Norah Odwesso – Public Affairs & Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East & West Africa 

Words of Wisdom: “WE all have to work toward leaving an amazing legacy. WE need to invest in the success in other younger women. How much of us do we give to upcoming leaders? All successful women should see themselves as strong mentors. Part of our success will be in how many women we bring up as leaders.” – Norah Odwesso

Interview with Norah Odwesso – Public Affairs & Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East & West Africa 

Norah Odwesso – Public Affairs & Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East & West Africa  

Norah Odwesso is an accomplished executive with experience in local and international senior leadership positions. She has worked with multinational blue chip businesses in Group Strategy management and Corporate Relations in the Food & Beverage industry.

She leads reputation management of the Coca-Cola business and its brands across 39 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa

Norah is responsible for Coca-Cola’s Public Affairs and Communications agenda, focusing on the management of the company’s corporate and brand reputation, as well as the community and stakeholder relations across the region. She is also responsible for managing internal and external communications.

She manages a team across sub-Saharan Africa to execute the communication strategy.

Prior to joining the Coca-Cola Central East & West Africa business, Norah was the Corporate Relations Director for Diageo Africa, a leading global alcohol beverage business.

Norah’s personal passion and ambition is to work with women and vulnerable people, to inspire them to achieve their ultimate God-given potential, through targeted interventions. She has co-established a children’s home in Western Kenya, called “Footprints of Faith”, whose primary goal is to positively transform the lives of vulnerable and orphaned children, through providing well being, security and a meaningful future. 

Norah Odwesso YouTube promo video (approx. 2 min.)


Norah Odwesso – Public Affairs & Communications Director for Coca-Cola Central East & West Africa 

Note: The key messages in the interview have been transcribed and slightly altered for legibility and succinctness. More information is provided in the audio and video version above. Please comment on the site, we want to hear your wisdom!

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Biggest opportunity for women in the corporate environment?

[ Norah Odwesso ]:

  • We shouldn’t wait for permission to make things happen.  We need to stop thinking ‘who will give me a promotion?’
  • Many of us, especially in Africa, don’t understand that we can lead without titles.
  • As a women it is in your right to make a difference; to take charge of your world; it is in your right to add value to what ever it is you are doing – then opportunities open up for you.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Women face many unique challenges in the corporate world?

[ Norah Odwesso ]:

  • The rules in corporate world are often unspoken
  • The pathway to achieving anything at work is not always well marketed
  • The playing field for the women in Africa is not always level, perhaps across this is the case across the world

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Recommendations for women who are challenged in growing in the corporate world:

[ Norah Odwesso ]: A woman must identify what she is passionate about doing. She has to be deliberate and focused. Because of the way women are wired we often can multitask, it is also how we execute. We loose focus, and make room for ‘side shows’, which get in the way of accomplishing the big goals that are expected at corporate. We whine a lot. We talk a lot. We spend a lot of time maximizing on the minimal things that don’t have any value. It is time that we be more focused more deliberate.

  • When you focus and become deliberate you are able to achieve what really matters. ‘What is it that I do that would really push the needle on any corporate agenda?’ Understand where the corporation wants to go and be the change that the corporation is really looking at.
  • Also walk past our mistakes. Also know that each new day offers something.

[ Suzanne F Stevens ]: Consequences of being Focused can make you discover your Edgeness! Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone).

[ Norah Odwesso ]: You still have to push yourself to have the personality that gets things done. I am a firm believer that when there is a will there is way. And when there is a team, there must be more than one way.  Even though I am a person passionate about people, I am a person that will not tolerate substandard results. I believe in speedy results.  On an occasion I have had to fire a couple senior managers because they were not performing at the level that was required.

To realize potential you need to have that Edgeness. To get superior results you need to do what it takes to be successful.

[ Suzanne ]: Advantages of working for a Multi-National organization

[ Norah ]:

  1. You are exposed to different cultures. It teaches how to be sensitive to those different cultures.
  2. It exposes to best practices in other countries and you can replicate them in Africa.
  3. Also gives you the opportunity to travel and make a difference in other countries. It helps in terms of building a network, sphere of influence and builds your broad-base experience that you would not get in a local company.
  4. Also get an opportunity to work with huge brands.

What Challenges do you think there are working for a multinational?

  1. The biggest challenge as women is the limitations we put on ourselves based on what we think we are capable of doing. We decide how far we can go.
  2. Challenges to do with mobility. Limitations as we wear several types of hats: mom, wife, sister, and community leader, what I call “internal audiences.” Sometimes our other responsibilities limit our mobility. Our internal audiences undermine our complete potential to be a much greater personal. It limits your ability to go into other spheres of influence.
  3. Working for a multinational exerts a lot of pressure, it is demanding of time and resources, so one needs to really balance.

What are some of the techniques your company uses to instill confidence in your stakeholders?

