The great and the dreadful of customer engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being responsible leader in the era of tech advances

In my last column I challenged readers with a series of questions on the meaning of responsible leadership in how leaders behave with their staff. I largely held back on answering those questions until today, and I hope that merely listing them was helpful. Here now are some responses from me.

Being responsible to those one leads revolves around fairness: actual fairness, and beyond that the perception of fairness. Do employees feel they are being treated respectfully, that they have opportunities to learn and to grow, that they are trusted and rewarded appropriately?

I see many organisations in Kenya where fair working conditions do exist, but I also witness others where leaders so distrust their people that they deliberately keep them in the dark about the context of their work. One can understand the logic of those who hoard information and hold back from delegating. It is because they don’t trust their people, concerned about their technical competence or their integrity or both.

They have presumably suffered from enough untrustworthy employees letting them down, as a result of which they feel they need to protect themselves from the risk of further disappointment.

What they fail to appreciate however is the impact on those same employees who, feeling distrusted, react appropriately. They will be less engaged and less motivated, and may well behave like sulking or rebellious teenagers do with over-stern parents or teachers.

So which risk is higher – trusting too much, or too little? And what can leaders do to attract the more trustworthy people in the first place, and then to retain them? No surprises: it is where fair working conditions exist that the best talent seeks employment. When staff are valued their employers help them fulfill their potential, of course in ways that are aligned to the interests of the organisation.

As they learn and grow they can take on more responsibilities, and hence contribute more – thereby earning the right to higher remuneration. In one company where I am a director, I love the way the chairman-owner explicitly states to his people that he pays them as much as the company can afford, not as little as he can get away with.

Millennials are more known for assessing the culture of an organisation before determining whether they wish to become part of it, and increasingly they look for their employer to be committed to an uplifting cause, pursuing “purpose beyond profit”, and so “doing well by doing good”. Safaricom have articulated their cause well, and others are also doing so.

Let me now turn to the challenge of employees whose skills have not kept up with contemporary trends – typically to do with the rapid advances in technology. Here employers are faced with the dilemma of whether to let go such staff or to explore ways of still benefitting from them, by offering them the opportunity to reskill and by allocating them responsibilities where they can remain relevant.

Should everyone be forced to retire at the age of sixty, so as not to block succeeding generations from finding opportunities? Surely not. While some may have seen their energy fade and should indeed be put out to pasture (nicely) others may still be found value-adding roles, perhaps as wise elders mentoring upcoming Young Turks.

Another question I raised in my last article was how to act responsibly when to remain competitive one is forced to adopt technologies that replace people, and this in an environment of high unemployment. The realities are there, and one cannot hide one’s head in the sand. What we know is that with each industrial revolution as many jobs are destroyed new ones are created.

But they require new skills, and we need active collaboration between government and private institutions to develop them – not least in the technical and vocational domains. Employers must play an active role in not only defining the needs but in participating in developing them.

Oh dear, I am once more reaching my word limit, and there’s so much more to write about. But I’d like to think that I have laid out enough aspects of leading people responsibly that you will now reflect on where you stand and on how to get to your next level.

What it means to lead responsibly

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.

How good are you in dealing with strangers?

Please do yourself a favour and read Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers, whose subtitle is What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know. It is deeply thought-provoking on every single page, now making us imagine we judge strangers too kindly, now too harshly. Either way, so engagingly, Gladwell shows us how common the misreading of strangers is.

“Today,” writes Gladwell, we are “thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own.” So chapter by chapter he offers us examples of what he calls “the stranger problem”.

One of the most dramatic and consequential of these is the meetings between British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in September 1938, as Hitler was threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain desperately wanted to avoid the outbreak of a world war, and when the two leaders met it turns out that Chamberlain simply fell under the German Fuhrer’s spell. He was outmanoeuvred at the bargaining table, grossly underestimating Hitler’s intentions.

Interestingly others, including Churchill, who knew far less about Hitler and had never met him, were the ones who judged him correctly.
In the same chapter, Gladwell tells us about the experienced and thoughtful New York judges whose job was to decide which of the defendants before them should be allowed bail. Their challenge – like Chamberlain’s – was to assess the character of a stranger… a nerve-wracking one indeed.

