“When you truly know yourself, it doesn’t matter what you’re called. You will answer only to your name! #LLA Meets Charlotte Osei, UN International Elections Commissioner, Ghanaian Lawyer and Former Chairperson, Ghana Electoral Commission
From running an all-female legal firm to chairing electoral commissions of African countries, to running the ’Chat With Charlotte Series’ to mentoring young girls and women, Charlotte Osei is corporate goals and then some. Lean in to learn why we are pretty chuffed about her.
It’s great to have you on LLA. How in your own words would you introduce Charlotte Osei to the world?
I am first and foremost a child of God. That’s the root of my identity. I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, aunt, sister and friend to many.
I am very passionate about my Purpose and my work. I consider myself very driven, highly organized, a people-person, a natural leader or so I’ve been told. I am also a results-oriented and an excellent communicator.
Amazing! Can you share briefly on growing up and how you set out into the corporate world?
I spent my early years with my Mom and two siblings. I am my mother’s eldest child. My mother was widowed very early at age 28. So it was quite an experience watching her struggle with the challenges of widowhood and single parenting. She was an entrepreneur and housing officer for expatriate companies. She tried her hands at many things- owning a restaurant, farming, she was open to any honest endeavor. She spoke about nine languages and had a very global outlook. She was also a very kind and giving person.
In my teens, I moved to live with my dad, which was a larger family unit and very different. My father was a marine engineer who had worked in several West African countries. He was exceptionally generous and kind and our home was open to many friends and extended family members.
Both parents were very open to different cultures and my two homes always had a steady flow of people from all races and backgrounds.
My parents separated even before I was born but I am blessed with 13 incredible siblings in total and we all have a wonderful bond. Growing up, my parents emphasized the importance of getting a good education and the values of hard work, honesty, and integrity. My education and my values have sustained me through very tough times and of course, my faith in God as a Christian and the support of my family have been my pillars.
My entry into the corporate world was divinely orchestrated. My passion while studying law at the university was Gender and Human Rights and I did end up specializing in that area for my Masters in Law.
However, in my last month in law school, I was headhunted by a leading corporate law firm in Ghana to come and work with them. I started work in July of 1994, even before my final year law school examination results were released. And when it turned out that I was awarded the prizes for Company Law and Conveyancing & Drafting at the call to the Bar, I seemed a perfect fit for the Firm. And that’s how I stayed on at the firm after my call and took the path of Corporate law.
I worked as a lawyer in banking, and moved into regulatory and corporate compliance and then set up my law firm specializing in Business law, before my journey into the public sector.
Becoming the First female chair of the National Commission for Civic Education and Ghana Electoral Commission are notable milestones on your professional journey. What was the experience like occupying such positions of power and what did it teach you?
I feel incredibly honored and privileged to have held two very important public offices in my country. Service to one’s country is always an honor. And to be the first female in both positions, presented very exciting opportunities and platforms for me. However, being a ‘first female’ always comes with peculiar challenges, and particularly so in very high profile national positions. You do not have a direct example to follow and you carry the weight of being an example for other women; and the knowledge that your failings would be judged as the failings of all women.
For these reasons, the experience for me was wonderful and challenging. I had to manage a large number of staff (2000 heads at a point). You deal with people who have a problem reporting to you because you’re a woman or taking instructions from you because you’re considered too young.
My approach was to build up my capacity and technical knowledge very quickly, keep an open door to all staff, and an open mind and simply ignore a lot of slights. Pettiness kills purpose and so I consciously made no time for pettiness. I prayed a lot and did the job at hand to the best of my ability. I also learned the value of surrounding yourself with good people. To succeed, you need smart, committed people who know more than you do. To always be the smartest person in the room, is a recipe for failure.
I am incredibly proud of the fact that I promised my country ‘world-class elections’ in 2016. It was a lot of work. It took a lot of personal sacrifices. And by the grace of God, my team and I delivered world-class elections that were lauded nationally and internationally.
Those experiences taught me a lot. The value of teamwork and humility, the need to seek support when you need it and that when God calls you to perform a task, He does equip you. You just need to trust God and surround yourself with good people.
