Go together: Jacqueline Onalo

Human-rights lawyer and Jolt International founder Jacqueline Onalo discusses the power of allies and how defining yourself is key to leadership success

People 29 Nov 2018

People sometimes ask me, ‘What do you do?’ And I will say, ‘I am a human-rights lawyer, a leadership and legal trainer, a grassroots international development practitioner, an international speaker, and a diversity and inclusion expert.’ It’s a mouthful, but all the things I do are linked to using my voice, expertise and experience to support others in fulfilling their potential – whether I am helping a client get international protection; supporting people trying to become better leaders; facilitating communities to become more productive; addressing racism, sexism or youth issues; or working with the most vulnerable women in a slum in Kenya. All these things are centered on social justice.

From the age of eight I knew I wanted to be a lawyer, as I always had ambitions around social justice. I completed the Bar Vocational Course (now known as the Bar Professional Training Course) and applied for pupillage, but didn’t get a single interview, or even an acknowledgement or rejection letter, so I had to approach things in a different way. I became a paralegal working for solicitors, met barristers while clerking, networked and finally got interviews and eventually pupillage doing criminal defence work. I stumbled upon an asylum case and I decided I was going to specialise in human-rights law, as it is the one area of law that affects all our interactions, whether they be private, public or corporate.

I founded [leadership development organisation] Jolt following a very bad patch in my business, which knocked me for six and I had to drag myself up again. A crucial lesson I learnt is what happens when one does not network and promote a personal brand effectively. I started to invest in my leadership development, and others invested in me too, so I became a better person, a more effective and impactful leader and became more business savvy during this time.

Although my business had suffered a setback, my efforts in international grassroots development were bearing fruit. I was selected as one of the top African Diaspora leaders in the UK and was sponsored by Comic Relief to do a one-year Women in Leadership training programme (now called Power 14), where I met some incredible women. They motivated, inspired, rebuked and challenged me all at once, which led to tremendous personal growth.

During that year, I found my purpose and passion, and I wanted to support others to fulfill their potential. Not only did I have the technical expertise, but I could impart the lessons I had learnt – the unwritten cautionary tales of not just ‘how to do it’, but ‘how not to do it’. I used my training, expertise, failures and successes to devise my own leadership development programmes, and the vehicle for this is Jolt. It does exactly what it says on the tin – jolting individuals and organisations to fulfill their potential.

As a young, black, female lawyer I have experienced discrimination in my career, and I learnt that it’s one thing to be resilient and believe in yourself, but it’s another thing to have allies who have got more agency than you while you are building yourself up. The most successful female leaders have strong allies, and a sisterhood of sorts. To succeed and be impactful for yourself and others, you need your tribe, because your agency on its own is fine, but when you work as a collective you can become exceptionally powerful. What is crucial is that, at whatever level you are, take others with you, because as they rise, you rise too.

We have to be honest with those who see us as role models, and tell them the truth about the real cost of success. When I interact with young women entering the legal fraternity, I tell them that they can have it all, but not all at the same time. It may be that while they pursue that promotion, qualification or project, family life takes a back seat, or while they are caring for young children, work takes a back seat. We hold up half of the sky and have more than the lion’s share of domestic work and raising children, but not the same opportunities as men. That’s why our organisations must undergo a change of values relating to equality, diversity and inclusion to propel urgent, essential change.

We have to choose our battles wisely, where it really matters, because if we try to pay attention to everything, we will be exhausted, with little fuel to do what we are mandated to do. Many women leaders want to be all things to all people, but we have to be realistic and we must practise self-care or we run the risk of burn-out, when we will be no good to anybody, let alone ourselves.

Vulnerability in some instances is strength, as leaders who own up to failure can use it for growth, but those who believe they know it all become complacent and create an image of a standard that is unachievable.

One of the best pieces of advice I received was the importance of defining myself, because once you define yourself, you are able to define your worth, your potential and have more impact in your work. No one is going to beat your drum for you, and other people’s definitions may be limiting and damaging, so you have to define yourself. Once I began to define myself, I saw things changing positively, and I became more impactful.

Since I was included in the Brummell Inspirational Women: Pioneers listing last year, I have become a co-founder of the new leadership think tank Inclusion Convention. We recently held a successful conference with The Telegraph exploring tackling institutional sexual harassment. We are seeking to expand our work with global focus groups cumulating and advocating best practice in prevention, investigations and reprimanding.

I was also in Kenya for seven weeks earlier this year working in Dandora, on the largest dumpsite in Kenya, on a three-year project funded by Comic Relief to support 100 women and 300 children to attain dignified livelihood security away from hazardous lives on the dumpsite. This work is run by Community Development Initiatives UK, a charity that I chair in partnership with Pendekezo Letu, a leading local charity.

People are the problem and people are also the solution. The issue may be systems and procedures, but these are run by people, so effective leadership is crucial for effective and positive change. My favorite saying is: ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.’