“The programme shaped me into a much more intentional, strategic leader.”

Zainab Olisamah

Director of Financial Planning and Analysis, IHS Towers

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Zainab Olisamah was already enjoying a successful career at Nigeria’s leading telecommunications infrastructure firm, IHS Towers when she enrolled on the Women in Leadership programme. But, as she progressed towards top-level roles, she knew she needed to prepare for her next move. Here, she reflects on her experience of the programme, the importance of finding the right sponsor, and why the right network makes all the difference.

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I was always interested in finance. My uncle was a banker, and I was inspired by his work. That was very much my focus throughout school. But, after a few years of working in banking, I realised I wanted a more strategic role and moved into the financial planning side of things.

I got involved with the telecoms industry in 2009. It’s an exciting industry to join in Nigeria, where technology is still a growing sector. There’s lots of financial planning to be done in such an emerging economy. There are some challenges involved in that, but I prefer to focus on the opportunities we’re creating as Nigeria becomes more connected with the rest of the world.

The challenges for female leaders

I’ve been lucky to enjoy such a long and fruitful career at IHS Towers. But I knew I would have to be extremely confident in my leadership skills to secure a position at senior management level. I wanted to be sure I could effectively influence others and actively create new opportunities for success. For me, it was very important to make sure I was an intentional leader, heading in a clear direction.

The hardest thing about being a female leader in a growing economy like Nigeria is the question of exposure. Far fewer people here have experience of working for senior women. There are still some Nigerian men who subscribe to traditional views: the man is head of the household and responsible for putting food on the table. Even today, some Nigerian men will refuse to report into a woman. I’ve been lucky to work in a very supportive organisation – but you have to believe in yourself at all times. I remind myself often that I can lead and lead well.

Seeking a scholarship

As I grew into leadership roles, I kept an eye out for leadership training opportunities that could improve my efficiency, build my confidence and help me develop a more diverse network. I felt this was important not just for my own professional growth, but for me to effectively manage my team and mold them into leaders themselves.

When I discovered that LBS had a programme designed specifically for women in leadership, I immediately downloaded the brochure and read through the testimonials of past participants. I knew then that I had found a programme that would allow me to express myself freely, in a safe space.

I thought the Women in Leadership programme would be a life-changing experience for me, but I wasn’t sure I could afford it. I promised myself that I would give it a shot and apply. It was a rigorous process, but I was upfront about who I am, where I was in my career, and the areas I knew I needed to improve. In those situations, that’s all you can do. When I got the call to say I’d been accepted, I was ecstatic.

A very special sponsorship and key part of the Women in Leadership programme is working closely with your sponsor to maximise the impact of your learnings. I’ve been so blessed to have such an active sponsor. I knew I was looking for a sponsor who would walk with me through the whole process, but Courage Obadagbonyi was exceptional. Not only did he support me before and during the programme, but he was instrumental in my recent promotion from associate director to director. He truly believed that he had a responsibility to help me champion my own achievements and he explained every step I needed to take to get to the next level. Having someone who is willing to speak up for you can make all the difference. I’ve told him he’s stuck with me now, my sponsor for life!

My learning journey

“We were able to talk about our journeys freely, without shame or fear of being judged. So often, as female leaders, we have to be very guarded in how we present ourselves for fear of being seen as weak or emotional.”

“The programme begins with an intensive 360-degree assessment, which was an eye-opening process. It’s about getting to know yourself and how you come across to other people. It can be quite exposing, but it’s essential”

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Courage Obadagbonyi and his decision to sponsor Zainab:

When Zainab and I first began discussing me sponsoring her, the conversations were very organic. We talked about her developing her leadership style and how the Women in Leadership programme could help her become more of a role model for other women, while also helping her to extend her network. I knew almost immediately that I wanted to support her – there is no one more deserving. She has always been committed to her personal and professional development and will be a great mentor to others one day.

I believe it’s extremely important to sponsor women. Women bring unique perspectives to the table and, as a society, we all benefit when they are empowered and engaged. Women who are invested in their own careers will also likely instill similar values in their families, creating a positive cycle.

On a personal level, the experience of sponsoring Zainab has been very fulfilling. She was made to be a leader and I can see her achieving all her goals and more. My advice for anyone who is considering being a sponsor is to be prepared to devote your time. Take a personal interest in the individual you’re working with and it will be worth every effort.

The Women in Leadership programme

The programme begins with an intensive 360-degree assessment, which was an eye-opening process. It’s about getting to know yourself and how you come across to other people. It can be quite exposing, but it’s essential. As leaders, we should be guiding our colleagues towards becoming better people – it’s impossible to do that if we don’t have a clear picture of ourselves. Going through the appraisals, and then later the coaching sessions, as a group made them much less intimidating.

Learning from LBS faculty was a priceless experience. Professor Herminia Ibarra’s toolkit was extremely informative and her “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” class was explosive. The class looks at how we can use a framework focused on advantages, breadth, connectivity and dynamism to think about the strategic advantages our networks can offer. The selected business cases were also very informative. I could relate to the examples we looked at and enjoyed listening to different interpretations from the other women in my cohort.

Being in a room with female leaders from around the world was an invaluable experience; there is nothing like it. These spaces are so important. We were able to talk about our journeys freely, without shame or fear of being judged. So often, as female leaders, we have to be very guarded in how we present ourselves for fear of being seen as weak or emotional. It was refreshing to connect openly with such powerful women. One thing that struck me was that, even though we were such an international group, so many of us had been through similar things in the workplace. Women all around the world, even in vastly different cultures, are dealing with the same issues. 

The programme is a big commitment, but it was worth every moment of my time. It’s hard to quantify the impact it’s had on my professional and personal growth. I’ve gained new tools and feel more confident in my skills, but crucially, I feel more inspired than ever to be my true self at work. I know exactly who I am, and how other people respond to me, and I’m proud of that.

Today, I do feel I’ve achieved my goal of being a much more authentic leader. I’ve been able to recognise and clarify my personal values, which in turn, has allowed me to communicate them to all those around me. The programme really is such a unique opportunity.

Female leaders have to juggle so many things. Between work, family and other responsibilities, it can be hard to find the time to step back and give yourself an overview of where you’re heading. I think that’s why so many women get stuck in middle management positions. There’s a lot of support at the start of our careers, but it tends to drop off when we need it most. Finding a coach or sponsor can help avoid getting ‘stuck’ at a certain level and becoming frustrated or even feeling you need to leave the workforce. 

I wanted to use what I’ve learned to support women, professionally and personally. Female leaders in Nigeria right now are carving the path for generations to come. We’re the flag-bearers for women’s success. I’m currently the Country Lead of Beibei Haven Foundation. The foundation works with women and couples who are struggling with fertility issues. I liaise with medical experts within Nigeria and abroad to provide care and treatments. Again, this is an area of life where women can carry so much shame and guilt – my mission is to alleviate this.

The impact of Women in Leadership

“I’ve been able to recognise and clarify my personal values, which in turn, has allowed me to communicate them to all those around me.”



“Being in a room with female leaders from around the world was an invaluable experience; there is nothing like it.”

“Female leaders have to juggle so many things. Between work, family and other responsibilities, it can be hard to find the time to step back and give yourself an overview of where you’re heading.”

Women in Leadership

Step up to a senior role and maximise your impact. We work with you and a sponsor from your organisation to accelerate your next move.