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.

Avoiding family wars that ruin businesses

These days I am being invited more frequently to help align family members within their businesses so they can lead the organisations they own more effectively.

I am encouraged by those who reach out to me for such assistance, as it speaks of being realistic about the importance of cohesiveness among them and of feeling optimistic that they can indeed do better.

In my capacity as an adviser — or, as I often label myself, coach — I first listen to each family member involved, getting a sense of their personalities and styles, and of the roles they play in their enterprise.

In a spirit of “appreciative inquiry” I like to start by having them tell me about the achievements they are proudest of and the strengths that explain them, and then asking them to share the challenges they face — including and not least with other family members.

For this to happen I don’t rush into these topics, but begin by building a relaxed, cheerful and trusting relationship with them, getting them to talk more generally about their lives, while revealing something about mine.

Business school

As I was preparing to write this article I caught sight of a book I’d bought some years ago at the London Business School bookshop but had never got round to reading.

Published in 2008, Family Wars is about some of the biggest family-run companies in the world, showing how in-fighting among family members threatened to bring about their downfall.

It covers families such as Ford, Gucci and the Watsons of IBM, using these as examples of different categories of wars, not least between fathers and sons, among siblings, and as a result of marriages between families.

It also provides advice for anyone involved in a family business, offering suggestions on how to avoid such problems.

The book’s authors are London Business School Prof Nigel Nicholson, whose research interests include the psychology of family business, and Grant Gordon, the director-general of the Institute for Family Business and a fifth-generation member and former senior executive of William Grant & Sons, the distillers of Glenfiddich whisky (my favourite).

Despite relating stories of specific family “wars” they are careful to point out that many with family ownership outperform other kinds of organisations, and that some of the world’s oldest companies are those that have remained owned by their founding families.

I related very closely to what I read about both the kinds of challenges that family businesses commonly face, and how to prevent them and handle them if and when they arise.

Not least about the wisdom of “appointing skilled non-family professionals to fill business leadership roles”; “appointing a neutral ‘ombudsman’ as co-mentor of a sibling team”; and “instituting appraisals and regular feedback on work output and mentoring for family members”.

Not surprisingly, Grant and Nicholson refer to the lack of trust as “the real killer”, where one person sees another as unreliable, inconsistent, devious or duplicitous. And – as I do – they advocate for a spirit of forgiving and seeking forgiveness.

To avoid undue conflict, a culture of equity and fairness must prevail, with no cheating and taking of shortcuts. Worst of all is the hiring of lawyers to sue one another, never mind if the dirty linen starts getting washed in public.

Just as insufficient cohesiveness leads family members to either waste energy in fruitless attempts to win battles at the expense of a relative, or to disengage and scatter, so excessive cohesion, where families retreat into their own exclusive world, are also unhealthy.

Consensus builder

The challenge is to nurture an atmosphere where differences can be aired and consensus built, in a spirit of give and take.

Yes, we want the leadership team in family businesses to be diverse — including these days by including the women. We want representation of a spectrum from elders to millennials, and it’s good for members to have varied exposure to education and to other cultures and countries.

Some will have a greater appetite for risk than others. Some will be more focused on longer-term sustainability and on being fair to all key stakeholders and some will be keener than others on professionalising.

The question is how such diversity can be brought together without generating wars, and by whom.

Who in the family is the consensus builder, the mediator? Or does the business, as so many do, require external help to keep the peace and allow each family member to contribute and thrive in their own way?

Influencing upwards for growth despite volatility

In my consulting work, I engage with staff at all levels, from those who occupy the chairperson’s seat in the boardroom to those who work on the shop floor and in the fields. As I converse with them and study them I see a whole spectrum of diameters in their circles of influence — not necessarily related to their seniority.

Some chairs act merely as “traffic police”, guiding who should speak next while not adding significant value; while some of the very young and very junior can be making an impact on their environments that is way beyond what is expected.

Partly it is a function of how active and creative their minds are; much depends on their communication skills; and, a key component is confidence and boldness — the willingness to share what is on one’s mind, imagining that others will be interested in one’s thoughts and be keen to hear them.

We each develop our reputations, some for just quietly getting on with our tasks as narrowly defined in our job descriptions, others for restlessly and relentlessly championing new and better ways of doing things.

