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It’s okay to say no: Nelly Wainaina on self-love, coping during the pandemic

Achieving Woman
 Nelly Wainaina, the Front-Line Marketing Senior Director, Africa Organization Unit at The Coca-Cola Company (Courtesy)

Nelly Wainaina is the Front-Line Marketing Senior Director, Africa Organization Unit at The Coca-Cola Company:

Before the pandemic, my work involved a lot of travel since I was head of marketing operations in 54 markets in Africa. My routine has since changed. I wake up at 6am and read from the bible app on my phone.

I usually alternate between meditating and going for a walk, a habit I picked up at the start of the pandemic and have found to be very beneficial.

Before, working out was all about eating right and going to the gym. I have discovered that with walking, you get to exercise, reflect, breathe, and enjoy nature.

My role in a nutshell is to make consumers fall in love with brands every day. I love how dynamic marketing is: it involves travelling and meeting people for one, a change from my very first job in accounting.

Because I work across Africa, I have to organise my calendar every week and when I settle down to work, I start with leadership team meetings followed by project meetings.

Last year I used to have many meetings back-to-back, sometimes from 8am to 8pm, and one of the things I have implemented is to block off some free time in the morning and my lunch hour as well. I also try not to have meetings late in the evening. I dedicate my afternoons to strategising and coming up with solutions.

Now that I had a lot of free time during the weekend, I got an executive coach. The company was going through a lot of changes last year, and (I lead a large team) I needed objective feedback to guide me.

A friend recommended the coach. Because I am structural, I told her our initial meeting would take an hour, then we would figure out the programme. Well, we ended up talking for four hours.

I did not realise how many things I wanted to change. She challenged me a lot on authenticity and how you show up as a leader, especially at a time when everyone was going through a lot. I do not know how I would have led through a pandemic without my coach.

To be honest, I was not sure what self-care meant before the pandemic. I was constantly moving; my life was like a treadmill. My coach has been instrumental in helping me define self-care.

Showing up as a great leader means sorting out your life first, and I have learnt two things: boundaries are important and therefore, it is okay to say no, and self-love is part of self-care. We think it is selfish to think of yourself first but the reality is before you love yourself, it is difficult to love others.

The pandemic has also revealed to me that love is everything. Before I used to read a lot of books on leadership but with Covid-19 I have become reflective.

I have been reading a lot on the topic of self-love and self-care and the last great book I read was Whole Again by Jackson Mackenzie. There is a lot to learn in the book about learning to sit with emotions. We tend to run from the uncomfortable ones and yet embracing them helps with healing. 

The best career advice I would give is, always put your best foot forward and do not take things for granted. Stay true to your word. That is how you build trust, and people can vouch for you when you are not in the room.

Also, considering what I know now that I wish I knew when I first started out in my career, do not turn down opportunities because you are basing your decision on a future you are not sure about.

When I was younger, I was asked to move to Paris for a great career opportunity. I had a personal reason not to go because I was expecting something to happen in six months. Six months later, what I was waiting for did not happen.

So, I missed the opportunity to work in Paris. Two years later another offer came to move to Switzerland and I did not think twice about it.  

I finished building my mum a house last year. She had no idea I was doing it and when I showed it to her there were tears. Building her home and finishing my MBA in African leadership (I was doing the two simultaneously) are my top two accomplishments.

Between my job and the travelling, I barely had time for much else. These accomplishments showed me how resilient I am.

In 2018 I attended a conference in Atlanta called Women in Leadership in Coke. The conference drew women leaders from across the globe. We spent a week with a team of coaches who helped me crack my purpose.

We talked about our younger years and the things we enjoyed doing as well as those that motivated us.

We listened to other great leaders talk about their purpose. We considered what people have consistently told us we are good at.

We were challenged to think about what we would want to be remembered for when we died. It was an emotional and eye-opening experience.

I am passionate about African talent, and my purpose is to make a difference through people – empowering them to succeed and change the world in their own way.

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