  • What we do as Coca-Cola, we make a promise to our stakeholders – “you will be refreshed by our brands”
  • We believe that our consumers and the people we interact with in society that these people give us the “social license to operate.” Even if we have government license our legal right to do business, it is society that needs to like our brands and support our brands. If they don’t like our brands, whom will we sell our product to? So as we make donations, we believe that the strength of our company is solely based on the strength of the communities in which we operate. It is our obligation to refresh our communities and strengthen the communities we operate in.
  • There is no way that our company can operate in any geography without positively impacting the community. Without our communities there are no brands.

What are some of the techniques you use to prepare yourself to dealing with the public?

1. As we have iconic brand, 125 yrs. old, and we optimistic that we will have another 125 yrs.), we have to always be prepare because we do have to manage crisis and we do speak to communities. We always need to be in a prepared mode. We plan:

i.     What we are going to say?
ii.     What are the desired objectives?
iii.    How do we want to leave our audiences feeling?

  • We have to be authentic
  • Your body language and your words need to inspire the people you are speaking to
  • We need to minimize corporate speak
    1. As a result we give ourselves guidelines:
    1. Our leaders use key messaging they use all the time. No matter if they are called on to speak to the public, give a donation, they are on scrip and on point. They know their key messages. Rarely will you see them read a speech because the key messages are so ingrained in them. We train regularly.

Personal things I do to prepare myself to speak

  1. First, stay calm
    1. Drink a cup of tea
    2. Go through my notes; notes that I have been through a couple of times
    3. Reassure myself and get the reassurance of my team that everything is taken care of. I don’t like surprises.
    4. I get people to give me feedback after I speak
    5. Even though when I speak I may feel a little nervous, I better be the only one who knows.

A Women’s place in the boardroom

  • Women should not look for permission to lead. It is not a success strategy.
  • As women leaders we must ensure that our voice is heard. It is part of creating your brand
    • My brand is:
      • Assertive
      • Open & honest
      • Someone who provides solutions
      • If I walk into the boardroom and be quite, I may not be living my brand.
      • Sometimes I will say something that is contradictory “ I ask myself, what is the worse thing that could happen? The worse that happens is I may get a few frowns, or some disagreement. That is the way of life and you have to push yourself beyond your comfort zone.

What advice do you have for women to create her public profile?

  • There is lots of opportunity to enhance your public profile.
    • I believe women should have a cause, a reason to enhance your public profile. Be a woman that is a change agent. A woman who wants to make a difference in the life of a child, another women, or a cause. Create a PR strategy based on that. If you are able to sell your idea, you will enhance your personal profile. If you don’t have a cause, you are at risk of lacking substance.
  • Identify your purpose. Identify what you want to change in your stakeholder.
  • Begin to network. Write a list of people that you want to meet.
  • Have a plan.

Conducting business across Africa

  • You should have thorough knowledge of the market you operate in.
  • There would be limitations and challenges dealing with completely different culture.
  • Having teams who have an understanding of their Regions across Africa is a big plus.

Challenges of the network Across Africa

  • If people work in the Regions too long what are there chances of success if we move them around? Should we move them around to broaden their experiences, responsibility, broaden their understanding?
  • Corporates always want the best in each Region, so it is challenging to move people to have other experiences and gain new cultural insights.

What are some of the challenges of leading across continent team?

Teams are virtual, which is challenge

  • Work harder to build cohesion in team
  • Build a certain standard within team
  • Hard to build a certain team culture as a team

What do you do to combat that challenge?

  • We meet face-to-face four times a year.
  • We have weekly calls, especially with the individuals who are alone.
  • I have regular face-to-face with people that are in Nairobi.

What motivates you to work at such a high pace?

  • I am fulfilled by the delivery of superior results
  • I love my job
  • I love my job because I get a chance to make a difference in lives of people.
  • My responsibility includes Corporate Communications, Government Relations, sustainability /CSR. Within the sphere of CSR we get to meet a whole host of different people and we, as Coca-Cola, can make a difference in their lives. It gives me a thrill to be part of making that difference in lives of people I interact with.
  • Also it puts food in my table J

How do you stay current beyond of your education?

I am involved with women’s networks

  1. We have created networks with our circle of friends. We meet once every quarter.
  2. Within Coca-Cola we have the Women Leadership council we meet once every four months
  3. Also personal networking opportunities that I employ. I meet people all the time. Getting knowledge of current issues, and knowledge of other people’s worlds. Sometimes it has to do business and sometimes in personal

Leadership Style

  • I believe the best of people, at the basic level people are responsible and they motivate themselves
  • I do give people a lot of leeway to take responsibility to make their own decisions
  • I am not controlling, because when I am I limit creativity.
  • I give them the freedom to do what needs to be done, but I limit the framework.

Where did you learn your leadership strategy?

  • By making mistakes

What leadership mistake did you make and what did you do change it?

  • In my earlier days as a senior leader, I did not deal with substandard performance in a timely manner. Because I genuinely like people …
    • I concerned myself with thinking about the impact on their family
    • How would they survive?
  • This view was at the expense of the corporate goal that had to be achieved. It was not being achieved because I am not making the decision in timely fashion to change things. I don’t do that any more.