You were recently appointed by the United Nations as an international electoral commissioner to the Afghanistan ECC. Can you share briefly on events that led up to this appointment and what your current role entails?
I got a call from a high ranking UN official about the opportunity. They had done their homework and the four international commissioners were very carefully selected. I discussed it with my family and we felt it would be an interesting opportunity and so I accepted the offer. The UN submitted my name to the Afghan President and His Excellency, the President approved and the Presidential decree was issued formalizing the appointment.
My job basically involves providing support and guidance to the ECC commissioners in their work. Afghanistan is a beautiful country and the people are incredibly warm and kind. I consider my assignment here as a great honour and privilege. Unfortunately, because of legal and security restrictions, I am unable to comment in more detail about the work.
Digressing a bit, would you say life prepared you or shaped you significantly into the woman you are now?
Life prepares and shapes all of us into the persons we become and so that statement would be true. Like I mentioned earlier, my mother was widowed early and had to single parent three children. I would say that singular event in my childhood shaped me in a lot of ways.
I watched her many successes and many struggles trying to provide the best education and opportunities for her children. And even within her struggles, I watched her give back to the less privileged. We spent almost every new year’s day at an orphanage. We had to take food and toys and books to the children and spend time playing with them and taking care of the babies. So at a very early age, the need to support others and give back to society was ingrained in me.
As a woman, it made me strive to be economically independent and to constantly build on my capacity. It gave me a life long hunger for learning and self-improvement. I’m always engarde, preparing for life’s curves and challenges. It also taught me absolute dependence on God. I know for a fact that God never fails His children. I have survived enough valleys and mountains to know that for sure.
My early life also made me very conscious and aware of the struggles of women and the need to reach out and support women. And so my ethos is that for every step up the ladder you climb, you have a greater obligation to open doors for others and help them to also climb and improve their situation.
Let’s talk about the challenges that came with being the First Female Chair of the Ghanaian Electoral Commission. What would you consider your greatest anchor and how were you able to navigate that phase without necessarily allowing those experiences make you become a different person?
My greatest anchors really were my faith and my family. They never changed and they never failed me. I had incredible support from my family (which includes people who are not necessarily related to me by blood).
My biggest challenge was dealing with lies, constantly being misrepresented in the public domain and betrayal. However, I came to understand that these challenges come with the terrain. It was important to me that I did not take these attacks personally and I did not allow these issues to turn me into a bitter or unhappy person.
I am generally a happy person and I am glad that throughout the tumultuous times, I never lost my joy or my peace of mind and I never became bitter. I looked at it as a critical experience with a lot of lessons to be learned. Today, I am very grateful for the tough times. I learned a lot and it made me into a stronger person.
What’s your advice to women who are going through phases like this in business/career and life generally?
It is really important that you build upon your capacity. When you get a major opportunity in your career, it’s important that you self- reflect and ask yourself what skills you need for the new position. Arm yourself with the skills and capacities you need. This will give you the confidence to deliver.
Also, it is important to treat everyone you meet with respect, grace, and humility. Many, many times, I have received extremely important advice, wisdom, guidance or information from the ”small people”. You are never too big to learn and no one is too small to teach you.
Finally, have a strong support group. Your personal tribe- who know you, who are honest with you, and who are capable of pointing out your failings and celebrating your successes with you. You will need them.
Having spent over two decades in the corporate space and taken up several leadership positions, what in your own opinion would you say is hindering the much-needed inclusion of women in leadership positions within the corporate sector?
Patriarchy. There is still a strong sense in some quarters that women do not belong in certain spaces. When I was appointed to head Ghana’s electoral commission, some people were very vocal with the sentiment that it was not a job for a woman. There were also others who felt that as a commission chair, I must do whatever men were advocating, whether it was legal or not, whether it was the right thing to do or not. It all came down to their traditional expectations of women. Whenever you did not conform to their expectations, you were labelled negatively.
Women also need to fight patriarchy and society’s limitations with capacity, courage and confidence. Build your capacity. Keep learning. Have the courage to take on new opportunities and challenges. Also, be confident. Ignore the naysayers and just keep your focus. Never get distracted by name calling.
