Interview with Emma Judge: International development professional

Aiming for the top is the wrong goal.  Aim for finding work you love and are passionate about and you will reach the top if you are true to what you believe in.’’


Emma Judge is an accomplished international development consultant with 20 years experience of living and working in Africa, specializing in communications, capacity building, impact assessments, programme management and strategic leadership. Having identified the need to build local capacity in communications and international programmes for government agencies, NGOs and CBOs across Africa, Emma established Dawa Productions in Malawi in 2004.  She developed and managed the business successfully, serving the entire region and effectively contributing to clients’ global strategies.  With an in-depth understanding of the development sector, she delivered high quality, strategic services across East and Southern Africa for 11 years until August 2015, when she became the interim CEO of Sound Seekers.  


Writer, consultant, photographer and now CEO of a charity. What’s been the thought process behind the decisions guiding the different types of jobs you’ve taken?

I have always based my work whether working as a freelancer or as an employee on the following: Will it be challenging?  Will it be stimulating?  Will I learn something?  Will I find it inspiring?  Will it be rewarding?  Does it fit my values’ base?  I seek out variety and use change as a tactic to keep me buoyant.


From your experience, what would you say is the best way of managing transitions especially to different and more senior roles?

Have realistic expectations of what you can achieve.  Going into a new role, no one expects you to know everything immediately.  In order to do a comprehensive job, you need to understand all aspects of a business.  Listen to the current staff on the team.  Learn from them.  Understand why they are doing things the way they are. Don’t change things that don’t need to be changed.  Always follow best practice.  Always be professional.  Always be consistent and fair.  If you’re wrong and make a mistake, take responsibility, apologize and move on.  If you realize your approach isn’t working, don’t be afraid to change it – just ensure you explain clearly to all stakeholders.  Good communication is key to success in any role.  Not everyone has to agree with your decisions but it is important they understand the reasoning.


How do you learn in new roles/situations and what kinds of people do you deliberately seek to learn from?

I think you can learn something from everyone.  It is important to meet all the staff in the organization and to understand their motivations for working there.  You can learn a lot from informal chat.  The receptionist is as important as the CEO.  Staff need to feel valued to flourish.  People doing similar roles at different organizations can also help keep things in context and will often have managed similar challenges.  I use my network to help my learning.  One of my former CEOs provides support as my mentor and I also keep in touch with other former colleagues whose guidance and advice I trust.  Generally people are very willing to help!  We all started knowing nothing after all!


What has influenced your leadership style and who do you count on to help you see your blind spots?

My leadership style is most influenced by my parents who demonstrated great kindness, compassion, grace and humility to all the people they worked with and led with clear direction, calm and deliberation.  Treating people how you would want to be treated is a good basis for life and for any manager.  Always say thank you and give affirmation when a job is well done or someone has worked hard.  Don’t only criticize.  Ensure the team gets the credit for good results.  The job of a leader is to make things happen not to bask in glory!  Also consider your experiences of poor management and don’t make the same mistakes.  You cannot go wrong with honesty.  Some people may not like what they hear but the truth is always the best place to start.


Most people move from 9-5  corporate job to freelancing or starting a business. You’ve done it the other way round. What have you had to consider in making this transition?

Mostly, it is my work / life balance which has changed dramatically.  For the first time in my life, I make a daily commute into the office in London which involves driving, taking a train and then a walk.  I spent the previous 11 years living and working mostly in rural Africa…. As a freelancer you’re committed to the assignment you’re working on but once it is done, it is over.  As a CEO there is no off button and there is always more to do.  I am prepared to accept these changes in the pursuit of trying to help deaf children and adults secure an education and/or job.  I have been able to live my life freely and with choices because of my education.  That basic right should not be taken away just because someone is deaf.  If I wasn’t committed to the cause I wouldn’t be able to do the job.


What are your top 3 things you’d advice young women to do to build a successful career?

Do what you love. Be true to yourself.  Trust your instinct – if it doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.


And for women wanting to make it to the top, what should they be doing?

I never aimed for the top.  I have always aimed for great job satisfaction and took on roles and work that I found inspiring and challenging.  In my view, aiming for the top is the wrong goal.  Aim for finding work you love and are passionate about and you will reach the top if you are true to what you believe in.  I am now a CEO but my only intention has been to enjoy what I do.  For me, the measure of true success is to be inspired by your work not by your job title.


As a CEO what do you look for when you hire especially for key roles?

Strong work ethic, enthusiasm, commitment, dedication.  The skills set is important but most people can learn most things – you cannot teach passion, drive and positivity – all of which are a catalyst for true leaders.


What are you proud of achieving to date and what is driving you forward now in your own professional life?

I am most proud of passion being my driving force and achieving what needs to be done through negotiation and influence without compromising my principles or values.


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.


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