Women in senior leadership: Lessons in breaking barriers, forward-thinking, and collaboration

Tina shares her transformative experience of working on diversity, equity, and inclusivity in our workplace and her desire to continue this important work.
Life at One Acre Fund

When Tina Ndolo, our Director of Global Human Resources, joined One Acre Fund, she didn’t expect to be thrust into the middle of some of the biggest work we’ve done on entrenching diversity, equity, and inclusivity in our workplace. In this piece, Tina speaks about why her work has been a transformative experience for her and why she wants to carry this work forward.

Tina Ndolo

How would you describe your role to a group of farmers?

I serve alongside a fantastic HR Operations team that ensures all One Acre Fund staff get rewarded equitably for their roles. Through a competitive and sustainable Compensation and Benefits policy, we ensure that staff stay supported, motivated, and engaged so that they can put farmers first and focus on delivering impact to farmers.

You have recently worked on exciting projects, like implementing One Acre Fund’s new Compensation and Benefits policy. What has this process been like for you? 

Implementing this policy has been a very rigorous process. I was tasked with leading the team that built the back-end infrastructure across the various systems and platforms that operationalize the policy while simultaneously unifying the pre-existing separate payrolls into one consolidated process run on one system. This process has been quite demanding on me as I took it on as a new hire – only one month into joining One Acre Fund. We use a shared analogy in the team to describe our work “flying the plane and fixing it at the same time.” This is exactly what the process of rolling out the new policies has been. It has been very fulfilling to iron out the kinks in the process over the last couple of months. It has also been gratifying to see the positive feedback from staff during the recent Culture and Inclusion survey.

I learned that I enjoy being challenged and stretched because, in my field of work, it often translates into a better-lived experience for the people I support, with a ripple effect of setting them up to create more impact for the farmers. I have also learned that when the challenges seem insurmountable, a moment of silence and stillness helps to self-regulate and reinvigorate me to jump back into the game with renewed commitment.

As a leader, how do you set the tone for your team?

As a certified Professional Coach, I believe all people have infinite God-given potential.  I encourage my team to approach each assignment as an opportunity to learn and grow. It also helps to lay a foundation of trust and compassion so that each individual feels safe, comfortable, and confident to ask questions, voice their opinions, share feedback, and co-create ideas to ensure that our collaborative output is always better for all our interactions as a team.

Have you encountered any barriers to your success or growth as a female leader? How did you overcome them?

Traditional perceptions of leadership personify a leader as a very masculine achiever or a tough woman with male “macho” qualities. Throughout my career, my capabilities have often been initially questioned because of my age, deportment, and soft-spoken delivery; instead of based on the content of my contribution or track record. And, in my experience, my male counterparts, having showed up in the expected masculine form, often experience a more lenient reception, almost as if they need not prove themselves. 

I have learned that the only way to build a fulfilling career is by embracing myself, showing up authentically, and doing what makes my soul sing. Rather than raising my voice or displaying bravado,  I patiently give people an opportunity to get to understand me beyond assumptions and perceptions, to weigh the content of my inputs, and to experience the quality of my output for themselves. 

What is your leadership style?

I lead through coaching rather than prescribing. I enjoy tapping into people’s potential by stretching them through challenges and giving them space to demonstrate their limitless potential resourcefully. I believe that if you instruct somebody and always tell them what to do, you box them, which will keep them in their comfort zone. With the proper support and compassion, growth often happens outside of comfort zones.

Drawing from your own experience, what strategies could help women achieve professional success, especially in male-dominated roles or industries?

We need to be enablers of each other. Those in leadership should represent, consult and include other women’s perspectives in decision-making so that their voices can be heard.  Women should share their experiences and journeys to courageously inspire, challenge and influence each other to aspire to greater heights.

Women in male-dominated roles and industries are going against the odds and should be intentional about strengthening their resilience muscle. There are a few tips on how to do this. One is acknowledging your feelings, understanding them, and letting them go. Those feelings linger and grow into something else when you deny them or pretend everything is okay. Secondly, have a strong support system; women need a reliable network of colleagues, friends, and people who help them through those difficult moments.

Additionally, we need to take care of our health and our bodies by exercising, eating nutritious meals, and scheduling time for hobbies and activities that give us joy. It is important to learn how to reframe negative experiences positively in our minds by looking for opportunities in adversity. Next, we must learn to accept the things we cannot change, release them, and not sit with disappointment and anger. Lastly, it helps establish a clear sense of purpose by finding opportunities embedded in our daily tasks to demonstrate our strengths and overcome challenges.

Can you walk us through a brave leadership moment in your life? 

Allowing myself to be vulnerable so I could show up authentically to a new team in a new organization has been my bravest endeavor yet. As a new hire, I needed to garner organization fluency, contextualize our internal processes, and understand the back-end framework for our operations. I needed to learn this from the team while getting to know them to lead them with empathy and collaborate to identify opportunities for automation, digitization, and simplification as we rolled out the new compensation and benefits policies.

Tina Ndolo gemba photo
Tina trains field officers in Kenya on the new People Self help desk

If you were a brand, you would be similar to…

Nike! Nike marries aesthetics and durability, and I appreciate what the brand stands for in the sporting space — courage and teamwork. Nike was historically the Greek goddess of victory, which is how I approach all challenges — with success in mind.

Throughout your life, who have been your biggest inspirations?

Maya Angelou has got to be at the top of the list – with immense courage, forgiveness, and grace; she overcame enormous challenges and personal tragedies from a very tender age. Her books, poems, and quotes still warm my heart and inspire me to set audacious goals. Closer home, my biggest inspiration has been Professor Wangari Maathai – a Kenyan icon, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in East & Central Africa. She was a courageous environmental activist who stood up to protect our forests and rivers at a time when speaking up against the country’s political elite was just not the done thing.

What’s your favorite non-work indulgence?

I love spending time in nature. On weekends you will find me earthing at Kenya’s Karura Forest, trying to break a sweat while soaking in nature’s beautiful energy in my Nikes (laughs).

Tina Ndolo hyking
Tina hiking in Kenya's Kakamega forest


Staff profile Women