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

The private sector gets back to building peace

Amid the normal noise of our zero-sum politics, KEPSA recently launched the fourth phase of its Mkenya Daima project, which is all about building a more peaceful and cohesive society. The new programme will work on our much-neglected national values, and on helping us to become more responsible citizens.

The initial campaign resulted from the decision by the private sector to get involved in peace-building, following the devastating consequences of the post-election violence of 2008. The first phase of the campaign, in the build up to the 2013 election, was dubbed Mwenye-nchi sio Mwananchi, and it was about building commitment to peaceful elections. It was followed by one that celebrated the good that exists in Kenya and handled the negatives that divide us. The third phase emphasised that rights go along with responsibilities, and that each Kenyan is responsible for Kenya.

Through all the campaigns, stakeholders beyond the commercial private sector were brought together, including civil society, religious groups, the media, musicians, and university students, all to build peace. Support also came from politicians who, even as they hunted for votes in the 2013 polls, appealed to their supporters to maintain peace. The media too conveyed the peace messages, and their airing of the presidential debates was a notable first for the country.

The next phase will encourage the adoption of national values, again encouraging (I don’t like the word “instilling”) a sense of responsibility, and fostering character change at the individual, institutional and national level. It will do this in the ongoing context of building national cohesion and peace, encouraged by the sense that the messages of past phases have indeed inspired Kenyans to co-exist peacefully, enjoy freedom with responsibility, and focus on the goals of Vision 2030.

During the launch UNDP Resident Representative Nardos Bekele-Thomas showed how strongly she feels about peace-building and about the key role of the private sector in supporting it. She challenged Kenyans to take a more active role in running the country’s affairs, acknowledging that since independence the country has been a bastion of peace in a troubled region, offering leadership and refuge to its neighbours.

“Kenya can be greater than it is once Kenyans realise they employ the politicians, and indeed all arms of government,” she stated, adding that “the constitution is only as strong as the people who made it. You can have the best constitution in the world, but it is no good if the people do not drive action to build prosperity.”

Ken Njiru from the Uungwana Institute, a member of the Mkenya Daima steering team, gave a presentation on the next phase, to be called “MKenya Muungwana Daima 2030”, explaining that its objective is to develop a values-based culture among Kenyans, so we take responsibility for the running of the country in an ethical way.

Reinforcing Nardos Beekele’s message, he pointed out that we created our institutions, and when they don’t work we are the ones who must fix them. We need a “Muungwana culture” that can only be developed by embracing healthy values. This is easily said. Indeed it’s all spelt out in our constitution, in the values pillar of Vision 2030, in the work of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, and in the National Values System.

But who knows how to change things? Who knows how to move, even a little, from our actual to our aspirational values? How do we increase our sense of patriotism and adopt a “Kenya First” mentality rather than a “Me First” one? Njiru rightly identified that what we need is people who understand change management, and so the campaign must reach out to practitioners in this field. (Good news: I’m one of them, describing my work as “aligning people’s energy around common visions and values”.)

Mkenya Daima Steering Committee Chair Vimal Shah told us that this phase of Mkenya Daima will cover five years, up to and beyond the next election. The business community will continue to be at the forefront, maintaining a non-partisan approach and encouraging Kenyans to put aside their political differences for the greater interest of the country. He also introduced popular rap singer Juliani, who is part of the campaign and is clearly a thoughtful and delightful young man.

Mkenya Daima Steering Committee Vice-Chair Polycarp Igathe urged the private sector to drive the peace agenda “so as to ensure healthy and hygienic conversations within and outside government” and to ensure a peaceful election in 2017. I particularly liked his statements that we need to move the narrative “from protest to prosperity”, and that peace building is a continuous effort.

Having been part of the earlier campaign I see the need to up the level of contribution from civil society and the religious leaders. I remember that some civil society people felt we private sector people were only in it “to assure business continuity”. Well we are concerned about that, as all Kenyans should be, but it would be quite unfair to assume it’s only the bottom line we worry about.

We need to link up with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, supporting their work – which is much more than combating hate speech. And we must also support the many wonderful peace-building NGOs.

Above all we must be wary of merely preaching to the already converted. Our big challenge is to reach out to those who are hard to convert: to the politicians (except the moderates, who are often the less influential and also largely ignored by the media), the disaffected youth, the matatu drivers and others who are least interested in what we are preaching. This includes much of the media, who love nothing more than conflict and confrontation.

