Who rises to the top of pyramid?

For the first 12 years of my career I worked for a British IT multinational, in both field offices and in the head office, and it was in the late 70s, for the last two of these, that I came to Kenya to manage its local subsidiary here. So from different perspectives I was able to study the company’s organisational culture, who was likely to get and not get promoted…and why.

I was able to see how it was so often the crafty individuals manoeuvred their way up the corporate ladder, driven by politics and personal interest. Indeed their prime energy was devoted to such jostling, undermining competitors and cosying up to their seniors. Let me just say that when I finished my contract with this corporate I vowed I would never work for a large multinational organisation again, unwilling to engage in the unhealthy win-lose manoeuvring required to climb the greasy pole to its upper levels.

Since then, as a local business partner to a variety of multinationals, in both management and in board positions, and also as a consultant, I have seen the same patterns. This independently of whether the head office was in America or the UK, France or The Netherlands, South Africa or Egypt. The same is often true of multilateral development partners like the World Bank and the UN, bilateral ones, and international NGOs. And let’s not even talk about government administrations, never mind the disruptions that follow elections.

The pattern is consistent. In all such organisations, every few years the whistle blows and the next round of musical chairs is activated. New faces seek new structures that typically simply introduce a different mix of advantages and disadvantages. Too often the underlying motivation is for the new incumbent to show what great change champions they are — while being disturbingly indifferent to the chaos and confusion in the build up to their “brilliant” new set up and to its subsequent chaotic implementation. (See Boris Johnson!)

The actual purpose, I have seen, is to boost their short-term CV, showing what bold innovators they are…while ignoring the waste of energy and compromised productivity as staff must deal with the insecurities that have been activated within them during the transition. No wonder many will assume — however justified or otherwise — that they will end up as demotivated losers.

It is also worth mentioning the challenges that exist with voluntary organisations like business member and professional associations, and also ones like Rotary (where Yusuf Dawood in a recent Surgeons Diary article complained about dysfunctionalities at its highest levels). More so where volunteers are involved, the tendency I have witnessed is for those with high ego needs to find their way to prominence — and it is why I have never been shy to point out the particular requirement for low-ego humble leadership among such entities.

But let us not over-generalise. There are of course many exceptions to these dog-eat-dog cultures. Ones where their leaders hold on to the uplifting vision and values of the organisation and strive to help others do so, recognising and empowering those who perform in the interests of all.

My clear lesson over the years is to hold back from joining organisations where self-absorbed characters play with their selfish short-term agendas. I will only associate myself with a culture where I can feel at home with my ethical values, working with like-minded men and women for the greater and longer-term common good.

There are many good leaders around who seek nothing more than to be able to fulfill their potential by building responsible sustainable organisations around them.

The challenge is to create that coalition of the willing where such people strengthen and support one another, share best practice among themselves, and form role models for the rest of society.

Let us keep away from witnessing the “Peter Principle”, where people are “promoted to their level of incompetence”, and as a result “fail upwards”. We are better than that, and not least in Kenya, where over the years it has been my privilege to mingle with so many world class responsible characters, great leaders who would and often do thrive anywhere in the world. Not least in Rotary.

The good guys and bad guys in customer service

Like each of you, I experience both wonderful and dreadful customer journeys. And like my fellow columnist Sunny Bindra, from time to time I write about them. I enjoy recognising and celebrating the good by name, while venting about those at the other end of the spectrum, usually without revealing their identity.

Today I want to reflect on two experiences where I have found the extremes of good and bad in the same organisation. In each case the good guys heroically tried to protect me from the bad ones. They apologised, they explained, and they comforted me. But there was only so much they could do, as they were not senior or empowered enough to resolve the ridiculous and unnecessary problems created by others.

I felt very sorry for them, and indeed expressed both by sympathy and admiration for their attitude and behaviour, as they tried ever so hard to put a brave face on the indefensible, to be loyal to their employer and to keep me from exploding with rage.

