Dr Manu Chandaria Wisdom Session with Irene Gathiaka & Mike Eldon

(Dr. Chandaria wasn’t able to join us for a while, so I filled in by offering some background on him and on our efforts that led to the launch of KEPSA.)

Lack of curiosity holds you from your potential

When I was an undergraduate student in London in the mid-1960s I enjoyed extraordinary benefits from a number of summer vacation internships I undertook through AIESEC, the international association for students of economics and commerce.

One was with Quaker Oats, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the heart of the American Mid-West. There I mingled with staff in their factory and offices, during a fascinating three months exposure to blue- and white-collar workers who had not been exposed to life beyond their confined environments.

This was my first visit to America, and I was really looking forward to exploring the great affluence and sophistication that I had heard so much about. What surprised me as I interacted with the workers at Quaker Oats was their lack of curiosity about me, this young foreigner with his strange English accent – so unusual in this part of the country at the time.

One even told me I was hard to understand due to my accent. It was for me to open and develop conversations, as I had found with previous internships in France, and for me to have them feel relaxed and to welcome me rather than ignore my presence.

As I observed all these good people – for they were good people – I concluded that what they had in common was that they expected their tomorrows would be like their yesterdays, and like those of their parents before them.

They lived day-to-day, expecting to be doing the same job until they reached the age of retirement, and that their children too would be employed in a similar way and at a similar level.

Even then, as the pace of development of technology was already accelerating, as long-distance air travel was becoming more common, and as we were starting to learn about the “global village” phenomenon, I was concerned about how these people would cope in the years ahead.

I also look back to a few years ago when through our Rotary Club my wife and I were supporting a village empowerment programme in Kiambu County, where we were very concerned about the deep conservatism of the farmers.

With very fertile soil, and located less than half an hour’s drive from Nairobi, they are so well placed to both grow and distribute their products. But their lack of curiosity to try out new approaches held them back from generating the wealth their land could readily deliver.

I come to the present now, and find that as I facilitate my workshops the same lack of curiosity often manifests itself. At lunchtime I deliberately sit at a table that’s empty to see who will join me, knowing that other than the most senior in the group hardly anyone else would do so unless I invite them (which I proceed to do).

Is it shyness, I wonder? Do they feel overwhelmed by this mzungu elder, preferring the comfort of their regular buddies? Are they not curious to know more about those with whom they are unfamiliar?

Whatever the reason, I also always see this when the participants choose where to sit at the round tables I set up for my events. Women tend to sit with other women, technical staff with others like them, juniors with juniors, veterans with their agemates.

I must take the initiative to shuffle them around, so they can reach out to “the other” and get to know people different from themselves, ones of a different age or gender, function or seniority.

It is those who are bold and curious – thanks to being relaxed with themselves and with others – who will seek and be offered more responsibilities.

They are the ones who expect to learn and to grow, who have developed non-technical skills such as emotional intelligence to complement their technical expertise, and they possess higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.

So over the years, and in many different settings, I have seen that an absence of curiosity holds back far too many people.

My great hope for Kenya is that our new Competency Based Curriculum will go a long way to overcoming such inhibitions, transforming the present approach which on the contrary stifles curiosity – including at the university level. Both the curriculum and how it should be applied makes me very optimistic for our future generations.

Managing change in Kenya

This article was first published in November 2021 in the London Business School THINK magazine. Mike Eldon graduated from the LBS Sloan Masters Programme in Leadership and Strategy.


An LBS Sloan Fellow recalls being thrown into his first leadership role and going on to transform the organisational culture.

Three years after completing the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme in 1974, ICL – the British computer multinational for which I was working – transferred me from the UK to Kenya to run its subsidiary there. It was my first major management appointment, leading around 100 Kenyans – including a senior management team that was just taking over from a group of British expatriates and for whom this was therefore also a baptism in leadership.

My British bosses expected me to be a distant, feared and unsmiling instruction-giver, as my expat predecessors had been. To a significant extent my direct reports also expected such behaviour, never mind those in more junior positions. These were the normal parent-child, “I’m OK-You’re not OK” relationships of the time, practised not only by expats from the former colonial masters and elsewhere but also by local leaders – reflecting the deep-rooted local culture of great respect for seniors that assumed the steepest of organisational pyramids with the largest of power gaps between levels.

So here I was, plunged into a country I knew so little about, in a culture so different from the one I was familiar with in Britain, expected to act as a know-it-all in my new environment: change in reverse gear. I was determined to flatten the pyramid, and this transformation I undertook by spelling out my expectation of adult-adult, ‘I’m OK-You’re OK’ relationships and then helping the team to develop such ways of interacting with me and with others. Against the odds, I managed to nurture their path to maturity.