So with all their skills, how well did they do? Better than Chamberlain? To assess their judgements, a study was carried out comparing their verdicts with those of an artificial intelligence system that was fed with the same information as had been given to them, and instructed to make a parallel list of who should be released on bail. .

The study then analysed whose list committed the fewest crimes while out on bail, and found that those assessed by the IT system were 25 percent less likely to do so while awaiting trial than the 400,000 released by the judges. AI possessed only a fraction of the information available to the human intelligence, yet made superior assessments.

Gladwell is as confused as we are, as people struggle with their first impressions of a stranger – struggle even when they have had months to understand them. They struggle to assess their honesty, their character, their intent. So why would we do any better? It’s just not easy!

One explanation he offers is our tendency to “default to the truth”. It turns out we aren’t good at identifying who is telling the truth, being particularly bad at figuring out who is not. Why? Because we assume that the people we are dealing with are indeed honest.

We start by believing, says Gladwell, and “only stop doing so when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away”. The problem arises because many of those who deceive us are expert at doing so (with Bernie Madoff, the great fraudster, occupying a whole chapter in the book). Meanwhile others who are indeed being truthful may, through showing signs of anxiety, make us believe they are dissembling when they actually have nothing to hide.

In this our modern world we have no choice but to engage with strangers. Yet, confirms Gladwell, we are “inept”. “We think we can transform the stranger… into the familiar and the known,” he scoffs, “and we can’t.”

So? So we must accept the limits of our ability, and show humility and restraint. Including, as the last sentence in the book warns, avoid blaming the stranger when things go wrong.

Here in Kenya we are a relatively low trust society, leading to a tendency to default against the truth, to imagine that no stranger is to be believed.

But let us pay heed to Gladwell’s words of caution. Let us be neither too naïve nor too cynical. Yet let the fear of misjudging others not deter us from engaging with strangers, from wherever they may be, whatever their age or gender, their occupation or level of education. Accept, however, that we will often judge them wrongly.

BBI report goes beyond the usual divisive politics

The media are filled with coverage of matters BBI – for and against; Raila and Ruto; waste of money and money well-spent. We’ve all been advised to read the entire 156-page document, but given what has been highlighted I was far from tempted to do the responsible thing.

Then a few days ago, one of the papers featured a brief yet more holistic review of what was in the report, including mention of visions and values, and this led me to download it. What a delightful surprise! From the exhaustive way the media covered the launch and everything since, I had until then been led to assume that it was only about prime ministers and Parliaments, referendums and Raila-Ruto: just new sources of conflict and division, mere feeding ground for juicy headlines.

Immediately I started reading I saw the report was about so much more than the political options that face us – none of which, by the way, will sort out our problems, any more than our new constitution or our endless number of commissions have done. No. It is all, as the BBI report makes abundantly clear, about visions and values, about the need for national conversations at all levels of society, with as much listening as talking, ones that will develop a “national ethos.”

The report is written in a way that everyone can follow. It is clear and engaging, and it flows really well, from identification of our challenges to how we have handled them before to what we should do now. Each of the nine core challenges occupies a chapter: lack of a national ethos, responsibilities and rights, ethnic antagonism and competition, divisive elections, inclusivity, shared prosperity, corruption, devolution, and safety and security.

In them we read blunt feedback on what the BBI members heard from Kenyans, before they lay out their recommendations. They draw attention to the fact that the nine themes are all interlinked, and explain that the reason they list their recommendations at the end of each chapter (as well as laying them out comprehensively together in a clear matrix in an appendix that occupies 26 of the pages) is that they want us to focus separately on each one as well as viewing them all together. Plus they hope we won’t just pluck out the politically exciting ones and ignore the rest. They exhort us to “think big and long” – way beyond our Vision 2030 horizon to 50 and even 100 years from now. They realistically suggest holding on to our 47 counties – while encouraging the development of regional blocs and also further decentralisation to the ward level. And they write at length about how to breathe life into our values and behaviour, urging us to pay attention to our responsibilities along with our rights, and so we can build trust and respect among us rather than relentlessly opposing each other as we play our zero-sum games.

We read about our “leadership crisis”, with too much preaching water and drinking wine, and with too little follow-through on good intentions. I was particularly delighted to see them recommend the elimination of all sitting allowances.

