Kahina Van Dyke On Culture As A Garden Maze

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Conversations With Global Women Leaders

Here is the second of my interviews with influential female global executives. The interview with Katie Mehnert was widely shared and I am confident you will want to hear what Kahina has to say too. There’s something about hearing an actual experience that can urge us to act rather than just reflect. When we resonate with someone’s story it can be incredibly meaningful.kahina

Kahina is an international executive who has lived in more than seven countries and has twenty plus years of experience in a wide range of markets. She was named as one of 10 Global #MobileGameChangers by Russell Reynolds in 2014 and named Financial Inclusion Guru in 2013 by Pymnts.com.

Kahina currently leads the go-to-market strategies for globally scalable payment solutions at MasterCard. She works to design and commercialize mobile payments, remittances and business solutions that serve the next generation of consumers and merchants in high growth markets. Whilst at Citibank she launched the first mobile wallet that had national and international roll-out. Prior to joining financial services, she managed multiple merchandise direct mail lifestyle catalogues at AOL Time Warner, served as associate publisher at a start-up magazine and lead corporate sales and membership at a corporate lobbying association.

Founder and Chair of the Global Women Executive Leadership Council, which represents executives in more than 70 countries and 1000+ women. A member of the Tech London Advocates and an advisor and mentor to various technology and non-profit CEOs.

Originally from New York State, she currently is on assignment in Dubai but spends a lot of time on planes in interesting corners of the world. Her best life decision was to marry her husband, and  best accomplishment to date is their toddling twins. She says her family is her driving purpose and daily inspiration.

Clare: Thank you so much for taking time out from your busy schedule to share your insights with us. Let’s start with your thoughts on what, in your experience, global executives are hungry for in terms of learning? What are the most common topics on which you are asked by them to provide training?

Kahina: Global executives don’t tend to ask for traditional training, as they are too busy running big businesses and teams.  Global executives and senior managers are usually looking for personalized solutions – 1:1 coaching or 1:1 mentoring from people who have experience in executive leadership and large-scale organizational or market influence.  As you move up the pyramid of responsibility, it becomes more important to be able to influence, inspire and communicate.

Clare: That’s a very good point you make about the importance of a personalized approach for global executives. My experience would back that up – coaching and mentoring which helps executives in the moment with what is relevant is far more effective. As a global executive yourself, what top three tips would you give to your peers looking to support their global teams?

Kahina: For me it would be focused on striving for a real awareness of human interactions at play. What that means then is developing a deep understanding the strengths and weakness of their personal leadership style, understanding the motivations of individuals as they relate to the collective team personality and having a deep respect for the power of diverse perspectives to provide leading edge solutions.

Clare: It’s interesting what you are saying about diversity when it comes to innovation. In a similar vein, it is said that developing game-changing models that make the world a better place can help engage and retain skilled and committed employees. Is there anything you are particularly proud to have been part of?

Kahina: I’m very proud of what we do every day in this space.  I believe that you cannot have truly inspired business solutions without truly inspired people.  If you are not trying to be part of making the world better, and be a force for good, then I do not believe you will have large scale success. People can feel authenticity in the same way that they feel value.[/su_row][su_row]

Clare: This sounds like a core value for you. How easy is it to translate that into an international setting? What are the key cultural challenges you face working in this respect?

Kahina: I don’t look at culture as a challenge. I look at new cultures as a complex and beautiful garden maze that reveals itself to you the more time you spend in the culture, and with the people from that culture.


Clare: I love this image of a garden maze. It speaks of exciting opportunities to be discovered rather than problems to solve. I’m getting the gist of your positive and optimistic thinking style and I’d love to know what that looks like on the work-life balance front. A recent Harvard Business School survey found that prospering in the senior ranks is a matter of ‘carefully combining work and home’. What is your experience?

Kahina: I believe you must bring your whole self to everything that you do. You must be fully present and that means there is a whole you – a relaxed, happy and satisfied person who brings positive energy to solve the challenges of the day.  I seek to be that person all day long – at home, at work, at play. Some days are easier than others, but I do try to know when I need to spend more time in each area of my life. Maintaining a healthy external barometer helps.  Know your signs when you need to take a break from one, and realign. It’s not about getting it right every day, it is about resilience and adjustment when it’s not working.

I don’t want to paint the overall optimistic viewpoint that anyone has it all figured out. We need to know good/bad/neutral days and figure it out, readjust and be resilient.

Clare: So what does play mean for you? What do you do to relax?

Kahina: I find the small moments throughout the day to laugh and make others feel good.  I also compartmentalize a period of my day for my family, which I do not compromise unless it is an absolute emergency.  Emergencies are unexpected and unavoidable but they are very rare.  I have had to help others around me to understand what I consider an emergency versus something they are feeling very anxious about delivering. Earlier in my career, I worked 7 days a week. I now realize that although I was very busy, I was not as effective as I am today.

I love music and dancing, and although I have not been to the ballet for a long time I dance with my children on a Saturday morning.  Hopefully when they a get a bit older, I will start going to live dance performances again.  The creative arts inspire me, as do conversations with really inspiring people. I try to surround myself with conversations and people who are trying to do great things. I also have a small place on the ocean that I go to and reconnect with nature.  The outdoors inspire me, it was an important part of my youth growing up in upstate New York.

Clare: The point you make there about helping others to understand your take on a real emergency versus their perspective is a really useful point which is easily overlooked. It is very easy to assume everyone else is as clear as us, when in fact few people actually practice mind-reading!

You have used allegory already to bring to life your thoughts e.g. pyramid, compartmentalize, maze. What metaphor would you say best describes your work as a global leader?

Kahina: Most likely, people would describe me as someone who looks far ahead into the distance to understand the landscape and the direction we should move to.  However, when I see something on the ground I swoop down quickly to try to remove barriers for the team and the business.  Does this mean I am a Falcon or an Eagle? They are hunters, which I don’t believe I am. I understand large systems and how to operationalize large scale change into small bite size chunks.  I also am at the point in my career where I need to believe that I am benefiting society with my talents and skills.[/su_row][su_row]

Clare: Fascinating. So you use your ability to spot danger and swoop down quickly as a force for good rather than to destroy. I bet you use the same approach when you notice opportunities too. Perhaps you are a mythical blend of Eagle and Giraffe? Our long-necked friends have good eye-sight, very large hearts and are surprisingly strong when protecting their young. I’m not sure what such a creature would look like!


Kahina: The image of the giraffe with large wings is something my toddlers would love to see, I think I will incorporate that into their bedtime stories tonight.  Yes, I do easily see the opportunity for the business, for the world and for the individual. I would also agree that my strengths can emerge quickly and unexpectedly. I have had to learn in my career to channel and modulate my passion and energy as the sudden force of movement of a giraffe with wings can surprise people and put them off guard.

Clare: Once again Kahina, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I don’t think I’ll ever get the picture of a flying giraffe out of my head!

Find out more about the work Clare McNamara does with leaders and their teams.

© Move Ahead Global 2014

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