More lessons on public private engagement

Thursday 2nd April 2015 was a terrible day for Kenya. It will forever be associated with the devastating attack on Garissa University in which so many innocent people died. But for me and others who had been invited to lunch at State House that day for the 4th President’s Round Table with the private sector it was a day of mixed emotions. On the one hand we were still learning of the horrors of the latest al Shabaab outrage, but at the same time we were inspired by the constructive collaboration between the public and the private and by the decisiveness of the country’s CEO.

Even if the terrorists had not chosen this day on which to launch their unspeakable attack, the media would still have given negligible space to what was being agreed between the government and the private sector. After all, it was just lovey-dovey stuff, about working together harmoniously to build a better Kenya. Which self-respecting reporter or editor would be interested in such peace-love-and-unity outpourings when there’s so much juicy material around on corruption, political manoeuvring, crime and suchlike?

I should add that some observers aren’t happy about the private sector’s “cosyness” with the high and mighty. They should be much tougher, such critics feel, citing areas where progress should be made but is not. I have written about this dilemma before, and I am not shy to repeat that being polite and respectful is not a sin, and that it is not necessarily a sign of weakness. Of course it is guaranteed to attract negligible media coverage if any, but I firmly believe that business people must work with and not against the government.

Most of what they do is going to be far more effective if it is indeed away from the public glare. But the challenge with such an approach is that much of it goes unrecognised, and even where the private sector agenda is advanced as a direct result of quiet negotiation it’s too easy to assume it was not a factor. It’s the lot of unsung heroes on both sides, and one they willingly accept – given that the macho alternative, while offering instant gratification, is actually quite unlikely to deliver the goods.

In some neighbouring countries, where the atmosphere is less liberal, the private sector’s attempts to speak out have, with some justification, seen them branded as supporters of the opposition, as a result of which they have been shunned by government. How the private sector should behave is a delicate matter. And as I have said before, there is a place for ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ strategies. The hard-ball approach of much of civil society offers a good complement to the inevitably softer touch of business, and of course circumstances vary widely, over time and across situations.

Is KEPSA always on target in how it selects the priority issues for its National Business Agenda? I for one have no problems with its choices, and if significant progress in creating an enabling environment for business is to be made, it must be very selective. At this Presidential Round Table the focus was on integrity, the improvement of government processes and the further spread of e-government. Surely one can’t argue with such a trio.

In his remarks, KEPSA Chairman Vimal Shah praised the responsiveness of the government, delighted that so much had been so swiftly agreed in the morning meeting that had preceded the lunch. And when CS for Industrialisation and Enterprise Development Adan Mohamed and Deputy President William Ruto followed him, they too appreciated the way the government and the private sector were working together for the good of the country.

William Ruto made an important point when he emphasised the need to meet continuously and frequently. For when people keep a distance from one another it is too easy for negative stereotypes to be reinforced, and for the natural mistrust between the sectors to be perpetuated.

Now to the climax of the meeting, to the address of the president, who put on a stunningly impressive performance. He started by stating that he was very pleased with the progress being made as a result of the Round Tables. “I wanted this government to be business-friendly, to help this country be competitive and to promote prosperity and the creation of jobs,” he said, while admitting that they have not moved at the pace he would have wanted. “We must up the pace and conclude issues. We must quickly overcome legislative and bureaucratic hurdles, and it’s more important that we do so now, as we worry about increasing competition from neighbouring countries.”

The president then made a fine managerial point: “We are not meeting here to sort out minor details. Some of what we discussed this morning should have been handled at the Ministerial Stakeholder Fora, which should be meeting monthly and be action-oriented and deliver results.” The president added that he had instructed his Chief of Staff to give him regular briefs of these meetings, including the minutes. “We are here to look at strategic competitiveness issues, at what we need to do to be the regional hub – not to talk about VAT refunds or Import Declaration Form problems. The ministers have full authority to do their jobs,” he reminded them, his impatience with indecisiveness and pettiness obvious.

What an execution-focused leader! What a contrast to how he once described his predecessor as a “hands off, eyes off president” at a lunch of the American Chamber of Commerce. Here’s how the president concluded: “We must work to narrow the gap and operate as a seamless team, with no differences and with a single, clear-minded objective. It is why I apologised recently for past injustices, because it’s not good to be looking in the rear-view mirror – the view through the front windscreen is much broader. The past is to learn from, not to live in.”

Well said, Mr. President. And I hope those charged with rapid response to security challenges take note.

