Hooray! Glass ceiling has been breaking

There’s still so much gloomy, pessimistic talk about how difficult it is for women to rise to the highest levels of leadership, but I wish there would be less of this poor-us mentality.

Not because I am a chauvinist. No, it is for the opposite reason: it is because what I see all around me is women who have reached the highest levels. And they have not done so either because of or despite their gender.

Overwhelmingly they made their way through life having developed competence and healthy attitudes. Just like most men.

Admittedly there are those, both women and men, who have barged and bullied their way into leadership, and OK there may well be many more men than women who have done so.

But let us stop describing scenarios from days gone by, focusing rather on the great place we have reached, certainly here in Kenya.

It was in 1978 that management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling”, during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in which she noted how the female panelists focused on “the deficiencies in women’s socialisation, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved, and the poor self-image that many women allegedly carried”.

I don’t know about you, but wherever I go these days, I see no evidence of either self-imposed or male-imposed ceilings. On boards where I sit and in my management consulting assignments, around me there are women and there are men.

And the gender of the director or the manager or the technical specialist is irrelevant. Some happen to be men while others happen to be women.

Some of the men are more extrovert and assertive than others, and the same is the case among the women. Both men and women possess varying levels of emotional intelligence, with some more skilled at building win-win consensus, others expecting Trump-like win-lose outcomes.

So I just do not relate to the generalisations we hear so commonly about men and women being “different”, with the assertion that women are “more emotionally intelligent” and “better at bringing people together”. I know plenty of men who display these soft skills more than many of the women I come across… and vice versa too.

But as more women have gained levels of education equivalent to those of their male counterparts, and as they have emerged into workplace environments that increasingly assume gender is not a factor in determining career development, so many have risen up the ranks naturally and smoothly.

For sure there are still far more men at the highest levels, but what we have been witnessing is an ongoing evolution.
Where we are today with gender diversity is so much improved compared to where we were even a few years ago, and the upward trajectory of competent women has by no means tapered off.

So while it is easy — and common — to continue to describe the cup as half-empty, it is much more realistic and helpful to focus on how it continues to fill.

If you restrict yourself to snapshots in time you will still see many gaps and much to complain about. But if you look over time there is much to celebrate.

Of course in the political arena, than ultimate bastion of male chauvinism, the situation is radically different. Yet we must not over-focus on what it takes to survive and succeed in that macho culture where the rough win-lose dynamic of elections is intrinsic.

And we must also accept that in rural areas and in some parts of the country generally — yes, and also in many organisations — it remains hard for women to sit at top tables. But you see my point.

Some of my readers know that I am married to Evelyn Mungai, and I am happy to confirm that she has only reinforced my observations on the contemporary status of women in Kenya (not least herself).

In her recently published book, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies, she included the stories of almost 40 women as they journeyed to positions of leadership.

And let me tell you, I am not at all sure they did so that differently than had they been men.

Great leaders don’t shy away from bold visions and targets

How much can your organisation grow: incrementally? Significantly? Massively? And how quickly: never? Eventually? Now?

If yours is like others I have been working with recently, some among your colleagues will feel that only modest growth is reasonable and practical, while others — maybe just the odd outlier — are convinced that transformative expansion is feasible.

What makes the minority radicals reach their much more optimistic conclusions? Is it the confidence and boldness of their personalities?

No doubt, but from what I have been seeing it is also because they have experienced at least one other situation where they were the lone voice proclaiming the potential for dramatic expansion and not only managed to persuade their colleagues it was worth having a go at it but then actually witnessed success in achieving so much more than everyone else had imagined was possible.

It is such a mindset that in his book Good to Great led Jim Collins to advocate the defining of “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), as the outstanding performers he wrote about did. And this spirit of bravado was echoed in Sean Covey’s WIGs (Wildly Impossible Goals) in The 4 Disciplines of Execution that he wrote with his FranklinCovey colleagues.

I am also reminded of Joel Barker’s The New Business of Paradigms, in which he stated that it is easy to become paralysed in “the terminal disease of certainty” as one becomes trapped in an existing paradigm.

