New York Times scribe’s indepth story of Africa

He dreamed of Africa” ran the headline above Fiametta Rocco’s review in The Economist of Love, Africa, A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival by Jeffrey Gettleman. But Gettleman, who was brought up in a Chicago suburb, had no such dream until after 1990, when at the age of 19 he signed up for a safari across Africa, from Kenya by road down to Malawi.

Now well into his forties, he has been the New York Times East Africa Bureau Chief for the last 11 years, fulfilling what became his passion: understanding Africa and sharing that understanding with the world. Prior to his first trip, he writes in his memoir, “I held that same vague patchwork of images in my head that many people hold, of suffering, disease, deprivation and poverty.”

He found a special guide to Africa though, a young man who introduced him to the full Africa, the best of Africa.
That guide was Dan Eldon, my late son, whom Gettleman writes about so movingly in his book. So, now I have revealed my connection to the Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, please allow me to call him Jeff, a man whom I have known right from when that then scruffy young student stayed at my house around the time of his initial trip to Africa.

As for Dan, he arrived in Nairobi in 1977, at the age of seven, when the IT firm for which I had been working in London appointed me to be its general manager for Kenya.

Prior to that call I was as unenlightened about the multiple realities of Africa as was Jeff when he first set foot here. But like with him, our family soon became thoroughly integrated into Africa.

This month Jeff’s stint with the New York Times here comes to an end, as he is being transferred to Delhi to cover that part of the world for his paper. We will sorely miss this now “veteran” journalist, with his sharp eyes, his sensitive listening and analytical skills, and his gift of eloquent communication, always lyrical, often humorous.

Jeff was one of the organisers of the recent showing of The Journey is the Destination, the feature film of my son’s life, at the International School of Kenya. When Jeff spoke at the event he shared with us that when he told his parents he was planning to drive across hundreds of miles of Africa (the subject of the first half of the film) they were far from amused. “Who will the chaperone be?” they asked, and he had to answer that it was a college drop-out just a year older than him — my son. Somehow though, reluctantly, they gave him their blessing, and so his love affair with Africa was launched.

Let me now turn to Jeff’s book, with a firm instruction to please read it. From cover to cover. Because of how he has us accompany him on his dramatic assignments, around Africa and elsewhere, more often than not as a dare-devil war correspondent. (After all, it is conflict and violence that editors want to see.) And because of how he weaves into his narrative his own personal evolution from an immature, unexposed and rather selfish young fellow to the professional journalist and family man he eventually became — aspects he could never reveal in his articles for the paper.

At times, we read, he greatly disappointed himself, deeply regretting how he had behaved — not least in the turbulent early years of his relationship with the wonderful Courtenay, a lawyer who sacrificed opportunities in her own career to support Jeff’s passion for Africa and became his wife and mother of their children.

The memoir also serves as a tribute to her strength in handling his early indiscretions and his long absences on perilous assignments.

As for me, I glow with pride over how Jeff writes about the role played by my son in inspiring him to make his life in Africa for all these years.

Thank you Jeff from me; thank you from all the readers of your New York Times articles and from those who read your memoirs, and thank you from the people of Africa whom you portray with such humanity.

Collaboration linked to better performance

I can’t remember the last time a consulting client of mine did not worry about the silos that exist within their organisation. Silos are everywhere, and silo mentality is everywhere. But why?

Is it that people are selfish and narrow-minded? I am not convinced that the explanation is so simple: this surely is not the main cause of siloism.

What I have seen over the years is that a big challenge to silo-busting is conflicting priorities. What is urgent and important for one department or function or level is less so for another: my programme may not immediately or obviously benefit from collaboration with yours; and what preoccupies head-office folk is different from what their colleagues in the field focus on.

If I am a researcher don’t bother me with helping the fund-raisers; if I am a salesman leave me out of supporting those who collect debts.

Disconnects also exist between boards and senior management, and between them and middle level ones. Mistrust and alienation thrive between front-office functions and back-office ones, between sales people and technical ones. It goes on and on.

As everyone gets busier, thanks to the tyranny of the e-mail and other pressures of the 21st century, and as more organisations expect to be able to do more with less, it is not surprising that people get locked in to their immediate targets, never mind that their performance may well be assessed largely on these narrowly defined focus areas.
Little wonder therefore that reaching beyond their domain may stretch and stress them to breaking point.

This is as true in the public as in the private sector, whether for-profit or otherwise. While Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available) still applies in some environments, in most we see that it is hours worked and productivity that must expand to handle shrinking resource availability.

But it is equally true that the whole should be greater than the sum of the individual parts, and unless there is collaboration and hence synergy, much talent and energy will be at best under-ultilised and at worst wasted.
The challenge is to identify areas where collaboration will indeed bring about synergy — and learning — with the achievement of such benefits motivating those involved to keep at it.

Except with those for whom sharing will always remain an unwelcome disturbance. For some people prefer and expect that they will only have to focus on one long continuous task at a time.

And indeed where their activity allows for such solitary performance they should be left to be at their best in such a manner.

