roles and her position on quotas for women appointees. “The tide is slowly turning. Appointments aren’t being made because of pity for women. But because there are more and more capable women. And that should always be the criteria, capability.”
Christabel oversaw a 40 percent rise in premiums at ZSIC Life in 2018. “I have a good team at ZSIC life, that is ready for this next positive chapter the company is taking”. With public confidence greatly enhanced, and the promise of a capital injection from the coming IPO, the optimism reigns at ZSIC Life. The focus on harnessing staff strengths and granting them the licence to work to their ability means the future promises to be as sweet as the dessert platter served at the end of our meal.