What is most difficult aspect of being a Corporate Affairs Director for Icon brand?

  • When we do get negative feedback about our brand, this is difficult because that is our sole purpose – to manage the brand and its integrity.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being a Corporate Affairs Director for Icon brand?

  • I work with a brand that is so well loved around the world. This beloved brand gives us a voice.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your career?

  • At my level of influence I can make a true difference of lives of other people.

Most significant decision you made in your career?

  • To work in a multinational organization. As a wife and mother it does demand a lot of resources.

Before starting in communications, did you thing there were any obstacles in your way?

  • Yes, because of my upbringing. We as Africans we are quite passive, we need to be nice, which can be an obstacle to getting things done.
  • We are brought up to not displease or annoy the people we work with.
  • I wondered if I could be as good as a man? Can I say something that can annoy a man and get away with it?
    • Over time I realize it was not about comparing myself to a man, but comparing myself to fulfilling the objectives to achieve my career expectations.

When dissatisfied in your career, talk to people that can make the change

  • If you are dissatisfied, you need to talk to people at your organization that can influence and make decisions.
  • If you are not satisfied with you career, let people know. Look where you are first, before going elsewhere.

Edgeness Insight (An enhanced version of you when you push the edge of your comfort zone). Something you need to do that makes you uncomfortable, but you need to do it to reach the success you have achieved.

I am passionate about people, and don’t want conflict. I have to allow a certain amount tension. Deliberately push for an agenda I believe in, that is best for the company, can make me uncomfortable, especially when I know that someone else will appose it. It goes against my DNA. What is helped me to be successful, is pushing deliberately what I am uncomfortable to say or to do. That being said I must believe within me that I am really confident it is the right thing to do.

What is the biggest obstacle in career?

Changing from Finance to Public Affairs and Communications career

  • It was an obstacle because my education was in finance. For me to be successful at my job I needed a high degree of competence. I needed a solid set of skills. I had to work extremely hard to transform my self into a Public Affair’s and communications person.
  • I am traditional a reserved and shy person. I was happy balancing balance sheets. I was more comfortable with figures then people. It went against the grain of my DNA. I had to deliberately and consciously work at it.
  • I changed from finance because I was bored. Maybe I position myself as introverted, and maybe I never was.
  • People in my field questioned and expressed doubt that I would achieve such a change.
  • I had to close my ears from any form of synonyms, or any form of discouragement.

What does success mean to you?

Doing something you are passionate about. Doing your purpose with you life. I believe I am living right in the middle of my purpose, that is success.

How do you define leadership?

  • The ability to influence, the ability to make change
  • Ability to stand up for a cause that you truly believes.
  • The ability to get people to follow you on a cause that you have firmly believed in.

Leadership Lessons from Norah Odwesso

  1. To not wait for permission
  2. Focus on really matters. Be deliberate on what matters.
  3. Determine what brand you want to be, stay true to it and live it!
  4. Consciously seek feedback about your leadership style.

What is one thing you would do differently in your career?

I would have more fun. Bring out the child in you. Don’t take life too seriously. Have fun, in inherit in the fun is the ability to know who you really are.

What is next for you?

Understand the new Regions that I manage.

Reflective Realizations from Norah Odwesso

Q. What advice would you give to your 10 yr. old daughter?

Follow your passion. Go for the highest goals. There are no limits; the only limits are the ones you put on yourself.

Q What do you wish you were told at 10yrs?

  • Those same words

Words of Wisdom by Norah Odwesso

African women must understand that inherit in each one of them are powerful jewels. They need to value themselves and they need to value what they bring to their families or corporate tables.  WE all have to work toward leaving an amazing legacy. WE need to invest in the success in other younger women. How much of us do we give to upcoming leaders?  All successful women should see themselves as strong mentors. Part of our success will be in how many women we bring up as leaders.


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    5 replies to "Norah Odwesso"

    • Suzanne F Stevens

      I found Norah’s comments about not waiting for ‘permission’ a very powerful piece of advice for all women who want to grow and excel in business. Thank you Norah for a wonderfully insightful interview. You are truly a class act!

    • Mulumebet Iori

      Dear Norah Odwesso

      Congratulations for being an inspiring woman in Africa! All of us in African are proud of African Women who sit in high levels of leadership and contribute to Africa. Keep up for a good work!

    • lillian

      this is a very good presentation and i am begining to feel that there are some things that i have got to go through if am to successed in business and in daily life as an entreprenuer and as a woman.

    • Great quote from Norah Odwesso (Kenya): “Follow your passion. Go for the highest goals. There are no limits; the only limits are the ones you put on yourself.” Read more in the YouMeWe blog […]

    • […] Norah Odwesso (Kenya): “Follow your passion. Go for the highest goals. There are no limits; the only limits are the ones you put on yourself.” […]

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