“Personal branding in life is essential because if you don’t tell people who you are, they will create a persona for you.”– Adaku Ufere, #CareerConversations with LLA.
Adaku Ufere is a thoroughly brilliant independent legal consultant. Her career has had her in different sectors including Oil and Gas, Mining and Extractive industries. With 9 years proven experience in a number of corporate leadership capacities, Adaku shares insights on personal branding, how to position yourself strategically at work, how to use social media to amplify your corporate wins, how to deal with harassment in the workplace, key principles for excelling at work and then more. If you can, grab a notepad and pen, you are certainly in for the read of your life. Ladies, we present Adaku Ufere on #CareerConversations with LLA. Enjoy!
Can you briefly describe yourself and what you do?
I’m an Energy professional and I run a consulting firm called DAX Consult which specializes in legal and business advisory services in the oil & gas, power, gender, mining and extractive industries.
My specialized capability is in a field called Energy, Gender & Development. In an extended nutshell, I incorporate poverty alleviation measures and gender equality principles into energy policies and regulations to catalyse national development. This sector is responsible for working towards finding solutions that address and lead to the eradication of energy poverty experienced by women in rural and low-income urban areas in developing countries; creates energy services and programs that can promote women’s skills development and employment and erases gender-based constraints related to access to energy, finance, training, employment and entrepreneurship.
Great! How did you start out in your career, and how long have you been in the ‘corporate world?’
I was called to the Nigerian Bar in 2009 so I’ve been in the “corporate world” for 9 years now. I started out in 2009, as a Maritime Litigation lawyer undergoing my trainee year at Adepetun, Caxton-Martins, Agbor & Segun in Lagos, Nigeria. During that year Diezani Allison-Madueke was appointed as the first ever female Minister for Petroleum Resources and just seeing a woman in that position made me feel like I could get there too someday, and I caught the oil and gas bug. I left ACAS after a little over a year to go get a Masters in Oil & Gas Law at the University of Aberdeen, UK.
After my Masters, I moved back to Nigeria in 2012 and got a job as a Legal Counsel at GE Oil & Gas, the oil and gas servicing business of the General Electric Company.
I left GE in 2015 after 3 years to try my hands at running my own legal consultancy firm called DAX Consult and, in that role, I did everything; Entertainment Law, Fashion Law, FMCG, Infrastructure etc. Also, alongside my legal career I had run a fashion and lifestyle blog called ThirdWorldProfashional.com since 2008 and the blog was a runaway success, winning Blogger of the Year the ELOY Awards in 2013, partnerships with major brands within and outside Nigeria, endorsement deals etc.
In 2016, I moved to Equatorial Guinea as a Senior Associate at a firm called Centurion Law Group, which had offices in 6 African countries with Johannesburg as the HQ. I’d always wanted to work across the continent and Centurion gave me the opportunity to practice cross-border jurisdictional oil and gas law. After 5 months at Centurion I was made Head of the Energy Practice in August 2016, a position I held until I resigned in August 2018.
I left Centurion after almost 3 years and set my sights on getting into the power sector, specifically Energy & Gender. However, there were not many opportunities to gain experience in the sector, so I had to self-educate. I did a lot of online courses, webinars, read articles and very luckily was accepted into the YALI Women in African Power Leadership Residency which was being sponsored by Power Africa, who are currently one of the main drivers in Energy & Gender. Getting into the Program gave me the launchpad I’d been looking for to formally get into the sector via opportunities, trainings and experience.
I’ve been very lucky to have had many achievements in my career and be recognized in my sector. I’ve been named as one of the 40 Under 40 Leading Lawyers in Nigeria 2016, won the Attorney of the Year at the African Legal Awards 2017, named Young African Professional of the Year by the Independent Pan-African Youth Parliament 2018, named a Mandela Washington Fellow for 2018 by the US State Department, an Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Energy Security Ghana, a Leading Young Woman in African Power 2018 by Power Africa & USAID, nominated for Career Woman of the Year by the Her Network, and made the Y-Naija Power List for 2018 as one of the ten most influential Nigerians in the corporate world. So, I’m currently an Independent Legal Consultant in the field of Energy, Gender and Development.
