This is a must-read book for job hunters

Exactly ten years ago I wrote a column on careers guidance in which I described how when I joined the Rotary Club of Nairobi in 1978 the first job I was given was to take care of the careers guidance portfolio.

Like most young people making their way through their school years I had never received any serious help in deciding on what I should be doing after emerging from my education, and so it was – and still is – with just about every young Kenyan today.

There was no Google to consult on how I should approach my onerous new Rotary responsibility, but happily I came across What Colour is my Parachute? by Richard Bolles, a brilliant book that was to become my bible on the subject – and that of so many others all around the world, with over ten million copies having now been sold, in twenty-two languages.

What Colour is my Parachute? has been around since 1970 and revised every year since 1975, sometimes substantially. The transformation of the workplace environment and the arrival of the Internet have resulted in job-seekers having to adopt radically different approaches to matching what they have to offer with what employers are seeking, and this brilliant book has always kept pace with the evolving trends.

The edition I first bought was the 1978 one, and just recently the 2018 version, in which I read that Mr Bolles died last year at the age of ninety. I felt I had lost someone precious to me, and so this article serves as a tribute to him, a celebration of his life.

With Google now at my elbow, I found the New York Times obituary to Mr Bolles, in which it quotes him as writing in his book that “job-hunting is an art form, more like dating than like selling a used car. You may never understand why things sometimes work, and sometimes don’t.”

What I so appreciate about the book today, just as much as I did when I first stumbled across that much earlier edition, is that beyond being a guide to the job market it offers a powerful yet straightforward way of helping readers understand themselves — the most neglected of all aspects of the process, I have consistently found. They are helped to figure out what they really like doing and are good at, so they can then find the job that would let them do it.

The obituary informs us that it had never entered Mr Bolles’ mind that he would write a blockbuster. “I was just trying to help people be better prepared than I was when I was fired and started looking for a job,” he said in an earlier interview.

Mr Bolles explained that the title was inspired by the expression, common among people weary of their jobs, that they wanted to “bail out”. “I always thought of an airplane,” he explained, “so I playfully would respond, ‘What color is your parachute?’”

He put little hope in job postings and CVs, and instead encouraged job seekers to form personal connections through means such as the informational, or exploratory, interview – which I also strongly recommend.

He pushed readers to treat a job search like a major project, a full-time occupation. And as for job interviews, these should be seen as conversations between the two sides, to see if what one is offering the other is seeking, and to determine whether the chemistry the culture fit, is right.

The central wisdom of “Parachute” has remained constant, whether I go back to my 1970s version or consult the current one.

Yes, people conduct job searches differently, but how interviews unfold hasn’t changed at all.

“It’s still two people circling each other,” he pointed out, “trying to figure out if they like each other enough to actually spend time together in a productive relationship,” explaining “I think that has remained the same because human nature has not changed.”

So my advice to job-seekers – at any age – is invest in a copy of Mr Bolles’ masterpiece. You’ll be really glad you did. And good news: his son will be continuing to update the contents in future editions.

How to nudge citizens to do good for society

After my last article on econocracy I don’t want my review of economists to end on a negative note (several readers wrote to tell me the field is more diverse than I had indicated), so today I celebrate the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Economics, Richard Thaler, co-author with Cass Sunstein of the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The book popularised nudge theory, the idea that governments can design environments that change the way we think and make it easier to choose what is best for us and the societies in which we live. It revealed how to nurture our higher instincts and so do a better job saving for retirement, holding back on excessive consumption and in other ways serving our longer term interests.

Advised by Mr Thaler, David Cameron set up a nudge unit – his “Behavioural Insight Team” – and President Obama introduced a similar group, led by Mr Sunstein, where they brought together concepts from behavioural science, political theory and behavioural economics. Here, and at similar think tanks elsewhere (including in the World Bank and the UN), they came up with policies that use positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence behaviour and decision-making.

