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Emmagness Ruzvidzo: On Marketing, Mentorship & Finding Your Voice

With her warm smile and easy laugh, marketing and brand strategist Emmagness Ruzvidzo is a confident leader, lifetime learner and natural mentor. Speaking with her via a lunchtime video call, she was just as interested in Mavens as I was in her leadership philosophy and career to date, and our enjoyable dialogue naturally extended beyond the allocated hour. I learned that Em began her marketing career in Zimbabwe, reaching executive level in her twenties before moving to Australia where workplaces failed to recognise her international experience and qualifications: a Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing, a Professional Diploma in Digital Marketing, a Mini MBA in Marketing, a Micromasters in Marketing and a raft of other certifications.

It took five years to return to the pay grade she’d held overseas, but once she had a foot in the door as Digital Marketing Manager, Em was promoted to department head where she handpicked, trained and developed her marketing team. Within six months, they’d become a high performing department with the ability to amplify the brand, increase market penetration and maximise commercial returns. Not only that, she’s developed a unique ‘humans first’ approach to leadership – proving that empathy and commercial success need not be mutually exclusive.

MAVENS: You’ve had an amazing international career but it hasn’t been without challenges. Tell us about your story to date?

ER: I chose Marketing as my major during my gap year. It wasn’t a popular decision because the belief was that Marketing will not give you a good career or high earning potential. The advice I got was to stick to Accounting or study Finance if I ever wanted to lead a team or be CEO of a company. That to me was a challenge, I was going to prove them wrong and I stuck to my choice.

I interned at one of the largest financial institutions in Zimbabwe while undertaking my degree and that affirmed my decision. After I completed my degree, I worked for the same company, rose up the ranks fairly quickly and was hungry for more.

I was National Marketing Manager for one of the largest FMCG International Franchises in the country at a young age, being one of two women in the senior leadership team.

Before I joined, I was told that they celebrated young people and coached them for growth. The youngest Executive before I joined was 30, male, white and greatly celebrated. I was younger but expected as much!

My experience however was worlds apart from his.

Where he was celebrated as a confident high achiever, my labels were ‘too young to understand the world’ ‘too aggressive’ ‘unyielding’ and the classic – ‘she is difficult’.

I was young, passionate, experienced with exposure to different marketing teams around the world, so you could say my thinking was way outside people’s comfort zones. I was quite lucky though – and this should never be about luck but it is – that I had an incredible leader who was quick to shut down toxic and unhelpful opinions. Funnily enough, he was a white Australian, a great mentor and had worked for huge brands here.

I moved on 3 years later after he had left the group to another huge Franchise in the Energy Industry where I led the Marketing and Sales team focusing on brand building, marketing and sales strategies and territory development. All the roles I held in Zimbabwe are varied, and were exhilarating with an interesting consistency in how I was treated as a young woman in the corporate world. I knew what to expect and learnt to ‘handle it.’

When I moved to Australia 5 years ago, I was on track to becoming one of the youngest Chief Marketing Officers in the region. That was my focus and goal with a plan on becoming CEO by the time I was 40. I thought it would be easy enough to get back on track in a new country.

My rose tinted glasses quickly became stained! When I began job searching, I quickly realised that my international experience wasn’t valued here. It didn’t matter that I had worked with some of the most known brands around the world, I was a qualified professional with solid credentials – I needed to have Australian experience to be considered!

I had no choice but to rebuild my career, again – at 31! This was devastating for me, I had worked hard to get to where I was and it felt like overnight, all of that hard work and experience was dismissed and irrelevant.

I was advised by a few people that Marketing in Australia wasn’t for people that looked like me. I had to reconsider my career path and take on something that would be more ‘acceptable.’ I looked around and they were right, there was no one that looked like me in any senior Marketing positions, I was deflated – but only for a hot second.

I accepted my reality, ‘dulled down’ my resume (ouch, still makes me sick) and within a couple of weeks I was hired as a Marketing and Social Media Specialist for a small restaurant. I was overqualified but this was a necessary step to get me the coveted ‘Australian experience.’ They weren’t kidding, as soon as I updated my resume, I got a job as Marketing and Communications Lead. Again, I was overqualified, learnt how to downplay my experience and suck it up. Within 6 months, I was promoted. Within the 4 years, I had held 3 different roles within Marketing in that company.

I was headhunted by a Fortune 500 company for a Digital Marketing Manager role. I was hesitant to take the job initially but I’m so glad I did! After 6 months of solid performance, incredible mentorship and sponsorship from my Manager Jen, I was promoted to Head of Brand and Marketing.

It took me 5 years to catch up to the level I had been in Zimbabwe. I didn’t celebrate my promotion – I felt like I had finally caught up and the moment was bittersweet for me. I had been ready for this role 5 years ago.

I have learnt however, over the last few months to be grateful for the experiences I’ve gone through, the ‘delay’. It moulded me into the leader I am today.

MAVENS: What was it like going from marketing in Zimbabwe to marketing in Australia, and what was your biggest learning from that?