Let’s get serious about agriculture

The other day, dotted around my mixed salad, I enjoyed both the sight and the taste of those small sweet cherry tomatoes, and I was reminded of seeing them grow at a research farm in Israel’s Negev desert during my visit there early this year.

Driving south along the perfectly smooth road through the Negev the landscape indeed became distinctly desert-like, with signs warning us to beware of camels crossing the road. At the research centre we first watched a film about the activities there. We saw the farmers and their families in action, how they had left everything behind to risk it all in this arid area, and how, supported by expert mentors, they had struggled to learn the tricks of the trade and to harvest their first cherry tomatoes.

New varieties of cherry tomatoes were developed in Israel 40 years ago, where the celebrated drip irrigation system was also dreamed up, and next we were taken by our guide, Gadi Grinblat, to see a plastic-covered field of the tiny tomatoes. Gadi was a great story-teller, explaining how over the last twenty years the researchers there have been seeking ways of continuously improving the crop and how it is cultivated.

Whether it is tomatoes (8,000 tons a year come from this area), or grapes for wine (150,000 bottles a year are filled in the Negev), or peppers or cucumbers or olives or cotton, the central question was how to grow them in sand, in which normally absolutely nothing survives as it is completely incapable of holding water.

Here though it’s different. The tomato plants use 95% of the water dripped onto their roots, each one receiving an identical amount. And with no water anywhere else there’s no incentive for insects or weeds to flourish. Gadi listed the three, soon four, possible sources of water: piped from the Sea of Galilee 300 kilometres to the north, which until twenty years ago was the only option; desalinated water from the Mediterranean, 100 kilometres away; in a year from now, through recycled water from the army camp being constructed 15 kilometres away; or from the brackish salty water 900 metres below them. All but the last alternative cost lots of money to supply, but it was far from obvious that the local water would allow the plants to grow.

That’s what much of the research has been all about, and the good news is that, alternating with some sweet water (all computer-controlled) tomatoes and melons largely fed on brackish water are actually sweeter. Gadi enthusiastically explained how they use bees to pollinate the plants; how they hang the stems from above to take up less land and allow the crops to be more accessible; and how they experiment with different shapes and colours, and for the cherry tomatoes, different arrangements on the stems.

‘Here we can play, as we don’t grow to sell and survive,’ he said. For their mission is to improve the livelihoods of farmers in Israel and elsewhere, by offering the results of their learning to others. Gadi then took us to see grapes on the vine, tickled into growing out of season through increasing the temperature ten degrees by placing a plastic cover over them in winter, thereby enabling two harvesting seasons a year. And he showed us their truffle mushrooms, the most expensive in the world (in New York they go for $1,000 a kilo). The cost of these mushrooms is partly so high because they don’t grow under every plant, and you don’t know which ones will deliver the goods and which ones won’t – until the researchers here will have scratched their heads over the problem some more.

Do we have researchers scratching their heads like this in Kenya? We do. Do agricultural research institutions exist here? Yes again, both local and international, and they do great work. Our challenge is not really the quality of the research itself but the dissemination of its consequences. This is not something that happens automatically. Serious budgets must be allocated, including for the marketing as well as for the technical expertise required. Not least for helping our farmers to be bold enough to consider new approaches.

There is so much scope for ramping up our agricultural productivity, whether through planting better quality seeds or appropriate application of fertilizer, whether through irrigation or post-harvest storage, or through other means of moving beyond mere subsistence levels. (Don’t even get me going on reversing land fragmentation.)

Yet we know farmers, here as in most parts of the world, are renowned for their conservative attitudes and their skepticism regarding change. “We tried it before and it failed,” we hear too often, or simply “we lack the resources”. Added to this is the high average age of our farmers, although more recently a few Young Turks have been entering what has been until recently the most unglamorous of occupations.

We celebrate the new energy and knowledge about farming being spread through our Saturday papers; we cheer on those doing good work in research; we applaud the young (and some not so young) Kenyans finding new ways of farming; and we encourage the emerging emphasis on irrigation. Of course too we gasp at the performance of the horticulture sub-sector (which has been much assisted by Israelis). Now we need to bring all this together and transform our thinking on what farming is and how it can deliver so much more than it has been doing.

When I was in Israel the Galilee International Management Institute signed an MOU with Vihiga Governor Moses Akaranga to work together to double the county’s agricultural output in two years. And if in Vihiga, why not elsewhere in Kenya? Come on, young Kenyans, grasp the opportunity, as you have done in IT and in other fields. And come on, Kenyan universities, emulate the folk from Galilee. We can do much more, and there’s no better way than by emulating those curious and determined Israelis.