To build a culture of purposeful collaboration, those who manage to make the time for it must be recognised and rewarded. And those who find it hard must be helped to expand their comfort zones so as to accommodate it when it is needed.

We all must allocate our time between the urgent and the important, between short term issues and longer term ones.

However very few organisations create space for the important but not urgent: for strategic thinking, reflection and innovation — much of which can only thrive through collaboration.

The way I and my colleagues help organisations enhance such useful collaboration is by getting the various units involved to exchange offers and requests with one another, providing them the opportunity to align their energy by indulging in give-and-take negotiation.

Not surprisingly, there is considerable literature on what causes silo thinking and how to counteract it. A recent example is the book Smart Collaboration by Heidi Gardner, recently published by the Harvard Business Review Press.

She quotes research that shows teams are more productive than individuals — even among such folk as lawyers and scientists, often thought of as naturally solo performers.

Teams are also better at coming up with high impact innovations, and again even in fields such as engineering and social science, which also have a reputation for individual geniuses making spectacular breakthroughs.

No matter who or where, an underlying requirement for collaboration is trust. So get going with working alongside others, do so generously and see others trusting you and offering you their support in turn.

Donald Trump, live

`By Mike Eldon

It was 166 days to the American election and my daughter, her friend and I drove from Los Angeles to Anaheim, the town that hosts California’s Disneyland. Our destination, however, was the adjacent Anaheim Convention Centre, where Donald Trump was to hold a rally. For me the opportunity to see this awful fellow up close and live was too good to miss, and happily I was able to persuade my Clinton-supporting companions that they too should grab the opportunity to study “the other”.

From the heavy police presence, including on horseback, it was clear that plenty of demonstrators would be on parade, and soon they were alongside us, not unreasonably imagining that as we were headed to the rally we had to be Trump supporters. “Hitler wanted to make Germany great again!” screamed one agitated American flag-waving man at us, little realising we were just curious onlookers.

On the way from the car park we came across vendors selling Trump memorabilia, and also protestors with banners, including one that read “Make Your Hair Great Again” and another asking: “A Bully, Vulgar, 3 X Married, 4 X Bankrupt: Role Model for Your Children?”

As we entered the vast auditorium Trump was of course being introduced as “The Next President of the United States”. We found seats at the side of the vast auditorium, with a good view over the scene from The Donald himself to the media platform to the thousands of his adoring supporters.

“This is a lovefest, packed, packed,” opened our man, and quickly got going on his winning streak. “There were seventeen of us. Then one dropped out, and another, then six, seven, eight. Now it’s just me and Hillary, Crooked Hillary, crooked as they come. Or I could be running against Crazy Bernie. OK, I like crazy people. But he says the system is rigged against him…”

At this point a protester started agitating, so Trump called on the security people not to hurt him, even though he was “a bad person”. “I say that for the television cameras,” he added, and then: “Is there any place to be other than at a Trump rally? I love doing this. It’s never happened before, making such an impact. I knocked ’em all out. They put out 60,000 ads, all negative, all false – well, some with a little truth. I was hit by everyone. In Florida I had a landslide though. In New Hampshire. In South Carolina – not Trump territory. The Evangelicals are strong there, and the army. I love the Evangelicals, and I love the army. In New York there was a cry of “Latinos for Trump”. I love that. Believe me. You all have houses and jobs, and you don’t want them to be taken away by folks coming across the border. I’ll create jobs, so I’ll do well with the Hispanics. I do that easily, naturally, creating jobs. And the African-Americans will be among the great beneficiaries. They’re being treated very unfairly – 59% of them are unemployed. We’re gonna have a lotta good things in this country.”

Suddenly the showman referred to his famous hair. “Yes it’s my hair. Love it or hate it, it’s my hair.” Then straight back to his run of wins. “In New York I won 62% of the vote, even though some of the pundits said I couldn’t. Such dishonest people; they’re the most dishonest. We just go and we win and we keep on winning.”

Next he had a good go at Hillary. “Such bad judgement, horribly bad – even crazy Bernie said so – in Iraq, in Libya. If she wins, you better get ready, you’ll have four more years like Obama, and you can’t take that. She talked about what would happen at four in the morning. But when Benghazi happened she was asleep. Asleep! They couldn’t wake her up. She was just sleeping. But me I don’t sleep much.”

Having slated his likely opponent, he turned to his famous wall. To great cheers he told the faithful, “We’re gonna have the wall.” “Build that wall,” they chanted, “Build that wall.” He then described how he’s been speaking to the border patrol people. “They’re great people, they know more about the border than anyone else. I love those people. And they’ve endorsed me, 16,000 of them. These agents have never endorsed anyone before. And they tell me the wall is very important, the most important tool. It’s absolutely vital.”

“Build that wall.” Again, repeated, with claps. Trump joined in, with the chant and with the clap. Yes, he was really enjoying himself, and so was everyone else. Except the three of us. “Who is going to pay for the wall? The Mexicans! By the way, the Mexican people are great. I love the Mexican people. I love them. We want to have people come into the country. But they must come in legally.”