Nudging complements other ways of achieving compliance with policies, such as education, legislation and enforcement. It alters people’s behaviour in ways that are voluntary and easy. Like putting healthy foods at eye-level on supermarket shelves or near their check-out points, rather than just banning junk food.

Another impressively effective example from several countries is a nudge that has led to a huge rise in organ donations. They switched to an opt-out system from one where one had to opt in: citizens were now automatically registered for organ donation as the default option unless they chose to state otherwise.

At a lighter level there’s the etching of the image of a fly into the men’s room urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, intended to improve the aim. (Males who visit the men’s facility at Sarit Centre’s Newscafé will be familiar with this target!)

Key to nudging people into actions they otherwise would not have undertaken is to make them much simpler to undertake – particularly complex ones such as applying for higher education or registering into pension funds. And beyond process simplification, easily accessible human assistance has also proved helpful.

Reducing income tax debt is one of the UK’s longest-running and most successful nudge projects. Revised reminder letters informed non-compliers that most of their neighbours had already paid, positioning them as tardy outliers.

But the letters had little impact on the few who owed the most tax, and here the message that worked best was that not paying tax would mean everyone losing out on vital public services like healthcare, roads and schools.

Another project seriously cut the high dropout rate on government-subsidised adult literacy classes, simply by sending students a personalised text message every Sunday night that read: “I hope you had a good break, and we look forward to seeing you next week. Remember to plan how you will get to your class.”

We humans are not fully rational beings, so how we behave is not always aligned with our intentions. We will often do things that are not in our self-interest, even when we know that to be the case. When situations are complex or overwhelming, or when we are under time-constraints or other pressures, we often reach decisions too hastily, too automatically, which can easily lead to sub-optimal judgements. Too few of us take time for adequate reflection that allows us to support our longer term wellbeing.

Some nudging efforts work better than others, but we learn from experience and get wiser over time. It may well be overambitious to nudge our matatu drivers into more responsible behaviour, and for those who drink and drive alcoblow is definitely the surer option.

Finally, it is not just national policymakers who can nudge others into better decision-making. Let me nudge you into having a go, in your workplaces and also in your families. Think of using the carrot as well as the stick with those around you, tickling them into more enlightened behaviour.

How economists have lost touch with reality

A few weeks ago I wrote about the need to amplify the voice of economists in our country. In my article I spoke glowingly about my own experience as an economics undergraduate, acknowledging the way my professors opened up my powers of critical analysis and connected me so fully to the economic issues of the day.

I mentioned that I was still in touch with Vicky Chick, one of my lecturers from those times, and I sent her the article. She immediately wrote back, telling me that the education from which I benefitted was “so different from the usual fare dished up to students now”, and that I was lucky to study economics when I did. I was “educated”, she stated, while today’s students are “trained, indoctrinated or brainwashed”.

She remembered how we used to sit around working things out from first principles, but nobody does that today. Students are over-reliant on multiple-response based assessment, with limited opportunity to critically or independently assess alternative approaches. She then recommended the book The Econocracy: The perils of leaving economics to the experts, written by three dissenting students, members of “Rethinking Economics” (now active in 15 countries), who were fed up with the state of economics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. They wanted to see economist teachers and technocrats engage much more closely with the economic issues on the ground, and to communicate their proposals more simply.

My story moves to London, where I was recently. During my time there I met with now Emeritus Professor Chick for a coffee, and we returned to the subject of how the teaching of economics has degenerated – and not just in the UK. When we finished we walked across to the nearby bookshop where she bought me a copy of The Econocracy, which she signed below the message “Enjoy and share”.

So, obedient to my mwalimu, here goes. I’ll start by taking from the foreword to the book, written by the chief economist at the Bank of England, Andrew Haldane. He is unreserved in his condemnation of his fellow economists, citing their woeful inability to influence the Brexit battle that preceded – and is now succeeding – the referendum over membership of the EU. With their linguistic complexity these “experts” failed to win over the heads, never mind the hearts, of the voters. As a result, those who took part in the referendum won the day for democracy, marginalising the elite… the “econocracy”.