Becoming a world class company

Lots of local organisations, as they craft their vision statements, proclaim that their dream is to be ‘world class’. Nice thought. But let’s face it, some are distinctly more aware than others about what being world class actually means – never mind about whether they have a snow-ball’s chance in hell of becoming so.

Let us not however underestimate the competence, indeed the excellence, that exists in this country. Quite a few organisations here have a wonderful grasp of what it means to be excellent – as measured by genuinely global standards. Such star performers are also good at assessing objectively where they conform to international best practice and where they fall short. They celebrate when they’re approaching these highest standards, and they’re always working hard to improve.

More and more companies are using a Balanced Score Card approach to identify key areas where they must do well if the bottom line is to look healthy. The classic Balanced Score Card structure is to look at how satisfied customers are; how well talent is being treated; the robustness of systems and procedures; and, finally, the state of the consequential financials.

Back in 1982, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman published their seminal In Search of Excellence, having examined 43 of the Fortune 500’s top performing companies. The major common strengths they found that explained the great corporate successes of the seventies and eighties were treating employees as valuable assets, staying close to customers, and being action-oriented. (The authors were delighted with their findings, as they were fed up with observing the behaviour of all the soulless, number-crunching, systems-designing MBAs who at that time were making America lose its competitive edge.)

More recently, Jim Collins looked into what enabled good companies to become great. And a million other management gurus have written on what it takes to be excellent. But whatever framework you use, whichever guru you follow, how do you figure out whether you match up to global leaders or not?

First, you must have the very appetite to carry out the benchmarking. Then you need the passion and the ambition to excel, the courage to confront inconvenient truths… and the unbashful straightforwardness to acknowledge and celebrate areas where you’re hot.

Recently, Davis & Shirtliff chose ‘Achieving World Class’ as the theme of their annual management conference. Until not too long ago the company’s ambition was ‘merely’ to be the best company in East Africa. But as it has expanded and prospered so have its ambitions, and now it’s going for global benchmarking.

In his presentation to his leadership team, owner and Chairman Alec Davis defined a world class organisation as one that is ‘market leading, respected and financially successful’, and mentioned international examples such as Toyota, Microsoft, Walmart and Coca Cola… plus Safaricom, Nakumat, Kenya Airways, Serena and other local ones.

He then went into more detail about what makes world class companies, describing how, through constant innovation and improvement, they’ve changed not only their products but the very markets in which they operate; how their products are easily accessible to their customers – who stay loyal; how they employ proud staff, of high integrity, who deliver consistent quality; how the companies are strongly branded; how they run efficient systems… and thanks to all of this, how they enjoy high growth and healthy profits.

Davis then graded his company in each of these areas. Quite a number scored A; a few got by with a B; and one (which shall be nameless!) only managed a lowly C. As you can imagine, much of the time at the conference was spent discussing how to convert that C into an A, but also where else it was possible to move to the next level.

It’s no surprise that Davis & Shirtliff is ISO certified, or that each year it enters COYA, the Company Of the Year Awards, or that it consistently goes home with a trophy in one category or another. Ten years ago I was part of the team at the Kenya Institute of Management that launched COYA. Our aim was to proclaim corporate excellence – overall, in the various functional areas, and in leadership. And it’s the same with the initiative of PWC and the East African, that annually recognises best-of-breed companies and leaders.

Whether one is being judged by independent assessors or by one’s peers, it’s good to get a feel of how one is doing relative to others. If one comes out on top, that’s great for self-esteem and self-confidence, and great for generating further boldness. And if one does not, at least ones knows there’s work to be done… and there’s always next year’s event.

Some firms are so tough, so ambitious, they look beyond their own industry to gauge themselves. The CEO of the renowned Serena Hotels spoke at a previous Davis & Shirtliff conference, at which the theme was ‘Exceeding Customer Expectations’. He told the story of an American fast food company that, in a bid to further speed up its service, sent its people to study the Ferrari Formula One pit crew in action. Food for thought indeed!

Is it only an elite few who can aspire to be world class? Maybe not. We know it’s those with unusual determination, those with the cheek to defy the rational, the normal, who do best. So why not ignore the conventional wisdom that world class companies can only come from the West, or Japan, or some Asian Tiger? To be great one must dream great, and one must dream that it is possible to be world class, here in Kenya. After all, some companies already are. Certainly many many individual Kenyans are.

I once read that the most important quality needed by an entrepreneur is curiosity. Surely that includes the curiosity to find out what being world class involves. Couple that with the determination to become so, and who knows what can happen.