After 45 minutes we’d had enough of this Trumpery and walked away, reflecting on what it all added up to. Well, mainly no surprises, just reinforcement of the disgust we had always felt for this vulgar, ill-behaved man and the disappointment that millions of Americans support his arrogant, divisive views and his obnoxious style, ignoring – actually loving – the way he is indifferent to facts; sneers at, mocks and insults anyone with whom he disagrees; and boasts of how smart and successful he is in an endless trail of loosely connected sound-bites.

Much of his time was spent persuading us that his winning streak is unstoppable, so surely we should be part of his success, a scenario that looks increasingly possible, as his bombast and bluster find no match in his serious, policy-wonk opponent Hillary Clinton. She’s struggling, not only against him but also against her Democratic opponent Sanders. The media love it all, analyse everything to death, update their predictions each day, in this most unprecedented and unpredictable of battles – which still has five wretched months to run.

American politics: 2011 and 2016

Returning from the US in June 2011, as had not been unusual following my trips there, I wrote a column about how awfully so many of their politicians were behaving – and of course the media too, unduly focusing on their most sensational utterances. To follow the news one could have been forgiven for imagining that the place was falling apart, I wrote, with Americans having sunk into hopelessness and confusion. And certainly if one watched Fox News, which had become the mouthpiece of angry, hateful America.

I said then that it was hard to tell how genuinely those who appeared on Fox actually espoused the extremist views they so fervently expressed. To what extent, I wondered, did they see themselves more as entertainers than as serious commentators on national policy?

I also observed that politically the country was more divided and partisan than ever, as could be seen from the speeches of candidates in the November 2012 election. Back then a motley crop of Republicans had been announcing they were running against incumbent President Obama and, I cautioned, at that early stage of the game they merely “pranced before their party’s fervent activists, trying to outdo one another with their conservative credentials and their patriotic chest thumping”. For these days it is only after the nomination that whoever wins must tack heavily toward the centre, re-inventing themselves in order to qualify for national electability.

More than ever I saw the Republican aspirants demonising their opponents, as those out of power promised to save the citizenry from the incompetent fools in office who get everything – yes everything – completely, woefully wrong. Obama and his people were spending America into bankruptcy; they were unreconstructed socialists; they were soft on terrorism and far too easy on illegal immigrants; they worried about climate change despite the complete absence of any evidence of global warming, never mind man-made; and they were condemned for their “anti-Christian” positions on faith-based issues like gays and abortion.

The President had failed, screamed the Republican candidates, he was ruining the country, and unless the Republicans took back the White House all would lost for America. Promising change is mandatory for oppositions, I noted, and negative campaigning had been shown to be highly effective.

All this is in the nature of multi-party democracy, I said. Oppositions everywhere believe that in order to unseat incumbents they must set up “straw men”, false and flimsy targets that can easily be lambasted by crudely selecting and distorting facts and figures. Oh and for sure they will bring heaven on earth within less than a hundred days.

In an excellent cover story in the Time magazine edition that appeared while I was there five years ago, Joe Klein wrote that the Republicans had “traded country-club aristocracy for pitchfork populism”, and had come to believe in “the amateurism of political virginity”. There was also what Klein called the “celebrity/reality-TV/talk-show wing” of the party, which in its ideological purity was “made up of adolescent candidates more interested in promoting themselves and their books and their TV shows than in seriously running for president”.

That was then. And just recently, in the run up to the California Primaries, I was in America again, and as I read what I had written in my earlier article I saw that I might just as easily have been writing it now. With one major difference: it’s got much worse. Very much worse. And not least thanks to the explosion onto the scene of Donald Trump, only one of the many anti-establishment outsider candidates who pour scorn on anyone who even knows how to spell “Washington”, and for whom seeing Hillary Clinton (“Crooked Hillary”, as Trump consistently describes her) in the White House would plunge America into terminal decline.

I was in America when Trump crossed the threshold number of delegates needed to clinch his Party’s nomination as the candidate to represent it in the November election. He delighted in mocking the many pundits who never foresaw his triumphal progress through the primaries, and who scoffed at the very thought that he might become the Republican nominee. But there he is, now neck-and-neck with Clinton in the polls, spewing contempt for her, her husband and the current President – and also for Republicans who cannot stomach him; ranting and raving over Mexicans and Muslims, over the Chinese and others who’ve run circles around America’s pathetic trade negotiators; describing so much and so many as “disgusting” and “horrible” and “the worst in history”.

The big question pundits are now posing is whether he will become “more presidential”, but all the signs are that he will not. This is the Trump that has been, that is and that will continue to be, the bombastic, aggressive deal-maker; the disagreeable, angry, offensive, uncaring, self-centred, narcissistic extravert – the man who now appears as though he could indeed become the next president of the most powerful country on earth.

Back to my 2011 article. “As in Kenya,” I wrote then, “America’s legislators posture and play political games instead of reaching consensus on urgent and strategic matters like their massive deficit and the obstinately high rate of unemployment. They live in a parallel reality, with everything viewed through the prism of their 2012 election… just as is the case here. On his recent CNN programme GPS, Fareed Zakaria said that America (unlike Greece and some other countries) has solutions for its economic problems. The pity is that its politicians – of both parties – are selfish and self-centred, not sufficiently concerned about the national wellbeing.”