Very ambitiously, the campaign envisages a corruption-free Kenya, and it is not by coincidence that last week’s Presidential Round Table with the private sector focused heavily on this subject, along with the development of entrepreneurship. Watch this space.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Managing stress… with mindfulness

Over twenty years ago, my friend Kay Shamte and I decided to put together an event on stress management. We were far from confident that Kenyans would feel comfortable talking about the subject, but to our great relief it turned out that the groups we assembled were extremely pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the symptoms and sources of their stress, along with what they could do to cope with it better.

A few months later, encouraged by the earlier positive reception, I conducted such a session at a coastal hotel with the board and senior management of a major parastatal. Towards the end, in the late afternoon, I was leading them in deep breathing exercises, their spectacles on the tables in front of them and the lights switched off. While they were in this blissful state their Permanent Secretary entered the silent gloom to close the event – you can just imagine his confusion!

After another such session, for a collection of senior managers gathered by the Kenya Institute of Management, two of the participants expressed outrage when evaluating my performance, insisting I should never be allowed to run any event for KIM again as for some strange reason I had offended their religious beliefs.

Religious beliefs? Well yes, it turns out that even the innocent activity of deep, calm breathing, without even a whisper of a thought in the direction of meditation, is enough to arouse feelings of serious unease in some people. To such folk it smacks of spirituality, of New Age mysticism, with all the negative connotations of… er, I’m not quite sure what. The fact that deep breathing and meditation are (rightly) associated with Buddhism can merely add fuel to this spurious fire.

No wonder, therefore, that a less threatening word for relaxing, de-stressing, focusing, being “present”, and all such good things has come into increasingly common use: “Mindfulness”. For those who can’t handle terms they feel clash with their sense of what is proper, mindfulness puts them more at ease. It’s far away from the world of self-help gurus, swamis with long hair and strange clothes, and is adequately palatable for your average executive in a suit.

I was led to reflect on my earlier experiences while watching a video of down-to-earth American television anchor Dan Harris telling an audience of Silicon Valley techies how he had embarked on a skeptical odyssey through the strange worlds of spirituality and self-help… and through it discovered a way to become happier. (Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBcWY2866So) It also led him to write a book about his journey, 10% Happier.

After having a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America, Harris knew he had to make some changes. A lifelong non-believer, he found himself on a bizarre adventure, as a result of which he eventually realised that the source of his problems was the very thing he always thought was his greatest asset: the incessant, insatiable voice in his head, which had both propelled him through the ranks of a highly competitive business and also led him to make the bad decisions that provoked his on-air freeze.

We all have a voice in our head, explained Harris. It’s what makes us lose our temper unnecessarily, check our e-mails compulsively, eat when we’re not hungry, and fixate on the past and the future at the expense of the present. Most of us assume we’re stuck with this voice and that there is nothing we can do to rein it in. But Harris stumbled on a way.

It was a far cry from the miracle cures peddled by the self-help swamis he met, something he always assumed to be either impossible or useless: it was meditation. After learning about research that suggests meditation can do everything from lower your blood pressure to rewire your brain, Harris started exploring how CEOs, scientists, and even marines are now using it to reach increased calmness, focus and happiness. But why should we be surprised? I’ve also heard of prisoners in jails benefitting greatly from practicing meditation.

For many (not excluding me), when we are being taught to meditate our minds simply refuse to empty as instructed. The best we can manage is contemplation, despite being guided to focus on our breath as it emerges from our nose, or in other ways to ban our mental clutter. Like Harris, we feel like failures, frustrated by our inability to not think, to not keep processing issues and to-do lists.

My advice? Don’t be too ambitious, and certainly not as you start. I recently attended a musical function at my grandsons’ primary school, and guess what: to settle the children down, to have them be fully present, the teacher running the show got us all to indulge in a mindfulness exercise – some deep breathing, which worked like a charm. Well, you might say, this was California. But also this year, during a programme hosted by the World Bank I attended for consultants like myself (the subject of an earlier column), I was delighted to see that at the end of one of the days a slot was reserved for mindfulness. Yes, the World Bank, promoting mindfulness.

So now, emboldened by these two experiences, these days when I am running a workshop and I want an unruly group to pay attention, or a flagging one to re-energise, I lead them in deep breathing exercises. It works like a charm, and needless to say I don’t mention any “M” words.

My advice to the sober readers of this column is therefore to put aside the distracting myths that accompany meditation and mindfulness. Just think of them as Mark Williams and Danny Penman describe in their book, Mindfulness – a Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, as “mental training” that can readily exist within anyone’s religious beliefs, or in their absence. And don’t think in terms of failure or success. Just breathe deeply!

