Stanbic Bank CEO Joshua Oigara poses for a picture on December 6, 2023, after the interview at the bank's offices in Westlands. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG


Joshua Oigara: Declaring my wealth was a big mistake

Joshua Oigara, the CEO of Stanbic Bank Kenya and South Sudan, is a contrarian and a realist, even though he loves scary ambitions, too.

He set out to become a CEO even before he knew much about what was expected of a holder of such a position.

He achieved it at age 37.

He believes one has to create one’s own luck; if you dream of receiving the best gift, you must wake up, look for money, buy it, package it as beautifully as you’ve dreamt and deliver it to yourself.

Joshua, who never set out to be a banker, hates being second. The son of a teacher has been accused of putting in many hours of work. But then he says one must be ruthlessly disciplined—it is all about packaging one’s gift.

He opens up about his upbringing, career and leadership, his two mistakes and his struggle to find the right balance between sustaining a thriving career and spending more time with his family.

You set a target to become a CEO at the age of 40 and achieved it at 37. What did it take to achieve it ahead of schedule?

It is all about perspective. What is essential for me is that when I set an ambition, it should keep me worried, scared, excited and awake.

Joshua Oigara: Declaring my wealth was a big mistake

Initially, I didn’t know why I wanted to become a CEO. It is the same thing you hear a young person say, ‘I want to become a neurosurgeon’, but they don’t know much about it.

But as I grew in my career, I remained ruthlessly focused and much more consistent, and I said a lot of NOs to many things because there was always a lot of noise. You must always distinguish signal from noise, especially now with social media and mobile technology.

I asked myself, ‘Can l look at people who have done well? Can I look at global giants?’ There is the view that we are now different, but the human brain hasn’t changed. Just because we are more enabled and interconnected and the world is like a marketplace doesn’t mean we have changed our intellectual capacity.

Only now do I see why I had that ambition—to enable progress and impact others’ lives. And that is what I am doing. Stanbic Bank Kenya is today a top seven bank. My ambition is to break into the top three, and I am convinced that with our global connection, we will become a much stronger player.

That is another big target there, considering the competition...

My leadership journey has been about ‘continue to push.’ People don’t like being pushed, but pushing is the only thing that gives a breakthrough. Laziness or just staying around is a recipe for disaster. There isn’t a shortcut. You must stay the course.

I was privileged to meet and create relationships with people who had done this before. I  had the privilege to work with people globally. The likes of the late Bob Collymore [former Safaricom CEO] inspired me.

While I had the vision of becoming a CEO, I didn’t even know the CEO of what? I don’t think being a CEO is the end of it. It is perhaps the beginning. You start by thinking about how you can strengthen a business, grow possibilities, and build a nation through economic activities… That is what we are obsessed with. It is not about the job.

For most people, the challenge is not only setting a target but handling the success. How did you manage your success at such an age?

People still say I was the youngest CEO of a listed bank. When you pursue excellence, there is no end to it. It is a journey.

Steering Stanbic to be in the top three is a bold target. Is Stanbic set for a big acquisition in Kenya or it will all be organic growth?

Patrick, I am not going to sit here and tell you what our strategy is. I can only tell you about our ambition, and you can measure us by 2027 or 2028.

Have I been successful? I have been relatively successful.

Ultimately, we want to be the bank that delivers the best services and solutions for our clients and enables our staff to have the best workplace. Ultimately, we want to be a brand powerhouse.

What would you tell a young person looking up to you and dreaming of becoming a CEO at age 37?

Becoming a CEO is not an end in itself. It’s about leadership. If you have not impacted another person or added an extra mile to another person, you haven’t led. If your dream is to acquire things such as having the best car in town, it is easy to become a CEO, but such CEOs never leave a mark.

Most people don’t know what car Bill Gates drives. And does it even matter? But nearly everybody knows the impact of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. That should be the aspiration.

In this generation, you must build your craft as you fight. If you are waiting for your craft to be delivered to you ready-made, like a nicely packaged gift, I don’t think it is going to happen. It is time you started packaging your own gift.


Stanbic Bank CEO Joshua Oigara poses for a picture on December 6, 2023 after the interview at the bank's offices in Westlands. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

After you have grown into leadership and done all that you set out to do, how does a good exit from an organisation look like?