It sounded all too familiar. But did I feel consoled, less angry about our political posturers, knowing they had good company in their counterparts in the richest economy in the world, in its most vaunted democracy? Certainly not.

In closing I let me reveal that in my next article I will be writing about attending a Trump rally. As the news anchors say, “You won’t want to miss this story.”

The significance of being on time

By Mike Eldon

I had agreed to run a Saturday morning session on organisational development and teamwork for a group of young entrepreneurs. It was due to kick off at eight, and I was there well before to make sure the room was laid out as I wished and that the flip charts and markers were in place. The organisers too came in good time, but we waited until almost nine o’clock before the first entrepreneurs started drifting in. As we were waiting the organisers told me the same had happened on the previous two days, and so I was psychologically prepared for the delayed start. Well, sort of.

Now I had to decide how to handle my irritation over the indisputable fact that while I had made the effort to be on time, hardly anyone else had. Indeed, I’d fully assumed the participants would not be in by eight. (Did that expectation make my irritation greater or not? I really don’t know.)

Should I ignore the lateness, I asked myself, just grin and bear it, comforting myself with the thought that this is how things happen in Kenya? Should I worry that if I do express my unhappiness it would be too easy for those being blasted to shrug off my comments by telling themselves I’m just an over-fussy mzungu, perhaps even – as I was once described – a “racist colonialist”? Then, if I launched my session by complaining about their lateness would it create too unhelpful an atmosphere for the relaxed, reflective interactions that needed to follow, making it unduly hard for us to “heal” in the time available?

On the other hand to say nothing would result in me having to live with my resentment, and hence hold me back from being at my best with these bright young men and women. I would also not be taking advantage of this opportunity to help them address their punctuality problem.

By 9.10 a critical mass has arrived (many still have not), and so we decide to get going. After all, one doesn’t want to waste the time of those who are present. I am introduced, and now I must decide what to do. Looking around the room and winding my emotional intelligence up to maximum I tell them I need help – help to recover from having been waiting around for over an hour until enough of them are present.

“Why were you late?” I eventually ask one, trying hard not to be too intimidating in my tone. Abashed silence. I wait. “Can you repeat your question?” the young man finally mumbles, in desperate search of a way to postpone the inevitable awkwardness to come. I repeat my question, half-smiling, half-frowning. More silence, till finally this whispered dejected gem: “Poor time management.”

I try hard to suppress a smile. “Hm, and why do you think your time management is poor?” I ask earnestly. More silence, till I let the poor fellow off the hook, assessing he has suffered enough. Others follow with their own lame excuses for lateness (up late the night before; the bus to collect him didn’t come on time; had to deal with a client, an employee…) but at least no one puts forward the more understandable thought that as everyone else would be late there was no point being on time themselves.

I ask if any of them had taken the trouble to call the organisers to alert them that they would not be on time. No, of course none had, so I launch into a lecturette on the importance of expectations management, through which at least the others involved can know you’ve been delayed and when you will now show up.

With the confessionals come the apologies, and with my appreciation of their remorsefulness and an accompanying forgiveness there’s a softening of the mood, a coming together. This in turn allows for easier consideration of the deeper consequences of their lateness – beyond what it says about their lack of respect for the organisers and me and our loss of respect for them, beyond the missing out on the time during which they could have benefitted from the extra ground we would have covered.

What did their lateness do for my impression of them, for their reputation? What did it say about their standards, their respect for themselves? How had their reputation suffered? What does being perpetually late for meetings say about other aspects of how they conduct themselves? Apart from being seen as selfish and insensitive, why wouldn’t I conclude that they are likely to be careless and unreliable generally, easily satisfied with less than the highest standards?

All this we discuss, and of course no one can disagree with the dismal conclusions. Here they are, young entrepreneurs out to create a name for themselves, and they are coming across poorly. Is this how they behave with their customers, their suppliers, their staff? Are they falling short as role models? Unpalatable food for thought.

So now we come to the most important part of this exchange: what are they going to do about it? I hear earnest expressions of what “needs” to happen, what “should” and “must” happen, I hear about aspirational new life resolutions on being on time as the new normal. But all these I reject, telling them that the only acceptable way of expressing themselves purposefully is to tell themselves and each other what will happen. Consistently. Despite having gone to bed late the night before, despite not feeling a hundred per cent, despite the traffic…

They get the point; they say what they need to say; and we move on to the topic of the day, putting our difficulties behind us… while a few even later stragglers continue to arrive.

Finally dear readers, how do you feel as you read my story? Sympathetic towards this frustrated mzungu? Uneasy over his grumpiness? Hopeful the young entrepreneurs will do better with their time-keeping in future? Skeptical? Just asking.

What we can learn from Obama’s leadership

By Mike Eldon

‘Yes we can,’ he told Americans. And they, together with millions more all over the world, listened. Not only did Barack Obama overcome the colour of his skin and the thinness of his wallet to ascend to the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, but he handled himself in a remarkable way. At the time of his inauguration, and in anticipation of the avalanche of books that is likely to hit the bookstands on the great man’s leadership qualities, I thought I should get my oar in early.