The book shows how the long-lasting crisis in the economy has led to a crisis in the field of economics itself – fuelled by disgruntled and hitherto compliant students who now rebelled against their obstinately disconnected professors. Faced with freezes on hiring and suffering under the burden of heavy student debt, they now found a bold anti-establishment voice – reinforced by the likes of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in America.

The book castigates the narrowing of economics to a mere mathematical cost-benefit analysis of alternative policies – applying a mechanical logic that delivers solutions to economic challenges such as harsh austerity programmes – while ignoring broader adverse social consequences and in particular the likely exacerbation of societal inequalities.

No wonder populist politicians assert that we have had enough of experts; no wonder that economist graduates are not fit to advise politicians on how to tackle economic challenges; and no wonder we have become divided between a minority who feel they own the language of economics and a majority who do not. I have no space to elaborate on the CORE (Curriculum Open-access Resources in Economics) economics education – founded at UCL, where I studied – but I urge those interested to look into how this initiative uplifts students of “the dismal science” to a much more positive, realistic and relevant place.

The messages of The Econocracy apply to us here in Kenya too: take a holistic view of policy-making – beyond the confines of narrow economic theory based on the unrealistic assumption of rational human behaviour, and taking account of social and moral perspectives; accept the uncertainty and unpredictability of our world so as not to rely on rigid and perhaps obsolete economic theories; and communicate technical complexities in ways that everyone can follow.

Proper way of coaching the young and anxious

I’m sure that like me you have been hearing about the increasing number of young people who feel anxious and depressed, even suicidal. And this is not just the poor and the unqualified. It includes many of the brightest and the best, the most educated and affluent.

In a BBC programme the other day there was a feature on the increasing number of suicides in Kenya, and later an interview with a life coach who talked about helping her clients to stop indulging in “negative self-talk”. Then I read an article on the BBC website about “insecure over-achievers”, and another on why young Germans are pessimistic.

What a gloomy collection.

I related all too closely to each of these items, as in the last few weeks I have been coaching several young graduates, all extremely bright and multi-talented, all with extraordinary academic as well as non-academic achievements behind them… yet all so anxious about themselves and their futures.

In addition to excelling in their studies they had experienced success in sports and the arts, they’d been chosen for leadership positions, and had contributed as volunteers in their communities.

Despite all their talents and achievements though, despite possessing the needed energy, confidence and boldness to have performed as they did, they felt deeply unsure about themselves. They spoke of lofty aspirations to make the world a better place, yet lacked a sense of where and how to proceed. “I feel quite lost,” one of these super-achievers admitted to me.

So what does a coach like me do? What, as someone who is currently training to become a coach asked me recently, is my “coaching model”? First, I ask my clients to tell me about themselves – which most find it surprisingly awkward to do. When I asked one to tell me which of her many achievements she was proudest of she fumbled, confessing she had never considered the question.

As I have observed such awkwardness over the years I have deduced that a common cause is not wishing to “brag”. Some of my clients worried they would come across as “impostors”, indeed saw themselves as such, leading them to lose their self-assuredness when talking about themselves.

So accepting this is how they feel, the next step is to have them talk about their achievements as if they were a disengaged outsider straightforwardly examining the evidence, with neither hype nor understatement – as stated in their CVs, yet embarrassing to articulate.

I press gently, knowing it will be hard for them, helping them to shed unwanted baggage accumulated over the years.

I express my admiration for them, urging them to relax and share my enthusiasm, to accept, enjoy… celebrate.

I also help them create the missing link between their achievements and the strengths that explain them with the self-esteem to which they have earned the right. It should be easy and obvious, but it is not, neither for them nor for countless other over-achievers. I adopt a light touch, teasing them with their refusal to link how wonderful they are with how they see themselves.

They begin to relax and shed their self-inflicted burdens, allowing us to explore how what they have shown they offer to the world, what they enjoy doing and are good at, can be matched with what the world is looking for. Now they are ready work on a much higher impact version of their CVs – their sales brochure, and then launch a confident sales campaign to promote a product of which they are proud.