You want to leave the organisation and the sector in a stronger position than you found it. I don’t think I will live to see all the dreams and ambitions I have for Stanbic come to fruition in my lifetime, but if I leave the bank and my team in a stronger position to continue, then I have truly led.

That is one of the biggest crises in our country and across Africa today. We build great organisations and sometimes don’t know how to leave. When I joined leadership, we had more than 62 very active counters. Today, we have very few, and they continue to shrink.

Looking at your career, you spent many years at PwC, Bidco and Bamburi before going into banking. Was banking an afterthought or it was always in the plans?

I never dreamed of becoming a banker. I think anyone can start from anywhere and still accomplish 'the dream'. I recently interacted with a leading anaesthetist doctor who is now studying law to represent patients on the medical-legal construct.

That is my story. I was a mathematics high school teacher many years ago, and banking was not in the picture, but I learned the skills. The nature of leadership is that it is something you can apply in different sectors.

Three things are required: Be very aspirational with the ambition you set for your teams. Get the teams aligned with that ambition. Support them with resources to run the extra mile toward their ambition. You can do that in manufacturing, tech, government or any other sector.

The view before that you could only be one thing throughout your life does not hold today. We have to juggle different kinds of skills.

But one thing that has remained consistent is if you stay relentless and laser-focused on your ambition, you will make it.

I suppose banking looks better on you and you look happier in banking…

Banking has been the most exciting. In our markets, the first level of capital for many small businesses comes from banks. We mobilise savings and, through risk management and capital allocation, lend to individuals and enterprises and return the capital to the owners with earnings.

We can’t just lead and be numb about nation-building. I like being at the centre of economic development. I don’t know any other sector in the continent that is as influential and catalytic as the financial sector.

When my children come to employment in the next 10 to 20 years, I hope we will have created more businesses, jobs, and opportunities.

Which leadership trait would you like your children to learn from you?

One is consistency, and the other is creating your luck by practising and being ahead of yourself.

People often say that I spend so much time working. I want them to know that it is okay to be accused. I am always a contrarian. If people don’t call you names, you are not making progress. The journey is not about work and family but about nation-building. Leadership is a privilege to serve, not a right.

I also want them to know that even a woodpecker that continues hitting on a solid rock finally gets a breakthrough moment.

In places such as Kilifi and Machakos,  people always hit a rock to make ballast. And they are always using a small hammer. It looks very rudimental, but they are constantly hitting. The question is, what hit finally breaks the rock? Is it the 100th hit that makes it?

Which hit finally broke your rock?

Consistently hitting the rock creates enough pressure, and the rock gives way. That is the journey of life. It is a process; the agenda is to break the rock to get the ballast and sell it. But you must be hitting. The key is to be consistent.

I have made some mistakes in my career. There is no life without mistakes. That is the way you learn. Show me a leader who hasn’t made a mistake, and I will show you a liar. Even for people who take things into space, some of their launches fail. Do they stop? And must you succeed in the first instance? It is a process.

Not many young people are breaking their rocks today. What is the missing link?

The philosophy that you can build progress through osmosis, close your eyes, and open them, and you are a CEO, does work. If one wants to be a farmer through a mobile phone from Nairobi and has never even seen the soil, how will he or she compete?

We must sharpen our craft, whether in agriculture or anything else we set out to do. For young people, first of all, they need to know who they are. They have to define this for themselves. They can’t wait to be defined by other people.

The second step is for them to understand why they are here. And thirdly,  do the right thing and do it well. This obsession with short-term races we see among young people today will not work in the long term.

I remember back in the day working with Mbuvi Ngunze (then Bamburi Cement finance director) and him calling me for lunch one day and saying ‘Josh, I think you are hired, and you are hired now.’

When you are focused on your ambition, finally, the wings fly, and the tailwinds connect you to where you are going. But you must be prepared. That is what I call creating your own luck. Life is a marathon, and there are seasons.

What season is Joshua in now?

The season for giving back. To build stronger institutions. Mentor young leaders to become the next champions for Stanbic and enable them to own businesses in the region.

You once said that at the start of your career, you had four job offers. You picked PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Looking back, how easy was it to pick one choice and stick with it?

I chose PwC because of the brand proposition. And I was excited about many people, including Charles Muchene, a senior partner for PwC Kenya. He was a very eclectic contrarian.