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

What’s so special about entrepreneurs?

A few weeks ago I was a panelist at an event on entrepreneurship organised by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. It took place soon after the much publicized Global Entrepreneurship Summit, so it was very timely in keeping the momentum from that energy-filled going. Indeed in this Kenya of ours that is so filled with restless, energetic and ambitious men and women, the topic is always appropriate.

In a way I felt somewhat of an impostor, as from the time I graduated from university till the dawn of my third age I was assured of receiving a monthly salary. Being too old even to qualify as a Baby Boomer, and growing up as a middle class boy in post-World War II London, it was obvious that on obtaining my degree I would apply for a job in a large corporation and gradually climb up its management ladder. After some years I might jump to another big company, continuing my progress towards what we now call the C-Suite, till retiring gracefully at sixty.

Yet now here I was, at three-score years and ten, being invited to sit on a panel of entrepreneurs, and when it was my turn to speak I confessed I only became one when I turned sixty and reinvented myself as a management consultant. And yet, I reflected, what I took into my sixties is what I had been developing and practicing all through my career in employment: the same attitudes and behavior. I guess I was something of an intrapreneur (a term I really like).

Lawyer Charles Kanjama, speaking on a television panel at the time of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, described himself – the senior partner in a law firm – as an entrepreneur, as indeed are all professionals. The only difference between us and manufacturers or bankers or traders is that we carry no inventory other than what is in our heads.

For me, whether you are an employee or an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur – or anything else successful for that matter – you need the same qualities and strengths. It’s just that entrepreneurs have an infinitely greater appetite for risk. They truly believe they can, as it were, defy the laws of gravity – and the amazing thing is that sometimes they actually do.

Another of the panelists at the CIMA event was Myke Rabar, the founder CEO of Homeboyz. Myke never meant to be a businessman; he just had a love for music. Yet, without at the time describing it as such, he started his first business at the age of 15, offering cassette tapes of music he had copied to matatu crews, initially in exchange for free rides.

Before long he owned the market, and found himself with plenty of cash as a result – cash that even his parents didn’t know he had accumulated. By the time he graduated from university, with a vehicle and other equipment, he had enough money with which to buy his own house. He went off to the UK to get a degree in sound engineering, worked for a while with the BBC and at music festivals, before returning to Kenya and starting up Homeboyz.

He’s built it into a fast-growing multi-media business that employs 200 young people, and his purpose was never to make money. But it flowed in, the consequence of his passion for music. Still, he admitted with a boyish grin, he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing tomorrow, finding the uncertainty scary.

We also heard from Dan Awendo, CEO and founder of Investeq Capital, who told us he was the first-born of seven, as a result of which came certain responsibilities. He started playing football as a hobby, but later it also generated revenue, as at the age of thirteen he was playing for his country: at the end of each practice session he would get Shs.50 and Shs.200 after each game.

He began his first business when he was 16, being at Kikomba market by 4am to buy mitumba clothes, which he would then wash, iron and sell. In the years between then and now he has started over twenty other businesses – some of which, he readily admits, failed. He learned it’s not enough to come up with good ideas, but that you must have a passion for execution. Now at Investeq, an angel investor in SMEs, his passion is to see start-ups grow to the point that they can be listed and become local multinationals, breaking glass ceilings.

Then coach Sonali Shah showed us an apple and told us if they are authentic each one is different – just like each entrepreneur must be genuine, not standardised and polished. They must have passion, and “ego strength” – the ability to face reality, and fear. With her clients she explores their relationship with money – like one who was held back from earning more simply because he believed that money was bad, and scarce. Happily, once he got over this hang up the money started to flow.

Peter Mbui, Director and Founding Member of Rift Valley Machinery, offered a related thought, that we have far greater capacities than we think – in the absence of which we’re likely to hold back from even getting started with some bold initiative.

Among the questions moderator George Mathenge asked us was how we could reduce poverty and unemployment. “Transform the education system,” we chorused, given that, as one of us put it, the current one was built to breed employees – going back to the colonial days, when Africans were being prepared as labourers on farms and in factories.