The bridge-builders acknowledge previous efforts to bring us together around the much-needed national ethos, from the harambee spirit onward, and the opening statement in the report’s Conclusion chapter, “Kenya is at a crossroads,” reminded me of the Kenya Scenario Planning initiative that was named “Kenya at the Crossroads”. I was a trustee of that wonderful initiative, where we branded our optimistic scenario “Flying Geese”, reflecting the aligned energy it represented.

In the two decades since we laid out the characteristics of that Kenya at its best, we are far from seeing the necessary mix of political, economic and social developments that can take us there. But the BBI team (like me) remains optimistic about our unlimited potential to forge ahead and show the way for the rest of Africa. As they readily acknowledge, we definitely possess the needed talent and energy to achieve that shared prosperity.

I’d love to write much more. But in the space available I’ll just conclude by strongly advising you to read the report. You won’t regret it.

Let’s be optimistic despite the flood of negative news

From time to time my colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I host what we call “Leaders Circles,” where our guests tell personal stories relating to the theme of the day. For our recent one we selected the topic “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example.”

In Kenya as elsewhere these days it’s not easy to be an optimist. There’s certainly enough about which to feel pessimistic, and going by what the media reflects, Kenya – and for that matter just about everywhere in the world – is headed in the wrong direction. Here, too many of our conversations revolve around Kenya’s zero-sum political games, our untrustworthy society’s lack of integrity, and not enough around how to take the country forward. Many feel they are but impotent observers, struggling to survive despite it all.

So portraying ourselves as optimists lead others to describe us as “naïve” and “starry-eyed”. But just joining the complainers isn’t good enough — never mind that many Kenyans, in all sectors of society and at all levels, are competently taking the country forward, quietly and without being celebrated.

Where are we in all of this? The country needs forward movement, and it is optimistic leaders who must point to more than what is broken. How can we influence others to recognise opportunities as well as challenges, highlighting the uplifting dimensions of our society?

Kenya needs our unbroken optimism. Not unjustified and ill-informed, but rational and evidence-based. What’s required — and what’s achievable — is indeed a culture of “holding on to optimism.”

My co-host Frank and I always browse for suitable quotes on our topics, and there’s no shortage of these on the subject at hand. One of our favourites came from Winston Churchill, who observed that “a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Another, from Mehmet Murat ildan, ran: “The young pessimist is much older than the old optimist!” And here’s a third, from the ever-quotable Oscar Wilde: “The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole.” Do go to Google — you’ll find many more.

One by one the participants dug into their reservoir of good-news experiences, trying hard to hold back from sharing less optimistic ones.
Frank told us he has been coming to Kenya since 2004, and that he quickly became a fan, appreciating our spirit of optimism.

So that when he carries out his consultancies in Europe, he has the participants learn from Africa. Another described how he has been promoting CSR for over 25 years, from a time when others thought him mad for doing so. No longer.

One participant tries to smile through the ups and downs of life, and talked about his “instinct to survive.” Another told us that whoever one asks how business is faring they respond by complaining.

Despite that, he insisted, we must find optimism in what we do, and we must keep learning. And a third shared that even though she is not a runner she has been greatly inspired by Eliud Kipchoge.

A father among us enjoys showing his young daughter that life can be magical; and a mother tells her daughter to pay attention to the 90 percent positive and not just the 10 percent negative. She also confessed that when she was younger she thought she could change the world, while now appreciating that it is only herself she can change.

As we talked we took each other on roller coaster rides between optimism and pessimism, showing that each of us travels along an ever-shifting spectrum of moods.

But we held on to “adequate” optimism, acknowledging that while not all our experiences are so positive, those that are strengthen us.
We heard about the power of working together with like-minded leaders, so that our circle of optimistic influence can widen. And we acknowledged that just sharing our stories proved very helpful.

My expectation is to be able to “have a good time doing good things”, to keep cheerful enough even in the darkest of times such as when my son was killed in Somalia.

What about your expectation? Are you setting an example of holding on to optimism?

After MCAK launch, focus turns to building linkages

Along with nearly 50 bright young local management consultants I recently spent an uplifting evening at the Pallet Café in Lavington (where all the very helpful waiters are deaf), to participate in the launch of the Management Consultants Association of Kenya, MCAK, reachable at info@mcak.or.ke.