What are some of the things you love the most about being a career woman?
First off, I don’t identify as a “career woman” seeing as the term is solely gendered towards women, which implies that women not working is the default state. No one would ever refer to a man in the corporate world as a “career man”, so why is it an acceptable term for women? All the more so when African women have always worked. My mother worked, my grandmother worked, leading all the way back to my great-grandmother who traded between the territories now known as Nigeria, Cameroon, Sierra Leone and the Gambia in the early 20th century. The myth of the housewife is a purely colonial import. British women historically had no legal rights and couldn’t work, that was never the case for African women. It was introduced when we were colonised and now it’s become a historical fact when it’s really a white lie, lol. In every sense of the word.
What I like about being a woman who works is the independence it gives me. For women, financial dependence can lead to the exertion of unequal power and control, which is an aspect of gender-based violence. Not saying financial autonomy completely rules out GBV, but money gives you options and options determine your quality of life.
Also, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment I get from excelling and ascending the corporate ladder.
I’m also very aware of the fact that my career can serve as inspiration for other women. Female representation in corporate spaces has always been historically low, especially at executive and c-suite levels. Women have always served as a model and inspiration to me and I enjoy the fact I can do the same for others.
I also enjoy the opportunities and the experiences I’ve had as a result of my career. The countries I’ve visited, the people I’ve met, the spaces I’ve got to stand in and have my presence validated. The feeling is invaluable.
And the downsides – what are some of the challenges you’ve faced, and how did you overcome them?
I’d say my major challenge is most time being the only woman in the room. Especially in my chosen sector of energy, where women make up only 20% to 25% of the entire industry, we are very thin on the ground. It’s worked against me in the sense that more often than not I’ve felt like I’m running my race myself. It’s difficult to get mentors, which are invaluable in helping accelerate your career because there are so few women and majority of the time, men routinely abuse close working relationships.
It’s also difficult to network because as a woman you have to be hyper aware of your interactions with senior men in the industry. You can’t be too friendly or something might be read into it and you also can’t be too standoffish, so it’s exhausting trying to maintain the balance, just so you are not taken advantage of. A lot of networking is also done after hours, so you now have to weigh your options between meeting this senior man at an hour you’re uncomfortable with and hoping it’s not viewed as tacit approval for a whole other situation. Or a lot of times if your team is solely male, there will be activities they’ll partake in which no one will feel comfortable inviting you to because you’re female. Then you wake up in the morning and deals have been done while you slept, lol.
The plain fact is the majority of men in leadership positions abuse their power when dealing with women. I’ve personally experienced it, every single woman I know has experienced workplace harassment in some form and it’s a huge stumbling block to women gaining a seat at the table.
My way to overcome this was to hire more women, empower women, mentor women, ensure more women are in the room to even the playing the field, because even though the only solution is to beat someone else at their own game, sometimes you just don’t want to play it. I personally never enjoyed navigating the minefield that was gendered working relationships and forcing myself to pander to egos or go against my rules just to get a win, so I’d create my own playing field with players I felt comfortable with.
Another downside would be the hours. Every lawyer knows our working hours are inhuman and at the start of my career, that was fine because I was learning, and it was expected. My job also entailed a lot of unplanned travel and it got so I couldn’t make plans more than a few days ahead because I had no idea what country I’d be in next week. There was even a very historic week where I spent a different day in a different country for an entire week.
Jobs with lots of travel are great in theory but horrendous in practice and to be able to keep productivity high and maintain your sanity, you have to create a lot of boundaries. As a lawyer I’m at my clients’ whim and it’s difficult to maintain normal working hours so I had to navigate it as best as I could. I began insisting on a work day that ended promptly at 5, I no longer stayed in the office past 5 unless it was an emergency. Also, even though my travel was unpredictable, I began to take an extra day before or after each trip where I did nothing, so it wasn’t back to back, from work to airport to conference room and back. That really helped to retain some sort of balance for me mentally and emotionally.
