Kind of leadership needed to deal with a crisis effectively

I was in London last month at the time when snow covered the city, to work on a leadership programme with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

One of those with me carried a wonderful book that I then also bought, The Greats on Leadership by Jocelyn Davis.

In it Mr Davis offers summaries of what 24 great authors have had to say over the centuries about different elements and circumstances of leadership, and then discusses these in a contemporary context.

So for instance he builds on Machiavelli’s writing to explore change, Plato’s to examine justice, Bernard Shaw’s to promote vision… and Shakespeare’s to help leaders deal with crises.

Mr Davis turns to Shakespeare’s Henry V for inspiration on the subject, lauding the victor over the greatly superior French forces in the battle of Agincourt as a “learning leader”.

I read this chapter with particular interest as on my return from London I was a member of the faculty delivering the Transformative Leadership programme run jointly by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication and the Harvard Kennedy School, within which one of my sessions was on the voice of leadership in periods of crisis.

Our whole programme was based on the Adaptive Leadership approach promoted by Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, about which I wrote in an earlier column.

Heifetz explains how leadership must be treated as an activity rather than a position, and in his chapter on crisis Davis quotes Heifetz at length on the subject.

The Harvard professor, acknowledges Mr Davis, writes eloquently on the “learning zone” and its importance to teams and organisations in crisis, showing how it exists between the overly cool comfort zone of complacency and the too-hot-to-handle zone of danger and panic.

In normal times we exist in the comfort zone where stress levels are low, but an emergency hurls us into the high-stress danger zone. There, effective leadership as practiced by the likes of Henry V delivers the sharp focus and fast action that overcome the tendency merely to fight, flee or freeze.

Mr Davis then explains more about how to remain in such a zone at these most difficult times. He does this by constructing a chart that shows “Unity” on the vertical axis and “Agility” on the horizontal one, where both need to be high for the learning zone to be alive and well – more so during and after times of crisis.

It’s not so hard for unity to be high in normal circumstances, when there is less urgent need for extreme agility. He calls the upper left quadrant, with high unity and low agility, the “complacency zone”, where signs of impending crisis are met with a chorus of “Around here we always… “.

He then takes us to the lower right quadrant, his “Disconnection zone”, where agility outweighs unity and everyone worries about saving their own skin – the Titanic syndrome. At least as lamentable is the lower left “Blame zone”, where both unity and agility are low and the concern is blame-avoidance.

Finally to Henry V territory, the upper right “Learning zone”, where great leadership first asks how we can resolve our problems and move forward together; then how I contributed to the difficulties and what I must do differently to avoid making the same mistakes again; and only after to examine how they, the other team members, contributed to what happened and how I can coach them to learn and be better prepared for the next crisis.

In the discussion during my session on leadership in crisis the participants — some of whom were in leadership positions in large hospitals — reviewed the recent one at Kenyatta National Hospital, where head surgery was performed on the wrong patient. And later they reflected on how they had dealt with crises that involved their own organisations.

What about you? Are you in the league of Henry V? Or would the Titanic have sunk under your command too? In this volatile and uncertain world of ours, it’s good for all of us to reflect on how effectively we will deal with our next crisis.

Customer service steps that turn SMEs into giants

You and I undertake customer journeys every day. Some are more or less fine throughout, and some have their ups and downs; some are consistently outstanding and some are the opposite, while with yet others it’s as though it depends on what those with whom you interact ate for breakfast that day.

As I reflect on my journeys with suppliers it always amazes me that in a country like Kenya, where people are naturally so friendly and helpful, we still endure the most awful experiences.

I ask myself how do the organisations from whom we buy that are at the low end of the spectrum continue to exist. OK, some are actually or virtually monopolies. But there are others who face many superior competitors.

But let me start with the best of the best, like the Laptop Clinic in Westlands, where I go when my PC decides to stress me. I almost look forward to it playing up, knowing that I will be treated so well from the moment I enter their premises till I leave, entirely satisfied.

I am confident they will always fix my problem, provide value for money — and thank me for being their customer. They are the sort of people you unhesitatingly recommend to others.

Another example, not unrelated (this is where I take my mobile phone when it needs medical attention), is the Safaricom Platinum store in Sarit Centre.

Admittedly it is there for Safaricom’s ‘Business Class’ clients, but it makes the best of the airlines pale by comparison. The staff there can never do enough for us, whether it is in dealing with the technical issues or offering us a cup of coffee… and then another. Their approach is consistently delightful.

Finally among my podium providers let me single out PrideInn, at whose Nairobi properties I recently ran some workshops. Unlike the other two this is a much larger set up, with many more staff. And this is precisely why it is so impressive.

Because each and every one of them, all the time, is only concerned to see that we are well looked after. It is not because supervisors and managers are touring around asking us if everything is OK. No it’s everyone, everywhere. It’s just the culture of the place, the norm.

Now let me move to a totally different category of service providers: banks. Lots of good people work here too, both in branches and in head-offices.

But the financial services sector has faced so many challenges, has become so regulated, and is faced with so many compliance constraints, that it becomes very hard for them to do the right thing for their customers.

I feel really sorry for their customer-facing people, the ones in the branches and in the business development function, as much of the time they are faced with having to tell us what is not possible — however reasonable and in everyone’s interest it may be.

They are the messengers of bad news, and they speak thanks to some eagle-eyed character in the credit department or the legal office who has spotted a reason-why-not that cancels out any earlier expectation of a loan or other facility being granted.

Worst of all is when issues are being handled by a call-centre, where you never know who will be dealing with you, and never the same person.

Plus you may well have been put on hold before even speaking to anyone… while being told by a recording how important your business is to them.

There is no possibility of any relationship being built between you and the bank, and hence of anyone getting a feel for the full background of your case or for your trustworthiness.

Too many of my experiences with such call-centres, ones where I have complained about some aspect of the bank’s service, involve the unfortunate agent muttering apologies on behalf of their employer, without having any ability to do anything about it.

In future those that survive in our ever more competitive environment are the ones who offer the best customer journeys.

The three companies with whom I led will be among them. But I truly fear for some of our banks.