There were many other people I looked up to, including the chairman of our board, Kitili Mbathi, who was one of our most valuable financial secretaries. Then, of course, there was Martin Oduor [who Mr Oigara replaced at KCB as the CEO].


Stanbic Bank Kenya and South Sudan CEO Joshua Oigara after an interview on December 6, 2023. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

How was it like growing up and how did this shape the Joshua we see today?

I didn’t see my dad a lot when I was growing up. He spent most of his time building schools as a teacher. Like Nelson Mandela, he believed education could transform a child into a global star. Unfortunately, he passed on when I was young. So, my childhood was painful. When I got those four job offers, I was focused on becoming a champion. I never wanted to be second. I didn’t want to just exist. I wanted to triumph, to have an impact. That was my master base.

The journey to success is simple. It is about being ruthlessly disciplined. I decided to wake up at the same time every day. Your world is your oyster, and you need to define it.

What lessons have you learned about leading people since becoming a CEO at a young age and growing into a senior banker?

In leadership, we must appreciate that different perspectives should perhaps be our greatest strength. People don’t have to agree with you but they need to give you a chance to sell your idea.

The duality of ideas is something we need to believe in and support. People must not always see what you see. Not one person owns all the knowledge in the world.

I like working with people who challenge me. I work with contrarians and it does not matter as long the journey is to build a stronger institution.

You mentioned that in the course of one’s career, mistakes are bound to happen and one has to learn from them. What have been your mistakes and which lessons did you pick?

It is not just about making mistakes. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes as well. For instance, when I left PwC, I went to work with Vimal Shah [CEO of Bidco Oil Refineries] and the team. Many people told me, ‘Josh, this is your greatest mistake, but you need courage.’

I didn’t stay long at Bidco because Mbuvi Ngunze came and told me, ‘By the way, you can come and join the cement industry.’

Although it [leaving PwC for Bidco] was seen as a mistake, it was also an opportunity for me to catalyse the ambition of becoming a leader in future. People see mistakes as bad, but if we don’t give ourselves the courage to try new possibilities, we cannot grow.

I wanted to work with a large global firm, especially General Electric when I was growing up. I never achieved this, but I got my place in the banking sector.

Even the greatest sportspeople, such as Serena Williams and Michael Jordan, had many start-stops. We only see the outcome rather than the effort. The culture about failing first forward is what we are constantly pushing for now. Today, I say, fail first, but fail cheaply. There is no point in failing and losing everything.

Another big mistake for me was declaring my wealth. Declaring my wealth as a young CEO was a foolish thing to do. We agreed with many industry leaders to do it to enhance transparency, but in the end, it was just Bob [Collymore] and I who did it.

Then, our net worth became the only stories about us, instead of the spirit of the exercise and the value we were building in the economy.

You have mentioned marathons and taking a stab at a 21-kilometre race. How do you want your 21-km race to look at the finish line?

Initially, I wanted to run 42 kilometres because I wanted to run the Boston Marathon. One person who used to challenge me a lot was Rebecca Mbithi [former Family Bank CEO]. I think she has run the Boston and New York marathon.

My elder brother, a professor, also runs marathons and finishes in the top 1,000. I adjusted my ambition to 21 kilometres. I am a work in progress.

This is the first time I am asking this to a career man. Career women get asked a lot about how they have juggled between career progression and family. How has this juggling been for you?

It is a tough question to answer. Leadership is a very intentional construct. When I was younger, I would spend more time with my family. I had less time as I became more engaged in building my career and enterprises. And now that we are building a much more solid and mature enterprise, I have created more time.

Is that is to say, Josh has succeeded in this game of juggling.

No. When I look at balance, it is not a linear curve. I have had a supportive family over this period. Are there things I have missed? Yes. I have missed taking my children to school. That is something I could have done much better.

Before, I used to start my day earlier, at six o’clock. Nowadays, I can start at 9am to take my daughter to school. Generally, when conversing with my children, I am open and tell them, ‘I am sorry I was not able to create that opportunity [to be with them] when I needed to.’

But I have also learned a lot from some of the leaders I have engaged with. One told me, ‘Josh, twice or thrice a week, at 7 pm, we set up dinner time with the children. It doesn’t matter what happens. For as long as I am in Kenya, we do it.’

That is powerful. That if you diarise it and purpose, it comes. It is a work in progress. I am learning to spend more time with my family.