It was a fascinating time, acting as a pioneer for spreading the use of technology in a country that was already ahead of the game relative to elsewhere in Africa, and Kenya has been my home ever since. I continued as a CEO in the IT vendoring business as mini-computers replaced mainframes, in turn giving way to personal computers and laptops; as our customers’ huge systems and programming departments shrank with the advent of software packages; and later as the Internet linked us into the global village. So much change, with each technology not merely enhancing but completely replacing its predecessor.

From IT to management consultancy

My own work as CEO was not significantly affected by these technical revolutions. Rather, it was to help both my staff and my customers deal with the related non-technical challenges, to ease the change management that introducing IT systems always gives rise to. It was a natural transition for me out of the IT industry and into management consultancy. I helped organisations and individuals deal more generally with strategic shifts of all kinds, and with the ever-increasing and unpredictable pace of change. I took on directorships too, in which roles I also helped with such issues, and became a columnist for Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper.

One company where I have been a director for many years is Davis & Shirtliff, which operates in the water and energy sector in numerous African countries and is headquartered in Nairobi. Its Chairman Alec Davis attended London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme in 1992, and its Group CEO David Gatende participated in the same programme in 2010. This was when David met Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, and he recently invited him to join us by video for our Annual Management Conference.

I had just published an article on how to influence change, so listening to Costas speak on the subject at that conference – never mind enjoying how he made his points in such a lively and humorous way – was a great experience, as it was for all those attending virtually from around Eastern and Central Africa.

Costas is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy, with social psychology a key ingredient. In his talk he reflected on how strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to how they are able to influence people’s behaviour.

Behavioural change that lasts

He told the story of the patients who had been released from hospital following major heart surgery and were told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives: no more smoking or drinking alcohol; healthy eating and plenty of exercise. All very logical and rational. The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90% of them had reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, author Alan Deutschman described what differentiated the 10% of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas related. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour – like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people to change, we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional, we heard.

Costas also talked engagingly about how leaders must create an environment that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values; devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours; develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking; and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.

This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want. There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses – such as if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy. Above all, Costas told us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.

For Costas the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. But the optimist within him reassured us that we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. Yet this requires going beyond simply asserting that leaders must lift their people psychologically and emotionally. Leaders must reach out to both the heads and the hearts of their people, enabling them to visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Leading the way in tech

Through the good number of visionary and empathetic leaders that have emerged in Kenya, the country has reinforced its leadership position in technology – we’re known as “Silicon Savannah” – not least with its global pioneering in processing money transfers through mobile phones.

The change to widespread financial digitisation has been made possible by the implementation of appropriate infrastructure, an enabling set of regulations, and not least the good education level and high energy and curiosity of Kenyans generally. As a result, and accelerated by the Covid pandemic, cashless transactions have become a new normal, including in the remotest of areas and among the poorest of citizens.

So are Kenyans generally good at managing change? We have developed an unusually diversified economy with a strong service component and a robust private sector that benefits from a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit. The era of expatriate leadership is long gone, and indeed so many Kenyans fill senior leadership positions all around Africa and more broadly globally.

Do we need to apply more of what Costas writes about and talks about? Of course. And, as everywhere, those who would most benefit from doing so are the ones least likely to. Here I particularly include the usual suspects: politicians and government bureaucrats; small-scale farmers and pastoralists; and family businesses – including many large ones that should know better.

My own time at LBS was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence and preparing me so well for that life-changing overseas assignment all those years ago. I was by far the youngest in our class, and unlike my fellow students (we were only 16 in all) I had not yet benefited from significant formal leadership experience. But my account management and other previous positions had required me to exert influence even in the absence of authority – if anything, a greater challenge. I had also interacted with the top management levels both among my IT customers and within ICL. And I was ahead of the game as far as use of computers was concerned, more so having spent a year running ICL’s IT strategy workshops for CEOs and top civil servants.

So much of what I learned during the Sloan programme – from fellow students as much as from faculty members – affirmed both the good and the bad of what I had been seeing and doing. I was particularly attracted to organisational development as a topic, as we discussed it in the context of the turbulent industrial relations prevailing at the time in the UK that resulted in a three-day week (although not at LBS). I appreciated the practical approach our professors took, while it took us some time to become reaccustomed to the classroom setting. I have since also treasured my friendship with several of my colleagues in that sixth iteration of the Sloan programme: we still have lunch each time I visit London.

Promoting business school exposure among its staff was entirely new to ICL, and its general environment was actually anti-intellectual. The result was that in order to reintegrate me into the “real world” I was initially posted to a sales branch in the City where neither my boss nor my two salesmen had any university exposure at all and were considerably older than me.

