Challenges to change in dynamic business world

Since writing my last article on how to influence change, I have had the privilege of listening to Costas Markides, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of several outstanding books on the subject — including his latest one, Organising for the New Normal.

He was a delight to be with online at the Davis & Shirtliff management conference in which I was participating, making his points in such a lively and humorous way. Don’t take my word for it though, listen to him on this podcast, ‘Resilience mindset and the new normal’ on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Costas — which I am sure is how he’d like me to refer to him — is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy. As with anyone who works in this field these days he reflected deeply on how the strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to influencing people’s behaviours. He, therefore, focuses on social psychology as a key ingredient in his mix.

Why do people behave as they do, he asks, and what is it about the organisations within which they work that makes them do so? For sure leaders cannot simply tell their people to be, say, resilient and innovative. You won’t be surprised to learn that Costas is a great storyteller, and one he loves to quote is from the Harvard Medical School, which carried out a study on patients being released from hospital following major heart surgery.

Each of them was told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives — no more smoking or drinking alcohol, healthy eating and plenty of exercises. 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 percent of them reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, the book about this case by Alan Deutschman, the author describes what differentiated the 10 percent of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas relates. 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 we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional.

Another factor that influences how we behave is our environment, and Costas talks engagingly about how leaders must create one 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 — like if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy.

Above all, Costas tells 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. He tells us we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. But this requires going beyond simply asserting that.

Leaders must lift their people psychologically, emotionally, reaching both their heads and their hearts, so they can visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Let me conclude by mentioning that an extra reason why I so enjoyed interacting with Costas was that nearly 50 years ago I spent a year at the London Business School as a student in their Sloan Masters programme. It was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence. His session reminded me of those uplifting days, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised the place and showing me it to be as vibrant now as it was then.

Are you an influencer?

Life would be so much easier and less stressful if we could influence others to do what is in their best interest by merely persuading them with logical, rational arguments.

But it often turns out to be really hard, often futile, so we just give up in frustration.

Efforts to influence others can be at the individual level, helping someone to do things like lose weight, give up smoking or drinking or do regular exercise.

It can be at the organisational level — where research shows that 70 percent of all change management initiatives fail to make a difference.

Or it can be in communities and up to national level, all with a view to modifying behaviour. So much effort is invested, too little impact is felt.

My life as a director, a consultant and a writer is all about influencing people, typically to help them work better together without wasting time, energy and emotions struggling with conflict, bureaucracy, silos or other impediments to high performance.

I’d like to think that at least sometimes my circle of influence is adequately significant. But I am possessed of no magic wand, and so however brilliant my change management operations may be, the outcomes with my ‘patients’ are still sometimes less than overwhelming.

Are my Business Daily columns influential? Do I merely raise awareness but stop short of influencing behaviour? Or are some of my readers actually stimulated to change in the way I am advocating?

As for my consultancies and directorships — more so when I am a board chairman — how do I influence behaviours?

All these thoughts swirled around in my mind as I read Influencers, by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler — a group of change consultants themselves, who were curious to find out how others who had been of influence went about it.

One of my favourite examples reminded me of my recent hospital experience. A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect.

So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly – the “positive deviants” – to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were smiling, making eye contact, identifying yourself, letting people know what you are doing and why and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Another example is the extraordinary work of microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunis. He found that by grouping women from a village in Bangladesh together and making them communally responsible for evolving viable business plans and for repaying loans made their success rate phenomenal.

I related to this case as some years ago my wife launched a microfinance company, through whose work she saw that the most valuable role it could play was to influence the value of reliability and the behaviours that supported it. It worked.

When it comes to altering behaviour, the authors found that you need to help others answer only two questions. First: Is it worth it? If not, why waste the effort?) And second: Am I able to do this thing? (If not, why even try? Then, you must replace judgment with empathy, and lectures with questions.

The moment you stop trying to impose your agenda on others you eliminate the fight for control.

Storytelling is a powerful way of influencing, they also reveal, relating personal experiences, with all their challenges and setbacks, but where the goal was achieved.

Whose stories? Those of opinion leaders in the group, to whom others listen. For it isn’t the mere merit of an idea that predicts its adoption rate.

Rather, whether opinion leaders embraced and promoted it.

Then, insist on immediate feedback against clear standards, we are advised. Break tasks into discrete actions, set goals for each, practice within a low-risk environment, and build in recovery strategies, while offering real-time coaching.

