By Mukurima Muriuki
In Texas, it is said everything is bigger and better. And just like her adopted home state, Tabitha Njeri’s name is bigger when you list names of Kenyans in America influencing the career vertical climb of fellow Kenyans, as a leadership and career coach.
Tabitha was born in Nairobi, Kenya. She relocated to America to pursue undergraduate studies. At the university, Njeri joined the debate team, which she contends helped her learn different ways to creatively find solutions amidst conflict. This experience and know-how would later help Njeri negotiate a deal with an employer at a critical juncture of her career.
After graduating, Njeri worked as a recruiter for a year, a job that required her to fill the human resource needs of companies with the best-fit employees, Njeri switched to Human Resources (HR) and became an HR consultant for small and medium-sized businesses.
The upward climb streak for Njeri continued, this time leading the Learning and Development team supporting over 500,000 employees.
Corporate America can be demanding, and it was strange for Njeri to take a break and try a hand in entrepreneurship. This is what she told me:
“My whole life has been about the use of knowledge. I tried my hand in entrepreneurship, and my goal was to create a marketplace where people sell their knowledge to others. The concept failed, but not without lessons. I did not have the expertise or knowledge in technology which led me to hire the wrong talent. I wasn’t surrounded by the right mix of people, and this led to the downfall of an idea on which I had invested a substantial amount of money.
Listening to Njeri as she hosts the Matiri Ngemi podcast that discusses and explores the culture, history, and heritage of the Agikuyu, you would not imagine what she went through 4 years ago when the worst that could ever happen to anyone hit home. Her mother disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
In Njeri’s words:
“ Her phone dialed my phone and recorded her talking to a man in the background. She was asking him repeatedly to leave her alone while she tried to escape. Sometimes her voice was firm. Sometimes she begged. After 3 minutes, the voicemail cut off. This moment tortured me for a long while, filling me with pain, regret, and anger at myself before it eventually settled into emptiness and then acceptance and emotional closure.”
When Njeri speaks, her rich eloquent voice that makes sure to enunciate every vowel draws you in. Her smile is angelic and perfectly complements her tall frame. She is passionate about helping other people find their career footing, drawing inspiration from the many years she has spent in America.
Njeri is the tallest in her family. She stands at 6.0’ and admits that on other days she stands at 6.’1
‘Do you wear high heels?” I asked Njeri.
She countered my question with a burst of sardonic laughter, followed by a confident “of course” answer.
“And what about your weight; if you are comfortable sharing your height, what about your weight?”
Another laughter. Then a pause. “Muksie” she called my name. I knew what she was going to say, and I was right: “You never ask a woman her weight..”
After her mom’s disappearance, Njeri sank into what she thinks was depression. She needed time to recover and heal. At that time it made sense working minimal hours a week while earning decent pay, and for Njeri, a 6-figure pay. Not sure how to achieve this, she went on a 40-day fast, only drinking water. Scripture reminds us that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen; Njeri’s faith reaped fruits when she got a 6-figure paying client while working only 2 days a week!
“What would you call your career-defining moment? I asked Njeri
“Mmmmm… I was working as Senior Director of Learning with Managers and Directors reporting to me. I did not like the direction the department was heading, and I decided to restructure the team. One of the changes I made was to create a new position called “Performance Consultant.”
I needed someone with a background and experience in performance consulting. I received a resume from a guy who on paper looked very strong. When we met, he had all the attributes of what many consider “the guy for the job”-white, tall, good education, handsome, and experience. However, my gut told me no. The company decided he was their guy and he was hired. Within a few months, it dawned on me that hiring him was indeed a big mistake. Over that period he showed me disrespect and it was obvious he felt he felt he was more qualified than me.
Because of the way things were going, I needed to make changes. I put him on a performance improvement plan which exacerbated the prevailing conflict. To check-mate me, he managed to get his team to work against me, and then went on to file an HR claim against me!
The HR opened an investigation, and every one of my 34-team members was interviewed. It was such a low and difficult moment for me. I was being tried and I did not know what I was being accused of. I was the youngest and only black senior director. Eventually, the wait was over. I was called for a meeting and notified a decision had been made to strip me of my leadership. They still could not explain to me what was going on or what I was accused of
I asked for time to think over the decision. That is when it dawned on me I had power over the conflict. If they were going to strip me of my powers, then they were going to give me an alternative. That is how I negotiated for the position of Vice President to be created. It ended up being a promotion for me with a bigger budget, bigger team, and of course, a bigger role!
I negotiated because I was a strong performer. I knew my worth and value and as such, I had a clue on what leg to stand on. No one did me favors. I got what I deserved because of my stellar work. As such, I had to figure out what to do with the conflict at hand. I played the cards I had been dealt and turned the conflict into my advantage…(You can learn more about how she did it in the workshop below)