Dr Susan Koech: The 'Iron Lady' of Kenya's financial sector

Dr Susan Koech when she appeared before the joint committee National Assembly on Finance and Senate Standing Committee on Finance and Budget for the position of Deputy Governor Central Bank of Kenya. [Elvis Ogina, Standard]

Dr Susan Koech never imagined the impact she would have on Kenya’s financial landscape when growing up in a small village in Cherangany, Trans Nzoia County.

But through grit and perseverance, she ascended to the highest ranks of Kenya’s banking sector. 

As Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Kenya (CBK), Dr Koech shapes monetary policy and oversees currency, banking services, and the critical Debt Committee. In this role, she ensures the stability and integrity of the nation’s financial system. 

Through years of dedication, Dr Koech earned prestigious degrees and roles at top institutions. She recently became the second woman to hold her current position at the CBK. 

But how did an unassuming ordinary girl from a sleepy village deep in the slopes of Cherangany, in the rural Rift Valley rise to the apex of Kenya’s banking regulator?

In an exclusive interview with Financial Standard, she shares for the first time how her upbringing instilled resilience that drove her to break barriers.

As a career banker, did you ever dream of ascending to top leadership of the banking sector regulator? 

Foremost, on this International Women’s Day week, let us all celebrate the extraordinary journey of women who embody resilience, determination, and excellence in our Republic, most of whom have emerged from humble beginnings as ordinary village girls and embarked on different paths that have led them to the pinnacles of success in their respective careers. Turning to my story as I reflect on my career journey, I had certainly envisaged shattering the glass ceiling through hard work and dedication to ascend to the seniormost levels in the banking industry while showcasing the contribution of women in leadership. Even as I transitioned seamlessly from a banker to public service as a Principal Secretary, my resolve was unwavering, and this was part of the journey to my ultimate goal of reaching my true passion as a Group CEO in a commercial bank. Today, with the honour and privilege to serve Kenyans as the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, the apex financial institution in the country, I consider this dream achieved.  Serving in this role, I consider the journey travelled as a testament to the limitless potential of women in finance, and I hope the achievements made so far, and those to be achieved in the coming years will catalyze women’s empowerment and progress. 

You grew up in a rural setup in Cherangany, how did that help build your resilience? 

Growing up as an ordinary folk in a remote and sometimes challenging village environment taught me valuable lessons—to forge ahead in pursuit of my aspirations fearlessly and shatter barriers. In the tranquillity of Cherangany Hills, I was nurtured by a woman whose influence would shape my destiny—my mother. Amidst the daily struggle to provide for her family, she imparted invaluable lessons in trust, diligence, prudence, respect, authenticity and honesty. These were not mere values; they were the cornerstone of our existence, shaping not only my career but also every facet of my interactions—with people and money alike.

These lessons instilled by my mother became the bedrock of my journey—a journey fraught with challenges yet illuminated by unwavering principles and the indomitable spirit of a woman. Like a beacon in the darkness, they guided me to navigate complexities and confront adversities with grace, resilience and adaptability. Today, as I stand at the pinnacle of banking leadership, I attribute my success not only  to my professional acumen but also to the enduring legacy of my mother’s teachings. I am persuaded to endeavour to create an environment where every woman’s potential is nurtured and celebrated – an environment where the values of diligence, prudence, respect and honesty reign supreme.

What do you consider your key achievements in your many years as a career banker? 

I reflect on the significant milestones of my banking career that have propelled me to the top of commercial banking and now to the zenith of the financial sector regulator—a journey that underscores my resilience and determination with joy and pride. I have been privileged to serve as a mentor and guide to aspiring career bankers, which has allowed me to empower the next generation of banking leaders to reach their full potential and make meaningful contributions to the industry. Recognising the importance of nurturing talent and fostering diversity, I have championed initiatives to provide mentorship, guidance, and support to individuals embarking on their professional journeys. As a mentor, I have sought to instil in others the values of integrity, diligence, and leadership that have guided me on my path to success.  Today, as I stand at the pinnacle of banking leadership, I remain steadfast in my commitment to mentorship to harness the collective talents and perspectives of our diverse workforce to drive innovation and deliver superior results. Serving in the financial sector enabled me to recognise the transformative power of access to financial services. Arising from this realisation, I have led initiatives to expand banking services to underserved communities, empowering individuals to build a brighter future for themselves and their families. 

There aren’t many women in top leadership of banks including bank boards and corner offices. Why is this the case?  

Despite promising trends at the entry level, where we see nearly equal numbers of men and women joining the banking sector, a stark divergence emerges as we ascend the corporate ladder. This phenomenon can be attributed to many factors. This includes work-life balance challenges. The demanding nature of leadership positions in finance can pose significant obstacles for women striving to balance professional aspirations with family responsibilities, impacting their ability to pursue career advancement opportunities. Fewer role models are also a challenge. Fewer, and in some cases, total absence of visible female leaders in top positions may create a gap in role models to inspire women, further perpetuating the cycle of underrepresentation. The glass ceiling effect also comes into play. Structural barriers within organizational hierarchies create an invisible barrier that impedes the upward mobility of women. Limited access to mentorship, coaching, and networking opportunities further restricts women’s advancement to leadership roles. 

So what is standing in the way of women in the financial sector?