There’s so much more in this book I would like to share, but I must go to my concluding question: are you skilled at influencing others? Or are you too pushy, too instructive, or otherwise insufficiently smart? Look out for high influencers, and see what to learn from them.

Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

How to manage change during transition period

I have written about change quite often in this column, and a few weeks ago I referred briefly to my own change anxiety in the context of my stay in hospital while dealing with Covid.

There, during my two-month incarceration, I was moved several times: from this ward to that ward, and then first to one room and later another prior to my eventual release. Each transition provoked its own anxieties, however ill-founded some were.

I was reminded of my transition stress as I came across the book Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, a prominent consultant who pointed out that much of what gets us agitated is not the actual difference between the old and the new situations but the disruptive transition from one to the other.

Each time I dreaded the prospects of being wheelchaired to my new abode, someone trailing behind me with the oxygen cylinder to which I was hooked up, and someone packing my belongings and then unpacking them in an unfamiliar setting – on one occasion at high speed and late in the evening.

All this required great mental and emotional strength on my part to keep adequately calm and optimistic about both the journey and the destination.

One transition led me to a distinctly less conducive environment, justifying my prior concern; while the upgrade to my first private room delivered significant advantages, as did the freedom from isolation – allowing me to receive visitors. But even this did not take away from the discomforts of transition.

My exit from the confines of the hospital to a care home and then finally back to my own home exposed me to yet more transition experiences, yet more reasons to be anxious about moves from one environment to the next, where at each stage the availability of carers would be diminished.

The good news is that all this made me a transition expert in just three months!

Bridges describes the sequence of progressing from the first stage of “ending” the previous setting, when we feel a sense of loss, accompanied by first denial, then anger and frustration, as we come to terms with the need to let go of the familiar; to the “neutral” stage, where negative feelings diminish; to the “new beginning”, with its mix of gains and fresh challenges.

It’s good to seek support when facing change, advises Bridges, and indeed from my experience I saw that support should be offered pro-actively and pre-emptively – having understood where and why people are anxious. How was it for this hospital nomad?

Sometimes I was reassured and comforted by the doctors and nurses, but on one occasion I actually felt like an Internally Displaced Person. Important too is to be straightforward with ourselves about where the new situation will indeed leave us less well off, helping us to accept the inevitable gracefully, as it’s as good as it gets.

Managing expectations is the name of this game.

The neutral zone is the most challenging, I read, because we can’t go back to the old state and we haven’t yet mastered the new one. Other messages from Bridges are that it is easier to let go of the past if we take lessons from what is ending and what we must let go of.

And that if possible we should try and take some familiar aspects into and beyond the transition.

More so in this volatile day and age we are constantly challenged to transition beyond our comfort zones: a new boss or structure or job; a new phone or laptop, or a new version of an operating system or App or ERP, and so many other changes… not to mention Covid, which has multiplied the ways in which we have had to adapt – to remote working, to not shaking hands and in many other ways.

Some of us find it all so hard to handle, while others manufacture the strength to expand their comfort zones as they travel through their transitions and into their new scenarios.

If those new scenarios leave us worse off, make us feel like an IDP, then we must find yet more strengths – beyond those required for the journey through transition – so we can plan for our best possible future with an invigorated sense of purpose.

Story-telling on sustainability as urgent crises rise

I have written before about the Leaders Circles I host with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar, where the participants tell personal stories around a theme we select.

The topic of the last one I reported on was “Holding on to optimism – we can set an example”, and we certainly needed a dose of that optimism to reflect on our latest theme, “Now more than ever: sustainable living with heart and mind”.

Our invitation letter spelled out that as we continue adapting to the disruptive challenges of Covid, and as we struggle to handle other ongoing global issues such as inequality and climate change, we are more than ever obliged to look beyond tomorrow, beyond the next quarter.

Responsible leadership requires us to focus on sustainability, the introductory letter continued, suggesting this implies being fair to all key stakeholders.

“Short-term imperatives must be balanced with long-term aspirations, and we must figure out how to influence people to endure sacrifices today so we and those who come after us can prosper tomorrow,” we wrote, “All this in an increasingly unpredictable world, one where change keeps accelerating relentlessly.”

During our afternoon together several among us talked about feeling overwhelmed by global threats such as climate change, given both the scale and urgency of the issue and the refusal by far too many to adapt despite the fast-increasing severity of the disruptions it causes.

For even when crises like climate change or Covid or violent conflicts hit us, to whatever extent change is the only route through which sustainability can be achieved, too often the needed transformation is obstinately blocked.