Before I close, let me say how pleased I am that the Ministry of Education has at last decided that all universities must have offices for careers services. Forty years ago, through AIESEC and Rotaract, I began running self-exploration workshops at universities to prepare students for the workplace.

Then and now, at both secondary and tertiary levels, such support is virtually absent. No wonder therefore that so many of our most talented graduates feel confused and directionless. There is much work to be done. But it goes way beyond outlining career options. The process must start by going deep within the individual psyche.

What to do when mounting sense of frustration hits

By coincidence, last week not one but two of my coaching clients asked me to take time with them so they could do a better job of handling growing feelings of frustration.

As a result they were becoming unduly irritable and sometimes downright angry; they were more intolerant, even shouting at those who did not deserve their wrath.

As I prepared for my sessions with them I immediately thought about the need for emotional intelligence, in which those who rate highly first acknowledge their own emotions and feelings. They then manage them, and next carefully assess how those with whom they interact are feeling and hence behaving, before working at building positive relationships with them.

My clients were having to deal with an unusual number of people who were acting unreliably, disrespectfully and unethically. But despite how they felt about the unfortunate way they were being treated, their emotional intelligence challenge was to find the strength to separate their feelings from their behaviour, aware of the negative consequences of not doing so.

For those with emotional intelligence remain calm and disengaged enough to evaluate what behaviour will work most effectively in making difficult situations better, rather than to stagnate or degenerate further. They try to empathise with their awkward others despite how they are behaving, figuring out what lies behind their unhelpful posture. (Maybe how they are confronting them is disconnected from the root cause of their behaviour.)

How can a non-performer, an antagonist, be won over to deliver what is wanted, to become an ally? How can we use our negotiating skills, our powers of persuasion, a lightness of touch, to get to some adequate win-win resolution of an issue? What can we offer to make it easier for the other party to reciprocate with their own reaching out, responding positively to our requests? Imagine how a mediator would approach the situation, going back and forth till both sides feel adequately satisfied.

At times it may feel good to give vent to our frustrations, to allow ourselves to ‘lose it’, knowing that’s what the other deserves. But the immediate sense of gratification is quite likely to make the situation yet worse, and yet more difficult to recover from.

Not always, mind you, and in particular if we have been allowing ourselves to be taken for granted. Then it may be just what’s needed. Better still if we actually had not lost control but had actively decided that showing our frustration was what was needed.

Another option is to pull back and disengage, having assessed the chances of being able to move forward as slim: there’s no point wasting emotional energy for nothing, right? It’s why we are advised to choose our battles carefully.
Over the years I have been running workshops on stress management, in which I advise participants to divide their sources of stress into three categories. The first is where the possibility exists to change something that will immediately and completely remove the source of stress. The second is an intermediate position, where over time some progress may be possible. And the third is one where there’s nothing we can do to change what’s happening and so we must just live with it – while seeking to migrate to happier environments, at least for some of our time.

As a way of detaching myself from those who are frustrating me I console myself by writing about the issue – often in my journal, and if I am really upset through hammering out an angry poem. It’s very therapeutic. Certainly sharing frustrations with a family member, a friend or a colleague is helpful, and if possible combining with others to pursue a common cause.

In search of solace and inspiration many turn to prayer, and some to meditation. Exercise is helpful too, as are hobbies – anything to occupy our minds and our bodies in uplifting ways. All this we know.

The challenge is that when frustrations mount, we must not wait too long before we pray or run or write or do whatever helps us cope. So breathe deeply and smoothly, friends, and this too shall pass.

Our economists should have more influential voice

In 1967, having graduated from university with a degree in economics, I earned the right to place BSc Econ after my name. Had I gained the equivalent qualification as an architect here in Kenya I would now call myself Arch. Mike Eldon; if I would have become an accountant I would now boast of being CPA Mike Eldon; and as an engineer I would swagger in the glory of being identified as Eng. Mike Eldon. Not to mention our “learned friends” in the legal profession. Yet as a ‘mere’ economist I must humbly introduce myself as simply Mr. Mike Eldon.