I wrote a column on the imminence of this launch not long ago, and I was delighted to see it now taking place. Not least as through it Kenya now begins its journey towards joining the world body for the profession, the International Council for Management Consulting Institutes (ICMCI), known as CMC Global.

At the launch, MCAK Founding Chair Erick Ngala explained that he and his colleagues identified ICMCI as an internationally accepted partner through whom local consultants, trainers and coaches could develop their competencies. And a key factor was how ICMCI had partnered with ISO to come up with the standard for their profession, ISO20700.

At the event, Kenya Bureau of Standards Director for Standards Esther Ngari expressed the willingness of KEBS to work with MCAK in its implementation.

ICMCI Executive Director Reema Nasser also spoke, laying out the steps MCAK needs to follow in order to become a full member of her institute, saying it typically takes around three years, culminating in a rigorous audit. ICMCI already has members in over 50 countries, and it looks forward to Kenya joining South Africa, Nigeria and Algeria as part of an emerging Africa hub, with Zambia and Tunisia also on the way.

Her organisation has been accorded UN NGO status, and what particularly impressed me was the basis on which individual consultants are assessed by ICMCI: through how their clients judge their performance.

During the evening, I heard from the consultants present about how they are finding the consulting world. Nothing comes easily for them — and wrongly they assume that an old war horse like me cruises along effortlessly. Several had migrated to consulting from the banking sector, and several told us they were not feeling fulfilled in their daily routine there.

“I knew what I had to do each day,” one revealed in the formal session, and now, even though he is working much harder, even as he is uncertain about tomorrow, he enjoys his life much more. He reads a lot, interacts with many people, and is learning so much. “The cake is big enough for us to collaborate,” he concluded, looking forward to the association growing the field as the members help each other.

In my remarks at the event, I congratulated Erick Ngala and his team on launching the association, more so in this by and large low-trust society of Kenya that is so individualistic and filled with high energy competition. I also drew attention to the fact that membership will be voluntary, unlike for professions such as lawyers and accountants. Beyond that, almost everyone will contribute as volunteers, so finding the time to make it all happen will remain a challenge. Finally, I wondered how the large consulting firms will be attracted alongside the small and individual players, and the younger ones along with the veterans.

I then related to my experience of working in and with professional and business associations, where I have found that the critical success factor is the presence of a few dedicated individuals who understand the purpose of the institution and the benefits it must deliver to members. This so they can share and collaborate – even as they continue to compete with one another.

From what I witnessed that evening, I see great hope for MCAK, as a great job has been done thinking through all this. They look forward to raising the awareness of the profession and building the consulting brand; they will be working to create an enabling environment for consultants; and through this will promote higher standards, including through professional development.

I am confident and optimistic about the association, with its thoughtful, humble leaders who are focused on collaboration and adding value, and who have already organised international partnerships. What they must also nurture, I suggested, is local linkages, both horizontally and vertically with the likes of APSEA and ultimately KEPSA.

Leaders ought to be fair and avoid short-term wins

I’m recently back from London, where for a few days I witnessed up close the vacuum of responsible leadership in relation to the endless Brexit saga. Ironically, I was following the daily conflict and confusion while being there for an event to launch the Institute for Responsible Leadership, of which I am a founder.

How incongruous it was to be among business and government leaders, senior academics and UN officials, talking about long-term sustainability at a time when British political leaders have been manoeuvring endlessly in support of short-term party and individual interests.

Well, that’s how it was, but let me just focus on our event, and in particular on my topic at the launch; the link between responsible leadership and emotional intelligence.

I first drew attention to the contemporary tug of war between those who succumb to short-term sub-optimisation and those who find the strength to take a longer-term view – those who, as Thomas Friedman put it, have thought through their “second paragraph.”

The here-and-now short-termists in the corporate world allow themselves to be dominated by the “tyranny of the quarter” or at best the year, building their personal CVs before moving on to the next pyrrhic victory; while the political players (those on the current UK scene being prime examples) are concerned with victory in the next election, seducing voters with unrealisable populist promises.