It’s not always that problems are caused by bad people. It can be bad systems – bureaucratic, unresponsive ones that are complicated, slow and inflexible, preventing the good guys from doing what they would like to do so as to be able to serve their customers well. Whatever the cause of the blockage, be it human or otherwise, customer-focused organisations empower their front-line staff to make reasonable judgements that overcome the problems they and their customers confront.

My first example is Kenya Power, where like so many of its customers we have been charged beyond what seemed reasonable given our consumption. Somehow I managed to get through to their customer experience manager, and she kindly linked me up with a professional technician, who’s been assessing our situation for quite some months. Simultaneously though, others from Kenya Power, sometimes extraordinarily rude characters, have been coming to switch us off from time to time, dismissively disinterested in their colleague’s assessment work. Despite their single-minded aim of disconnecting us, on each occasion my protector prevailed on them to hold off.

My other example is a bank, where those in my branch are exemplary in how they interact with me. But as with quite a few banks these days, they are rendered impotent in dealing with their bureaucratic impediments to smooth customer journeys. Like for instance they must get me to fill in forms by hand – relative to information they surely already possess online; and they have to send me on visits to my notional home branch as the one I always frequent cannot process what needs to be done.

Everything must be escalated; feedback to me takes forever, usually only after I have chased repeatedly; and it is typically completely unsatisfactory.

As we all know, Kenya Power is a monopoly. I have no choice but to work with them as best as I can. But for a bank to operate this way in the 21st century is unthinkable. Surely it cannot survive like this, and surely the good people such as my branch level heroes may well not wish to continue working in such an unresponsive and indifferent environment.

By bigger point is this: in your organisation, do you have good trustworthy people struggling to deliver what they wish to deliver and are so capable of delivering to their customers – whether external or internal, by the way? Must they grapple with either negatively disposed colleagues or disabling systems? How long can you expect to keep such perpetually frustrated good people?

And assuming you are in management, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you perhaps blissfully unaware of such tensions?

You had better assume that they do exist, and figure out where and why. Then reform or remove the bad performers; review and relax the bureaucratic bottlenecks (while ensuring tight controls of course); and empower and recognise those who live healthy values and who care about giving good service.

Leadership messages for public servants

From time to time I have been asked to speak at the Kenya School of Government’s Strategic Leadership Development Programme (SLDP), and late last year I was invited to close its 224th iteration, virtually hosted by the Mombasa campus.

The participants were informed that I was to be their “motivational speaker” but, as I did then, I always vehemently resist such a label as too often it implies being someone who merely hypes and entertains rather than provokes serious purposeful reflection.

It’s been quite a while since I have addressed such a grouping, and as always I was impressed by the calibre of the civil servants before me, for this programme online. They were from county governments and county assemblies; from commissions and State corporations; from ministries and public universities: a great diversity. On each occasion I have been with SLDP cohorts I have been greatly reassured by the calibre of whom we employ at both the national and devolved levels of government.

What brought them all together was the desire to develop their leadership prowess. So after several weeks of intensive study, what parting shots could I add? My opener was to urge them to be “MAD”, leaders who expect to “Make A Difference”. (A phrase I adopted from KEPROBA Chairman Jas Bedi.)

I encouraged them to venture beyond the far too common “output indicators” so conveniently retreated to in government – as I have written about from time to time in this column. Not least in the context of performance contracts, too many indicators are easily quantifiable but woefully inadequate measures such as “40 staff members trained”… without bothering to assess the consequences of the training in terms of how it led to better results.

I then talked about the importance of dealing with the non-technical challenges to performance, going beyond just the technical ones. By non-technical issues we mean people problems, to do with values, attitudes and behaviour. This of course takes us to leadership, and here I explained the work I have been doing with some of our county leaders to help them develop a coaching style of leadership, one that nurtures those around them and brings them together around common visions and values.

It contrasts to the “Big Man” style of leading, the know-it-all who issues instructions rather than the enabler, the encourager, the champion. The idea is to develop an environment where staff are trustworthy and therefore trusted, with leaders feeling comfortable empowering them and delegating to them. All this in support of higher performance.