Despite strides toward gender equality, women in the financial sector continue to encounter formidable obstacles that hinder their professional advancement. One glaring constraint is the absence of women at the table. In boardrooms and decision-making forums within financial institutions, women are vastly underrepresented, resulting in a lack of diverse perspectives and voices shaping key strategic decisions. Structural barriers marked by deep-rooted societal norms and gender biases perpetuate the perception that leadership roles are predominantly male domains, creating structural barriers that impede women’s access to top positions.

What attributes do you think women need to have to succeed in top public positions? 

Succeeding in top public positions requires a unique blend of attributes—resilience, courage, vision, empathy, adaptability, collaboration, and integrity—that empower women to navigate complex challenges, thrive and serve as beacons of leadership, driving positive change and shaping a brighter future in institutions, communities and the nation as a whole.  A solid character encompassing integrity, honesty, and ethical conduct, forms the bedrock upon which effective women leadership is built. In the face of challenges and temptations, a woman of solid character remains steadfast in her commitment to serve with integrity and honour, earning the respect and admiration of those she serves. A solid character is the moral compass that guides women through difficult decisions, fostering resilience and enabling women leaders to weather storms with grace and dignity. Being authentic and credible is essential for women leaders to build trust and rapport with those they serve. They must do what they say, consistently align their actions with their words, and demonstrate honesty and transparency in all their dealings. By keeping their promises and upholding their commitments, they earn the respect and confidence of those they serve.

You worked as PS in three dockets in public service. What lessons did you draw from that? 

My reflection on a journey from an ordinary village girl to my privileged tenure as a Principal Secretary serving in three dockets is full of invaluable lessons marked by profound experiences that have shaped my perspective and approach to leadership. One significant challenge I have encountered is the stalling of projects and programmes due to changes in ministry and departmental leadership. These transitions can disrupt continuity and momentum, leading to delays and inefficiencies. I learnt that as leaders, we must work to minimize the impact of these changes by ensuring smooth transitions and maintaining clear communication and direction. Kenya is fortunate to have a strong, diverse private sector that actively shapes policy and drives economic growth. As a Principal Secretary, I learnt the importance of engaging with private sector stakeholders to leverage their expertise, resources, and innovation in advancing our national development agenda. By fostering partnerships between the public and private sectors, we can unlock new opportunities for inclusive growth and prosperity. Bureaucracy on Policy implementation is also a major challenge.

What gave you the confidence to apply for this demanding job? 

The opportunity to serve as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank represents a culmination of my career ambition, and diverse professional experiences and a testament to the unique skill set, I possess. Having successfully served in high-ranking positions in the financial sector and later as a Principal Secretary in three ministries, I have honed a comprehensive understanding of economic policy, financial regulation, and public administration. I was thrilled to note that I ticked every box in the skills and competencies outlined in the job advert, affirming my suitability and capability to take on this pivotal role. The mere thought of being considered for this esteemed position fills me with excitement and enthusiasm. It is a testament to the progress we have made in recognizing and empowering women leaders in the financial sector. As a woman who has risen through the ranks, I am acutely aware of the importance of representation and the impact it can have on inspiring future generations of women leaders. Above all, my decision to pursue the role of Deputy Governor of the Central Bank is driven by a deep-seated commitment to serve my country and contribute to its economic prosperity.

How do you balance between your busy job schedule and family?   

As I reflect on my career journey, I have found strength and resilience in the unwavering support of my family. Balancing a busy work schedule with family commitments requires careful planning, prioritisation, and a strong support system. I am fortunate to have a loving husband and children who have been my steadfast cheerleaders throughout my career. Their encouragement, understanding, and unwavering support have been the cornerstone of my success. With grown-up children, who understand the demands of my job, I am able to dedicate extra hours to my professional responsibilities, confident in the knowledge that my family stands behind me every step of the way. Their belief in me fuels my determination to excel in my role as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, knowing that my efforts contribute to a better future for our family and our country. While the demands of my job are significant, I make it a priority to carve out quality time for my family, whether it’s sharing meals together, attending school events, or simply enjoying each other’s company. This balance is essential for maintaining my well-being and nurturing the strong bonds that sustain us through life’s challenges.

Growing up as a child, what did you want to be in life?

Growing up, I harboured a clear vision of what I wanted to be and achieve in life. From a young age, I was drawn to numbers and found myself exhilarated by the prospect of working in a numerical environment. Little did I know then that this passion would lead me to the dynamic and impactful world of the financial sector. It was a calling that resonated deeply with me, fueling my determination to pursue a career that aligned with my innate strengths and interests. Throughout my journey, I have remained steadfast in my commitment to excel in my chosen field.

What is your greatest fear working in this key position? 

As I serve as Deputy Governor of the Central Bank, I am acutely aware of the formidable challenges and uncertainties that loom on the horizon. While my journey has been marked by resilience and determination, I acknowledge the greatest fears that accompany my role in maintaining stability in our macroeconomic environment. Foremost among these concerns is the potential crystallisation of downside risks that threaten to disrupt our efforts to uphold macroeconomic stability.

The convergence of multiple shocks including geopolitical risks arising from a fragmented global order, trade tensions, climate change and other supply-side shocks can result in a perfect storm posing a formidable threat to our nation’s economic well-being.

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