Catherine Kyobutungi: I Believe in People and Know That Everyone Has the Potential to be Amazing

May 26, 2015

APHRC’s Acting Executive Director and Director of Research, Catherine Kyobutungi tells us about her life, work and passion for people. Follow her on Twitter @CKyobutungi

1. When did you come to Kenya?

Almost 9 years ago, in April 2006 to take up a job as a Post-Doctoral Fellow here at APHRC. I had just completed my PhD.

2. What are you most passionate about?

I am passionate about people. Having a medical background, the way I look at things is different. I am passionate about saving lives. This background has shaped my thinking even in research. I am not just interested in publishing papers but in identifying the real problems affecting the common man and engaging policy makers from the word go to try to resolve them using research. The kind of research I engage in must have an endgame in the next 3 to 5 years, not the next 30 years. I always see people at the end of the things I do. I also believe in the people I work with and know that everyone has the potential to be amazing. Secondly, though it has taken a bit of personal sacrifice, I made the conscious choice to build the people I work with. Seeing young researchers growing, getting their own grants, writing their own papers is very fulfilling. I get a kick out of it.

3. Tell us something that we might be surprised to know about you?

I had a very rural upbringing – I grew up on a farm in Western Uganda. My dad valued hard work. We worked in the banana plantations, fetched firewood and water, peeled matoke (raw bananas), planted and harvested millet, even when I was in university. Thanks to him, we grew up valuing hard work. Oh and did I mention that I can milk a cow and get 20 liters out of it! You might also be surprised to know that I ran cross country while in high school and university – about 14 km and I was good at it. Another surprising thing about me is that when I go on holiday, I really want to rest, I’ll do simple things like sampling the local cuisine and sleeping; the less adventurous the holiday the better. I avoid hectic activities like mountain climbing and rushing from one landmark to the other.

4. Where do you see APHRC in 10 years?

We’ll have four floors on top of this building (APHRC Campus) and research will occupy six of them (laughs).

I see APHRC growing in a more strategic manner. We want to develop a core team of researchers who have depth and expertise in their chosen areas. Right now, our researchers are quite spread out in various fields which may not be good for their growth. In the short term, we would like to see our researchers specialize more, for example a researcher working on abortion should be completely focused on this area – writing over 30 papers say within three years and managing two or so grants in that area, and so on. Such people with specialized profiles will help us to grow as an organization as they will have deepened their networks and increased their competitiveness for grants. Secondly, this individual depth will be translated into program depth. My hope is that what we currently have as projects will grow into themes; these will grow to become programs, programs will grow to become departments, and after a while we can have institutes. Instead of having the Research Division, we could have the Africa Population Research Institute, Africa Health Research Institute and African Education Research Institute and so on.

5. What does a normal day at APHRC look like for you?

I wake up at 7, get ready for work and prepare my daughter for school. She’s 4 and goes to preschool. After dropping her off, I head to work and get here just before 9 am. My day is usually a series of meetings – meetings about projects, meetings with program leaders, potential and existing partners and funders, management meetings, meetings with individual staff members, interviews and so on. Most of the time, I have meetings from 9am to 5pm. Unless we have teleconferences with some of our partners, I settle down to do the “real work” after 5pm. This is when I start catching up on emails and working on various documents. I work until 7.30pm, get home, have dinner, and then continue working from around 9pm till about midnight.

6. How do you manage the workload?

In any leadership position, you must know your limits and know who you have in your team. I believe in teamwork; building and managing effective teams. I also believe in task shifting. I cascade responsibilities depending on people’s positions, expertise and appetite for taking on challenges. It’s all about figuring out who is supposed to do what, who is good at what, who can deliver quickly and so on. Ideally, I only handle tasks that my team members can’t. I also encourage those that I supervise to adopt this principle, that way everyone gets a fair share of the work load. However, to do this people must feel empowered – I let people do things and try not to interfere too much. I let them fail or succeed and only come in when they need support. Everyone has something that they are good at, so it’s a question of finding out what that is and working on it.

7. How has the move from being Head of Health Challenges and Systems and Director of Policy Engagement and Communications to Director of Research been?

Being Director of Research is a different kind of engagement; I am more involved in working with program leaders at a higher level. Now, it is more about managing and supporting people than actual involvement in project details. Apart from that, a lot of what I am now doing has to do with partnerships – identifying new funding opportunities, streamlining the process of how we respond to such and also resolving any issues with existing partners. However, I still work with the PEC team a lot. I support them in implementing various projects that have been in the pipeline, I also try to keep the team conscious of the bigger critical issues that APHRC is dealing with so that they can effectively contribute towards achieving the organization’s mission.

8. Is it tough being a lady at the top?

No. Whatever I do, I see myself as a person first and foremost. I never see myself as a ‘woman’ when making decisions or think ‘What would a woman do?’ Very early in life, my father taught me that what a boy can do a girl can do. This has stuck with me throughout. Growing up, I did almost everything that my brothers did! I learnt how to ride a bicycle and even climbed trees to pick my own fruits – though it was culturally unacceptable for girls to do so in my village. So, no it’s not being tough being a lady at the top – at the end of the day we are all people and the secret is how one relates with people at whatever level or whatever gender they are.

9. What is the greatest challenge you have ever faced at APHRC and how did you overcome it?

I cannot pinpoint any single challenging situation; however as a growing institution, the Center has gone through phases, ups and downs. Some of those phases were challenging but one could always see light at the end of the tunnel. After a while, one realizes that even the toughest times will come to pass. For a while we underwent a stressful period when as management we felt that the staff turnover was too high. Whenever someone left the organization, we felt that this was a failure on our part. But after a while, following a staff satisfaction survey, we realized that our attrition rates were in fact healthy and so the stress eased somewhat. Personally, I believe that when someone chooses to leave, they’ve definitely taken time to think about it. I wish to work with people who have fully bought into the APHRC brand and its mission; people who truly enjoy what they do and who see working for the Center as a calling. Life is too short to be unhappy, especially with one’s job! If you are unhappy in an organization then maybe it is time to leave – you should only stay because you enjoy what you do and you love the organization, not because you have nothing else to do. I therefore encourage people to find their calling and to take great opportunities that come their way, even if they are outside the Center.

10. Biggest lesson learnt at APHRC

The realization that once you get to a certain senior position, your primary responsibility is to the institution and that you must be ready to fight for it at all costs and to engage in things that build and sustain the institution. There’s a certain level of responsibility that comes with being in a senior leadership position. People starting seeing you as “they” and so you have to live up to the expectation that label brings.

11. Do you have any role models?

I really look up to my dad. I find it hard to have someone I have never met being my role model. Apart from my dad, I also admire the late Joep Lange who I was honored to work with in one of our cardiovascular programs. The unfortunate thing is I only got to appreciate his greatness after his passing. Joep was a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher whose work saved countless lives. He had an absolute commitment to HIV/AIDS treatment and care in Africa and Asia. His ideas were always ahead of the curve and social justice was his passion. Many times we get outraged by certain things and hope that somebody else will act but what I learnt, Joep had the courage and conviction to act! We should always dare to act, only then can we change the world.

12. What career advice would you share with young researchers?

Find something that you truly love doing and pursue it with all your might. It might not be research, whatever it is that you truly enjoy. Life is too short to waste it on negativity and marking time. Every minute should count.

13. If you were not APHRC’s Director of Research, what would you be?

A Formula One Race Car driver. I have to drive a Formula One Car or at least one of those local safari rally cars before I die. I love speed!