Let’s be optimistic despite the flood of negative news

From time to time my colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I host what we call “Leaders Circles,” where our guests tell personal stories relating to the theme of the day. For our recent one we selected the topic “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example.”

In Kenya as elsewhere these days it’s not easy to be an optimist. There’s certainly enough about which to feel pessimistic, and going by what the media reflects, Kenya – and for that matter just about everywhere in the world – is headed in the wrong direction. Here, too many of our conversations revolve around Kenya’s zero-sum political games, our untrustworthy society’s lack of integrity, and not enough around how to take the country forward. Many feel they are but impotent observers, struggling to survive despite it all.

So portraying ourselves as optimists lead others to describe us as “naïve” and “starry-eyed”. But just joining the complainers isn’t good enough — never mind that many Kenyans, in all sectors of society and at all levels, are competently taking the country forward, quietly and without being celebrated.

Where are we in all of this? The country needs forward movement, and it is optimistic leaders who must point to more than what is broken. How can we influence others to recognise opportunities as well as challenges, highlighting the uplifting dimensions of our society?

Kenya needs our unbroken optimism. Not unjustified and ill-informed, but rational and evidence-based. What’s required — and what’s achievable — is indeed a culture of “holding on to optimism.”

My co-host Frank and I always browse for suitable quotes on our topics, and there’s no shortage of these on the subject at hand. One of our favourites came from Winston Churchill, who observed that “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Another, from Mehmet Murat ildan, ran: “The young pessimist is much older than the old optimist!” And here’s a third, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde: “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.” Do go to Google — you’ll find many more.

One by one the participants dug into their reservoir of good-news experiences, trying hard to hold back from sharing less optimistic ones.
Frank told us he has been coming to Kenya since 2004, and that he quickly became a fan, appreciating our spirit of optimism.

So that when he carries out his consultancies in Europe, he has the participants learn from Africa. Another described how he has been promoting CSR for over 25 years, from a time when others thought him mad for doing so. No longer.

One participant tries to smile through the ups and downs of life, and talked about his “instinct to survive.” Another told us that whoever one asks how business is faring they respond by complaining.

Despite that, he insisted, we must find optimism in what we do, and we must keep learning. And a third shared that even though she is not a runner she has been greatly inspired by Eliud Kipchoge.

A father among us enjoys showing his young daughter that life can be magical; and a mother tells her daughter to pay attention to the 90 percent positive and not just the 10 percent negative. She also confessed that when she was younger she thought she could change the world, while now appreciating that it is only herself she can change.

As we talked we took each other on roller coaster rides between optimism and pessimism, showing that each of us travels along an ever-shifting spectrum of moods.

But we held on to “adequate” optimism, acknowledging that while not all our experiences are so positive, those that are strengthen us.
We heard about the power of working together with like-minded leaders, so that our circle of optimistic influence can widen. And we acknowledged that just sharing our stories proved very helpful.

My expectation is to be able to “have a good time doing good things”, to keep cheerful enough even in the darkest of times such as when my son was killed in Somalia.

What about your expectation? Are you setting an example of holding on to optimism?

After MCAK launch, focus turns to building linkages

Along with nearly 50 bright young local management consultants I recently spent an uplifting evening at the Pallet Café in Lavington (where all the very helpful waiters are deaf), to participate in the launch of the Management Consultants Association of Kenya, MCAK, reachable at info@mcak.or.ke.

I wrote a column on the imminence of this launch not long ago, and I was delighted to see it now taking place. Not least as through it Kenya now begins its journey towards joining the world body for the profession, the International Council for Management Consulting Institutes (ICMCI), known as CMC Global.

At the launch, MCAK Founding Chair Erick Ngala explained that he and his colleagues identified ICMCI as an internationally accepted partner through whom local consultants, trainers and coaches could develop their competencies. And a key factor was how ICMCI had partnered with ISO to come up with the standard for their profession, ISO20700.

At the event, Kenya Bureau of Standards Director for Standards Esther Ngari expressed the willingness of KEBS to work with MCAK in its implementation.

ICMCI Executive Director Reema Nasser also spoke, laying out the steps MCAK needs to follow in order to become a full member of her institute, saying it typically takes around three years, culminating in a rigorous audit. ICMCI already has members in over 50 countries, and it looks forward to Kenya joining South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria as part of an emerging Africa hub, with Zambia and Tunisia also on the way.

Her organisation has been accorded UN NGO status, and what particularly impressed me was the basis on which individual consultants are assessed by ICMCI: through how their clients judge their performance.

During the evening, I heard from the consultants present about how they are finding the consulting world. Nothing comes easily for them — and wrongly they assume that an old war horse like me cruises along effortlessly. Several had migrated to consulting from the banking sector, and several told us they were not feeling fulfilled in their daily routine there.

“I knew what I had to do each day,” one revealed in the formal session, and now, even though he is working much harder, even as he is uncertain about tomorrow, he enjoys his life much more. He reads a lot, interacts with many people, and is learning so much. “The cake is big enough for us to collaborate,” he concluded, looking forward to the association growing the field as the members help each other.

In my remarks at the event, I congratulated Erick Ngala and his team on launching the association, more so in this by and large low-trust society of Kenya that is so individualistic and filled with high energy competition. I also drew attention to the fact that membership will be voluntary, unlike for professions such as lawyers and accountants. Beyond that, almost everyone will contribute as volunteers, so finding the time to make it all happen will remain a challenge. Finally, I wondered how the large consulting firms will be attracted alongside the small and individual players, and the younger ones along with the veterans.

I then related to my experience of working in and with professional and business associations, where I have found that the critical success factor is the presence of a few dedicated individuals who understand the purpose of the institution and the benefits it must deliver to members. This so they can share and collaborate – even as they continue to compete with one another.

From what I witnessed that evening, I see great hope for MCAK, as a great job has been done thinking through all this. They look forward to raising the awareness of the profession and building the consulting brand; they will be working to create an enabling environment for consultants; and through this will promote higher standards, including through professional development.

I am confident and optimistic about the association, with its thoughtful, humble leaders who are focused on collaboration and adding value, and who have already organised international partnerships. What they must also nurture, I suggested, is local linkages, both horizontally and vertically with the likes of APSEA and ultimately KEPSA.