Both groups use their undoubted emotional intelligence to further immediate selfish goals and, thanks to attributes that may well include charm and bullying, they often succeed. This though while lacking that other essential ingredient of moral uprightness, which sooner or later will be the cause of their undoing.

Such people assume a world where win-lose is inevitable, and so they’d better end up as winners rather than losers in the zero-sum adversarial game in which they are convinced they play.

In this environment of survival-of-the-fittest, of one driven by the quest for selfish instant gratification, we see emerging trade wars, ever-rising inequality, disrespect for the environment, and other ills that can only end in tears for us all.

By contrast, the role of responsible leaders is to apply their emotional intelligence to bringing people together around a longer-term view that builds sustainability. This requires consensus-builders, mediators, people who nurture high-trust give-and-take cultures that over time result in an adequacy of win-win for all the stakeholders in the organisations and societies in which they operate.

Being in London I thought it would be good to draw attention to our African concept of Ubuntu, which proclaims “I am because we are.” And I quoted that paragon of emotional intelligence, Desmond Tutu, who described Ubuntu as ‘the very quality of being human.’

I also shared that within our admittedly predominantly low-trust Kenyan society there are plenty of healthy sub-cultures, ones where responsible leaders with high emotional intelligence have brought their followers together around common visions and values to build healthy, sustainable organisations.

A great example is Safaricom, with its focus on purpose beyond profit, on doing well by doing good, and there are many others beside this ultimate role model.

Those gathered at the University of Westminster, where the launch of our Institute for Responsible Leadership took place, were more than likely already adherents to the cause. So our question to them was how can we work together to expand our collective circle of influence.

How can we develop a critical mass of responsible leaders who accept that for us to get to our promised land of sustainability we must be fair to all our stakeholders, frequently holding back from easy short-term wins that end up being self-defeating.

A key speaker at the launch was a director of UNITAR, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, enthusiastic supporters of the initiative. He spoke in the context of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, seeing the need for collaboration among responsible leaders within and between the government and the private sector.

The next event to be organised by our Institute will be in February 2020, again in London. But our concept is determinedly global, and this certainly does not exclude Africa… or Kenya.

How to align universities with the new curriculum

Last week I ran a session on transformative leadership at a four-day workshop for vice chancellors and principals of Kenyan universities. It was organised by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), the Kenya DAAD Scholars Association (KDSA) and the Commission for University Education.

Today I will be reviewing the main issues that emerged from our conversation. The dozen or so gathered by Lake Naivasha, a bright and cheerful collection of dons, first discussed what transformative leadership meant in their context. Reassuringly they spoke about being change agents who, through participative management styles, bring people together around common visions and values and achieve extraordinary results. And about doing through research and innovation and, by making optimal use of their human and financial resources, deliver programmes that meet market demands while remaining financially sustainable. Sounds good.

They agreed that they need to add value in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, where many of today’s jobs will no longer exist and new ones will emerge. Also that as the products of the new Competence Based Curriculum begin entering their campuses in a few years’ time, they must have completely replaced the traditional style of lecturing and examining if they are to match the abilities and needs of their far more evolved and demanding students.

So what does this mean for styles of leadership?

The main thought I offered is that they must be experts at “aligning energy”. First internally, aligning energy vertically between their councils, management, faculty and other staff, and the students and their leaders. And aligning it horizontally, between their main and other campuses; between faculties and programmes; and between the support functions — like finance, HR, ICT and legal — and the student-facing ones.

Then there’s external energy alignment, with the Ministry of Education and the Commission for Higher Education (CUE); local and international partners — universities, research institutions and others; the schools and parents who deliver their raw material, and the workplace that receives their finished products; sources of funding beyond government and students’ fees; and other stakeholders.

Among all these areas of potential lack of alignment — with their weak collaboration, unproductive conflict, and hence wasted energy — the topics we spend time on include the silos that too often exist between departments. And more so in these times of scarce resources and the extreme pressure to become lean.

We heard from one vice chancellor who struggled to bring two programmes together and thereby utilise their resources more effectively. They resisted fiercely, eventually provoking the benevolent dictator in him to emerge. So how, we asked, can such resistance to mandatory change be reduced, given the perception among many of those involved that they will be worse off as a result?

