Curtain falls on a man devoted to social equality

Eric Krystall passed away last month, just a couple of weeks before his 92nd birthday. He had been living in Kenya since 1971, just a few years before I arrived, and I have known this wonderful man for nearly 40 years. He has been a dear friend, and I feel so badly that I will no longer be able to chat with him.

Nine years ago he published his autobiography, Swimming through Life, which I read immediately it appeared and had intended to write a review of but never did. So now I read the book again, deeply regretting that I am not able to sit with him so he can elaborate on all those fascinating episodes of his life.

Here’s how Eric’s son Paul opened his foreword to the book: “Eric Krystall has lived an extraordinary life – a life dedicated to ending some of the gravest social injustices of our age.” So true, and so good that Paul and Eric persuaded Eric’s other son Nathan to work with their father to take us through his rich and meaningful journey.

Eric was born in South Africa, to where his Jewish father had migrated from Lithuania in 1899, and he lived there for the first 28 years of his life. It was the time of the rise of apartheid, and as the country moved further and further towards segregation his stance moved further leftward. When he joined Wits University it was one of only two not to be segregated, but while he was there the government moved to bring exclusion of blacks to Wits too.

As a result of being active in the protests against segregation he became the first student to be denied a passport. But despite his anti-apartheid activities he managed to leave the country for England, to study at the London School of Economics, where several South African professors were already faculty members (and where I also studied a few years later). There he heard Tom Mboya speak about the desire for Kenya’s independence, and studying with him was Mwai Kibaki – with whom he organised a joint forum comparing the situation in South Africa to that in colonial Kenya.

During part of his time in London Eric lived close to Baker Street, at the time I was just starting at my high school very close by. To help him pay for his education he took a job at John Bell and Croyden, the pharmacists to the British royal family, and I can’t resist adding that when I was a student I took a vacation job at Fortnum & Mason, grocers to the British aristocracy.

In 1960, on graduating from LSE, Eric – now married to American Abigail – moved across the Atlantic, and while undertaking his post-graduate studies there became deeply engaged in the civil rights movement that struggled to improve the condition of African-Americans, listening to among others Malcolm X and getting to know Martin Luther King, while also organising fora decrying apartheid in South Africa.

On completing his Master’s he immediately went on to his PhD studies and then to the deep South for his post-doctoral fellowship. During his days in America he prepared the arguments that successfully petitioned John F. Kennedy to allow African Americans into the Peace Corps, and he helped train Peace Corps volunteers before they set off for Africa.

Eric was exposed to so many emerging disciplines, from behavioural science to conflict resolution to population studies – all of which were to provide the base for his amazing contributions to the social development of Kenya when he moved here nearly half a century ago.

The opportunity arose when he contributed to a proposal for an East African population programme. He was selected to lead the Kenya element, which became the first to be funded by the recently formed United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

He wrote in his autobiography that he was heading back to Africa to share the knowledge and skills he had acquired, “to help a new country to grow”. So what did he become immersed in once he arrived? You’ll have to wait till my next article to find out about his impact on population development, on the fight against Aids and on so many other related issues.

The great and the dreadful of customer engagement

I have written before about the extremes of customer service, stimulated by either positive or negative experiences I have encountered. In Kenya, by and large we do better than many other countries on this front, accepting that as everywhere there’s a whole spectrum from the outstanding to the awful. (Let’s not even mention elements like the police “service”.) So many Kenyans who deal with customers are knowledgeable, friendly and responsive, and we must never take them for granted.

I have recently been exposed to examples at both ends of the spectrum, and so I have been reflecting again on what the good guys and the bad guys each have in common. Let me start with the good guys, and first with those at my new regular hangout, the Pallet Café on James Gichuru Road. I referred to it in passing a few weeks ago in my article on the launch of the Management Consultants Association of Kenya (it was my first time to be there), mentioning that all the very helpful waiters are deaf.

Founder-owner-manager Feisal Hussein is the inspiring leader of the Pallet team, interacting as easily with his staff as with his clients. He is our host, our friend, always delighted to see us, never taking us for granted, and so we just keep wanting to come back. His mission to employ and empower deaf people and the delicious food they serve us make each visit special.

My next example of excellence in customer engagement is Seema Rupani Shah, an audiologist and hearing aid consultant whom I have been visiting. Her concern for my wellbeing, for having me get the very best possible solution to my beginnings of a hearing challenge, was overwhelming. She just couldn’t do enough to make me feel comfortable, to help me understand every step she was taking, to encourage me to get in touch any time I needed further assistance, to deliver optimal value for money.

Let me now tell you about some less than good guys. About the hotel where although the staff were quite friendly their service was unduly slow, and too often they simply forgot what they had agreed to do. The manager was present… and yet not fully so, and certainly not to the extent of relating to his customers and, it seemed, neither to his staff, who appeared to be left to their own devices, finding their own level. An unnecessarily inadequate one.

Finally, last week I was really let down by the garage that had hitherto been taking excellent care of my car. What happened was that the manager-owner was called away by other matters and those he left behind to manage the business proved quite unable to do so. The operation was utterly reliant on the standards and attitudes of the leader, and as soon as his back was turned everything collapsed – both on the technical front and in lacking any kind of competent communication.

Fortunately the boss eventually re-emerged and immediately sorted everything out, crying on my shoulder about how he had found it impossible to nurture responsible attitudes in his people. He’s at his wit’s end, wondering if he can keep his business going.

So what conclusions can we draw from these four cases? Good leadership is vital, as is good followership. The waiters at Pallet Café perform in ways that allow Feisal Hussein to feel proud of them. But the car technicians filled their well-meaning boss with shame. Seema Rupani Shah shows us that to delight our customers, technical skills, however advanced, must be complemented by non-technical ones of knowing how to communicate, to engage, and to do so with clarity and care, with cheerfulness and poise. Then, being friendly is good, but in the absence of delivering service it isn’t good enough.

We are all customers ourselves, and we all accumulate both uplifting and deeply frustrating experiences as we interact with those who provide us with products and services. So let us think more deeply about how we and our people perform with those who are our customers.

Let us be more thoughtful in emulating the role models we admire, and in learning about how not to behave from those who disappoint us.