But let us not fool ourselves into imagining that lots and lots of young people have what it takes to become successful entrepreneurs. Far from it. There’s a good reason why only 5% of the population head in that direction, and so it will always be – even in Kenya, with the high energy and ambitiousness of so many of our people.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Peace and Stability in Kenya

I recently returned to a subject that is very dear to me: conflict resolution and peace building, and it came through participating in a one-day event organised by the World Faiths Development Dialog (WFDD), a programme of the Berkeley Centre for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

The idea for WFDD was born in 2000, as a result of discussions between then World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn and Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. Both men were concerned about the Jubilee 2000 campaign that called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000, for which Carey was an active supporter, and the two agreed that as they both represented the interests of the poor they would benefit from engaging in dialogue with each other. Since then the challenges have become even more acute, and the World Bank has continued pursuing faith-development alignment – including through supporting the work of WFDD.

Kenya is one of the countries where WFDD is active, examining the role of religion in supporting peace and stability, and the event I attended gathered a wonderful collection of peace-builders, so engaged, so constructive, so wise. I loved being with them, and I loved being inspired by their dedication to that worthiest of causes: peace.

“Religion is meant to help us reconcile people to their God, to themselves, to their neighbours and to nature,” suggested one speaker, who identified violence as “an outpouring of negative emotions that comes from denying the identity of ourselves and others”. Religious leaders must help us with acceptance and forgiveness, and hence healing, he said, pointing out that leaders must first heal themselves. He contrasted the case of Mandela, who had healed by the time he left Robben Island, with the angry, bitter Mugabe, who has never healed.

Another speaker told us that when people of faith have got together on matters of life and death, they’ve been able to find ways of solving difficult problems. Individually they haven’t gone very far but with unity of purpose, they were listened to as trusted leaders.

We were told about BRAVE (Building Resilience Against Violent Extremism), through which the Muslim community has been mobilised against violence by their youth. “Violence,” we heard, “is just violence.” And where religion is misused to support it, that must be resisted.

Several speakers told us how charismatic, radical self-styled clerics have been misrepresenting the Koranic scriptures, peddling the narrative of “the hatred of others”. They use belligerent language to support their versions of Islam, but the response by moderates has been at best muted, with the militants ahead of the curve. There needs to be more assertive leadership in promoting the counter-narrative, acknowledging that Muslims who have stood up to fight for moderation have sometimes been accused of “diluting Islam”.

What was clear from the day is that the needed conversations have begun, through both inter-faith and intra-Christian dialogue. But many who are joining Al Shabaab are university students, and many are non-Muslims. So why has this been happening? Too many young people feel their grievances have not been heard and that government, at both national and devolved levels, has not been listening to them. They feel disenfranchised (many have not managed to get IDs), and the problem is eating into the national fabric.

Speakers worried about “the socialisation of violence”, justified by protecting against “threats to our community”. It is this that becomes one’s identity, and that has led to the ethnic clashes, not least around the time of elections. And it’s not just the poor, the ill-educated, the underprivileged and the unemployed who fall prey to the narrative.

One issue is the “securitisation of peace” – the dominant response to terrorism threats through applying security solutions, like the herding of many Somalis into Kasarani Stadium, and the building of the wall at the border with Somalia.

We’re told of a powerful documentary, An African Answer, about the work of two Nigerians, Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa, who in the 1990s led opposing armed militias defending their respective communities in Kaduna, northern Nigeria. In pitched battles, Pastor James lost his hand and Imam Ashafa’s spiritual mentor and two close relatives were killed. Now the two are co-directors of the Muslim-Christian Interfaith Mediation Centre in their city, leading task-forces to resolve conflicts across Nigeria, and they also came to Kenya to help reconciliation in the Burnt Forest area.

At their essence every religion espouses the same values. But too often these values are lost and perverted when religious teachings are misused by leaders – political as much as religious ones. Religion becomes a mere means to an end, and the end is often to do with power and wealth, with ego and glory, with the need to control and be praised, to be beyond criticism.

My mind was full of other thoughts too, about our schools and universities, at so many of which neither staff nor students have been exposed to “the other”, and the need for visits and exchanges to get to know each other. About the need to develop in students the skills of constructive engagement and not just of adversarial win-lose debating. About using interactive theatre – including with puppets – to stimulate open conversations in safer and more enjoyable ways. And about the inevitability of the media focusing on conflict rather than harmony – with all the consequences thereof.

I worry that it’s too easy to preach to the converted, leaving those who really need to change untouched. It’s why we must go way beyond problem definition, and the mere raising of awareness of these critical issues. We must strain to change attitudes, and ultimately behaviour, particularly targeting those who most need to have their attitudes and behaviour changed, and those who are most influential as change agents – our politicians and sometimes our religious leaders.