I also saw my therapist regularly, a mental health-check is as important as a physical one and should not be neglected.
What’s your take on cliques or “you can’t sit with us groups” at work? How does one navigate such?
I think people tend to over-estimate office relationships, lol. I know a healthy working environment is essential for productivity, but at the same time, people should be allowed to navigate their working space as they choose to. So, if a group of people would rather stick together, as long as the work is being done, I personally couldn’t care less.
Even though I lead teams, my default preference is to work alone, I’m a solitary worker and I’d rather not even interact, so I detest the forced social interaction that comes from sharing your space.
However, if it’s so important for you to “belong” at work, its best to let it happen organically. As you navigate the work space you’d naturally find like-minded people to create your own group with. Forcing interactions never ends well and it leads one to begin to craft a certain image in the hopes that it’ll increase your likeability, instead of just being yourself.
Over investment in one’s image diminishes the emotional and motivational resources available for larger purposes. People who focus on how others perceive them are less clear about their goals, less open to learning from failure, and less capable of self-regulation. So of course, your work will suffer, simply because you want to be part of a clique.
Of course, we’re going to talk about mentorship – what’s your view on it? Important or nah?
I think it’s essential, especially for women. I mentioned above that one of my major challenges was a lack of female mentors in the workplace. Women need mentors to gain the proper skills, learn how to build a wide network, access to role models, acceptance and affirmation, career success and protection. For younger women, mentors can play a pivotal role in which career path we choose and our potential success in those chosen fields. Studies have shown that women with mentors are more likely to be successful than those without.
I’m proud to have mentored several women and my mentees have gotten amazing job opportunities, accelerated academic progress, even if its’ just helping with personal experiences…all are essential.
Two things – what have been your best and worst career decision – and what did you learn from each respectively?
My best career decision was to switch to the energy industry. I believe energy is limitless, there are so many sub-sectors within it that determines how the world will run for the next millennia or so. For me it’s one of the most essential sectors and within it I’ve tried and continue to try different things, so it never gets boring.
So far, I can’t really say I’ve made a bad career decision, because moves which at the time looked like disasters, ended up working out for good. So, it’ll be difficult to categorise them as bad decisions when they ended up as successes.
I could say moving back to Nigeria right after my Masters, I still regret that from time to time. Even though I started working for GE a month after I moved back and was a success there, a part of me wished I’d given trying to build a career in the UK a try and seeing where that took me.
How do you advice girls facing harassment in any form, from their superiors at work to handle it?
Report it immediately.
Abusers thrive on the shame victims are made to feel for something that has been done to them. The natural African way to handle abuse is to pretend it didn’t happen. Every family has the uncle(s) no one can leave children round, every company has the handsy co-worker, but we just ignore it like it doesn’t exist. This helps to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and generational trauma. Especially because women are socialized to make men feel comfortable and dispel any awkwardness, even though the situation is caused by the men themselves.
Every woman has experienced being touched inappropriately or propositioned and the onus is on us to lighten the mood. We giggle uncomfortably or stay silent…sometimes because a lot of women don’t have a choice, but our collective silence is killing us…literally.
If you face any sort of abuse at work report it immediately, make sure you take it to the highest possible levels, you’re no longer responsible for your abusers’ comfort. Anybody who chooses to abuse must deal with the consequences.
Do you have a “side-hustle” and what’s your view on having other interests outside of work?
I’ve had side hustles, early on my blog was a major side hustle for me for a while, but I’ve also gone through periods where I had a single income. Multiple streams of income are the fastest way to build wealth and I’d advise women to develop at least one side hustle. Having interests outside work can help you avoid career stagnation and serve as a fallback in case work is being bumpy, plus making extra money doesn’t hurt at all.
In what specific ways would you advise women to “lean in” more at work?