To survive my time there I kept quiet about what I had been exposed at LBS, or I would have been mocked for spouting “ivory tower theories”. Little did they realise what stimulation they were missing out on. I learnt so much about building relationships of mutual respect with others very different from me. It took a great deal of holding back on what I might have offered, and required great humility and other aspects of emotional intelligence. Happily, my patience and perseverance were rewarded when I was asked to move to Africa.

Costas’ recent session for us reminded me of my uplifting days on campus next to Regent’s Park, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised London Business School then and showing it to be as vibrant now as it was in the 1970s.

Challenges for leaders today… and how to overcome them

  • Uncertainty: Build a culture of trust, allowing for empowerment and delegation, hence agility to handle change
  • Staff retention: Identify an uplifting purpose; emphasise learning and growth, careers beyond present jobs, and provide coaching
  • Compliance: Handle this “necessary evil” calmly and holistically, with leadership from the board and properly resourced specialist functions
  • ESG: Find ways of doing well by doing good – it takes time, but may be easier and more beneficial than you imagined. Helps to attract and retain staff, customers, investors and others.

Nairobi-based Mike Eldon, a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT; co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership; director of Davis & Shirtliff and Chairman of Occidental Insurance; a member of the Advisory Council of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and a columnist with Business Daily. [email protected]

Do your part to end civic illiteracy ahead of polls

Some of us struggled more than others in 2021: some with their health, some with their livelihoods and others with both. For me, as readers of this column are aware, my severe encounter with Covid-19 meant I was out of action for quite some time. But here we are at the beginning of a new year, and I thought it would be good to share some reflections on the state of the nation as we enter this season of election frenzy.

For quite some time now we have settled into expecting only Ruto-Raila front-page headlines in the dailies, as the media responds to our apparently insatiable appetite for following the non-stop race to State House, with all its noisy competition. Huge political rallies are the order of the day, as our politicians roam the country building momentum for their respective causes.

They gather their packed crowds, where few wear masks and those who do mainly hang them around their necks – great for spreading Covid-19. And this while shopping malls understandably require visitors to show their Covid certificates. Some have rightly asked “why not those attending rallies?”

These rallies, and so much else around political campaigning, are costing millions of shillings each and every week, and we are still gathering speed for the increasingly hectic cash-spraying we shall witness in the months ahead. This causes many of us deep concern about where all the money is coming from, with no limits imposed, as though an endless easy supply is on tap.

Equally concerning is the overwhelming attention being paid to campaigning by our politicians and others at the expense of worrying about Covid-19, the state of the day-to-day economy, and the country’s longer-term development. Except, admittedly, through their evolving manifesto headliners, with their catchy high-cost giveaway approaches to reducing unemployment and poverty.

The media loves following this source of vivid entertainment, with its cast of colourful, adrenalin-fuelled personalities. The crowds love it too, happy to enjoy as many rallies as they can be bussed to. For whom will they vote though? For the ones they believe will make the best leaders, the most skilled at governing? Or the most “generous” today, the most entertaining, the ones who are from their own ethnic group?

My sense is that reasonable awareness exists about who can perform well as leaders. But such rational awareness is too often overwhelmed by behaviour that succumbs to short-term gratification (a nice way of describing handouts).

Over the holidays, reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s foreword to America at War with Itself by Henry A. Giroux, I came across the term “civic illiteracy” – a “cultivated and imposed state” in that country according to him, and I related it to such a phenomenon here, where politicians have led voters to expect to be paid if they are to be supported. How sad.

I have never heard a single one of the candidates, at any level, refer to our national values – the ones buried deep in our Constitution and never sought out by our leaders. Such values were well promoted in the BBI document, but inevitably the politicians– and hence the media – merely selected the component that they claim mitigates against our winner-take-all style of elections and ignored everything else.

So, while the politicians play with their politics, the rest of us must find immediate and practical ways to deal with issues such as containing Covid-19; increasing the productivity of our farmers and the competitiveness of our manufacturers; mitigating the consequences of climate change; nurturing self-discipline in our schools; and reducing the digital divide.

I have now lived in Kenya for not too far off half a century, and throughout my time here I have seen the amazingly high potential of this wonderful country and its energetic, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial people, many highly educated. They are why Kenya has achieved so much since it threw off the shackles of colonialism. Equally however, it has consistently been my strong feeling that Kenya has greatly underachieved relative to its great potential.

We have outstanding leaders here, world class – including and not least in the very challenging public sector. But not so much in the world of politics. As we enter this year of elections, my appeal to you readers of the Business Daily is to do what you can to influence those around you to vote for candidates who will create that enabling environment within which we can all feel proud of living our Vision 2030 by that time.

PS. Just a few hours after I wrote this article I heard the President’s New Year message, in which he called for leadership over politics, and for boldness and vision over popularity. Kudos, Your Excellency.