He first came to prominence as a great communicator, when he mesmerised the 2004 Democratic Party Convention. Indeed, during this year’s presidential campaign Hillary Clinton sneered that all he’d ever done was to deliver that one speech. But as even hard-boiled political operatives observed the smooth way he built his campaign team from scratch and then managed it to victory, it was clear that despite hitherto untested as a leader, he had what it took… in spades. How he has handled the impressive transition has only reinforced our confidence in him.

I so clearly remember reading how effectively he ran the meetings of his high-powered campaign team, with focused and aligned energy. If one among the participants would go quiet for a while, Obama would quietly ask ‘What’s on your mind?’ For he assumed the reason for silence was not that the person had nothing to say, but that they were feeling uncomfortable about how the discussion was going. So, unthreateningly, having listened and looked around intently, having noticed the withdrawal, Obama would use his extraordinary emotional intelligence to navigate the reintegration.

Here’s a calm, confident fellow, as eloquent with the written as with the spoken word. (I loved reading his books, both for the thoughts they expressed and for the delightful language in which they were couched.) Here’s a man at ease with himself, someone who takes his work more seriously than he takes himself. Here’s a man with the strongest of family values, comfortable being married to a strong, accomplished woman.

Time, inevitably, made him their Person of the Year. In their profile of Obama, they marvelled at the many aspects that explain his success. In the interview with him he explained his philosophy of leadership. ‘I don’t think there’s some magic trick here,’ he said. ‘I think I’ve got a good nose for talent, so I hire really good people. And I’ve got a pretty healthy ego, so I’m not scared of hiring the smartest people, even when they’re smarter than me. I have a low tolerance of nonsense and turf battles and games playing, and I send that message very clearly. And so over time I think people start trusting each other, and they stay focused on mission, as opposed to personal ambition or grievance. If you’ve got really smart people who are all focused on the same mission, then usually you can get some things done.’

Then, Time tells us, Obama is a businesslike boss. ‘He expects people to challenge him when they think he is wrong and to back up their ideas with facts. He’s not a shouter – “Hollering at people isn’t usually that effective,” Obama explains – but if he thinks you’ve let him down, you’ll know it.’ He thinks people ‘generally want to do the right thing’, and ‘if you’re clear to them about what that right thing is, and if they see you doing the right thing, then that gives you some leverage’. During job interviews for his new team Obama emphasised cohesion. ‘He encourages debate,’ his senior adviser told the New York Times, ‘He doesn’t tolerate factionalism.’

Magic! Or rather not magic, however rare it is to achieve so fully what Obama consistently does. Forget the books. Forget even a whole column. All you need to follow is what I have just reproduced.        

Obama is the ultimate role model for great 21st century leadership. He is aware of his own strengths and weaknesses and has worked relentlessly to build and re-engineer himself, as he has moved from level to ever-higher level. He has done this while building a great team around him, one that complements what he has to offer.

Instead of feeling overwhelmed or scared by the enormity of the national challenges, instead of saying someone else must step forward, he did. He has confronted the tough issues, and in ways that won over those who were too timid or too antagonistic to his ideas. He was the first to say he wasn’t ready – but then you don’t get to choose the time, the time chooses you. And he’s already been telling us how much more there is to do, and how the real work starts now. Through it all we see how noble he is, and how he has ennobled us.

He has set up his seasoned, respected, bipartisan team. And he has told us what he and the team should be judged on, two years from now. The change he promised is already reasonably well defined. It is, Time thinks, ‘the nuts-and-bolts kind you can see and measure’. Obama himself tells us ‘it means a government that is not ideologically driven. It means a government that is competent. And it means a government, most importantly, that is focused day in, day out, on the needs and struggles, the hopes and dreams of ordinary people’.

Did I hear hope and dreams? Do I hear an assumption of win-win, based on trust, on the basis that generally people want to do the right thing? Have we left behind the leadership of exclusion, of enemies, of them-versus-us partisanship, of fear? Looks like it!

But who is this ‘we’? Is it just Americans? Is it the whole world? Are all leaders, whether political or corporate or other, about to reinvent themselves as mini-Obamas? Even here in Kenya? If only! But as leaders everywhere fumble with their new year’s resolutions, they could do worse, far worse, than pick out three things they’ll do more as Obama does them. Take your pick. They are so many glorious ones from among which to choose.

Not blowing my trumpet

I’m fed up. Fed up with the inability of so many Kenyans to even acknowledge, never mind celebrate, their achievements and the strengths that explain them. I’ve been unhappy about this debilitating national hang-up ever since I arrived here, back in 1977, and I referred to it in one of my very first articles in this column, back in 2007, in the context of performance appraisals.

Self-exploration is such a minority sport in Kenya that very few people have any experience of it. They are poor at it, awkward with it, and so find all sorts of reasons to deny its very legitimacy. The culture has taught Kenyans that it is unacceptably immodest. It is bragging, and so it is quite improper. No, I rage, on the contrary, it is vital. And good for you. For how else will you feel good about yourself and about what you do? And how else will you become confident and bold, willing to take risks? Be able to stumble, and learn from failure without losing heart?’

