Being responsible leader in the era of tech advances

In my last column I challenged readers with a series of questions on the meaning of responsible leadership in how leaders behave with their staff. I largely held back on answering those questions until today, and I hope that merely listing them was helpful. Here now are some responses from me.

Being responsible to those one leads revolves around fairness: actual fairness, and beyond that the perception of fairness. Do employees feel they are being treated respectfully, that they have opportunities to learn and to grow, that they are trusted and rewarded appropriately?

I see many organisations in Kenya where fair working conditions do exist, but I also witness others where leaders so distrust their people that they deliberately keep them in the dark about the context of their work. One can understand the logic of those who hoard information and hold back from delegating. It is because they don’t trust their people, concerned about their technical competence or their integrity or both.

They have presumably suffered from enough untrustworthy employees letting them down, as a result of which they feel they need to protect themselves from the risk of further disappointment.

What they fail to appreciate however is the impact on those same employees who, feeling distrusted, react appropriately. They will be less engaged and less motivated, and may well behave like sulking or rebellious teenagers do with over-stern parents or teachers.

So which risk is higher – trusting too much, or too little? And what can leaders do to attract the more trustworthy people in the first place, and then to retain them? No surprises: it is where fair working conditions exist that the best talent seeks employment. When staff are valued their employers help them fulfill their potential, of course in ways that are aligned to the interests of the organisation.

As they learn and grow they can take on more responsibilities, and hence contribute more – thereby earning the right to higher remuneration. In one company where I am a director, I love the way the chairman-owner explicitly states to his people that he pays them as much as the company can afford, not as little as he can get away with.

Millennials are more known for assessing the culture of an organisation before determining whether they wish to become part of it, and increasingly they look for their employer to be committed to an uplifting cause, pursuing “purpose beyond profit”, and so “doing well by doing good”. Safaricom have articulated their cause well, and others are also doing so.

Let me now turn to the challenge of employees whose skills have not kept up with contemporary trends – typically to do with the rapid advances in technology. Here employers are faced with the dilemma of whether to let go such staff or to explore ways of still benefitting from them, by offering them the opportunity to reskill and by allocating them responsibilities where they can remain relevant.

Should everyone be forced to retire at the age of sixty, so as not to block succeeding generations from finding opportunities? Surely not. While some may have seen their energy fade and should indeed be put out to pasture (nicely) others may still be found value-adding roles, perhaps as wise elders mentoring upcoming Young Turks.

Another question I raised in my last article was how to act responsibly when to remain competitive one is forced to adopt technologies that replace people, and this in an environment of high unemployment. The realities are there, and one cannot hide one’s head in the sand. What we know is that with each industrial revolution as many jobs are destroyed new ones are created.

But they require new skills, and we need active collaboration between government and private institutions to develop them – not least in the technical and vocational domains. Employers must play an active role in not only defining the needs but in participating in developing them.

Oh dear, I am once more reaching my word limit, and there’s so much more to write about. But I’d like to think that I have laid out enough aspects of leading people responsibly that you will now reflect on where you stand and on how to get to your next level.

What it means to lead responsibly

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.