Such a culture assumes collaboration within an organisation between programmes and functions, breaking down those all too common silos; and it speaks of effective communication between levels too. The consequence of this is to reduce the waste of human, financial and other resources – so prominent in government.

In my consulting work with government entities, I explained, I bring different units together to resolve misunderstandings, conflicts and other sources of tension. I do this by having them exchange offers and requests and then involve them in a give-and-take in which they negotiate to win-win outcomes. I work in similar ways to achieve vertical alignment between levels of leadership – including within parastatals and commissions, where understanding and engagement between boards and management are improved.

As several of the participants were from the academic world, I mentioned the need for them to see their students as customers. And for these customers to emerge into the workplace fit for purpose there is a vital and urgent need for faculty members to transform from being traditional lecturers and dons who talk at an audience into facilitators who interact with engaged participants.

My final point was one I often make when addressing public servants. I encouraged them to be cheerful in their workplaces, and to apply a light touch. Too many of our technocrats feel that even to smile is to trivialise the very important work they undertake, without appreciating that such grimness prevents their people from looking forward to coming to the office.

I advocate an approach of “having a good time doing good things”, as no higher authority ever told us it is only possible to do one of these at a time. Surely a healthy culture is a happy culture, whether in government or elsewhere. And it is the job of leadership to show the way.

Kianda at 60 is a story of empowerment of girls

Last month the Kianda Foundation celebrated its 60th anniversary through a virtual event at which the keynote speaker was the chairperson of the Foundation, Olga Marlin. No one could have been better placed to play that role, as she was one of the four determined ladies who launched this pioneering initiative for educating African girls and women in Kenya.

Olga Marlin was a young education graduate from University College, Dublin when she was told that Opus Dei wanted to contribute to the development of women in Kenya. She and her young colleagues, all in their mid-twenties, came here in 1960 at a time when African women enjoyed no access to quality education – in stark contrast to their white counterparts in colonial Kenya.

For the four women the institution would have to be multi-racial and inter-ethnic from the start, a place where the different races and ethnic groups could get to know and appreciate one another. It had to be open to students of all creeds – Catholic as well as non-Catholic, and even non-Christian.

Kianda College was the first project of the Foundation, offering training in secretarial and business studies, the only one of its kind at that time. And the name ‘Kianda’, meaning a ‘fertile valley’ where everything flourishes, was proposed by one of its great supporters, Jemimah Gecaga (the first African Woman in the Legislative Council and the first woman MP).

Opposition to such an institution was rife due to racial segregation, with some white parents refusing to send their daughters to the same school as African girls, and at a time when the general feeling was that Africans lacked the capacity to study to the level of their white counterparts.

Another speaker at the 60th anniversary celebration was the first African student to attend Kianda College, Evelyn Mungai (now my wife), who graduated in 1962. She told the e-gathering that with independence imminent Africanisation began, and she became one of the first African women to be employed in government at a professional level.

Margaret Curran, another of the founding four of the Kianda Foundation, took her in hand to go to offices for interviews. At one of these, my wife recalled, the white man responsible for recruitment (most such people at the time were white men), could hardly believe that an African could handle professional jobs, as they had never been exposed to one who was suitably qualified. Yet when Evelyn Mungai completed his test he could see that this was indeed possible.

Kianda College set the pace for other Kianda Foundation projects, including Kibondeni College, which in 1967 became Kenya’s first women’s hospitality college. Ten years later Kianda School opened, following requests from former students of Kianda College who wanted the same level of quality all round education they had received for their daughters. One of the first students at the school was First Lady Margaret Kenyatta, who is also the patron of the Kianda School Alumni Association.

Over the years, other educational institutions have been established, including Kimlea Girls Technical Training in Kiambu (which saved hundreds of girls from the child labour that was rampant on the coffee plantations there), Tewa Technical Training Centre in Kilifi County and other education centres in Nyeri, Kisumu and elsewhere. The Foundation also runs other projects, including Kimlea Clinic, Faida Youth Centre, Fanusi Study Centre and Kimlea Business Centre. In addition, they also organise social initiatives such as the Children’s Health Programme, and promote women entrepreneurs among low income women through the Business Women Support Programme.