In what specific ways would you advise women to lean in at work?
Capacity, courage and confidence. Come to the table prepared. Women also need to learn not to be intimidated and expect to be called all sorts of names. But when you truly know yourself, it doesn’t matter what you’re called. You will answer only to your name.
Can you share some of the work you have done for African girls/women?
I mentor a lot of women and girls across Africa. I believe in women supporting and encouraging each other. Fourteen years ago, I founded The Butterfly Club, a support group for women who met every month to discuss issues affecting women and how to generally improve our lives and our businesses.
This year, I started the‘Chat With Charlotte’ Series (@chatwcharlotte) which supports young people in navigating through life, entrepreneurial challenges and promoting professional advancement. I lend my voice and support to several women’s groups (church groups, CSOs, government agencies and private sector initiatives). For instance, I support the African Science Academy (a science academy for African girls based in Ghana) with the Charlotte Osei award for Leadership, to encourage young ladies to take on the mantle of leadership on the African continent.
I also actively mentor and support female law students with internships at my law firm (which by the way, is an all female law firm).
What in your opinion are key success principles for upcoming career women, or those just starting out their careers?
They need to take a long term view of their career and be strategic and intentional about career planning. Career development is a marathon and not a sprint. Remuneration should not be the major factor in decision making. You need to be strategic about job opportunities you pursue, be very intentional about learning and building your capacity. I try to enroll in courses and learn a new skill every year. And you must practice excellence in all you do.
Let’s talk about mentorship- do you think it is important? How so?
I think mentorship is always important but it does not necessarily need to be one-on-one. I get a lot of mentoring requests and the expectation is face time with the mentor and handholding. It is almost a practical impossibility.
There is a lot of knowledge out there and people need to be hungry to learn. There is so much you can learn from the lives of other people from reading their books and their life experiences.
Young women, in particular, should not limit themselves to being mentored by just women. I have received critical and life changing career advice from men.
Have you had women who have made your journey in life significantly easier? Care to share some of these women with us?
I have been blessed through the years with several women who gave me quiet support and encouragement. My grade one teacher was amazing. In secondary school my literature teacher was a fantastic mentor. I had lecturers at the university who also supported my growth.
In my personal and professional life, I have a loyal tribe of sisters and friends who have been constant anchors in my life for decades. Because of all of them, I have weathered many storms and I am where I am today. It would be unfair to mention a few because I have been supported and raised by so many.
What counts as fun for Charlotte Osei?
Spending time at home with loved ones and at the beach. I don’t really like parties and I don’t like crowds.
What would you like to be remembered for?
That I died empty- I used all my God given talents and abilities for the purposes they were given to me. That I fulfilled God’s purpose for my life. That I made a positive impact on my family and my generation.
About Charlotte Osei
Charlotte Osei is a lawyer with 25 years experience in the public and private sectors. She holds a Master of Laws degree (LLM) from Queen’s University, Ontario Canada and a Masters in Business Leadership (MBL) from the University of South Africa, Pretoria. Ms. Osei has previously served as Chairperson of Ghana’s Electoral Commission and Chairperson of Ghana’s National Commission for Civic Education. She was also the Vice Chairperson of the Executive Board of the African Capacity Building Foundation in Zimbabwe and a former President of the African Association of Election Authorities.
In 2017, Charlotte was one of the three finalists for the internationally renowned Chatham House Award for her leadership and transparency of Ghana’s 2016 elections. She was also awarded the Woman of Courage Award (2017) by the US Government.
More recently, Charlotte led the ECOWAS fact finding mission to Sierra Leone ahead of that country’s 2017 elections and was deputy head of the ECOWAS fact finding mission to Nigeria ahead of the 2019 elections. She also served as Technical Expert (Legal) to the ECOWAS Long Term Observer Mission to the Nigerian 2019 general elections. Charlotte holds many academic awards and distinctions and is a published writer.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, 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; an initiative that seeks to effectively mentor and inspire women, with particular emphasis on the African continent.
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.