Courageous and unified leadership are needed, bringing together religious institutions and leaders in peace-building, and particularly engaging youth in ways that bring them hope.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Rehearsing pays – and it’s fun

Together with a trio of colleagues, I recently developed a two-day leadership workshop to be run for several groups of managers. It was an interesting challenge, as several of the prospective participants had already attended various leadership programmes, and so we had to find ways of defying their expectation that this would be “just another training”. We all know what that means: people readily assume there will be negligible consequences – other than being handed a certificate confirming they had shown up. Oh, and given that we’re talking about public sector folk, that they will have benefitted from those precious daily allowances.

We’ve already run the first two events, and I’m happy to say they went really well. But that’s not what I want to write about here. I want to share with you how we rehearsed for what were to be highly interactive workshops, whose success would be measured by the extent to which the participants did indeed perform better than they had before. How, in just two days, could we launch a process that would deliver on such ambitious expectations?

Too often there’s no time to rehearse – or at least we don’t make the time. But as we found in this case it was well worth the investment. For here we were creating something from scratch. We were actually writing script for what were to be two days of interactive theatre, where the “audience” would join us as actors and where the outcomes were far from predictable.

Each of us came to the early rehearsals ready to share our ideas for the components we had volunteered to script (one of mine was on stimulating bold decisions – about which I will write separately), and now these needed to be tested, further developed and strengthened, and integrated into a seamless flow.

Unlike in a rehearsal of a play or a musical concert, where the challenge merely is to interpret a fixed text or musical score, here we were also the playwrights, the composers, not to mention that we would be enrolling the participants to join the cast, and playing very prominent roles at that. So the joy of creation – of co-creation – of bouncing ideas off each other and building a powerful and cohesive entity that would achieve what was intended (after the event) was very exciting indeed.

For now though, we had to build a robust enough engine to test drive, to prepare for our actual performances, where we would integrate the participants into the production. We had to maximise the chances of them swiftly absorbing the subject matter we’d come up with – about the process of flow-charting, about defining performance improvement indicators and targets, and about figuring out root causes of problems and how to overcome them. We had to get them to already try out all these tools within the event, in an “Action Learning” style. And we also had to prepare them to motivate themselves and their colleagues beyond our time together, creating an environment within which bold decisions could be made and great results achieved through the processes they would select.

Our terms of reference also not only required us to produce a workbook for the participants to take away with them to use, but in addition a much more detailed one that would enable other facilitators to run the programme. So the workbooks too would need to be tested, to ensure they were fit for purpose.

Having adequately panel-beaten our production to our own satisfaction, we were now ready to expose it to those who had charged us with its creation and delivery, to get them to play the part of the intended participants and to make their own contributions to further refine the product. So we would run elements of the programme as it would eventually be conducted, with this “tame” group role-playing the actual participants, and seek their reactions and their input.

Interestingly, as we were planning this phase of the development, a misunderstanding arose as to what exactly it would consist of. Our sponsors assumed they were coming for a full “dress rehearsal”, where our “cast” or “orchestra” would perform the entire “show” just as if it were the real thing. Had we been rehearsing a play we would have been wearing our costumes and make-up, and the props and lighting would all be in place. They imagined they would simply attend as if they were the real audience.

It took a little while for us to explain that we were still at a stage of testing and learning, of connecting and aligning. But they swiftly became part of the creative process, and together we thoroughly enjoyed the business of stretching ourselves to the limit, determined to deliver something of serious impact. Our clear aim was to launch a change process, and this could only happen if the participants – in a mere two days – acquired not only the knowledge and the skills to undertake the journey, but also a whole new mindset that would enable them to reach some important destinations.

To further encourage you to invest time in rehearsing critical activities, I suggest you access a wonderful family of YouTube clips that show how the celebrated “Three Tenors” went through the various stages of rehearsing for their spectacular operatic performances, together with a great conductor and a huge combined orchestra. See how they loved every minute of their polishing time together, and what glorious music resulted.

I leave you with that well-known definition of luck: “the cross-roads between preparation and opportunity”. So identify your (ambitious!) opportunity and, like the Three Tenors and like us, thoroughly enjoy the process of preparing to put on the show of your life. Others might say you were just lucky. You know that, like the swan, while you seemed to be gliding so easily along the surface of your water, you were still paddling like mad underneath. But not half as frantically as if you would not have rehearsed.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Motivation and empowerment

Motivation

Last week two colleagues and I were preparing material for a leadership event when one of them challenged us to comment on the relationship between motivation and empowerment. As we shuffled around these words I thought of placing them on the two axes of a grid, with motivation on the vertical one and empowerment on the horizontal one. Having followed my impulse to draw the grid I set about figuring out what it might mean, and what emerged told an interesting story.