Frank and I always search for appropriate quotes to display around the room that can inspire our storytellers, and among those we selected on this occasion was this one from nurse Terry Swearingen, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize: “We are living on this planet as if we had another one to go to.”

We also included Mahatma Gandhi’s observation that “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”, and a Native American proverb which reminded us that “We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

The afternoon was far from filled with fatalistic dismay though, as we resonated with this wonderful assurance from anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Like when one participant shared that “when something in this world moves you, that’s when you can follow your passion and make a difference, doing what you can in your sphere of influence.”

Among us were a couple of peace-builders, one of whom talked about the need to embrace the Ubuntu message of “I am because we are”, and this in a contemporary world where the compassionate “We” has increasingly given way to the selfish “I” of short-term personal gratification.

If we are to build sustainable societies, the other peace-builder contributed, we must work at resolving conflicts, overcome bureaucracy and mend broken institutions – however hard this is to do. Which leads me to another of our quotes, from Gaylord Nelson: “There is a great need for the introduction of new values in our society, where bigger is not necessarily better, where slower can be faster, and where less can be more.”

We heard about professionalising family businesses so they can survive multiple generations; about keeping our hearts open during these times of Covid, being fair and empathetic to both our employees and our customers; and about ensuring our organisations promote the kind of trustworthy cultures that allow them to operate effectively even in these days of physical separation.

As our minds and spirits have been stretched by what the pandemic has thrown at us we have had to force ourselves to think beyond day-to-day issues, we heard, to engage with each other more deeply and to find new ways of coping.

Being a Covid survivor myself, I mentioned that I almost missed out on being sustainable a few months ago. But happily I am now back in action, relating to our final quote, from Peter Drucker: “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

Passage through Palestine in eyes of my grandfather

In my last article I explained why it’s a good idea to keep a journal. I’ve been doing so for quite some years, at least hoping that my grandchildren will find something of interest in what I have written about.

I say this aware that in the 1940s my grandfather Robert Bischoff kept a meticulously written record of how he and his wife, plus their two children – one of them my mother Gaby – left their lovely home in Bucharest, Romania, in January 1941.

They decided to depart as anti-Semitic Fascist dictator Ion Antonescu had seized power there, and German troops were already present in significant number.

My grandfather wrote his journal in Romanian, and many years ago I took it upon myself to translate it into English. His text filled 38 typed foolscap pages, with very long sentences strung together in paragraphs that were also unusually long.

While Romanian was the first language I spoke after I was born, I never studied it formally and from when I arrived in Britain at the age of three I switched to English.

But I was fluent enough to take on the task, even with no dictionary and no Internet to consult at the time. What a labour of love it was.

For long, my grandfather – like many others at the time – was hesitating over whether the Romanian scene would increasingly make life unbearable for Jewish families like theirs.

At first he was more with the optimists, but eventually the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the decision to emigrate was made.

He worked under great stress over many weeks to obtain the necessary paperwork for the departure, not least the transit visa for Turkey and the entry visa to their final destination Palestine (before it became Israel), and finally they were ready to leave.

They travelled by train from Bucharest to the Black Sea port of Constanta; by boat from there to Istanbul; then on trains across Turkey and Syria; and next through Lebanon – by bus from Tripoli to Beirut and from there by car into Palestine, to Haifa and on to Tel Aviv, arriving on 19th January, eight days after leaving Bucharest.

The last entry in the journal is from November 1946, by which time Robert’s daughter Gaby had met and married my father Bruno, who had left Romania a few months after the Bischoff family, to rejoin Shell – for whom he had been working in Romania.

His journey was infinitely more precarious, in a small and flimsy yacht that for over 52 days took him and his fellow crew members to Cyprus and from where he managed to transfer to Palestine. (My father, as captain of the boat, kept its log – also in Romanian – so I have the full details of his adventure too… a story for another day.)

Robert found my father to be “a courageous young man and sure of himself”, and he was happy to see him marry his daughter. Now let me jump to March 1945, when I was born.

“I had the feeling that this would be an exceptional child, from all points of view,” my grandfather enthused.

“This feeling, and our exaggerated sentimentalism, make us see in him all that can be most beautiful in life. I could speak in detail about him, and there would be many pages to fill. If I were to do it I would have to devote a chapter separate from all the others, though sincerely speaking, I don’t even know if I would be able to put in writing what I feel in reality.”

He wrote about so much else in his journal, about the threat of a German invasion following the arrival of its army in Alexandria and the withdrawal of the British from Egypt – making him wonder if they should perhaps have remained in Romania; about the fragmented nature of local politics, with so many political parties – as is the case in Israel today; and about the poor state of education and nutrition.

