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Aug 2010

Case study: Priscilla Mutembwa, Cargill Cotton Zimbabwe

Priscilla Mutembwa has been managing director of Cargill Cotton Zimbabwe since 2007.

Priscilla Mutembwa, managing director

Her role involves control of the company’s commercial operation in Zimbabwe; co-ordination and management of the senior team; and liaison with local organisations including farmers, buyers and growers. She previously worked as the company’s finance director and regional origination and procurement manager.

She holds a BSc degree in computer systems engineering, a CIMA qualification, an investment management certificate and an MBA. During her varied and highly successful career, which she talks about below, she has also worked for Coopers & Lybrand, British Railways, UNICEF, British American Tobacco and Zimbabwe Allied Banking Group in a variety of finance roles. Prior to training as an accountant, she worked in computing. 

 The challenge of switching careers

I studied computer systems engineering at university and worked as a computer programmer and then as a systems analyst before I decided to study to become a management accountant. It was a big challenge to start almost at the bottom and work my way up when I had already reached management level in the IT world. I decided to just work as hard as I could and use my previous experience to be a better accountant.

Fighting to be taken seriously

Another major challenge was being taken seriously as a professional woman, especially once I started having children. I remember an occasion when I attended an interview for a job just after I had found out that I was pregnant with my second child. I was quite excited and at the same time I did not think it should stop me advancing my career and seeking new opportunities. At the end of the interview I made the mistake of sharing my good news with the interview panel members, whom all happened to be male. Needless to say I did not get the job.

‘I’ve not faced direct discrimination but
have encountered prejudices and stereotyping’

I don’t believe I’ve faced direct discrimination but I have encountered prejudices and stereotyping that were sometimes quite discouraging, and I have probably had to be more resilient than my male colleagues. However, I rely on something my dad taught me when I was young: not to be deterred or affected by what someone thought of me, especially when it’s not based on knowing me or my capabilities.

Getting on the board

My entry to the board was through being an executive board member due to my role and position as a finance director. Through my work with some of the non-executive board members, I started getting invitations to sit on the boards that they sat on.

‘There should be more women
on the boards of organisations’

I believe there should be more women on the boards of organisations as they bring a different perspective to the running of businesses.

Learning from a male mentor

I have benefited tremendously from having a mentor and I would recommend it to any woman who is serious about rising to the top. Role models and mentors allow you to learn from another person’s experience so that the same mistakes are not repeated. With the help of my mentor, I have learned to be more structured in my career planning and to focus on what I need to learn.

There is a shortage of female role models in my business environment – the cotton industry in my country is very male dominated and I often find myself being the only female present amongst men.

‘I have greatly benefited
from having a male mentor’

However, I don’t think women always need female mentors; what is important is to feel comfortable with your mentor. In fact, I believe I have greatly benefited from having a male mentor: he has helped me to view a lot of things from a male perspective which can be quite different from my own.

Examine your skills

If you want to progress in your career, perform an objective self-assessment of your capabilities – be very honest with yourself or ask people who know you very well and will be honest with you. The next step is to find out what skills are required at senior executive or board level and then start to fill any gaps in your skill set.

To succeed you need discipline and resilience. If you are to grow you will make mistakes: what’s important is to be able to recover and be better as a result of the lessons you learn. Finally, it’s important to work very hard but also enjoy what you do.