My attention turned first to the bottom right quadrant, representing the combination of high empowerment with low motivation. How, I asked myself, might this be manifested? Well, someone can indeed be fully empowered, but if their boss doesn’t appreciate or recognise what they do they are unlikely to feel motivated – at least not by the boss. And if the team with whom they work are a difficult lot, all the empowerment in the world won’t solve their motivation problem.

Next I focused on the top left quadrant, which represents high motivation co-existing with low empowerment. Ah yes, here we have the folk who aren’t interested in being empowered. They’re comfortable just implementing instructions and getting patted on the head for doing so. They are risk-averse, fear failure and enjoy only limited aspirations, quite likely in the lower ranks of the organisation. They are satisfied existing in their limited work environment.

I hardly bothered to explore the bottom left corner, where the unfortunate workers are neither empowered nor motivated. Who knows why? Maybe it’s their fault, maybe not, maybe partly so.

Finally, I headed to that top right quadrant, where empowerment and motivation dance happily together, each feeding the other. Actually, you’d expect the two to go together. But the revelation that became apparent as I studied my instant matrix was that this is not necessarily the case.

Further complications arise. One is that in my experience many of those who complain about being insufficiently empowered have got it all wrong (some more innocently so than others). More and more managers are desperate to delegate to those around them and to have them be empowered. But this requires the recipients of the favour to perform. Yet too often attempts by superiors at letting go have delivered poor results, with subordinates delivering work late or full of mistakes or not at all, and with them taking poor or no decisions. So the bosses have re-engaged in the detail of the activities, and this in turn easily leads to their people resenting them.

“You’re micro-managing,” they charge, “interfering in our work.” To which the manager responds: “Get it right first time, take good decisions, deliver when we agreed you would, and I’ll be delighted to delegate more and to empower you to operate without me looking over your shoulder.” After all, the letting go will allow the managers to occupy their time more productively, pursuing higher strategic matters.

We must earn the right to be empowered. Unless we are responsible, reliable and trustworthy, it won’t happen. In healthy cultures, the response to such behaviour can only be positive, with the reward being high motivation. (Unless you’re one of those characters in the upper-left quadrant.)

But will the win-win negotiating take place, migrating the players to the north-east of my matrix, or will the downward spiral persist, each level blaming the other for their ever-decreasing motivation, confining both parties to the barren south-west?

Choices have consequences, right? True – unless you feel you’re a victim, a prisoner, where choice has been removed and you believe you merely depend on the power and goodwill of others. In not a few work environments this is indeed the case, and employees – including at the most senior levels – feel trapped. But there are plenty of situations where the feeling of entrapment is actually only one of a number of options.

What lacks is the courage to break free, to risk losing the security that comes with that ongoing monthly salary. Wait a minute though. How real is that security? In a world of mergers and takeovers, of restructuring and downsizing, or just the whim of a contrary boss, this sense of being ongoingly taken care of can be but an illusion.

For many of us it is just too challenging, too inconvenient, to face such issues head on. We’ve become accustomed to having our motivation be dependent on a boss. We started out that way, when our parents acted as the sources of motivation (however positive or negative). Soon our teachers joined the team of motivators/demotivators. And then – unless we became self-employed – our bosses took over.

But it is not just entrepreneurs who must be in charge of their own motivation. One of the central characteristics of emotionally intelligent people is that they are the ones responsible for how motivated they feel. This is as good a definition as any of maturity, meaning that you have reached adulthood and outgrown childhood, that as an adult you expect to relate to other adults, without needing to retain “parent” figures in your life.

So much for this neither-either-both matrix, one that arose from a simple question. What about other matrices? My favourite is the Blake-Mouton grid that distinguishes management styles, contrasting a leader’s focus on people with their focus on tasks. Also well-known is Covey’s time-management grid that has us balance between the urgent and the important. There are many others too, among which I like the cooperation-assertiveness one; the warmth-competence one; the vitality-productivity one; and the commitment-competence one.

Take time to draw each of these grids, label the two axes and describe what’s going on in each of the four quadrants. Also, please do let me know of other such pairings, to add to my collection. But meanwhile make sure you’re doing what it takes to encourage those around you to empower you; and remember that you are the one responsible for motivating yourself.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

Remembering Dr. Njoroge Mungai

A year ago yesterday I sat in a pew at the Church of the Torch, for the funeral service to celebrate the life of Dr. Magana Njoroge Mungai. I felt greatly saddened, but also quite upset with the man. For how could he do this to us? How could he deprive us of his inspiration, his knowledge, his sense of fun? I was far from ready to release Dr. Mungai, never again to enjoy the privilege of learning from him and laughing with him.