Why is this? The question has fleetingly passed through my mind from time to time. But it was only when I heard from Dr. Julius Muia, the Principal Secretary in the State Department for Planning (at least, having earned a PhD, he is able to place “Dr.” before his name), that one of his goals is to uplift the status of economists in this country that I began to think about the issue more seriously.

I reliably learned that the national government has over 400 economists who functionally report to the Principal Secretary, Planning – but that no fresh ones have been recruited since 2011.

Dr. Muia informed me that the State Department for Planning recently asked the Commission for University Education to establish how many students are studying economics and related programmes in our universities, and he was amazed to be told that it was over 25,000.

So now he wants to create closer links between them and their professors, and the economists in his ministry; and he also is looking into how to form an Economists and Statisticians Association of Kenya, ‘ESAC’. (Yes, another neglected discipline, the statistical one.)

Back to my education in economics. Sure, economists are often mocked, and maybe, just maybe, for good reason. First we are told that they can never agree on how to deal with the issues in their field – hence the line that ‘if you were to lay out all the economists in the world end-to-end you would come to no conclusion’.

And then, right back from when I was a student over half a century ago, it was said that economists could never get even their diagnoses about the economy right, never mind any prescriptions, as they were “always applying yesterday’s theory” – that was by now already out of date and discredited. (Shades of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Programme?)

Leaving the all-too-easy mockery aside I am so grateful that, lacking enthusiasm for my science A-Level subjects in high school, I went along with my father’s suggestion that I should consider studying economics at university – as he had done in the 1920s at the London School of Economics, travelling from his native Romania to do so.

My years in the mid-sixties at University College London opened up my powers of critical analysis and connected me to the big economic issues of the day, assets that I have carried with me ever since.

Little wonder therefore that I am still in touch with Vicky Chick, one of my lecturers from my time at UCL, and that a few months ago I was happy to respond to an invitation to pay tribute to Prof. Spraos, the then head of the economics department, on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

A belated benefit of my BSc Econ is that in my work with the World Bank in recent years I have been forced to resuscitate my dormant economics grounding, allowing me to speak in the language of industrial-strength experts in the domain.

In conclusion let me applaud Dr. Muia for his determination to raise the profile and status of economists and also statisticians, so that together they can develop a more influential voice in our society as they lay out the options we face, and help us reach rational sustainable solutions.

We are all potential beneficiaries of such a noble initiative, and so I am all for it.

Lessons from the character of John McCain

Like millions of others, I witnessed the uplifting memorial service to honour former war hero, senator and presidential candidate John McCain.

Mr McCain’s daughter Meghan was the first to pay tribute to him. “We gather here to mourn the passing of American greatness,” she lamented. “The real thing, not cheap rhetoric from men who will never come near the sacrifice he gave so willingly.”

And later, in the most quoted part of her address: “The America of John McCain is generous and welcoming and bold, she is resourceful and confident and secure, she meets her responsibilities, she speaks quietly because she is strong. America does not boast, because she does not need to. The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again, because America was always great.”

Former Democrat Senator Joe Lieberman was next to speak. Mr Lieberman was Republican McCain’s first choice as running mate when he stood for president in 2008, but conservative Republicans were uncomfortable with Mr Lieberman’s support for abortion, so he was not selected.

Among those listening to Mr Lieberman’s personal and at times humorous speech about his friend were the Clintons, the Bushes and the Obamas – the three couples sitting next to each other in the front row, alongside three former vice presidents, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and Joe Biden.

Ninety-nine year old Henry Kissinger followed Lieberman, speaking in his heavy German accent about McCain’s important role in reconciling America and Vietnam following the war – despite having been a prisoner in Vietnam for over five years and being tortured repeatedly.