ER: In Zimbabwe, there are highly educated professionals with a solid understanding of Marketing foundations and best practice. Due to the economic challenges that the country has experienced, it’s forced a lot of us to be creative with limited resources but still produce some of the best work and renowned brands in the region. There was a high standard of behavioural excellence – you earned your seat at the table and you had to deliver.

In Australia, I quickly realised that having credentials, keeping your head down and doing your job wasn’t enough to get that promotion or salary raise. I saw people get promoted by ‘managing up,’ being charismatic (the corridor warriors) or being rewarded for tenure.

I’ve always believed that the reward for high performers is not necessarily promotion into leadership – not everyone wants to be one or can be an effective one. Some are simply not interested, and that’s okay.

I’m quite lucky (and again this shouldn’t be a luck thing), it should be the norm but here we are in 2022 talking about luck. I’m quite lucky that I worked in an inclusive organisation with great leadership. My skills and capabilities were recognised fairly quickly and I got a seat at the decision making table. I’ve witnessed well-deserving people in the organisation get the recognition and rewards based on their performance which is how it should be. It’s not in any way perfect or without its challenges, but knowing that the colour of my skin doesn’t hinder my growth makes it all worthwhile.

Good leaders should be inclusive and build a safe environment for their teams.

‘Soft skills’ (I’m not a fan of that term) like effective change management, leadership development, performance management and giving feedback should be mandatory for anyone leading a team of humans. These are critical skills to build high performing teams.

MAVENS: You’ve spoken about overlapping work and purpose, and your ‘humans-first’ approach to leadership. Can you tell us more about this philosophy?

ER: I was promoted into senior leadership at a young age. I was ready because I had dedicated coaching and mentorship from Farai Mpofu, a renowned Marketing and Communications expert. She invested time and energy in me which fed into my confidence. I took up leadership skills training and effective leadership courses. When the promotion came at 26 to lead a team, I wasn’t intimidated, I was ready. Since then, I’ve learnt a lot about leading a team – leading human beings who have lives outside work.

I’ve experienced great leadership and that’s what I try to model. I’ve also been under toxic leadership which has taught me how NOT to lead.

With 10 years of leading teams under my belt (although I don’t wear them much), key lessons for me have been:

  • Leadership is a responsibility, we’re called to serve. It’s not a crown on the head.

  • When you create a safe, inclusive environment, your team will naturally be diverse, highly creative and bring innovative solutions.

  • Remember that you’re working with humans with lives outside work, with experiences that at times will impact how they behave or perform at work. They’re not just numbers on a spreadsheet.

  • I will always fight for the best for my team and in turn, I build high performing teams that exceed KPIs, demonstrating value to the business, which in turn builds job security.

I’ve been asked a lot of times why I’m so hungry for career progression, when is it going to be enough?

The objective of my drive is simple: I want to amplify my voice. I want to be the voice in the room that calls things out, that challenges biases, fosters inclusivity and ensures there’s fairness.

I want my daughter to know she’s got options and can be anything she wants in life by role modelling that for her. I want to see more women of colour in executive and leadership positions – you can’t be what you can’t see (I love this quote!).

The more diverse the decision making table is, the more inclusive those decisions will be. Diversity is not a ‘nice to have’, it’s essential to the progression and success of any company.

MAVENS: You’re wonderfully good at speaking about your achievements, and giving others confidence in your talents and abilities. It’s something many women have to work up to, in a system that conditions us to make ourselves smaller. What advice do you have for others wanting to back themselves and their work?

ER: I’ve worked hard to be where I am today, I’m not going to hide that or be apologetic about it.

I attended an event recently with Senior Creatives where we were asked who would score themselves 10/10 for Creativity and Innovation. I was the only one that raised my hand and that made me a little bit sad because there were legends in that room.

I’ve been in rooms with men who at a question like that have shouted 11/10, all raised hands then high fived each other! Whether delusional or not, it feeds into confidence, salary negotiations and getting selected in interviews.

Girls, no one is going to score 10/10 for you. You have to do it for yourself, be your own champion and keep your chin up – always. Don’t be apologetic about your intelligence, your feedback or how much space you take up in a room, own it.

Be comfortable in your skin, be confident in who you are and what you bring to the table.

I’ve learnt not to take it personally when people disagree with me around the table, that’s what diverse perspectives bring. However, when their opinions not founded in knowledge or lived experiences, I brush them aside and move on.

When there’s insecurity, pleasing-people comes into play and that is a trap I refuse to fall into. It can be a lonely road to travel and people will have all sorts of opinions about it, be brave.

I have tried to mould in, to keep my head down but I was quietly suffocating, that’s not who I am.

I have a big voice, I take up space and I intend on showing up as I am.

Just imagine the transformation in Corporate Australia if we all confidently used our collective voices to ensure there’s inclusivity, equity and fairness for everyone? I long for such a time!

Emmagness Ruzvidzo is a marketing and brand strategist, and a 2022 Assisterhood mentor with the program’s Brisbane chapter. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.


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