Vision 2030… and Values 2030

A few months ago I wrote a piece about how speaking of vision immediately leads (or should lead) us to speak of values. ‘Without living by a set of healthy values,’ I said, ‘we have no chance, no chance at all, of living the vision itself.’ And I continued by asking: ‘How do we develop a greater level of respect and trust among us? How do we learn more about sharing and supporting, and about leaving behind our over-developed propensity for grabbing and undermining? How do we hold on to our irrepressible national energy and enthusiasm, but with more alignment, so that less of it is wasted on neutralising the energy and enthusiasm of others?’

Since then, as I followed the launch of Vision 2030 and the subsequent comments I must say that (not unexpectedly!) I have been most disappointed by the lack of attention paid to the strengthening of these enabling values. Indeed in the consulting work that I do I find that almost without exception organisations invest inadequately in strengthening their cultures. And that the exceptional ones that do tend to be overwhelming and lasting leaders in their fields.

So why do leaders shy away from having a go at building healthier cultures? Is it because they believe the culture is what it is and there’s not much that can be done about it? Is it because we live in a Kenya where our culture role models are dominantly politicians and matatu drivers, and so we have to (and have permission to) emulate them? If we are to survive in this dog-eat-dog society, we say, we must act aggressively. If, that is, we are to avoid being devoured by some even more ferocious predator.

Then, how would leaders know if investment in culture development pays off? After all, you can’t measure it, can you? Well, you can, but not many are prepared to invest in doing that either. Does this therefore mean we should not worry so much about our national culture? Do we just hope for the best? Not if I have anything to do with it!

What does the Vision 2030 document say on the subject? I read through it specifically in search of concepts and plans to do with culture and values and attitudes, and I’m happy to report that I did spot some important references. The first sighting came right in the President’s introduction, where he talks of how the journey to Kenya 2030 (a ‘just, equitable and prosperous’ one) will require ‘sacrifice, hard work, self-discipline and determination’. A good start.

Much of the values and attitudes stuff relates to the public service, and how it will be ‘citizen-focused and results-oriented’. It will be ethical, valuing transparency and accountability; it will reward on merit and performance; and engage in continuous improvement.

There’s a lot too under the political pillar where, among the ‘guiding principles’, we read of the need to adhere to ‘national values, goals and ideology’. We will ‘inculcate a culture of compliance with laws and decent behaviour’; ‘promote processes for national and inter-community dialogue in order to build harmony… ’; and ‘inculcate a culture of respect for the sanctity of human life’. Indeed, one of the five flagship projects under the pillar is identified as ‘begin a national programme on attitudinal and value change to inculcate a culture of voluntary compliance with the efficiency norms required by Vision 2030’.

In the section on human resource development I was delighted to see mention of the need for better teamwork among our people. And happily, attention is also given to developing future generations. I note under programmes for youth that we will ‘support initiatives that mould character and appropriate behaviour’, and help them ‘make appropriate choices in life’.

All well and good. But how are we going to go about all this ‘inculcating’? And who’s going to be keeping an eye on the culture strengthening happening across all sectors and levels? Indeed how will we know if and when we have made progress in building healthy values? Who’s the Monitoring and Evaluation fundi in all of this?

Just on that point, reference is made to ‘building a skills inventory’ for Kenya. What about an ‘attitudes inventory’? Unless we have a good enough feel for current attitudes, how can we be on solid ground as we aspire to adopt the ones needed to fulfil our long-term national vision?

Working on attitudes, behaviour, values and culture is a minority sport. Few even recognise the field as one where there’s much that can be done. But those of us who are active in this domain see it as absolutely vital to the wellbeing of any society. If we look at what people like Geoffrey Griffin evolved at Starehe Boys Centre, or what Strathmore has achieved, we can see how powerful values-based cultures can be… and in the present Kenya, not just some Utopian 2030 one.

In such places everyone agrees to adhere by a certain code of conduct, knowing it to be for the good of all. It requires the strength and discipline to hold back from being selfish, and this requires leaders who walk the talk and to whom we can look as our role models. It’s about time we started engaging in some urgent national conversations about our national values – and way before the next elections.

If the various commissions set up under the AU-brokered Accords are to make a valuable contribution to the way Kenyans lead their lives, they will stimulate just such conversations. They will need to go far beyond giving people the opportunity to moan about what unfortunate victims they have been made, and how awful all those other people out there are.

Whether among our politicians or our public servants, whether among our businesspeople or our young ones, even among our matatu drivers, we just must start taking this conversation on national values seriously.