Reading the journals again – thanks to my grandchildren having developed an interest in the holocaust – makes me wish I would have engaged more with both my parents and grandparents about their earlier lives. So you know how this is going to end: do so while yours are still around.

Why keeping a journal of events is a good idea

I’ve been keeping a journal for nearly 16 years and each day, no matter how tired I am, I key in the day’s activities and my reflections on them into my laptop. I even did so during my time in hospital with Covid earlier this year, including when I was at my weakest.

I started writing such journals while I was in London undergoing several weeks of radiotherapy treatment. I was told I would feel increasingly tired, so I thought it would be a good way to keep engaged that didn’t require much energy. As it turned out though, my strength sustained and I became an enthusiastic tourist around town, offering me much to write about.

When I returned to Nairobi I continued journalising my life, and it simply became something I did each day, like checking my mails or brushing my teeth. Every three months I design a cover page to the volume covering the previous quarter, with a suitable title and picture, and I write an introduction. I then take it on a memory stick to my “publisher” in Sarit Centre, where I have it printed and spiral bound.

The quarterly volumes – now 64 in number – have evolved over time, with more pictures and more elegant and varied layout and content. They have also tended to become longer, typically now exceeding 200 pages.

So for whom do I do it, and why? I do it for me, which means that what I write can be uninhibited and personal. As for why, there are multiple benefits, the most obvious of which is not forgetting anything I’ve been up to or my reactions to it. So if I ever get round to writing my memoirs, at least this period of my life is trapped as raw material from which a finished product can more readily be produced.

I particularly treasure writing about the hardest of times, or engaging with a really unpleasant character. (Extreme cases drive me to poetry.) The writing helps to distance me emotionally from the experience, as I become more of an objective observer, and the worse the situation the more therapeutic is the writing. Travel writers (and I have enjoyed being one) find that awful journeys result in the best scripts. But awful or wonderful, what is a journal but an account of one’s journeys through life?

Many of my articles for this column result from what I do in my professional life, and my journal entry on the subject is likely to be the first step, which I then adapt (and sometimes sensor!) appropriately.

The idea for writing this article came from Josphat Mwaura, who recently posted on his LinkedIn page the link to a Harvard Business Review article titled The More Senior Your Job Title, the More You Need to Keep a Journal, by Dan Siampa.

In it Siampa writes that he started keeping a journal when he took over a manufacturing research, software and consulting firm.

“I was very young, we were in crisis facing a challenging market, and I wasn’t sure whom I could rely on,” he remembers. “I kept a journal through my 12 years as chairman and CEO and have since recommended it to people moving into any senior position for the first time.”

Like me, he found the quiet reflection that occurs during journal writing to be very valuable, allowing for calm analysis and creative thinking.

“Journal entries should provide not only a record of what happened but how we reacted emotionally,” he agrees with me, adding that “writing it down brings a certain clarity that puts things in perspective.” It can also be “a form of mental rehearsal to prepare for particularly sensitive issues where there’s no one to talk with but yourself,” he says.

In my coaching work I sometimes suggest to my clients that they keep a journal as a way of keeping tabs on the progress they are making relative to what we will have discussed and agreed together.

So if you are not a journal writer do also consider becoming one – however busy you may be. Indeed the busier you are the more beneficial standing back from the 24/7 pressures of deadlines and dilemmas and decisions is likely to be.

Morality through the eyes of chief rabbi

I have been reading an amazing book by an amazing man. The title of the 2020 book is Morality – Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and its author is Jonathan Sacks. Sacks rose to become the Chief Rabbi of Britain, and was known as one of the country’s leading public intellectuals.

He was knighted in 2005, and was later awarded a lordship. Lord Sacks died in November 2020, the year in which his last book was published. His first rabbinical appointment was at the Golders Green Synagogue in North West London, just a few miles from where I was brought up. He was appointed there in 1978, a year after I moved to Kenya, but I have since heard him speak on BBC – which was always very rewarding.

His morality book is so consistently informative and thought provoking that I felt like quoting every other sentence. In it he worries about the current unfortunate move from “We” to “I” in the West, with liberal democracy threatened by the demagoguery of populism (as personified by Trump’s election in America and the Brexit battle in Britain). Public discourse has grown toxic; family life has been breaking down, and drug abuse and depression are on the rise, particularly among youth.