The latter may well be inconvenient disrupters, so here the challenge is to make one’s point in ways that others find possible to digest. And this brings me to the specific theme of this article: influencing upwards, often the most difficult direction in which to generate change.

Let me take you back to the time I was facilitating programmes on “Leadership for Influence” as a faculty member of the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communications.

Among them was a series of events for groups of branch managers of a large nationwide organisation, where as I encouraged them to talk about their communications challenges the one that emerged time and again, and so strongly, was being listened to by their seniors.

What I heard was that theirs was a company where strategies and objectives were set at higher levels than theirs, and then communicated downwards. No one was interested in their voices, they felt. I found this quite puzzling, as it was their bosses who had brought me in to help them with their communications skills.

Within the workshops I had them write and perform short plays which began with a problem, either internally with a colleague or externally with a customer and reached a tipping point as a result of which the problem was resolved and a win-win solution emerged.

Many of their playlets featured a dissatisfied client, and I noted that without exception almost immediately on hearing their complaint the script had the client-facing staff take the complainant to their branch manager for them to resolve the issue.

Why were the scripts written this way? Were they not empowered to resolve issues themselves? Did their managers hold back from delegating authority? Did they not trust their people? Were they just timid, unwilling to make what would be perceived as the wrong decision? What could have led to the staff member holding back from such consistent instant escalation?

We discussed all this, and also the question of how the communication between the branch managers and their seniors could be improved. Yet when I proposed that as an output from their sessions with me the participants should seek such dialogue they were hesitant to do so.

Influencing upwards, they felt, was not something that would be appreciated. It was not in the organisational culture.

Through those who had hired me for the workshops, I did suggest that escalation and delegation management was a topic that needed airing, but I never got to know if anything was done as a result of my intervention.

How is it in your organisation? Do you actively seek the views of your juniors? Do you listen to their voices? Do you develop their competence and their confidence to make responsible judgments on behalf of the organisation — providing adequate guidelines and guardrails, and accepting that sometimes your decision might have been different?

Do you trust them to do the right thing? Or do you micro-manage them, making them feel they must delegate upwards, for fear of being hammered for taking a “wrong” approach?

The larger the organisation the more important this issue becomes. Those who will prosper in these uncertain and volatile times are the ones who encourage influencing upwards.

Reviving the neglected art of self-exploration

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.

How firms can handle integrity lapses by staff

In PwC’s 2020 global economic crime and fraud survey, Fighting Fraud – A never-ending battle, fraud was identified among the top concerns. So the ability to identify fraud perpetrated from either within or outside the organisation and then to deal with it swiftly and fairly is critical.

In one large local company on whose board I serve, I chair the Board Audit, Risk and Compliance Committee, where the issue of identifying and handling fraud and other integrity issues features prominently. So let me share the lessons we have been learning in dealing with such matters.

A major challenge organisations face is just gathering information on fraud being perpetrated by employees or others, which is why many have invested in ways of making it as easy as possible to communicate information about integrity lapses.

These include ethics hotlines, compliance web portals, and email contacts to which to send such information – often outside of the organisation, and typically to an audit firm.

Not surprisingly perhaps, utilisation of these platforms is relatively low when compared to informal reporting, or finding out about cases through the grapevine.

Organisations, therefore, need to build cultures and systems that enable whistleblowers to feel it is the right thing to do and to feel secure about doing so. Some even provide monetary incentives, although this may encourage false whistleblowing – a not unusual occurrence anyway.

The speed with which reported issues are investigated, action is taken, and communication is fed back to the whistleblower, has a direct impact on confidence in the process. So there must be adequate investigating capacity, with staff possessing the relevant forensic experience.

Matters reported must be handled with utmost confidentiality, for whistleblowers need to remain anonymous, thus minimising the chances of retaliatory actions being taken by those involved in the integrity matter.

Then, staff in departments that are likely to access information on matters being reported – such as ICT, investigations and internal audit – should sign Non-Disclosure Agreements.

Some decide to sue staff for damages resulting from integrity issues, pursuing criminal and/or civil litigation. But the evidence threshold for successful litigation is extremely high, so one must ensure that documentation and other sources of evidence are impeccable – no mean feat.

For criminal proceedings, the investigating officers and prosecutors need to be properly appraised of the matter to ensure they fully understand the issues, prepare robust witness statements, and hence prosecute successfully.

In addition to the evidence, witnesses must come forward and corroborate that evidence, so organisations need to publish guidelines on witness protection, together with incentives to encourage witnesses to be present in what are likely to be lengthy court processes.