In the intervening months the feeling of deprivation was reignited each time his name was mentioned, and it was exacerbated two weeks ago when I attended the memorial service to mark the first anniversary of the passing of this great Kenyan. During the service, as at the earlier one, vivid treasured memories of my friendship with Daktari readily surfaced.

Twenty-one years ago, shortly after becoming engaged to Evelyn Mungai, the lady who was soon to become my wife, a bridal shower was hosted for her at the home of Julius and Jane Kiano, organised by my then fiancée’s daughter, Wacuka. I, together with a few other men, was invited to join them after the event, and imagine my surprise when I found myself ambushed for what turned out to be a symbolic pre-wedding mini-ceremony.

The central element involved our two “fathers” blessing the union. Given that neither of our actual fathers was still alive, Dr. Kiano agreed to play the role of my fiancée’s father and Dr. Mungai that of mine. The blessing involved the anointing of the floor of the family of the wife-to-be’s “hut” with the traditional brew, muratina, and my uninhibited parent insisted on following through with the ceremony – onto the plush white carpet of the Kiano living-room.

I also remember going to see him a few years later when, as chairman of the Kenya Institute of Management, I was to officiate at the Tom Mboya Memorial Lecture, the big event of the institute’s year. I was in search of relevant stories about Mboya, and Dr. Mungai, with his perfect memory, was at his best.

I asked him about Mboya the visionary, and he talked about the man’s pivotal role in the American Airlift and about his promotion of Pan-Africanism: great material for my speech. I remember Dr. Mungai also telling me what was important to him, then and later: health, education and poverty eradication.

One of the last occasions my wife and I were with him was at the residence of the French ambassador, when Dr. Mungai was awarded the Ordre Nationale du Mérite for his life of service. Not for the first time, we talked about how he was doing with his autobiography. Along with others, we had encouraged him repeatedly – even identifying a potential writer to work with him, and I had introduced him to voice-recognition software as a way of accelerating the process. Sadly however, there was no movement, and now it may be too late, at least involving his personal input – which would be such a shame, as his book would be in a league of its own. Not only because of his many achievements and adventures, but because of the charm and sparkle in the man. Not to mention his wonderful memory.

At last year’s funeral service Dr. Mungai’s successor as foreign minister, Dr. Munya Waiyaki, reminisced at length about their time together, from primary school to Alliance High School, where six of the fourteen students in their class of 1945 served as cabinet ministers at one time or another – Robert Matano, Kyale Mwendwa, Mbiti Mati and Dr. Kiano being the others. Mungai and Waiyaki then both headed off to Fort Hare University in South Africa (where their classmates included Robert Mugabe and Mangosuthu Buthelezi), and later they both studied medicine, Waiyaki in Scotland and Mungai at Stanford.

Mungai obtained his medical qualification at Stanford, and later became Minister for Health and Housing (during which time he launched the country’s first medical school) and also President Kenyatta’s personal physician. At other times he held ministerial portfolios for internal security, the environment and foreign affairs – in which capacity he was responsible for bringing the UNEP head-office to Nairobi.

President Kenyatta, the son of the man whose doctor Dr. Mungai was, also spoke at the funeral, describing Dr. Mungai as having been a father figure to him, his own father having died when he was only 18. Indeed, as was the case with me at my pre-wedding, Dr. Mungai acted as such at Uhuru’s wedding.

At the recent memorial service, one of Dr. Mungai’s five daughters talked about her father’s three great qualities: his courage (“to go to America as he did, with no money, and then to return”); his dignity (here she quoted Aristotle, who described dignity as “not possessing honours but deserving them”); and his determination (as evidenced by how he persuaded the UN to site the headquarters of UNEP in Nairobi).

“This is how he chose to be,” she reflected, adding that it was the same three words that have been used to describe Rosa Parks, who famously sat at the front of that segregated bus. “Onwards and upwards” was her father’s motto, and she and all of us continue to be inspired by his memory.

Before I close let me explain that Dr. Mungai’s parents were Godparents to my mother-in-law Marjorie Kimenyi, and that the late Hon. Jemimah Gecaga – Dr. Mungai’s sister – was Matron of Honour at her wedding. Jemimah was one of the earliest Nominated MPs, and I am told that my mother-in-law, the first African woman to own and drive a car, would give her a lift. Sometimes as they were about to set off, young Njoroge would appear and, we were often told by a laughing Dr. Mungai, they would condescendingly agree to allow him to join them.