I’d say women should speak up more, be more confident and assertive. Humility and meekness are thought to be desirable feminine traits and we know many women are not wired that way but are socialised to ignore their natural competitiveness in order to appear “feminine”. That has traditionally held women back because successful people are not humble or meek, so we’ve been cheated out of thousands of years of success because we have been constantly taught to not put ourselves forward.
Take or volunteer yourself for opportunities at work even if you don’t meet the requirements, you can learn. Build a strong female network, senior and peer mentors are invaluable to your career. Think of career advancement as a jungle gym not a ladder, the straight upwards path might not always be the best for you. Try new things, advance sideways, take jobs in fields in which you see opportunity even thought it might not seem so prestigious.
Make your achievements known, publicise your wins and successes because sometimes nobody knows how well you’re doing. You need to learn to be your own cheerleader and that’s how you catch the attention of the people who determine your progress.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I have no idea, lol. I don’t do long term plans because I’ve learned they can keep you in a sort of tunnel vision. A year ago, I didn’t even know I’d be doing what I’m doing now, much less 5,10 years ago.
For some people, the danger in having a fixed long term goal is that you can get fixated on achieving it and ignore opportunities which may arise just because they don’t look like they can get you there, when in actual fact these “detours” might even get you to your goal faster or take you someplace else equally or more successful. Also, you tend to measure your success by if that goal has been achieved or not, ignoring all the achievements you might have gained which have nothing to do with said goal.
So, I like to keep it flexible. I know the root of my entire career is to effect social change and make Africa self-sufficient. So, whatever I’m doing in the next ten years I hope it has something to do with that.
Do you think personal branding at work is necessary? If so, how do you build it?
I think branding in life is essential because if you don’t tell people who you are, they’ll create a persona for you. You need to control your own narrative.
I’ve found a great way to build a brand is via social media. Like I said earlier, you need to promote yourself and your successes and I do that by sharing my career highs on my social media, writing industry articles, participating in industry events. This has led to people who have never met me, who are not even in my sector, being able to describe exactly what I do…simply because I put it out there. It’s led to amazing opportunities because someone might google a subject I’ve written about and end up on my article or just see via my Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn that I’m involved in an activity they have interest in.
This is not the era of doing your work diligently anymore and hoping someone notices. You close a transaction at work, tell your social media followers (about as much as you can due to confidentiality). Write articles on sites like LinkedIn or Medium about current events in your sector. Attend industry events and not just stand in the crowd but participate. Apply to speak, present, moderate panels.
People within and outside your organisation will notice the impact and suddenly, you’re a thought leader.
What in your opinion are key success principles for upcoming career women, or those just starting out their careers?
Women, if they’re married, need to have a proper 100% support system. Do not marry a man who believes women should be subordinates, that second-class citizen mentality will reflect in your work. Ensure you have a partner who believes in splitting parenting and domestic arrangements 50-50, which will free up a lot of time that women traditionally spend doing housework or childcare to focus on your career.
Successful women can do what they do because they get a lot of help. If it’s not from your partner, it’s from someone you pay to do it. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you have to do it all, your children will benefit more from seeing you thrive.
Find a mentor and maintain a strong female network.
Be bold, be confident, be assertive. Don’t be afraid to speak up at meetings, volunteer yourself for tasks, make it known when you feel you’re not receiving the proper treatment and negotiate pay according to your actual value. Closed mouths don’t get fed.
Read widely, stay up to date on current affairs, put your work out there.
What’s your advice to entry-level/interns new to organisations, what should they look out for or try to achieve?
Make yourself indispensable to your manager, you basically have to learn to “manage your manager”. Your job is to anticipate their needs and if you can have that down pat, that’s 50% of your job done. Participate fully in all work activities, be visible, volunteer for extra tasks. Basically, make sure your worth is seen.
The Leading Ladies Africa #CareerConversations Series is a weekly interview series which focuses on Leading women of African descent in the corporate world. It showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.
It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.