When obtaining evidence from private investigators, one must ensure that it is obtained through legal means, so that it can stand scrutiny in court.

Organisations also need to be alive to the fact that fraud can be perpetrated by anyone – even those responsible for ensuring internal compliance and investigating abuses.

Serious background checks and vetting therefore should be carried out before onboarding such staff, and an internal mechanism must be put in place to ensure that fraud perpetrated by staff in these offices can be detected.

In staff induction programmes the value of integrity and the importance attached to compliance should be included for all staff, and there should be continuous emphasis by all levels of management on these subjects in staff meetings.

Alongside this, those who uphold the value should be recognised, while those who do not should be penalised.

A major fraud risk results from conflicts of corporate and individual interests. It is therefore important for staff to be given an opportunity to declare such potential or actual conflicts so as to remain relaxed in their roles.

The process of making declarations should be continuous, so that staff are given an opportunity to declare interest conflicts upfront.

What happens when there is proof of culpability, and the organisation wishes to recover its losses from the employee?

With the slow pace of court litigation, it takes forever, diminishing the value of any recoveries. And that’s if the verdict is favourable, in itself of relatively low probability. But at least with the introduction of the Small Claims Courts such matters will be concluded much more quickly.

The more I have been involved in these integrity and compliance issues, the more I have realised how complex and challenging it is to deal with them, and how one must keep constant focus on them and keep applying the lessons learned.

Uplifting tales of personal transformation moments

In 2011 I wrote a column on how I had been collecting moments of personal transformation in people’s lives.

I did so through having participants in some of my workshops share such moments with each other as a way of opening up and also showing they were as likely to continue experiencing such moments in future.

It is these uplifting stories that led my colleague Frank Kretzschmar and me to select this as the theme of our latest Leaders Circle, where we again invited a small group of leaders to a story-telling afternoon.

As always, before they arrived Frank and I, having researched quotations on the theme, wrote a selection of them onto flip charts that we taped to the walls around the room, and here are a few of our favourites, first from Abraham Maslow (famous for his “Hierarchy of Needs”): “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth.

“Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” Then, Buckminster Fuller’s “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.” Finally (I wish I had space for more), from Lao Tzu, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

So how did we talk about our transformative moments? Not surprisingly, several stories related to revelations arising out of these Covid times, which revealed the fragility of life and how we must not take it for granted. As a consequence, this led several of us to re-evaluate both our activities and our attitudes.

“Before I was thinking of early retirement, but no longer, as I love what I do,” we heard from one. And from another (me): “How I survived my heavy bout of Covid led people to describe me as a fighter, encouraging me to accept the label.”

Some of what we’ve been through should better be described as evolution rather than transformation, we heard, as we are constantly challenged to change and adapt. Much of what happened to us was unplanned and unpredicted – maybe even just due to luck, either good or bad.

For each of those in the room, however, all leaders in our own right, by and large, we took advantage of the circumstances in which we found ourselves. We were bold in stepping forward when opportunities arose, and having to dealing with setbacks was common.

“I am because we are,” was how one participant headlined a story from the time he was a student.

“I came across a limping old beggar in Meru and took an interest in him, so he asked me why I wanted to know him. He had been a freedom fighter, and so if it were not for him I wouldn’t be who I am. He became poor so I could be rich. It was a moving, transforming moment for me, and this revelation of truth set me free.”

Another leader acknowledged how he was transformed by the strong values of his Maasai community in which he was brought up, values he is so proud of. Had he come from a different kind of environment he might have just become a street boy, he mused.

As we heard stories of personal transformation, we also reviewed such moments at the national level, with some more enthusiastic than others about the progress having been made and the outlook.

And in between, within the organisations where we operate, several spoke of their evolution into purpose-driven entities, where concern for their employees, the communities around them and other stakeholders became the norm.

Among the reflections we heard about the importance of viewing our cup of life as half full rather than half empty; and about how transformation favours the bold – those who are blessed with the courage to hope. It is why we heard that transformation starts with each of us. “It is for me to change others, not wait for others to do so,” posed one.

Let me conclude by reporting that prior to our Leaders Circle I shared the topic with my daughter and her husband and children. Guess what? The young ones had already experienced their own transformative moments. Do reflect on yours… and have your young ones share theirs with you.

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.