Now it was the turn of George Bush, eloquent and statesmanlike, and then his successor in the White House, Barrack Obama. Mr Obama revealed that McCain had called him earlier in the year to invite him to speak at his memorial service. A sure sign, winked Mr Obama, of the man’s sense of mischief. “What better way to get the last laugh than to get George and me to say nice things about him to a national audience?”

Earlier, Mr Lieberman had referred to the incident during Mr McCain’s presidential campaign when a woman at a town hall meeting spoke offensively about Mr Obama and Mr McCain told her off. Mr Obama now told us he wasn’t surprised that, as Mr Lieberman had put it, by instinct and without needing to consult anyone, this man who so lacked prejudice did the right thing.

Mr Obama also shared that when he was president, from time to time he would meet with Mr McCain to talk about policies and politics. They certainly didn’t agree on everything, but they learned from each other and they laughed together. “For all our differences, and they were deep, we never doubted that we were on the same team.”

He praised Mr McCain for “always striving to be better, to do better” and, like all the others who spoke before him, Mr Obama wished Americans today could indulge in more of the bipartisan and civilised political engagement (“not small and mean and petty”) that Mr McCain so richly personified. He disparaged those who “appeared brave and tough”, but more likely spoke out of fear.

Each speaker condemned the current divisive and abrasive style of US politics, telling positive stories about the man they were honouring, about how he forgave and sought forgiveness, about how honest, fair and civilised he was. They regretted the way the broader American society had regressed, wishing it could follow the example set by Mr McCain.

But would anything that was said make a difference? Would any of America’s leaders, never mind Mr Trump, behave any differently as a result? I was not holding my breath, and I was right not to. Any more than I do after our National Prayer Breakfasts and similar occasions here, where equally uplifting sentiments are expressed by the high and mighty, only for them to revert to the default aggressive, abusive language immediately they leave the venue.

One commentator asked if some of America’s younger senators would take on Mr McCain’s mantle. And by the way, will any of our younger politicians rise above the lowest common denominator of Kenyan politics? Will our recent “Handshake” take root, overcoming the never-ending divisive campaigning? Or will our politicians and voters continue playing our same dysfunctional games?

Firms grow with systems, vision and inspiration

Some years ago I wrote enthusiastically about John Kotter’s “eight steps to change” that many, including here in Kenya, have followed as a guide to transforming their organisations.

Kotter laid these out in his 1996 book, Leading Change, and then 10 years later, together with Holger Rathberger, he published Our Iceberg Is Melting, that brought the eight steps together as a fable in the style of Who Moved My Cheese?

The iceberg that Harvard guru Kotter wrote about was in Antarctica, home for many years to a colony of penguins. Then one day, a curious bird discovered a worrying crack under the ice.

But at first no one seemed interested. Gradually though, he persuaded penguins of greater emotional intelligence and influence to help the colony overcome its resistance to change — following Kotter’s eight steps.

So its leaders were eventually persuaded that the iceberg was under such threat that if they were to survive they would have to migrate to another location.

I have recommended the book to many people and now, a decade after their penguin fable, I was delighted to see that Kotter has again collaborated with Rathbeger to produce another one, about a large meerkat clan in the Kalahari Desert.

Following years of easy growth, managed through well-defined command-and-control hierarchies and strict job descriptions, with supporting systems and rules, the meerkats were threatened first by a drought and then by deadly vulture attacks.

As things got worse the clan’s harmony disintegrated and the blame game erupted.

The “Alpha” executive team quarreled about possible solutions, and doubted whether they even needed to change their rigid systems.

Suggestions from front-line workers were met with the classic change-averse response: “That’s not how we do it here!” Hence the title of the book.

Nadia, a bright and adventurous meerkat who had been identified as an emerging leader, was so fed up that she left the clan and went in search of new ideas to help her troubled folk.

She discovered a much smaller group that operated with wonderfully participative teamwork and agility.

The meerkats here had developed innovative ways of finding food and evading the vultures, as a result of which their numbers started growing rapidly.

