Leadership coach, Buki Ishola CA, on using her difference as an advantage
Despite thriving in finance, Buki Ishola CA switched tack to become a change agent for other minority professionals. Ahead of her talk at CA Summit 2022, she tells Ryan Herman why she founded Citadel Coaching, offering support to senior leaders from the African diaspora
When Buki Ishola was a trainee CA at EY, some of her appraisals described her as “shy” and “reticent”. Certainly, few people then would have predicted she would go on to start her own business coaching senior professionals. And it would have been a stretch for some of her then colleagues to picture her posing for a magazine photoshoot or giving talks on leadership.
But Ishola, now a CA and CTA as well as a CPQC (Certified Positive Intelligence Coach), will indeed be part of a panel at CA Summit 2022, discussing leadership in the current climate, and beyond, alongside Indy Singh Hothi CA, Natalie Campbell and Alison Cornwell CA.
“Even my husband watches my videos on LinkedIn, and thinks, ‘Is that really Buki?’” she laughs. So how did she get here? Ishola founded Citadel Coaching in February 2020. “I used my experience as a CA to build a business plan and form a vision of how everything was going to work,” she says. “Six weeks into that journey I had to adapt very quickly to how things were changing with Covid-19 and lockdowns. I suddenly had to become an online coach.”
Ishola utilised social platforms such as LinkedIn as a means not only to promote her business, but also to promote herself, building her personal brand to attract business.
“I think some of my old colleagues would be surprised to see what I do now and the fact I really enjoy doing videos,” she says. “You can do so much with a two-minute clip to get your message across. But running your own business is like personal growth on steroids.”
Finding her feet
What marks Citadel Coaching out from the plethora of coaching businesses out there is Ishola’s USP. She focuses on coaching people of African heritage, drawing on her own experiences of trying to forge her way in work as a member of an ethnic minority in a big organisation.
And her career journey from trainee CA to business leader serves as an informative lesson about the importance of creating an inclusive workplace. She joined EY in 2005, at a time when people of colour were much less visible across the Big Four than they are now.
“From my perspective, being a minority meant that I started out in my career being very confident,” she says. “But, over time, I actually started to lose that confidence. Being African, what I did outside of work was often different to everyone else. For example, my faith is very important to me, but I didn’t really feel comfortable sharing that or some of the other things I did at weekends. I was holding back and I kept quiet because I just wanted to fit in.
“I had to really work on those self-conscious traits and understand that my difference is my advantage. Eventually I would become comfortable with that. Sometimes it’s simply about providing support to help somebody find their footing and really bring their best self to work, because clearly that person has the talent and has put in the hard work to be considered good enough to be there in the first place.”
Ishola’s own experiences are borne out by a report carried out by BDO earlier this year. This survey of more than 1,000 people, aged 16–21, revealed that 65% said they would be more likely to do an apprenticeship or training programme with a business that has programmes targeted specifically to people like them, while 62% said they would be more likely to apply to a company if they could see people like them working there, including people from the same ethnicity or area. That figure rises to 70% for those from a black heritage.
“Minority talent is now far more aware, and can find out more about an organisation before they decide to join it. No one wants to be going into an organisation and find they are the only black or Asian person,” says Ishola. “People from all backgrounds want to work for organisations that are socially responsible and have an inclusive workforce. If leaders and companies don’t get on board with that right now they will miss out on hiring the best talent.”
It took Ishola several years before she started to find her voice. But becoming a CTA in 2011 helped to raise her confidence and redefine her role, working in the international tax and transactions team with a focus on the oil and gas, and mining sectors. She was put on EY’s accelerated leadership programme, which allowed her to take on more responsibility and do courses on how to coach, mentor and support junior colleagues with their personal and professional development. This proved something of a lightbulb moment. “I suddenly found that I really enjoyed the coaching side of my work,” she says.
And when she left EY in 2018 to join Australian natural resources multinational BHP, she found her true calling as somebody who could advise others on how to progress in their careers and overcome some of the barriers she had experienced. Now striking out on her own, Ishola decided to focus on coaching people from the African diaspora who find themselves at a stage in their career where they want to make the step up into senior management, but perhaps lack the confidence or the know-how. She aims to share practical insights and guidance to improve the outcomes of black professionals.
“I like helping people to develop and become their best self and progress in their careers,” she says. “I focus on people who have come to the UK from Africa to establish their careers here.”
But she believes her coaching also benefits employers: “In many UK workplaces, there is still an under-representation of black people. It’s so important for companies and leaders to be really attuned to the whole EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] conversation. If you’ve created an environment where everyone looks the same and acts the same, you’re limiting innovation and creativity, however well you think your business is doing.
“We know the research evidence says that diverse teams get better results, they come up with better ideas. So it’s important that leaders really invest not so much in diversity, but more importantly, in inclusion, because inclusion is about having a diversity of people in positions of authority and positions of influence.”
To do this effectively, she says businesses could be more involved in the education system. Again, her own experience sheds some light on her perspective. Ishola moved from Nigeria to the UK when she was 14. “In the run-up to my GCSEs I was thinking of the subjects I was going to do for my A levels, and I wanted to study accountancy,” she says. “But then I was told by the careers adviser that I didn’t need to go to university, that I should just do my A levels, get a part-time job and do my accounting exams on the side.
My parents didn’t like that. They saw going to university as a part of basic education and essential for success in life. So I went back and looked at what else I could do. I liked science, I like chemistry in particular. So I ended up studying pharmacy at King’s College [London].”
The desire to do accountancy never went away, however. It was at King’s College that she first learnt about the Big Four and that you didn’t need an accountancy degree to become a CA. “I didn’t know this when I was in secondary school,” she says. “More could be done by companies to tell people at school that there is this pathway and that there are opportunities in finance.”
At ICAS she learned the value of networking and seeking advice from senior CAs. “I strongly advise any CA, after you get your qualification and you’re growing in your career, not to abandon ICAS. Use the opportunities the institute offers to network. The opportunity to learn from people who are further ahead in their career is so valuable.”
The inspiration for the name of her company comes from the Bible, in which citadel means “a strong fortress that sits high above a city”. Ishola’s goal is to coach people to a point where they apply for a job or perform their role from a position of strength.
“If you’re looking to achieve success, inevitably you will come across some difficulties along the way,” she says. “To be able to help somebody raise their awareness, get fresh ideas or strategies, enabling them to reframe challenges, or to think differently so they can move forward, is a powerful thing.”
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