As I quoted in an earlier article on Barker’s healthy provocations, he challenged leaders to ask: “What is impossible to do today in your business that if it could be done would fundamentally change it for the better?” Including, of course, doing what would have it grow at multiples of the present rate.

So whether we’re talking about setting radically more ambitious growth targets or about doing a much better job of achieving them, it is definitely worth asking what it would take to multiply one’s annual growth rate, to explore what can be done to transform the achievement rate of even short term goals.

I like having participants in strategy sessions wear Edward de Bono’s different coloured “thinking hats”, reflecting different attitudes to life.

Enough team members should wear his yellow ones, where the sunny and positive colour leads the wearers to be optimistic and hopeful.

More should wear the complementary green hat, given that green is the colour of vegetation and abundant fertile growth, thus indicating creativity, freedom and new ideas.

And OK, we’ll allow some others, the pessimists and the sceptics, to don the black hat, reflecting a gloomier disposition. They will keep the others sober, explaining what is not possible, and why the ideas proposed cannot work.

My role in the situations I have participated in, mainly as a facilitating consultant but also as an independent director, has been to embolden the more timid black-hatted participants and also to help the yellow- and green-hatted to do the same, so that consensus is built around a common vision.

READ: Big picture thinking needed from the private sector for national transformation

In the process the optimists may have to somewhat soften their stand, while the pessimists must stretch and increase their appetite for risk.

So what can you do to rise to a different level: to become very much better at serving your customers, with both existing and new products?

To acquire or merge with another company? To enter into joint ventures or other forms of partnerships? Should you restructure, bring in new people, develop a new culture? Must you tighten and shorten your processes?

From time to time it is good to go away and dream big dreams, bigger than you ever thought possible.

But I warn you, the initiators of such dreams are typically outsiders and newcomers, not those who are familiar with how things have always been done. They may well not be from the same sector or industry.

They may be a director, or the CEO, or some middle-level Young Turk. At first such folk may be scoffed at, merely humoured.

But if they persist and if there is substance to their transformative thesis their view can gather irresistible momentum. The challenge is for the new bold vision to become comprehensively and universally owned. And that requires great leadership. Try it!

Keeping consultancy simple does not mean it’s simplistic

As a non-technical chief executive of IT companies over many years, I was conscious that one of my key roles was to understand what benefits our clients were seeking from investing in technology systems and to match these with what was being proposed by our technical staff.

I was an interpreter and a mediator, bringing together supply and demand to the satisfaction of both parties. The challenge was to absorb the essence of the need and the response so as to help align the two.

I had to rise above all the jargon used by the techies on each side, and engage with the clients’ leadership in language to which they could relate. Vital to this was conveying what was intended in a simple and straightforward way.

In my current life as a management consultant this business of ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ (KISS) continues to serve me well — I believe it helps me with my columns too.

But it is not without its challenges, as so many of the organisations with which my colleagues and I interact seem to revel in over-complicating much of what they do.

What we have found is that the more educated and sophisticated the senior leadership, the more they expect that we will engage them with impressively complex models and frameworks and methodologies with theories of change and multi-dimensional matrices, overelaborate manifestations of the balanced scorecard and very clever assessment as well as incentive schemes.

So when we offer them the simple approaches to strategy development, culture change, performance management and such like that we have evolved over the years, a good number are unimpressed.

And the reason is that they mistake the simple for the simplistic, imagining our uncomplicated approach, our absence of management-speak, to be beneath their intellectual dignity to apply. They are also skeptical that our simple approach is sufficiently robust to be effective.

Many large international organisations, not least development partners and NGOs but also corporates, have teams of head-office boffins — no doubt supported by consultants paid multiples of what I and my team command — who roll out intricate strategies and plans, systems and processes, that boggle the mind and often do more to distract from delivering on their organisations’ visions and goals than to support their achievement.

Never mind that before people have fully understood the ramifications of what has been handed down to them the whole thing has more than likely been replaced by yet another intricate masterpiece.

It was Winston Churchill who once apologised for giving a long speech, explaining that he hadn’t had enough time to write a short one. Well, similarly I believe those who roll out complicated ways of doing things haven’t spent sufficient time making them less so.

