Obenewa Amponsah on Motivation

May 2, 2021
9 min read

Obenewa Amponsah has found her purpose helping others, particularly women of colour, find and live theirs. A former CEO of the Steve Biko Foundation and Executive Director of the Harvard University Centre for African Studies, she founded Obenewa Amponsah & Associates in 2018, a training and development organisation that helps companies and individuals have the courageous but difficult conversations that lead to progress.

An impact coach, speaker and facilitator, Obenewa has helped dozens of women find clarity about how they want to build their professional lives. All while pursuing a PhD in African literature. In 2019, she created Accelerate, a professional training course tailored to help women level-up. But how does she keep her clients motivated, and more so, how does she keep herself going? Here’s how.  

As an entrepreneur, coach, speaker and PhD candidate, your to-do list must be long and demanding. How do you stay motivated until the end of your to-do list?
For me, staying motivated comes down to OPP, not the 90s hip-hop song, but Owning my Purpose and Process. 

When I feel less than enthusiastic about what needs to be done, I remember the words of Maya Angelou, “Nothing works unless you do.” Even though I’m a big believer in approaching my work with a spirit of ease and enjoyment, Angelou’s words are an essential reminder that no one but me has the power to make my dreams come true.  So I’m inspired to unapologetically own my future and to do what’s necessary today to create the tomorrow I want.

The second part of OPP is keeping my purpose front and center. Whether it’s remembering why I undertook a PhD, why I’ve scheduled a meeting, or why I’m tackling a specific task, when I can see how my day-to-day activities fit into the bigger picture for my future, it gives me the energy to keep going.  Focusing on purpose makes it less about the task and more about the impact it can have.  For example, creating PowerPoint slides for a class is usually not the most exciting part of my day.  But when I think about the difference that class can have in a woman’s life, doing the mundane starts to feel like a privilege.

The final part of OPP is the process.  I always try to build systems and routines for things that need to be done so I don’t have to rely solely on how I’m feeling or willpower to get something done.  For example, I am not a big fan of admin, but the paperwork must be done.  I have a standing weekly appointment to make sure it happens.  This way, even when I’m not feeling motivated, I have fewer excuses.

Finally, the beauty of OPP is that when I realise something is a “nice to do,” and not that important in the grand scheme of things, I can eliminate it without hesitation, making my task list more manageable.  It also means that I’m always open to improving processes and ways of doing the things I have to do so I can do the things I want to do.

No matter your circumstances, once you have clarity about what you’re trying to achieve in any given situation, you’re better equipped to navigate the challenges and difficulties

As a career coach, you’ve helped dozens of women make the leap to the next big thing, but how do you prepare your clients for the little steps in between the leaps?
I work with my clients to map out their OPP as well.  If you’ve ever been in a workshop, course, or coaching session with me, I always start with purpose, helping women define their why.  I then work with clients to create processes and practices that consider their lifestyles, schedules, and preferred ways of working.  We also spend time thinking through what obstacles are likely to arise on the journey towards their goals and developing mitigation plans in advance.  Finally, I encourage women to celebrate every part of their journey, from the smallest step to the biggest leap.

As women of colour, we’re also trying to navigate a corporate system not built to include us. How do we survive this system with our identity, ambition and mental health intact?
I think the most crucial thing in navigating any professional situation is to remember Toni Morrison’s words, “You are not the work that you do; you are the person that you are.”  This perspective is essential because many of us have bought into the idea that our jobs give us our value and importance. 

Once we realize who we are outside of our work, we’re better able to create healthy boundaries and recognize that the racism and sexism we encounter daily aren’t personal.  Yes, the experiences and effects can be deeply personal and painful; but these are systemic issues that were here long before any of us were.  While we work to change the status quo, shatter glass ceilings, and build our own alternatives, we also need to remember that other people’s opinions of us do not define us. 

Once you know who you are outside of any of the trappings of a career, it’s a lot easier to manage situations and make decisions based on what’s best for you and not because you need to prove yourself.

The second thing that’s important to surviving any system is (again) purpose. Why do you want to be in this particular role?  Do you feel like you’re able to live out your purpose or your calling there?  Are you there because you want to learn a specific skillset or to build a particular network? Is it that this job affords you a certain lifestyle? Or do you need the job for your basic economic survival?

All of these reasons are valid.  No matter your circumstances, once you have clarity about what you’re trying to achieve in any given situation, you’re better equipped to navigate the challenges and difficulties because you can clearly define and articulate your boundaries.  You can negotiate for the things that are most important to you.  Clarity of purpose can also inform how long you want to stay in a given environment and how you’ll transition to a space where you can make your highest contribution.

The key is making sure you’re undertaking informed, strategic action that honours who you are today and who you would like to become in the future. 

The gap between where we’re striving to be, professionally and personally, and where we are now can feel very overwhelming. How do you make sure the gap inspires us and doesn’t make us want to just give up and accept mediocrity? Especially for women who are not following the so-called conventional career path?
I think the key to being inspired by the gap is celebrating every step of the way.  Too often we think about the big goal that’s three or four years down the line and not the small steps we have to take to get there.  By celebrating every milestone, big or small, we’re able to see our progress in real-time, and more than that, we’re able to enjoy and relish the process. 

So don’t wait for the big promotion two years from now to celebrate. Celebrate the first time you get a great performance review.  If you’re a writer, celebrate the first time you get rejected from a major publication.  Why? Because they read and considered your work! If you’re an entrepreneur, celebrate the day you register for VAT, because it means you’ve reached a certain revenue threshold.  Every Friday, celebrate the fact that you made it through another week, and you’re moving towards your dreams, no matter how slow the pace may seem.

The celebration can be as basic as a group text sharing the news with lots of exclamation points, it can be buying your favorite bottle of wine, or having a night out with your crew.  However you choose to celebrate, do something.