Preparing the youth to be responsible leaders

The Institute for Responsible Leadership (where I am a co-founder) recently partnered with UNITAR (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research) with whom IRL collaborates closely) to broadcast a webinar on youth and responsible leadership.

Keynote speaker Sebastian Hofbauer talked about how youth have become significant “influencers” through the use of social media – some positive, but many not so. The latter are primarily in it for the size of their following and the revenue they therefore generate.

So we need government regulation, he suggested, but also self-regulation, this in partnership with the private sector and including through the UN Global Compact. Much helpful food for thought.

In my contribution as a panelist, I focused on two youth organisations with which I have been closely involved since the late 1970s. Both have been spectacularly successful at developing highly responsible young leaders – many of whom have gone on to occupy the highest positions of leadership in Kenya and way beyond.

The first one I spoke about was Rotaract, the young persons’ Rotary, where young adults aged 18 and over join – as in Rotary itself – to offer service while enjoying each other’s friendship, and where they also develop their leadership skills, not least through learning by doing.

There’s no better way of accelerating one’s development and one’s career than by joining such volunteer organisations, and the earlier one does so the better.

For here one is exposed to projects and committees, to managing people and funds, while learning about policies and programmes, meetings and minutes, and so much more about leadership.

Rotaracters apply Rotary’s “4-Way Test”, so in everything they think, say or do, they ask: “Is it the truth?” “Is it fair to all concerned?” “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” and “Is it beneficial to all?” It is young adults who practice such values as honesty and fairness that are attracted to this organisation, and their membership there reinforces these further.

The first Rotaracter I met was in 1979, a young man called Stephen Musyoka, whom the Rotary Club of Nairobi where I was a member selected to benefit from a post-graduate scholarship at the Mediterranean Institute of Management in Cyprus. Now better known as Kalonzo Musyoka, he went on to develop a very successful career in politics, where practicing the 4-Way Test is so challenging!

In 1986, when I became the President of our Rotary Club, one of my main goals was to relaunch our Rotaract Club, that had meanwhile faded away.

I challenged two young professionals in the IT company of which I was CEO, Henry Njoroge and David Muiruri, to gather together a group of suitable people to form one, and indeed before my year was done the Rotaract Club of Nairobi Central was launched.

Since then it has continued to thrive, a permanent source for developing responsible leaders. Indeed the current President of our Rotary Cub, Gideon Akwabi, became a Rotaracter in 1989 and emerged as a leader there before joining our Rotary Club in 2012.

The second example I chose was AIESEC, which was launched in 1948 as an international association of students of economics and commerce, enabling them to be exposed to other European countries and cultures in the aftermath of the Second World War.

When I was an undergraduate in the mid-sixties I undertook AIESEC internships in France and America, and they were life-transforming exposures for me.

I became a member of the advisory board of AIESEC Kenya soon after arriving here in the late 1970s, and ever since I have enjoyed mentoring generations of AIESECers – the brightest and the best of responsible young leaders.

AIESEC partners with major institutions that act as hosts for internships, and these days it attracts students from all disciplines and actively supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

You can just imagine how that develops their members as responsible young leaders. Like with former Rotaracters, AIESEC alumni are consistently sought after to occupy leadership positions. (One such is Polycarp Igathe.)

I am currently involved with the inspiringly responsible leaders of the AIESEC chapter at Strathmore University, whose Vice-Chancellor Vincent Ogutu I first met when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi… as a result of him being a member of AIESEC.

So you can understand why I am such an enthusiastic advocate for young women and men joining these wonderful organisations, as they are extraordinary incubators of responsible leadership.

Making 360-degree appraisals beneficial

360-degree appraisals provide feedback to employees not just their supervisors. They can be horizontal, among colleagues who work together at the same level, and/or vertical, from those at lower levels commenting on their bosses.

Sounds like a good idea, yes? After all, each one of us can benefit from holistic feedback to become more self-aware, more in touch with reality, so as to understand where we can improve our performance. Right?

Sure. Except that many organisations that have introduced side-to-side or bottom-up assessments have suffered negative unintended consequences.

Indeed my first experience of formal 360-degree appraisals was with a global multilateral institution whose Kenya director would cry on my shoulder about his supervisor being completely disinterested in what he felt many of his staff unreasonably needed him to do and not do in order to assess him positively.

It provided an easy opportunity for disgruntled staff to get their own back on him if he had made tough – but in his view necessary – decisions about an issue. And instead of appreciating his resistance to taking the easy way out by being unduly nice to his staff merely to gain popularity and higher ratings, his boss would just condemn him for the negative reviews.

It is such risks that make me wary about recommending 360-degree feedback to all and sundry. I am more likely to if an organisation enjoys a particularly healthy culture of high trust all round, and where all levels have been prepared for handling such a sensitive subject in a constructive way.

As a first stage, I often suggest that such feedback be provided between teams rather than individually – like between levels, departments and functions.

Another question that arises is where extremely low ratings, accompanied by highly negative comments, are made about some receiving their 360-degree appraisals. Should they be shown the precise content of such feedback?

Might it lead them to have their self-confidence and self-esteem battered, and even to overfocus on the likely sources, however anonymously the responses will have been submitted?

Would it be less disruptive for whoever is discussing the feedback with them – whether their supervisor, the HR function or an external coach – to merely offer a sufficient flavour of what has been provided, before turning to how they can deal with the issues expressed by changing some of their attitudes and behaviours?

Either way, adequate reference should also be made to positive feedback that will have been provided.

If the ones who’ve received particularly harsh feedback should perhaps not be shown the whole ugly picture, is it OK to share the full story with those where more positive views were expressed about them? I don’t think so. Let there be a consistent approach.

Whether an organisation’s appraisal system includes 360-degree components or not, it is vital that all involved – everyone who appraises and all who are appraised – are engaged in sessions to help them understand the purpose of such exercises, i.e performance improvement, personal development and career planning, all within a coaching culture.

Not an occasional parental lecture to one’s children; not tick-in-the-box annual compliance with having “done” appraisals and pleasing the folks in HR; not just a way to negotiate a salary review or a promotion.

I long ago ceased being surprised by how in very few organisations do appraisal systems add value. On the contrary, too many are but a disruptive, time-consuming nuisance, harming rather than enriching relationships of mutual trust and respect.

Adding the 360-degree component requires yet more focus on purpose, yet more time to plan and implement, yet more continuous follow-up. If appraisal systems work well they are extremely valuable, making everyone feel good about contributing to each other’s learning and growth.

So I am a passionate advocate for them, including the collection and sharing of broader feedback. Plus, I should add, at the highest level, among boards of directors and with CEOs – often the ones who least dare apply such treatment to themselves.

So, does your organisation’s appraisal system help you as an individual move forward, and is this in alignment with the progress of the whole entity? And is your culture robust and honest enough to handle a 360-degree component? These are mission-critical questions that must not be avoided.