The book takes us back to how morality has looked from the time of the hunter-gatherers to the philosophers of ancient Greece and through the subsequent centuries until today. His gloomy contemporary analysis relates in particular to Britain and the US, but as soon as I saw his distinctions between the “We” and the “I” I immediately thought of Ubuntu as capturing the spirit of the former and of our Kenyan scenario as reflecting too much of the latter.

Relative to those in many other African countries we Kenyans tend to be more individualistic, materialistic and aggressively competitive, and our politics reflect the same never-ending zero-sum squabbles as Sacks writes about in his world. It’s why despite him never referring to Ubuntu or to Africa more generally, so much of what he describes is as relevant for us as it is for his Western readers.

He traces today’s crisis to our loss of a strong, shared moral code and to our promotion of self-interest over the common good. We have “outsourced” morality to the market and the state, he complains, but neither is capable of showing us how to live. Sacks shows that “there is no liberty without morality and no freedom without responsibility,” arguing that we all must play our part in rebuilding a common moral foundation.

He comes down really hard on the liberal revolution of the 1960s, the “Swinging Sixties” of my youth, which championed individual freedoms over traditional values. It was the time of “free love”, the time when smoking marihuana became all the rage. For many, life was all about self-indulgence and instant gratification, about rights over responsibilities.

He also blames the deregulation of the 1980s that defined the economics of Thatcherism and Reaganomics; and the austerity policies that followed the financial crisis of 2008. All this has led to increasing inequality, with many being left behind.

Sacks shows how the “culture climate change” of migrating from “We” to “I” has seriously undermined the moral foundations that once held us together, and it is what led to many of the societal problems with which we are grappling in this 21st century.

So is there hope for a future with a stronger moral underpinning? For the late Chief Rabbi the answer, as it always has been, is to work from the bottom up, through the family and the community, through small groupings where the blight of urban and national anonymity is absent.

He recognises the higher levels of morality shown to be displayed by those who regularly attend places of worship, and by those who are active in voluntary organisations. And he emphasises the vital importance of building high-trust relationships, not least in business – the contemporary idea that one can simultaneously do well and good.

There’s some talk in Kenya about living our national values and developing a national ethos, including in the BBI. But there’s woefully little on that from our leaders. So it’s up to us, you and me. In our families, in our communities and in our workplaces; in our places of worship and where we volunteer.

How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

Kenya’s 15 million pastoralists in the northern arid and semi-arid part of the country own 75 percent of our country’s livestock herd, which is valued at around $1 billion and contributes significantly to our GDP.

But we all know what a hard time these pastoralists endure, in areas that suffer from a serious water deficit and are disproportionately affected by below-average rains. Droughts occur there every few years, and climate change is exacerbating the problem.

2021 has been a year of below-average rains in Northern and North Eastern Kenya, but this follows good rains in the previous three years — which had led to a rapid increase in livestock numbers and hence now to massive overstocking. The downturn in tourism precipitated by Covid caused further distress, resulting in serious loss of income to many pastoralist communities and leading to them selling livestock for food.

By the end of this year, drought will begin killing off many more livestock, their prime asset base. And as we build up to the 2022 elections, all the ingredients are in place for a repeat of the 2017 politically-induced mayhem in Laikipia. Even now, so much of the violent conflict in northern Kenya is a result of clashes over water supply, with politicians still playing a far from innocent role.

Efforts by the government, development partners, NGOs and others are too often focused on costly last-minute humanitarian assistance. Not enough has been directed at building sustainability. Where it has, the dilemma between retaining cultures and traditions and integrating these into new economic models has not been adequately conceptualised.

In Turkana, the County Integrated Development Plan, supported by development partners, provides for initiatives aimed at improving the livelihoods of its pastoralists, including by engaging them in agriculture. It’s hard though, requiring a mindset transformation, as their culture is so fundamentally built around pastoralism.

Indeed, when a few young Turkanas sold off some livestock to buy boda bodas and earn a living that way in the Kakuma Refugee Camp their elders were not amused. “Who will look after our herds?” they posed, but more fundamentally they saw that the activity would not result in any asset growth. (We also know that the overwhelming number of all farmers in Kenya are deeply conservative and slow to adopt new approaches.)

Pastoralists are largely of an oral rather than a literate culture. But this does not mean they are at all uneducated in the context of their harsh environment. Quite the contrary. They are of course infinitely better suited to survive there than any outsider, however learned. Not being able to write does not preclude remarkable memory and numeracy skills. And improved memory skills are an essential trait of survival in oral cultures.