From time to time, as an ice-breaker to a workshop, I invite the participants to share personal stories of transformation, to talk about a time in their lives when, against all odds, they achieved something extraordinary which changed them forever. The stories I hear are always wonderful, with so much for the story-tellers to be proud of. Yet when it comes to explaining their heroic achievements in terms of their strengths, they just can’t manage it. “It’s not in our culture,” they admit readily.

Cut to a very pleasant young woman I have been coaching, and like most Kenyans she is humble to a fault when projecting herself – including in her stilted useless CV. I take her through my Virtuous Cycle of Confidence; get her to stop beginning every other sentence with ‘maybe’ and to not fold her arms in front of her.

Her homework is to list her achievements and her strengths, and to have a second go at her CV – with help from her husband (a salesman with Kenya Breweries). And to come to terms with defying the traditional Kenyan/Christian/Kikuyu culture of ‘not blowing your trumpet’… or, to do a little more bragging – in Kikuyu, to ‘kiberebere’.

D&S for my annual emotional intelligence session, and as always it’s hard to get these tight young engineers to open up – except when I introduce the role plays with difficult customers, challenging them to end the skits with adult-adult win-win outcomes. They come to life wonderfully, so why all the inhibitions before? It’s the culture, my dear, the culture.

 

Time now for the 1,350 graduands to file past and receive their degrees, and Noah, Vimal and I form the first trio of hand-shakers. As always I look forward with some concern to seeing how many will find it too hard to make eye contact, and while many are bright-eyed and confident in their body language, others are overwhelmed by their humility. This year though I develop what turns out to be an exceptionlessly successful technique: I hold on to their hand, and the shock of not being let go of forces them to look at me. Now I give them a big smile, a signal that they too can relax their expressions.

But is that ongoing? Inevitable? I ask. No, a few say. Jolly good.

 

Innovation and leadership

By Mike Eldon

 I was asked recently to run a two-day workshop on innovation, within the Kenya Institute of Management’s Advanced Leadership Programme. So I had to ensure I was focusing my material appropriately – that is, to be relevant to directors and top management. As it happens, all but one of the participants were from the public sector, and they were as diverse in their personalities as in the organisations they represented: a ministry, state corporations, the Senate and independent commissions.

I am happy to reveal that they were without exception lively, interested, knowledgeable and focused Kenyans, all determined to do the best they could to see their institutions fulfill their respective mandates.

We started by exploring what creativity is – and how it contrasts with innovation. Here I quoted a really clever definition of the difference between creativity, or invention, described as “the conversion of cash into ideas”… and innovation, the “the conversion of cash into ideas”. For as founder of Atari Nolan Bushnell pointed out, “everyone who’s ever taken a shower has an idea. It’s the person who gets out of the shower, dries off and does something about it who makes a difference.”

I showered them with other wonderful one-liners on my subject, like this one from American financier and philanthropist Bernard Baruch: “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton was the one who asked why”. And this from George Bernard Shaw: “Inspiration is a blank piece of paper” (plus, I would add, a deadline – not to mention that today he would replace the paper by a screen). Shaw also noted that “the reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him. The unreasonable man adapts the surrounding conditions to himself.” All progress, he therefore concluded, depends on the unreasonable man.

To see that Shaw and Thomas Edison were soul-mates one only has to turn to Edison’s claim that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration”. Along with this shocking (reassuring?) assertion was his conclusion that before he stumbled on how to generate electricity he hadn’t failed – he “just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work”. Many of life’s failures, he reflected, are “people who never realised how close they were to success when they gave up”.

At the other end of the innovation spectrum we have the Luddites, the textile workers in England who, when the industrial revolution began in the 18th century, were so outraged by the possibility of losing their livelihoods that they began to destroy machines in the hope that they could banish technology. Their attitude lives on today, in the tea-pluckers who resist the introduction of infinitely higher productivity machines – and hence prevent us from being internationally competitive; the taxi drivers who want to wish Uber away; and the teachers’ unions, who merely agitate for more pay and more teachers, seemingly blind to the need for higher productivity and better results for their students.

Mention of Uber brings to mind Google, whose “Smart Creatives” combine technical depth with business savvy and creative flair. They are recruited and developed to use data imaginatively and usefully, and to look at old problems in a new light. They’re impatient risk takers, and not too concerned with process or recognition. Finally, they’re results focused, they enjoy being hands on, and they collaborate. Hm, reminds me of my days in the IT business, when we were after that rare species we called “hybrids”, who in addition to being techies where also commercially savvy and good at communicating.

When Lou Gerstner ran IT behemoth IBM he made it more agile and nimble. (Read all about his time there in his book, Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?)  Gerstner appreciated that a business needs both creative and managerial people, and that you don’t often find the two sets of qualities in the same person. He went beyond appreciating the need for both, mischievously commenting that “each must feel they are the saviour of the other”.