How not to dread strategic retreats

Not many people look forward to strategic retreats. Quite a few dread them. Sure, they often take place at fancy hotels and lodges by the coast or a lake, or in a game park. But how often are they productive, never mind enjoyable? And how much of what is discussed and agreed upon is ever implemented?

To be fair, some organisations do manage to consistently run imaginative and exciting strategy planning sessions, that motivate all those who participate and result in good things happening thereafter. Such groups expect to do well; and they do so because they know what it takes. For, like with anything else, there’s a whole bunch of skills that have been developed which, if acquired, will make a strategic retreat something to look forward to rather than to endure. Indeed, some have made a profession out of organising and running these retreats.

But what’s the big deal? Surely all you have to do is get the management team to throw together a handful of Powerpoint presentations, and line up a bunch of directors to tear them apart. Then everyone toils away till late at night squabbling over budget allocations, and you’re all set for the next year, feeling good you’ve been through some painful haggling

That may be how too many such retreats unfold, and of course it’s also why people dread them so much. But there is a better way, and much is in the preparation. First, one must be clear about the purpose. Is it to review recent performance, assess the present situation, and as a consequence dream up (or reaffirm) the desired vision and mission and values? Should it extend to sketching out the strategic goals, to working on specific plans? And above all should it include discussions on the revenue and the expenditure – the budget business?

I firmly believe strategic retreats should be just that – strategic. People should keep to the big picture, and not allow themselves to get bogged down in too much detail, while of course not erring in the other direction by being too vague. I also don’t think participants should be up until all hours in the meeting room, or that they should normally take more than two or three days. Sometimes though, like when people come from many and distant locations, and there are other issues that require them all to be present – like training, for instance – it makes sense to extend the time.

Too often though, the reason retreats become extended is that endless time is consumed by unproductive arguing over relatively insignificant issues – like the order of the agenda; or where despite basic agreement over some point, the usual suspects insist on being obstinately difficult.

Indeed retreats are as much about atmosphere and pace as about content and outcome. They must flow well, building up from a strong opening to a powerful close. Except in very exceptional circumstances they should end on a high note, one that inspires confidence and hope. Throughout, participants should feel energetic and enthusiastic. They must be open to each others’ ideas, being prepared to build on them And they must be in a relaxed frame of mind that makes them open to bold and creative thinking.

Let’s come back to those presentations. Very few know how to structure these to best effect. There’s often far too much detail (not least in the overloaded slides); there are far more requests (not to mention complaints) than offers; and presenters operate as lone rangers rather than as members of a coordinated team. Above all too many stop very short of developing their business case to a point where those listening can easily say ‘yes’. So much of what one hears leads one to ask ‘So what?’ rather than to state ‘I see’, never mind to exclaiming ‘Just go ahead!’

What were the alternatives considered, one would like to know, with their respective advantages and disadvantages, and what led to the selection of the preferred one? And what would be the consequences of not going ahead with what is proposed?

After the presentations – which should neither be too many nor too long – the organisers must decide how to arrange for discussion and for convergence on an agreed way ahead. Here I have found that breaking into smaller groups for focused and constructive discussion pays great dividends. It gives the quieter and the less senior in the group easier opportunities to contribute freely, and it brings all levels together in a common brainstorming. It can transform ‘judges’ into ‘advisers’, and persecuted victims into motivated performers. For a retreat provides a unique opportunity to build teams – between levels, between departments and between individuals.

However brilliant the retreat though, the common cry is that despite all the best intentions, little ever changes. And it’s only when planning the next one a year down the line that one dusts off the beautiful report of the earlier event and blushes with shame over how so many of the same challenges and opportunities exist, quite untouched by firm yet long forgotten resolutions. So a good deal of time needs to be spent towards the end of a retreat in being very specific about the follow up.

Organisers of retreats rightly anguish over where to hold them. OK, it must be away from the normal workplace to avoid constant interruptions, but how far away? At a site that can be reached in under an hour or so by road, thus avoiding the higher cost of travel, never mind of extra hotel nights? Or is part of the objective to reward participants by offering a more exotic setting, with reasonable time also available in which to enjoy its recreational facilities?

There are no fixed or easy answers in this delicate business of managing great retreats. But if, like me, you’ve been part of some really awful ones and also of some stellar ones that motivated everyone present to go out and conquer the world, and if you reflect on the differences between them, you’ll have a pretty good idea of the do’s and don’ts.