And while what we do may look simple and indeed be simple, it takes intense preparation and deep concentration to focus on purpose and deliver impact: we are actually like the proverbial swan, gliding smoothly along the surface yet paddling like mad underneath.

Disparagingly, it is said that consultants and coaches are merely people who “borrow your watch to tell you the time”. To me, however, there can be much goodness in that. For our job is to bring out the wisdom in the group or the individual, not to preach from on high.

The less we do the better, and the more we can help our clients to read what their watch is telling them without us the better. To succeed we must therefore be excellent listeners, and skilled at continuously assessing at what speed and in what direction to guide the process.

In many of our workshops, coaching sessions and other initiatives we smilingly give those involved “permission” to be simple. Sometimes we are forced to instruct them to be so!

And it is very gratifying that once we have completed an assignment it is not unusual for one or more of them – including earlier skeptics – to tell us how much they appreciated the way we progressed their issues in impactful yet uncomplicated ways.

Let me conclude by asking: are you so afraid of being seen to be simplistic (including by yourself) that you do not dare to be simple?

Start-ups must cling to vision and values early

I have recently been working with a very exciting start-up that is working frantically to prepare all aspects of its operations for a big launch and for having a major disruptive influence in their sector. In among the time-critical construction of facilities, the hiring of people, the evolving of structures and systems and so forth, it has been hard for them — make that impossible — to get together so as to reflect on their vision and values and form a cohesive team.

The founder-CEO has a clear vision of what is possible, and he brings his strong values to the organisation. Then, as he has been recruiting key members of his senior management team he has been seeking people who share his bold and uplifting vision and who are at home with his equally inspiring values.

Now the top team is in place, and they swiftly got down to meeting the crazy deadlines they had set. They have also communicated their planned timescales to their stakeholders, putting serious extra pressure on such shared ambitious expectations — as much with their investors as with their customers, suppliers, the regulators and others.

So now in the midst of all this frantic activity they decided to hold a retreat to talk about vision and values? Surely not! Think of all they could be doing instead — overseeing construction, working on big tenders, sorting out licences, soothing anxious shareholders…

Not everyone was convinced. If at all they were to be away from the office, some asked, could it not just be to refine their short-term plans? No, insisted the CEO. It was equally important to get the whole team to evolve a joint expression of their vision and values, not only to bind themselves together around owning and living these expressions but for the benefit of all their other stakeholders too.

True, while these days everyone has thrown together visions, missions and values, for the overwhelming majority it’s a notional one-off activity, soon neglected and forgotten. Why bother, therefore? And for this start-up why now, when there’s so much else to do?

First, there will always be so much to do. The pace will never slow down. Not for any organisation that expects to survive, never mind one whose ambition is to disrupt a whole industry. Then, investing time in defining one’s desired vision and values, one’s culture, is vital to ensuring everyone indeed lives them.

Those who do well here can then be recognised as role models and suitably rewarded, while those who do not can be helped to do so — and if they prove to be unhelpable they can justifiably be told that this is not the place for them. As significantly, in recruiting new talent a vibrant broadcasting of one’s vision and values will help greatly in attracting the kind of people you are seeking.

If you talk about boldness and risk-taking, about innovation and entrepreneurialism, about learning and growth, you are defining your brand in ways that will appeal to the right types.

It’s good for everyone to get a sense of where you are headed, who you are and how you expect to behave — with each other and with everyone else.

Let me, therefore, appeal to all those who are launching a venture to make time at the earliest opportunity for laying out your aspirational identity —both in terms of the impact you seek to make on society and in how you will behave along the way.

Those who leave it till they get “less busy” will probably never get down to it, continuing to exist at the level of day-to-day hustling and thereby risking their longer term futures.

I must also address more established and mature organisations.

Most of you display some expression of your vision and values on your websites and elsewhere. But rarely do leaders refer to these as sources of inspiration, motivation and focus, or as drivers of performance.

Where are you in all of this?

By taking advantage of modelling and speaking about your visions and values you are capitalising on a great opportunity for leading your team to greater heights.

Lucas Marang’a – Deadlines

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New York Times scribe’s indepth story of Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration linked to better performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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