What qualities do you need to be innovative? Those that so many of our schools and universities crush out of our young people! Innovative people are above all curious, with a zest for exploration. They are restless and dissatisfied, energetic and enthusiastic, confident and courageous, obstinate and determined, ambitious and focused. They dare to risk (and so are prepared to fail), and they create linkages between ideas.

What is your organisation’s attitude to innovation?  Do you look for and support innovative people? Are high expectation the norm? (Like at 3M, where I remember at one time 80% of their products had to have been introduced in the previous three years.) Are innovators encouraged and recognised? Is continuous improvement assumed… or brushed aside and discouraged? Is there too much emphasis on compliance, conformity, controls and efficiency – those killers of innovation?

The hierarchical industrial society focused on the need for discipline, efficiency, reliability, repeatability, predictability, consistency and scalability. It had to develop systems, checklists, standards, constitutions and bye-laws; plus – more than ever now – over-specified Terms of Reference, Requests for Proposals and Job Descriptions.

But in today’s world of knowledge workers, who operate in flat pyramids and in loose, temporary networks, this excessive emphasis on efficiency and compliance has obliterated space for innovation. We have invested so much, management guru Gary Hamel suggested, “on what is as opposed to what might be” that people are scared to explore – from the board level to the shop-floor.

So what kind of atmosphere promotes curiosity, exploration and innovation? We must stretch our people, yet find ways of having them be sufficiently relaxed to allow for enough play, enough dreaming. Tough bosses too easily imagine that such a relaxed state of mind will lower standards and output, but the opposite is the intention: to enable people to come up with breakthroughs. For this we must be patient, flexible and trusting. We must encourage and empower and incent staff to collaborate with each other innovatively, and we must be the role models for what we wish to see.

Professionalizing family businesses

In the last few weeks I’ve been meeting with a bright, organised and not unambitious gentleman who for eighteen months has been working in Kisumu as CEO of a family-owned financial services company. He’s just handed in his resignation, fed up with being inhibited by the owners. They’d hired him to help them professionalize the organisation, but it turns out they didn’t really have the stomach for it. While he understood the importance of looking further ahead, they just wanted to see monthly profits maintained; while he got down to strategic planning and budgeting, they would rather he micro-managed his people.

Another person I’ve been spending time with hasn’t yet resigned but is facing similar – and far from unusual – frustrations. She too feels unappreciated and taken for granted, as a result of which she must rely on her inner strength and her values to compensate for being actively demotivated by her owner-employer. Despite making excellent contributions to their bottom line, she hasn’t been able to help the company to anywhere near the extent she could have had she been allowed to apply her energy and her style more freely.

I must confess that I have not had the opportunity to talk to the owners of these two family businesses to get their perspectives on the situation – they may well have different views on what’s been happening. Be that as it may let me turn to another scenario, to a couple of cases where I am offering support to the owners of two very successful and fast growing family businesses.

Their challenge is that while they know they must delegate more if they are to continue growing, and that this means bringing in an outside CEO to support their efforts, understandably they worry about finding the right person. How can they be assured that once on the job such new blood will be compatible with their way of running the business? How can they be sufficiently confident they’ll get on with their choice, and that they’ll be able to retain control?

Is it better to play safe, and employ someone less dynamic and less ambitious, someone who will adapt to the prevailing family style? And therefore must they just keep working 24/7, on the assumption that that’s as good as it gets? Or, should they gamble and hire a star?

None of the four organisations above has taken the plunge of inviting outsiders to join the family members on their boards. The latter two are definitely thinking about it, but they’re hesitating. The same questions arise as the ones holding them back from bringing non-family members into senior management: play safe and merely bring in names for the letterhead and the website, making it clear they expect little more than support for the family view? Or take on seasoned characters who risk asking inconvenient questions and proposing uncomfortable changes?

Finally, my mind turns to two family businesses that have already gone far with their professionalisation – for that’s what this is all about. They took the bold decision to invite external non-executive directors to join their boards, people who have indeed been making a difference. If you ask the family directors – still the full owners of their businesses – what effect the introduction of these outsiders has had, they will say the outsiders have brought to bear the consequences of their experience in much larger organisations. They have encouraged the emulation of the formal structures and systems taken for granted by companies at higher scale and of larger footprint, while warning against the risk of silos, bureaucratisation and complicated politics that can too easily creep in as one grows. Generally they offer mature listening and constructive probing, while accepting where ultimate decision-making lies – with the owners.

The non-execs have particularly helped to reinforce the focus on customers, and they have also helped the owners become more courageous, giving them the strength and support to confront what needed confronting more swiftly and straightforwardly than they otherwise would have.

In all six cases, the big question is how the organisation will continue going to scale, and in a sustainable way – including with regard to generational succession planning. The challenge becomes much greater if the product range and/or the geographical is to spread further: the more branches or subsidiaries or product groups or other units and sub-units are to be formed, the more the need for owner-directors to create mind-space for longer term strategy, for coordination and for talent management.

Many are not used to focusing here, and it is not where they may feel most comfortable. Including not feeling comfortable with others drawing their attention to the need. “We’ve done very well this way until now, so why change?” it is tempting for them to ask, and with some justification. They have indeed done well, maybe very well indeed. But the bigger and the more complex the business becomes, the more the need for a proper senior management team, adequately empowered and motivated. And, I would strongly argue, the more the need for dispassionate non-executive directors to complement the strategy brainstorming group.