Building a healthy culture

Imagine you’re an invisible person touring the world’s organisations. What will you see and hear? What vibrations will be coming from those who work there, from leaders, from support staff, from this or that department? Will the vibrations be pleasing? Will you resonate serenely to the high and aligned energy? Will the faces be smiling? In some, perhaps yes. But in many it’s more likely that there will be an almost permanent tension, an ongoing sense of conflict and unease.

Worse still, from top to bottom there’s often a sense that this unease is inevitable. It’s always been there and it always will be. Because we human beings, most believe, are a selfish and unreliable lot. We don’t trust or respect each other… and we’re right not to. Our deep insecurities put us in a permanently defensive mode and one of our greatest competencies, derived from deep experience and practice, is in finding others to blame for what has gone wrong.

But wait. You did see that some organisations have managed to defy this ‘normal’ state. How did they do it? How did they build a healthy culture? Let me tell you, it doesn’t come naturally, and it doesn’t come easily. Those who have found ways have worked very hard not only to build alignment but to maintain what they have created. For we also have to acknowledge that if there’s anything more difficult than getting a group of people to develop ways of working well with each other it is to keep it up. Never mind if the composition of the team changes.

Those with healthy cultures invest considerable time in working at it. They know that if they succeed, the returns on the investment will be transformative. (Those who don’t spend time on such issues are convinced the whole culture-building thing is a waste of time – time that could be far better spent just ‘getting on with the work’.)

How do successful culture champions spend time on it? They talk. They indulge in deep, thoughtful, respectful, appreciative conversations that are filled with goodwill and good intent. They seek feedback from each other, ensuring that no significant gap exists between the messages they intend to get across and what actually does. And they are emotionally intelligent people, who know how to pass delicate messages without giving undue offence.

They not only get better at saying what they mean, they are the kind of people who mean what they say: they are reliable, responsible folk, whom others trust. And because this is the prevailing culture, the way people do things in their environment, then in addition to being trustworthy members of this healthy culture are also trusting of each other.

These people engage in big groups, they do so in small groups, and not least they do so one on one. They are open with each other, very open. They are open with their appreciation of each other, and they are open with where they would like their colleagues to do things differently.

Their style is likely to boil down to an exchange of offers and requests. For most people, it’s the requests that more readily come to mind. But what we need to accept is that the more generous we are with counterbalancing offers the more easy will it be for the ones with whom we are ‘negotiating’ to agree to our requests.

In high performance teams such negotiating takes place with a graceful generosity of spirit. And generosity requires boldness. For the offers may well require sacrifice and inconvenience, but we make them willingly, knowing the compensating hoped for rewards. It is only if we are prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, if we are willing to take a risk, that we earn the right to expect good things to emerge.

In any group – never mind one that is willing to take risks – mistakes and failures will occur. But in high performance teams, when this happens it is not the signal for the unleashing of that far too common phenomenon, the blame game to which I referred earlier. Instead, there follows a dispassionate analysis of what individuals and teams can learn from the unfortunate experience, in order to avoid a repetition. There is an acceptance of what happened, with no crying over spilt milk and no recriminations. If one or more people have performed poorly, there is sympathy, forgiveness… and support.

I really admire teams that retire to a retreat simply in order to strengthen their cultures. It takes faith that it will be a worthwhile investment of their time, and it takes guts – not least on the part of the leaders – to be willing to expose themselves in front of their colleagues. In my experience the organisations that are most likely to indulge in such activity are those that are already ahead of the pack. They wish to refresh their culture, to push the envelope, to inject yet more positive energy into their human system.

As the retreat unfolds surprises are normal. Individuals are confronted with unexpected feedback. Sometimes, and often with the quieter, humbler folk, it is unexpectedly positive, as a result of which they glow with enhanced confidence. And sometimes – not infrequently with the noisier ones – it can be quite destabilising. For the first time those with whom they interact regularly, maybe their peers, maybe their juniors, have found a safe space in which to tell them how much they inhibit others, how abrasive they appear, how domineering.

I have observed situations where the one being told they come across in a certain unfavourable way emerge from such workshops with significantly changed behaviour. But I have also witnessed conversations where the assertive style of a boss was quite misinterpreted by some around them, and where this provided an opportunity for easy and accepted clarification. ‘I had no idea I was coming across like that,’ some say. ‘It was not at all my intention, and in future please be quick to let me know if I am.’

Many boisterous leaders, who naturally throw around a lot of energy, do so partly to energise others. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. And it takes a company retreat to find out.