But the more new meerkats arrived to join them the more difficult it became to sustain the informal approach that had worked so well when they were fewer.

While the leadership style remained great, they lacked the robust management systems needed to deal with issues in a disciplined way, and so coordination became impossible and morale and motivation levels collapsed. Things fell apart.

Nadia began thinking about how to combine the best of both worlds: the benefits of the systems that handled the large, disciplined, well-managed clan, along with those of the agile, creative leadership that drove the smaller, informal one.

She returned to her original clan, where she set out to convince its traditional leaders to adopt more of the agility and innovativeness of where she had just come from.

And despite initial resistance, with the expected reasons-why-not mindset, eventually complacency and conservatism declined among enough of them, the organisational pyramid flattened, and with new energy and confidence they succeed in growing and flourishing again despite the ongoing challenges.

The moral of the story is straightforward: as organisations face uncertainty and the increasing complexity that comes with scale, both the disciplined systems of management (without the commonplace stultifying bureaucracy) and the vision and inspiration of leadership are essential.

It need not and should not be either/or: as I have always believed, any good manager must be a good leader and vice versa.

This book, this fable, has spelt it out more clearly and vividly than I have ever seen it attempted before. It concludes with a chapter suggesting how to approach having the cake and eating it, in which we are advised to follow Kotter’s original eight steps to change: create a sense of urgency; build a guiding coalition; form a strategic vision; enlist a volunteer army; remove barriers; generate quick wins; sustain acceleration; and institutionalise the change.

All this must take place without killing off the founding fast, entrepreneurial culture that needs to remain egalitarian, fluid and innovative.

Involve staff in layoff plan to ease feelings

In the last few months I have come across numerous examples of employees who, as a result of a planned restructuring of the organisation in which they work, feel they will be losing out.

They expect to suffer from woes such as diminished seniority, influence, control and prestige — even redundancy, while more practically also worrying about reduced earnings and cramped career prospects.

Why does restructuring occur? It can be because of new market circumstances or technology requirements, and so the need for different skills and attitudes; it can flow from mergers and acquisitions, or just from new leaders with different preferences (hopefully not simply wanting to make their presence felt or to fill key positions with loyalists).

These upheavals can result in a wider or narrower geographical presence, increased or reduced staff numbers, and many other consequences too, all tumbling around together. Then, the larger an organisation becomes the greater the need for multiple reporting relationships within intricate matrix structures; and also for temporary work groups that can respond with agility to new opportunities and challenges.

Inevitably, salary structures and incentive schemes must be revised to align with these changes.

So much volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity: the VUCA thing! No wonder it leaves many perplexed and frustrated. While the fear of impending loss may be misplaced, either way how the people feel is real, and for some the loss may indeed be significant. So like with the loss of loved ones, they will journey through the well-defined stages of grieving: from denial to acceptance to mourning… and hopefully to eventual healing.

People react differently when dealing with loss. Demoralised and demotivated, some may withdraw, perhaps sulk, but not always obviously. The angry and aggressive will resist the new situation, fight back, protest, perhaps sabotage it and disrupt those around them, suppliers and others. Others will rise to the occasion, go with the flow and become reluctant heroes to their bosses and others.

So how can one overcome people’s feelings of loss? How can they be helped to come to terms with it, sacrificing their immediate wellbeing? And how can their bosses and colleagues work with them to mitigate the consequences of these losses? Do they show sympathy? Offer support?

The first requirement from their superiors is to recognise that in any reshuffle there are likely to be losers. Identify who they are, and accept the reality of how they feel. Then find ways of comforting and compensating them.

One company with which I am familiar is planning a restructuring thanks to the ongoing growth of its branch network, and is doing so in a highly participative way. As part of a strategy review meeting of the board and top management, those leading the teams whose jobs will be affected were tasked with proposing how the new structure may look. Brainstorming followed at the meeting, in which the pros and cons of the alternatives were assessed and consensus built around one.

