Know your limits and avoid the curse of the competent, says CFO Purity Sammy

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Purity Mumbe Sammy, CFO at East Africa Reinsurance, initially planned to retire from corporate life at the age of 35 and teach kindergarten. Now, at the designate age, she admits she is not quite ready to realise that dream.

Purity Mumbe Sammy, CFO at East Africa Reinsurance, initially planned to retire from corporate life at the age of 35 and teach kindergarten. Now, at the designate age, she admits she is not quite ready to realise that dream.

“Maybe I will do it when I turn 45,” she muses.

Purity’s reason behind wanting to be a kindergarten teacher in her next career phase is based on her research. “Researching what shapes a person’s character has taught me that the real impact happens before the age of six, which is why I want to be involved in shaping young lives,” she said.

Kindergarten is somewhat of a common thread in Purity’s life as she took on the unusual surname Sammy when her grandmother told her kindergarten teacher that Sammy was Purity’s father’s name.

She took this change in her stride, setting the foundation for her now trademark approach of being agile and taking everything as an opportunity.

“To be successful, you need to be agile. I attribute my success in the professional space to my agility,” she says.

This refrain was evident as early as high school.

“During career talks in high school at Precious Blood - Kilungu, a constant question was what we wanted to be when we grew up. Most of my classmates would say a doctor or lawyer, but neither of those appealed to me. I was very good at mathematics, and one of my teachers encouraged me to consider a Bachelor of Commerce degree. I got good grades at high school and was admitted to the University of Nairobi to pursue a BCom in finance,” she explains.

“I would study for the degree during the day and pursue the certified public accountant (CPA) qualification in the evening. I graduated in 2010 and began attending interviews with several multinationals and the Big 4 audit firms. I only had two suits, which I alternated between interviews. In fact, when a partner at one of the Big 4 audit firms interviewed me, he asked the HR manager whether her impressions had changed, as she had previously interviewed me. She said nothing had changed; even the suit I was wearing was the same!” Purity adds.

She joined PwC in the Audit and Assurance department as an associate in September 2010 and rose through the ranks to the role of senior manager.

Travelling across continents

She described her career at PwC as rather unconventional as she worked in four of their offices across the world.

She spent some time in South Africa as well as the US, and although the experience gained was valuable, Purity had no intention of a long-term secondment in either country.

“My sister was in the UK and told me interesting things about the place. So, I spent two years in London, which is a career highlight,” she says.

It was in London where Purity developed her leadership skills. “It was a season of significant personal and professional growth. The British culture taught me how to be diplomatic, which is a bit different from us in Kenya, where we can be a little forthright,” she explains.

Purity also took the opportunity to travel extensively across Europe, where many memories were made, including gambling for the first and last time.

“I was in Paris and walked to a stand where I could clearly see under which cup the ball was, so I placed a 100 euro bet. I failed and thought the first guy was just a trickster. I moved on to another spot, and again it looked easy to find the ball, so I bet another 100 Euro, which I still lost! I will never gamble again,” she says.

However, she knew that a return home was inevitable.

“I always knew I would live a much more balanced life in Kenya than in the UK. There are some privileges here that I do not think I would get in the UK. My mentor also advised that I would rise to management much faster as a Kenyan in Kenya than as a foreigner in the UK,” she says.

The best laid plans

In addition to her audit manager role, Purity served as her department’s staff manager, handling several human capital matters such as resourcing, well-being and performance management.

“My time in staff management at PwC was a career highlight. I was proud to have agitated for some changes for the staff. I learnt a lot about dealing with people, which I still apply today,” she says.

She also had clear career growth plans in mind.

“My plan A was to leave PwC as an experienced senior manager, while plan B was to remain at PwC and seek to be a partner. Plan A unfolded much faster than I expected, as I received a call interesting me to take up my current position, and I thought it was a role worth considering. I used to advise clients in consulting but had not attempted to implement those recommendations. I am now involved in running a business, and if I went back to consulting, I would be recommending things that I have tried out myself,” she says.

“The last role at PwC connected me with what I believe is my purpose, i.e. dealing with people and coaching. It is a stint that prepared me for what I do today,” she adds.

Purity joined East Africa Reinsurance in April 2020, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The private reinsurer has been in the business for 28 years and provides services to over 200 clients in 35 countries, mainly in Africa. “Reinsurance is a specialised business where we have a few but bulky transactions,” she says.

Purity’s role at the Pan-African insurer cuts across strategy, finance, IT and actuarial services.

“I formulate company strategies and monitor their execution. This requires me to develop an intricate understanding of our business and its performance drivers, the industry and the various markets we operate in,” she explains.

“I also handle financial reporting and develop and execute the company’s investment strategy, including determining where to invest available funds. We need to ensure this aligns with shareholder and rating agencies’ expectations. In leading finance, IT and actuarial teams, I have realised I need not be an expert. All I need is a willingness to learn,” she adds.

Purity must also understand the regulatory frameworks, including taxes in different countries, due to the global nature of the company’s services.

Learning new skills

Purity recently received an MBA from the University of Warwick.

“Having been in consulting for nearly 10 years, I realised I had certain skill gaps around leadership and strategy that I needed to bridge to be an effective executive. I wanted to pursue an MBA that would really add value to my skills and not just a nice title to pile on top of my other qualifications. After some research, I opted for the MBA from Warwick, which is highly ranked by the Financial Times, offers reasonable flexibility and is within my budget,” she says.

She started the MBA programme in January 2021, pursuing two modules at a time. There were many books to read, group work to participate in and conferences to attend, which was not easy while in full-time employment and more so as a business executive. “There were days I would encourage my team members not to quit, and days they would encourage me not to quit. My dissertation focused on geographical diversification of Kenyan-based reinsurers, which is quite timely as East Africa Re is considering a physical presence in certain regional markets,” she adds.

As an experienced coach, Purity advises people to know their limits, avoid “the curse of the competent,” and learn to say no.

At the same time, she believes in embracing opportunities.

“Management and leaders will never entrust the business in the hands of someone who doesn’t bring his/her all to the game. You can either view a task as daunting and cannot be done or break it into small pieces and focus on executing each piece to get it done eventually. Having the right attitude will almost always get everything done,” she says.

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