Life lessons reveal why CFO Mary Maina doesn’t sweat the small stuff

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Mary Maina, the sub-Saharan Africa regional CFO of Ipsos, has had a remarkable career in finance and accounting, but it has not come without its share of challenging moments.

Losing her husband to cancer left Mary to raise her daughter on her own and gave her a different perspective on life. She learnt the importance of avoiding entitlement, realising she owns nothing, not even her life.

“Growing up, my siblings and I had limited provisions. We learnt how to share what our parents gave us. It's something I laugh about today, but it also keeps me grounded, knowing there is more to life than material things,” she explains.

One of the important things Mary has come to appreciate is her health. She had major surgery on her spine in her early thirties, which left her relying on others for her basic needs for almost a year. Today, she wakes up with gratitude for the gift of life and prioritises self-care to maintain both physical and mental health.

Mary took up cycling after a friend challenged her to find an activity to deal with her coffee addiction and create balance in her life. With a great trainer, and after multiple falls and bruises, she got the hang of it. Today, she gets up at dawn to pedal her way into the morning, averaging 80 kilometres a week. Her longest ride was an 86-kilometre trip from Nairobi to Mai Mahiu, completed in under six hours.

“I compare cycling to a life challenge that requires planning both mentally and physically. It's about breaking down the monthly target into daily and weekly goals and staying focused. It builds resilience, not to give up when the brain and legs tell you to stop. This experience reminds me of the moments in my career when I went the extra mile and looked for learning opportunities. I developed focus when faced with challenges, which ultimately helped me climb the corporate ladder,” she says.

Mary started her accounting career at Tetra Pak, a global food processing and packaging solutions organisation. After working as an accountant and later as a financial analyst, she moved to CFC Insurance in search of a management role. As a finance manager, she was tasked with setting up the accounting department and establishing a supplier management system.

A deliberate agenda

In her third year at CFC Insurance, there was a regulatory split to separate short-term and life insurance balances, which placed her career at a crossroads. She found the perfect opportunity in Rwanda, taking up the position of finance manager at Kenol Kobil. After three years away, she felt homesick and returned to Kenya in 2014 to become the CFO of Ipsos. She was promoted to CFO of the East Africa cluster a year later and took up her current position as finance chief of sub-Saharan Africa in August 2022.

“Ipsos is a multinational market research and consulting firm. The company’s values, particularly integrity, resonate with me. I appreciate Ipsos’ deliberate agenda to include women leaders at every level of the business hierarchy. This has led to growth in the number of women leading countries globally and holding key roles across different spheres of the business,” she explains.

Mary has had an exciting career and achieved professional growth while working in multiple industries for top-tier employers. On a personal level, she counts it as a blessing to see her daughter grow into “a fine and amazing young woman, finding her wings, conquering and impacting her world, being bold and confident to face life”.

“Personal success also means leading myself. If I don’t stand for something, I will fall for anything. I hold myself accountable and responsible for my actions and do not expect something of my team that I don’t expect of myself. I raise the bar for myself first and then show the ones I lead how to get there. Empathy plays a big role in how I lead myself and others,” she says.

Mary views professional success through how many of her colleagues and team members shine and get elevated. She also seeks to add value to the business and act as a sounding board for fellow leaders. With responsibility for the finance teams of eight African countries, she adopts a consultative management style. She is big on pre-planning and often has “meetings before the meeting” to secure buy-in and alignment.

“There are two books that have had an impact on how I handle work and life in general. Grit by Angela Duckworth has helped me deal with high-pressure situations and renew my energy. The other book is the famous Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, which is an impactful read as it puts life into perspective. It helps us see what really matters, cultivate gratitude, and focus on real-life priorities,” Mary says.

She concludes by advising young professionals to stay calm as “the creator is making a way and aligning the universe for them to achieve big things”.

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