In my work as a consultant the silo challenge is among the commonest — irrespective of the nature or size of the organisation. So I shared with the group how I help soften attitudes that prevent synergy between silos. It is, as I have written in these columns before, by having them exchange offers and requests, enabling them to “negotiate to win-win”. This requires great emotional intelligence, with leaders (and consultants) acting as mediators. And it is by stimulating learning and growth, and therefore enthusiasm, among those involved.

The other common area where alignment needs improving is between the council and management. How does each define its role? Where and how can council members add value? How do all concerned come together around common objectives, and within a healthy culture? All this requires carefully facilitated conversations, with the university CEOs central to it all.

Related topics I introduce include doing a good job with performance management, going beyond compliance and with no room for lame indicators that fall short of assessing ultimate impact; spreading a coaching culture at all levels of leadership; and letting go of counterproductive beliefs.

Such leadership programmes to help universities become more effective are quite new to Kenya. So kudos to those involved, on this occasion DAAD, KDSA and CUE, for having identified the yawning gap and for helping to fill it. Now the participants must stay closely in touch, sharing their experiences and strengthening each other along the way.

Beliefs that can keep you stuck in a maze

Many of you are familiar with that wonderful fable by Dr. Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese?, which was published in 1998 and has since sold nearly 30 million copies – having been translated into over 40 languages.

The book told the story of two mice, Sniff and Scurry, and two LittlePeople, Hem and Haw, who were faced with a declining supply of the previously permanently available cheese in the dark maze where they lived. While the mice swiftly accepted the realities of the new situation and boldly went off along the maze’s winding corridors and blind alleys in search of more sources, Hem and Haw refused to accept the need for change, assuming the supply of cheese would resume.

Haw eventually ventured beyond his comfort zone, at first reluctantly and timidly, but gradually more confidently, in a successful quest for new supplies. What happened to Hem though, who remained all alone in his denial, lost and distraught? Did he starve to death? Or did he finally decide to accept the need to change and join the hunt for new cheese?

Now we know, for in 2018 a follow- up book by Spencer Johnson, Out of the Maze, appeared – the year after he succumbed to cancer and passed away. In this little book (it only takes about an hour to read) we follow Hem and his new lady friend, Hope, on their journey to find a way out of the maze.

Let me not spoil how the story develops, so let me just explain that Spencer builds the message of this fable around the need for positive “beliefs”, like: don’t assume you can only eat cheese, as an apple can be tasty too. And when there may be no more of them either you have to choose other new foods, other beliefs.

To make the point with clarity and impact, the book includes periodic full-page “ads” to nudge us into helpful beliefs, including a final cumulative one that reads: Notice your beliefs, Don’t believe everything you think, Let go of what isn’t working, Look outside the maze, Choose a new belief, There are no limits to what you can believe.

All around us, every day, we observe how enabling or disabling beliefs can be. Just think of ones that brought down some of the most prominent companies in the world, such as Kodak, Nokia and BlackBerry, who held on to the erroneous belief that the future would be like the past.

And at the personal level, what about all those workers whose jobs are being replaced by technology, or at least where their survival depends on acquiring robust digital skills? Will they ignore the need to transform themselves, or act like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand so as to avoid what it wouldn’t wish to see?

As I was listening recently to one of the Democratic candidates for the US presidency, I was struck by the story he told of pausing at a truck-stop in Iowa where he engaged with some of the drivers while campaigning. But he said he didn’t dare ask any of them what thought they had given to the fact that their jobs would disappear when driverless vehicles start taking over… for fear they would punch him in the face! Now that’s holding on to beliefs that will condemn them to becoming as obsolete as a dinosaur.

Johnson’s powerful theme is that all of your accomplishments, all of your failures, are due to your beliefs: Whether you’re confident or insecure, cynical or positive, open-minded or inflexible. Of course it’s awfully difficult, so inconvenient, to change your beliefs. But unless you reflect on ours – and as leaders on those of the people around you – beware of remaining stuck in your maze. As you examine your beliefs, hopefully a good many of them will merely be validated and reinforced. But where they need to be replaced, prepare to expand your comfort zone. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Just like reading (or rereading) Who Moved my Cheese? is a must. In this VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, carry them with you and keep challenging yourself. Every day.