It’s good that we who live in a literate economic world should offer suggestions on how to stimulate the cultural change needed to bring pastoralism into the mainstream modern economy. But we must do more open listening to the pastoralists’ knowledge and experience, to their hopes and fears. And we must not do so patronisingly or otherwise insensitively, for this will inevitably lead us to fail.

We must practice the art of “humble inquiry” (to quote the title of Prof Ed Schein’s book – one of my favourites) and so build mutual respect and trusting relationships. Then we’ll be better placed to learn of each community’s true pain points, those beyond the obvious ones such as finances, health and education, corruption and bureaucracy, and youth unemployment.

The challenge for all of us together is to enable pastoralists to grow steadily as economic communities, while being buffered from the effects of drought on their livelihoods.

There is no simple or unique solution to the pastoralists’ plight. Rather, we must pool our ideas and develop an array of approaches, ones that are compatible with existing cultures and that may well vary by community.

The initiatives should also enable not just the pastoralists but the whole country to benefit from the opportunities thus created, now and into the future.

It’s time these marginalised communities — in which one finds plenty of great leadership — are engaged with more actively, innovatively and practically, so their livelihoods can stabilise. If this comes about, the vulnerability to droughts, the aggressive competition for water, and the vulnerability to manipulative politicians, will be transformed.

What the new Kepsa leadership promises

Towards the end of last month I logged in to Kenya Private Sector Association (Kepsa’s) 17th annual general meeting, and what an impressive event it was.

CEO Carole Kariuki Karuga reeled off the highlights of the year’s activities and achievements, and as we heard them all listed together we could hardly believe that such a wide array of issues had been handled or that such a significant positive influence had been brought to bear on the wellbeing of not just the private sector but of Kenyans generally.

It’s not surprising that we learned lots that we had not been aware of, as so much of what Kepsa does happens quietly behind the scenes. As I wrote in one of these columns a few years ago, much of Kepsa’s work can only be effective if it is done behind closed doors and in small groups or one-on-one . So many are unaware of what it is doing (which all too often leads quite a few to assume that it isn’t doing very much), and it’s not always appropriate to shout about it.

As one of the founding directors of Kepsa back in 2003 I am proud of how successive leadership teams, at both the board and the secretariat levels, have continued expanding Kepsa’s circle of influence. No wonder it is the envy of private sector umbrella organisations around Africa and beyond.

The other element of the AGM I wish to highlight was the report by Lee Karuri of Kepsa’s Nominations Committee recommendations for the incoming board. For a number of cycles now this committee (composed of some of the organisation’s past leaders – including me) studies the upcoming board needs and selects a balanced array of men and women from different sectors and professions; some new, some renewed. Our proposals are then put to the members at the AGM for ratification.

This managed democracy has worked extremely well – avoiding the kind of over-the-top campaigning and politicking seen in other institutions and ensuring the best mix of directors and the smoothest transitions.

To take over from chair Nik Nesbitt and Vice Chair Rita Kavashe (both of whom have performed outstandingly) we had put forward the names of Flora Mutahi as Chair and Jas Bedi as Vice Chair, having earlier ensured that if proposed they would be prepared to serve. Happily they were.

In Flora Mutahi’s acceptance speech she looked forward to Kepsa engaging more with small businesses, which I remember her trying so hard to promote when she chaired the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM). It’s quite a challenge, I know, as leaders of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises are so operationally committed that it’s difficult for them to make the time to either contribute to or benefit from such members’ organisations. But like KAM, Kepsa has been working hard at finding viable ways of engaging them. (Some wrongly accuse Kepsa and KAM of only being interested in big business.)

She also looked forward to unlocking the potential within counties and regional economic blocs, and here synergy with the Chamber of Commerce and its county branches will be key.

Many Kepsa members would like its leadership to be more aggressive and outspoken in confronting government over issues such as corruption and bureaucracy; high taxation; and other impediments to doing business. But as I wrote in another article nearly a decade ago, we saw that a confrontational style rarely succeeds. Rather, constructive engagement, however less glamorous, is far more effective.

“Above all,” I wrote, “we found that you can’t beat sitting together in the same room, tackling common opportunities and problems. This is what builds trust and respect; this is what builds relationships. And as we got to know each other personally, our respective labels of ‘public sector’ and ‘private sector’ faded from our identities. We became just Kenyans, seeking a better Kenya.”

I noted then that “many businesspeople were so consumed with outrage over some government abuse that they found us far too polite, too compliant, and that we were just wasting our time. But I believe that in the long run the give-and-take, win-win approach of Kepsa and its members has paid off handsomely.” I am convinced that this is as true today as it was then.