This therefore is a friendly plea to family-owned, family-run businesses: find ways of bringing in and developing people to whom you can delegate, allowing you to be freed up for more strategic and longer-term issues – whether or not this has been a natural area for you spend time on. And think seriously, very seriously, about taking the plunge to invite a couple of non-executive directors onto your board. Make it a proper formal board, enjoy the challenges that come with it, and enjoy the benefits – including for your work-life balance.

Finally, if considering all this seems too much to contemplate in addition to handling your daily operational workload to which you have become all too accustomed, seek advice from those who are a few steps ahead of you. Learn from what worked well for them and what did not, and make the first move. You won’t regret it.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

The ideal graduate

I recently participated in the graduation ceremony of KCA University, where for the last few months I have been Chairman of its Council. As Council members and others gathered in the Vice Chancellor’s office before the event started, conversation turned to examining what makes an ideal graduate of this institution. One fellow Council member emphasised the need for students to develop their ability to think and to write. How true.

As I look back on into my distant past as an economics student (I became an undergraduate exactly fifty years ago!) I still appreciate the way my professors challenged and stretched me. Yes, I studied economics and other related subjects, but the serious lasting benefit of my university years was that I became a much more rigorous thinker and a far more fluent speaker and writer – someone who could clearly and convincingly share my thoughts with others.

How far away this is from environments where students sit passively listening to their lecturers just lecture, and later merely regurgitate the product of their rote learning.

The next challenge to the development of our “leaders of tomorrow” is to complement their intellectual development with building their emotional intelligence. Particularly those studying technical subjects (such as IT, engineering or accounting) are likely to pay insufficient attention to working on their social skills – to their great regret later in life.

Another of my Council colleagues suggested the need for our graduates to be at ease socially among more senior people in society, to fit in. “Are we talking about the knowing-how-to-use-the-right-fork kind of fitting in?” I asked. Well, that’s part of it I was told, but of course it’s much more than that. So many university students, even today, arrive on campus from rural areas – or, as one of those present put it more simply, “from the village” – having not been exposed to more Western urban environments, and it can be quite bewildering.

Employers too would wish their new young recruits to be socially adept as they mix with senior people, and from diverse countries and cultures at that. Understandably they would rather be saved the effort of running etiquette classes and the like – given that they are already obliged to help fresh graduates with English and other more basic skills.

Little wonder that when learning institutions like Nairobi and Lenana Schools were built, their designs incorporated golf courses: they were unabashedly preparing their charges to join the elite of society, the establishment. The renowned British Public School systems focused on breeding proper gentlemen whom one could “take anywhere”, with the motto of one (Winchester) being “Manners maketh man.”

But wait a minute. If universities like KCA are to go in for this kind of development, couldn’t we be accused of being a bunch of snobs? Those gathered in the room were more than aware we’d have to do better than simply turn out golfers who knew how to handle silver cutlery. So now talk turned to a second, equally vital aspect of producing our ideal graduate.

In addition to being at ease with sophisticated seniors, our young men and women must feel equally at home back in the village (or in the slums). Bad enough that an increasing number no longer speak the vernacular language of their ancestors, or know the slightest thing about their cultural roots. As time goes by they feel more and more awkward on the odd occasion they visit their places of origin.

So we must help them bridge this gap too. We must have them spend time in a village – both in their own area and in some very different environment and ethnic group. They must make themselves useful, and they must be friendly and humble.

Going back to my own student days I value the vacation time I spent in various mundane jobs, including as a clerk in a tax office and driving a van for a hospital. (Those oxygen cylinders I hauled in and out of my vehicle were awfully heavy, I remember!) I equally benefitted from my AIESEC internships in France and in America. I worked in a coal mining company and in a cereal factory, getting to know people I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. As we chatted in the corridors and the canteens I was able to appreciate their hopes and their concerns, and I know how helpful this has been in feeling as much at ease with blue-collar workers as with those of more similar backgrounds and outlooks.

In the sixties when I was going through these experiences, two things struck me about the contrast between my own approach to life and that of many of the workers with whom I interacted. Whether in Britain or France or America, I was aware of their lack of curiosity to find out more about me; and I noted their expectation that their future would be pretty much the same as their past, toiling away at relatively mundane and unskilled work. The world has changed greatly since then, at all levels of society. But I merely share these reflections on my experiences from those days to confirm what a profound an impact they had on me.

Soon the time came for us to don our fancy academic robes and parade ourselves in front of the graduating students. And what a joyous sight it was, to see all those bright young faces, equally robed, proudly being awarded their degrees.

Just one final point though. As they filed past us to shake our hands and have us congratulate them, we noticed that hardly any among them made eye contact with us. Was it a sign of respect for their elders? Mere self-consciousness? We could only speculate. But now we added one more element to our list of characteristics of the ideal graduate: in this contemporary world of ours, eye contact is everything. For it speaks of confidence.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org