In another organisation I have also been impressed by the leaders, who inspired many of their people to make short-term sacrifices in order to strengthen their personal longer-term prospects while building a more robust future for the whole entity.

The “losers” who perform most nobly today will be duly rewarded in the rosier times ahead, while graceless grumblers will either drop out or be asked to leave.

Much of the stress that accompanies restructuring is caused by a transfer of sales prospects from one part of a company to another. For example, larger projects may be moved to specialised head-office functions, with those in branch offices losing out. So can the branch people still play a role, benefiting from at least a share of such revenues and of the accompanying bonuses?

So my plea is simple. Not because a leader should be “nice”, but in order to keep the workforce together as a cohesive and motivated team, do consider ways of reaching an adequacy of win-win – particularly for those who would otherwise become unhappy and thus less productive losers.

[email protected]

Leadership character can be used positively to empower others

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to be a panelist on NTV’s am Live Friday morning Leadership Forum, and when anchor Debarl Inea told me the theme would be “Leadership Character” I began thinking about how to fill the few minutes I would be given within the programme to present on the subject.

My mind immediately went to the World Cup football match between Colombia and England I had watched a few days before, in which the Colombian players behaved with uninhibited aggression against their opponents, not least when English players looked like striking at goal.

Yellow card followed yellow card, and then a penalty was awarded against the spoilers, showing them that their inability to hold back from manhandling the English players did not pay.

Thanks to the presence of the referee, and hence to bad character being penalised, the more restrained English carried the day. Then, as I drove to Nation Centre for the early morning show, even at that pre-dawn hour I encountered numerous examples of rude driving, and not just by matatus. Gratuitously ignoring priority, lane discipline or any kind of courtesy, wherever such road-hogs saw the opportunity to jump ahead of others they took it, with no second thought.

So finding the strength to hold back from doing the wrong thing became the mantra for my slot about what it takes to be of good character. The next examples I talked about that morning were positive ones, first about the faculty at KCA University.

Just the day before, as chairman of its University Council, I had told the Commission for University Education committee carrying out their five-year audit about how our staff have launched numerous initiatives to become really lean, making great sacrifices in time and money, taking more courses with no extra pay, understanding it was to build a stronger future for the university and for themselves.

They showed great character, as did the university leadership in leading the way and inspiring them to such mature behaviour.

Next I went back to my time as general manager of a British IT multinational in the late seventies, when my mzungu bosses expected me to be the feared macho manager, the Big Man who gave instructions and whose word was law. Somehow, I found the strength to defy them by trusting my people, empowering and supporting them, against the inclinations of my superiors… who therefore saw me as “weak and indecisive”.

Rising to the national level I hammered the kind of win-lose leadership character embraced by the likes of Trump and Turkey’s Erdogan, leaders who lack the strength to hold back from stirring up their bases against “the other”… an approach likely to end up in lose-lose.

I contrasted these disrupters to win-win consensus-builders such as Obama, Trudeau and Macron, who bring their people together around a higher purpose and shared uplifting values. I also praised our local “Handshake” duo, while condemning all our politicians who take the easy way to electoral victory by appealing to ethnic loyalties and treating their supporters “generously”. These supporters meanwhile are fully aware of who would make the better leader, the one who would bring development and improve services. But most lack the strength to hold back from casting their vote for an ethnic posturer, and a cash-spreading one at that.

I concluded by reading the quotation by Henry Ford from the back page of the day’s Business Daily that ‘Quality means doing it right when no one is looking’. (As, by coincidence, was previewed earlier by my fellow panelist Gituro Wainaina.) I and my fellow panelists agreed that it is the leaders above all who must find the strength to hold back from doing the wrong thing, and it is they who must inspire others to do so – ensuring there are rewards for behaving with good character and penalties for falling short.

Around the time I was writing this article I watched a CNN programme on Washington DC in which this quote from Abraham Lincoln featured: ‘Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.’ Including testing their power to hold back from doing the wrong thing.