Their focus is now on strengthening the existing institutions to ensure that the students receive the best education possible. Given that the Kianda institutions and programmes are highly subsidised to ensure that even the most disadvantaged have a chance at quality training, to support them the Kianda Foundation Ambassadors was launched this year. Through it, well-wishers offer monthly financial support towards scholarships and to allow more girls to benefit from formal and vocational courses, plus reaching more women for entrepreneurship training.

Unthinkable as it is today, where women have broken so many glass ceilings here in Kenya as elsewhere, it’s good to be reminded how dramatically different opportunities were for them only 60 years ago. And learning about the heroic role played by Olga Marlin and her colleagues at the Kianda Foundation I saw how critical their pioneering efforts were.

Obama the “Adult”

In my last article I analysed Donald Trump’s ego state, describing him as a deeply insecure man who was formed by his unhappy childhood where he was bullied by his domineering father and neglected by his absent mother. Trump’s “I’m OK, You’re not OK” behaviour, I wrote, masks his “I’m not OK, You’re OK” interior; while his “controlling parent” style of leadership, always seeking to win at the expense of others, is actually that of a spoilt child.

This was in the context of Eric Berne’s and Thomas Harris’s Transactional Analysis frameworks, and now, as Trump’s successor has just been inaugurated, I wish to carry out a similar dive into the ego state of his predecessor, Barrack Obama. What a dramatic contrast! We’ve enjoyed many opportunities to observe and admire President Obama in action, and my respect for him has been greatly reinforced as I read his wonderful 706-page autobiography A Promised Land over the holidays.

In it Obama reveals himself as having the healthiest of ego states. At the family level he is a nurturing parent to his children, while from when they were young he has respected and reinforced the “adult” in them as he replied to their questions and listened to their views. He is also at ease playing with them as child-to-child. As for his relationship with his wife Michelle it is clearly one of adult-adult rather than parent-child. Between them all a sense of “I’m OK, You’re OK” prevails, leading to win-win all round – true role models for a happy family life.

What about Obama as the leader of America, the most powerful man in the world? What struck me repeatedly in the book was how solution-oriented this extraordinary man is, always working to develop a better America and a better world. But without being unrealistically Utopian, without allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. As he learned more about domestic and international politics, he accepted that he was dealing largely with politicians for whom life is all about manoeuvring through zero-sum games rather than win-win ones.

He writes with utmost self-awareness, honesty and humility (not least when sharing his feelings that he was not really worthy of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize), but his straightforward and balanced assessments of his life in the White House speak very much of an “I’m OK” self-esteem, coupled with a “You’re OK” mindset towards those around him in the White House. At all times he is “the adult in the room”, and yet refreshingly “the child within” is alive, as he jokes and plays basketball with his staff and – not least when most needed – lightens the atmosphere.

The epitome of emotional intelligence, he knows when to separate how he feels from how he behaves when dealing with those who have behaved irresponsibly and whom he would like to hammer but appreciates it won’t help resolve an issue or protect a challenging relationship. But when needed he does reveal his “stern parent”… also knowing how to help a subsequent healing.

Obama remains overwhelmingly calm – certainly externally and usually internally – always looking for ways to move a situation forward. Whatever decisions he makes, whatever the outcome, he fully appreciates that he will inevitably receive damning criticism from all and sundry, however ill-informed or ill-motivated. He will be accused of having done too much or too little, too soon or too late, but he takes it all in his stride, accepting that never mind not being able to please all the people all the time, as President of the United States you can hardly ever please anyone.

But he does his best, knowing that nothing will work out fully as intended, that there will always be unintended consequences, and hoping that the long term positive outcomes will somehow eventually speak for themselves.