The virtuous cycle of confidence

Most people are desperate to learn how they can build their confidence. For what I have found is that there are very few on this planet who feel genuinely self-confident. Even many who appear to ooze confidence actually live in a turmoil of inner self-doubt. What an unfortunate lot we humans are. Sure, a good proportion of us have every reason to lack confidence. (‘Don’t worry about that inferiority complex,’ the therapist comforts, ‘you’re just inferior.’) But even many who have amply earned the right to self-confidence – through their sizzling track record – have not managed to get there.

Over the years I have developed a way of helping people with their confidence. (Including me… eventually!) I first work on what enables confidence, and then tantalise with what it in turn enables. I have my tentative charges start by looking back on their achievements, and as they list them I invite them to explain these achievements in terms of the strengths that enabled them… achievement by achievement.

When I carry out this exercise with young people their first reaction is almost invariably to tell me it’s not possible, as they feel they haven’t yet achieved anything to speak of. But I soon show them this is far from true, and off we go. At all ages, I find it common that people understate their achievements, take them for granted, or simply forget key ones. And the same with strengths.

The reason for starting with achievements is that, unlike if one goes straight to strengths, achievements are tangible. And then as the exercise proceeds, it becomes obvious that without some underlying strengths (OK, and occasional luck) there could have been no successes. That way there’s no possibility of denying or avoiding coming to terms with them.

So, achievements, explained by strengths. Great – now it’s time for celebrating. But wait. Normal humble mortals – and certainly the British, definitely Kenyans – find this inordinately hard to do. Indeed they feel it’s most inappropriate, this blowing of one’s own trumpet… even to oneself. And the unfortunate consequence is that the shyness stands in the way of making the vital link to the self-esteem to which these unproud folk have earned the right. ‘Please go ahead,’ I beg, ‘I give you permission to enjoy looking back over the great things you have done, and at the strengths that enabled them.’

Unless you have linked achievements and strengths to self-esteem, you cannot take the next step to self-confidence. And I say again, many do not. Some of the most successful people, people bursting with endless talents, are among the most insecure and with the lowest self-esteem. The intelligent imagine themselves to be stupid; the beautiful are convinced of their ugliness; the creative insist on telling us how barren of imagination they are. Usually by comparison to – idealised – others.

Low self-esteem cannot but erode self-confidence. Just as high self-esteem is a must for healthy self-confidence. Note the ‘healthy’. For I’m not talking about hype. And I’m certainly not advocating cockiness. Indeed those who walk about with misplaced self-esteem and unjustified self-confidence are an absolute menace.

The next step is to explore what self-confidence enables. Easy: it enables boldness, the willingness to entertain risk and to go after big challenges. Oh, and the willingness to confront our weaknesses too, those that risk holding us back. Boldness in turn opens the door to more successes. OK, also to some failures. But for people with high self-esteem and high self-confidence, they find the strength to treat failures as opportunities for learning. Achievements by a different name.

Achievements – whether triumphs or mere opportunities for learning – are immediately available to feed self-esteem, and so the virtuous cycle of confidence is established.

If only more young people could be introduced to this cycle. Instead our parents, our teachers, our first bosses, far prefer merely to focus on where we need to do better, where we must ‘pull up our socks’. ‘Why is your maths still below par?’ stern parents enquire, for they want their little ones to be great performers, in all departments. But what such quest for comprehensive perfection can breed is precisely the kind of anxiety, the sense of inadequacy, that we must surely avoid as we pass through our formative years.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be good at maths. It’s just that performance appraisal is too often reduced to exception reporting. All the good stuff is taken for granted, and we hammer away at the weak points. For otherwise, it is said, the little person will lower their standards, become complacent. Will they? Or will they feel so discouraged by the shortfall in maths that it will affect their self-esteem and confidence in other areas too? How many people of great potential have failed to fulfil it thanks to the unintended consequence of going after failures and weaknesses at the expense of celebrating successes and strengths?

But even if we once were that child who was taught early in life that nothing we ever did was good enough, it’s not too late. That child may now be the CEO of a major corporation or a judge or be playing football for Kenya. They may wear elegant suits or horsehair wigs or drive a fancy SUV. But inside there may well be elements of that earlier little insecure person buried within them.

If that CEO or judge or footballer is reading this article I hope it helps him or her. It will require some quiet contemplative time in which to think back over their lives. When were and are they at their most successful? What factors were and are present? What strengths were and are on display?

Feel good about it, damnit. Relax. No complacency now. No smugness. Just feel the self-esteem flowing through. Not from puffed-up hype. Simply from evidence-based triumphs. A straightforward recollection of all those hard achievements… which would not have been possible without all those great strengths.