Such was the lightness of the man, one of the many reasons he is missed so very much.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

The exciting but uncertain life of a consultant

In my last column I reflected on how I go about producing my regular articles for this paper, and while the thought of writing that piece was still only in my mind I found myself in conversation with a senior HR manager who envied me my life as a management consultant. She wanted to make a bigger and more varied contribution to organisational development than she thought was possible within the confines of a single institution, and so she was curious to know more about the world of consulting, where you are exposed to multiple environments and, she reckoned, you are taken more seriously.

As I listened to my instant analysis of the joys and frustrations of my profession, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to share my thoughts more broadly with Business Daily readers. So here goes.

First, let me readily admit that I love what I do, working with a wonderful variety of clients, from large corporates to family firms, from ministries and parastatals to NGOs and donors. I learn so much from each assignment, and the people with whom I interact are almost without exception as bright as they are friendly and respectful. (Perhaps because I find it’s typically those who are already strong and doing well who reach out for ways of becoming yet more successful.)

But as this comfortably salaried lady heard me talk, she realised that a consultant’s life is far from an unadulterated bed of roses. “How do I get into that world?” she started by asking, knowing it is not a straightforward question to answer. I remember that when I decided to reinvent myself as a consultant after decades of being – and being known as – a full-time IT executive, it took easily a year and a half before the market came to appreciate the reality of the new me.

Sure I had accumulated lots of experience and an interesting network of contacts, senior people who were aware of “Brand Eldon”. But in a very different context. So the challenge was to land the first assignments, the ones that would show I could perform in my transformed role. As I look back on those early days now I realise that my career in the tough IT vendoring environment actually prepared me extremely well for my third-age reincarnation. For trying to get organisations to apply the disciplined approach needed for effective automation, with its attendant inconvenient consequences of transparency and accountability, is essentially all about change management. It took some time before the penny dropped, but when it did it allowed me to feel comfortable labeling myself as the change management expert I appreciated I actually was.

As our conversation continued I turned to the perpetual uncertainty in which we consultants exist, seldom knowing which potential assignments will materialise and when. A sure bet will disappear; another will be postponed – or occasionally brought forward; and a good number will threaten to clash with an existing commitment, or at least a likely one. Of course I go on the basis of first-come first-served, but this principled approach is really painful when a more tantalising offer comes up later. Happily, it is also not uncommon for the earlier less exciting assignment to be moved or to disappear, allowing my preferred choice to be indulged.

Sometimes a month that looks to be highly booked appears increasingly barren… only later to benefit from fortuitous last-minute calls for my time. At other times I’m scrambling from one intensive assignment to the next with barely a moment to breathe, never mind to prepare adequately or write the reports I am typically required to do following an engagement. So early mornings, late nights and messed up weekends at the laptop are more normal than unusual.

We consultants only get paid for the days we work on an assignment, and for salaried folk this is an alien concept. It’s why when we quote our daily rate clients often express shock (maybe genuine, maybe feigned) at how high the figure is.

And here’s another aspect I have to come to terms with. Much of my life is spent facilitating strategic planning retreats for senior management and board teams, hosted at the nicest hotels and lodges in the country. Often, participants will have come from far away to attend, maybe by plane and probably at great cost. So it never ceases to amaze me that having spent so much money on transport, per diems and the venue, when it comes to consultant remuneration clients can inform us with a straight face that only a “limited budget” is available for our fees. How odd, when it is largely how we perform that determines the success or otherwise of the event.

A further point: with rare exceptions, consultants must do their own marketing and selling, their own proposal writing, and their own billing and debt collecting. None of this time is payable, and most of us act as our own PAs. (No bodyguards or drivers either!)

Then, when we try to interest a client in more of our services, some accuse us of only doing so in order to generate more fees. It’s as though we should feel guilty about suggesting further ways of adding value, building on what we have learned about the client and on what we have previously contributed to them.

Having said all this, I return to where I started: I thoroughly enjoy the work I do. All of it – often leading me to regret not having reinvented myself sooner. But then I tell myself that I needed to experience every moment of my earlier turbulent existence, to have acquired all those scars of battle, in the absence of which I couldn’t begin to do what I do now.

Where did these reflections leave my friend the HR manager? Deep in thought, having gained a fuller appreciation of the exciting yet volatile environment in which we consultants operate.

mike.eldon@depotkenya.org