By contrast to Trump, whose father played such a crucial role in his dysfunctional development, Obama had no relationship with his father. It was his anthropologist mother and her mother who were the dominant figures in forming the Barrack we know. He was exposed to multiple countries, cultures and religions from an early age and they nurtured the healthiest of values and aspirations in the boy.

I cannot end this article without imploring you to read Obama’s autobiography. It will inspire and uplift you, leaving you filled with admiration for how he coped with the scale, complexity and variety of challenges that a US president must handle 24/7. No wonder Trump failed as miserably as he did. And no wonder Obama’s legacy lives on.

Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership. [email protected]


Analysing impact of spoilt child in Trump

As I have written in several previous articles in this column – the most recent of which was my opening one for 2012 – in much of what I do I refer to the pioneering Transactional Analysis work of Eric Berne, which he laid out in his 1964 book, Games People Play. I am also inspired by Thomas Harris, whose 1967 book I’m OK-You’re OK built on Berne’s thinking.

Berne analysed social interactions – or “transactions” as he described them – to determine our “ego state”, and he built on this to help us understand how we behave and hence to do so more positively. The three ego states he identified are “parent”, “child” and “adult”, noting that how these are manifested in each of us is largely a function of our early childhood experiences.

We all display aspects of these three states. Some are positive – like the nurturing or caring “parent” in us, or the spontaneous, fun-loving “child”; and some are negative – like the controlling or neglectful “parent”, or the irresponsible “child”. And then there is the ‘adult” within – the sober, rational, mature part of us.

As I wrote in an earlier column, Transactional Analysis also divides us humans into four categories, relating to how, generally, we feel about ourselves and about others. The first is “I’m not OK, You’re OK”. This is how we are born, utterly dependent on our mothers. And it is in this mindset where a vast majority of the world’s population exists until they die. The second state is “I’m OK, You’re not OK”, and you can guess the other two: “I’m not OK, You’re not OK”; and finally “I’m OK, You’re OK”.

Aligned with each of these options comes an expectation regarding winning and losing. So for instance the insecure “I’m not OK, You’re OK” character foresees a life of “lose-win”, while the confident, optimistic “I’m OK, You’re OK” one assumes they can indulge in give-and-take negotiating that leads to “win-win”.

Now let me come to why I am returning to these frameworks for my opening column of 2021. It’s because of how I have been observing the behaviour of Donald Trump, which I have been doing ever since, out of sheer curiosity, I attended one of his campaign rallies back in 2016.

To the casual observer Trump displays an extreme “I’m OK, You’re not OK” ego state, always expecting to win, no matter how, while enjoying seeing others lose at his expense. And he is the stern, controlling “parent”, while all around him are dependent “children” – either compliant or terrible. Yes?

Well yes and no. However much he behaves as “I’m OK, You’re not OK”, it is merely a cover for how he feels and who he really is.

So how does he feel, and who is he? Sad to say, the outgoing POTUS is a desperately insecure soul, as was so vividly confirmed by his niece Mary Trump in her book about him, Too Much and Never Enough. Deep down he’s an “I’m not OK, You’re OK” character, now acting the spoilt child rather than the parent; the villain complaining he is the victim.

Trump’s niece, a psychologist by profession, explains her uncle’s development by telling us about his controlling father – who, she wrote, had no real human feeling and treated his children with contempt; while Trump’s mother was largely absent from his life. His deep-seated insecurities created in him “a black hole of need that constantly requires the light of compliments that disappears as soon as he’s soaked it in,” Mary Trump explains.

Like me, I suppose that you too have come across such characters – maybe another politician, maybe a boss or a relative. Needless to say the more extreme the case the less chance there is that they can be helped to reach a better balance within themselves and with others. But for those with more moderate such tendencies I have found that once the three frameworks are laid out for them an “aha moment” arises, enabling them to transform their previous self-defeating behaviour, treating it as the unwanted baggage it is and enabling them to enter a new and more fulfilled existence.

Before I close, let me wish you an “adult”, “I’m OK, You’re OK”, “win-win” new year – and preview that in my next column I will be gazing at Trump’s predecessor through my Transactional Analysis lens.