Why being nice to customers is a good idea

I started writing this at 30,000ft, over the Sahara Desert, where Virgin Atlantic was pampering me to death – and I wasn’t even installed in their uppermost class. ALL Virgin staff, whether in their office or at the airport or in the sky, are permanently, relentlessly friendly and cheerful. And genuinely so. It doesn’t seem to require a big effort. It’s not training. It’s just the way they are.

The airline does a great job looking for such good people when they recruit. And in reflection of Richard Branson’s bubbly personality, they’re encouraged to be their full joyous selves once they join. They’re genuinely pleased to be with you and to serve you, and you can’t help but be put in the best of moods by them. Their smiling enthusiastic culture is deeply infectious, better than any spa, any therapist.

And there’s more to this positive attitude. Their people display a generosity of spirit that constantly aches to do MORE for us, to exceed our highest expectations consistently. They keep coming round to ask if we’d like a glass of water, or perhaps some other drink. They cruise through with trays of refreshing juice, with soothing hot towels, with whatever they can think of that will give us pleasure, make us feel spoiled.

So many organisations proclaim they want to go the extra mile for their customers. Not a few manage to persuade themselves they actually do. But you and I know that, anywhere in the world, hardly any even manage to make it through the first mile, never mind subsequent ones. For the vast majority, ‘exceeding customer expectations’ remains an empty slogan, a lifeless value on a stale list (that probably also includes ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ and other ideals that exist only as wishful thinking).

It’s always puzzled me why the world is this way, why so many customer-facing people, from the most senior to the most junior, are so palpably indifferent to their customers, often downright mean and rude. Even if there’s no competition, what kind of minds are at work, what souls inhabit these unfriendly, unresponsive vendors? What inhibits them? Why do they feel they’ve been prohibited from being nice to customers, that it would somehow be a betrayal of what their employers really want?

I say this remembering my only ever flight – and long may it remain so – with one of the largest American airlines. After being soundly and gratuitously abused by one of their ground staff, a colleague of his, trying to make amends, confided in me that he would sometimes berate her for being ‘too nice to customers’! I could hardly believe it, but given the way he’d behaved with me and some of my fellow passengers, his philosophy was obviously based on the assumption that we customers are but an indisciplined source of irritation.

Surely there’s a cure for this dreadful sickness: tell those who serve customers (ie just about everyone, one way or another) that they indeed have permission to smile and to be polite, to be responsive and reliable, to deliver quality and to go the extra mile. It’s OK, we allow it. We encourage it. Excuse me, we insist on it! Be happy. Make others happy. Simple.

While in London I went to a nice little Italian restaurant on the Strand that has been going for over forty years. All the waiters are jolly, and long before the end of the meal we felt they were our friends. (I’m happy to say this isn’t so unusual in Kenya.) They wanted us to enjoy the food and the service, and they wanted us to leave feeling we were happy we came.

I don’t how much those waiters think about the emotional link they create, or about the loyalty they build. But their warmth is exactly what makes us want to repeat the experience. We’d even be prepared to pay a little more for their tender loving care, preferring their brand over others and so making it our first choice. Many organisations tell us their vision is to be the whatever ‘of choice’?  But how many have the slightest idea about how to have us become addicted to dealing with them, forsaking all others? Pathetically few.

Too many companies are so obsessed with controlling costs, with making sure no customer walks away with any tiny amount more than they’ve paid for. They’d rather die than offer a concession after disappointing or irritating us. But they’re so concerned about being wonderfully cost-efficient they completely lose sight of the bigger picture – and that their very efficiency completely overwhelms their overall effectiveness.

We customers feel the meanness. Yes, feel: we’re human, we have emotions… and we vote with our feet. We go elsewhere, to someone who understands what it takes to satisfy our need to be treated well. We want quality and we want a good price and speedy delivery and all those things. But it can all be for nothing unless we feel welcomed.

For this to happen when it most counts it’s vital to empower those down the ladder. They see when there’s been a service failure, and they’re the ones who should there and then use discretion, not feeling bound by restrictive systems and rules that provide easy justification for saying ‘no’. By the way, on my return journey with Virgin, their in-flight entertainment system refused to work. So being Virgin they were ready with their ‘pole’: a printed ‘Sorry’ form for each of their passengers, awarding us all a bunch of extra air miles. Perfect.

People buy from people. And we’d far rather buy from friendly helpful ones, who enjoy dealing with their product or service, and who enjoy dealing with us. So relax. Smile. Not because you’ve been trained to. Not because it’s hard work. But because that’s the social you, the full, natural you. You’ll live a healthier life, and a longer one… and you’ll have lots and lots of customers who can’t wait to spend their money with you.