It’s fifteen years ago that I was introduced to the Balanced Scorecard, and in all my consulting work on strategy since I have consistently incorporated its approach. The concepts are well known and applied by a reasonable number of organisations in Kenya, but still only a small minority. So let me take you through the basics and how they were introduced into the world.

The Balanced Scorecard was launched in January 1992 by Robert Kaplan and David Norton through an article in the Harvard Business Review. They had observed that the scorecard of most companies was unbalanced, with disproportionate emphasis on revenues and costs, cash flows and profits, return-on-investment and earnings-per-share. Yet these are but the consequences of other factors, ones that drive financial performance.

So they helped us with a simple and universally applicable way of looking at a business from four key perspectives: the satisfaction of our customers, through the products and services we offer them; the wellbeing of our people, which they described as “learning, innovation and growth”; systems and processes; and yes, financial performance, with particular emphasis on pleasing shareholders.

Even at its outset, the Balanced Scorecard noted the linkages between the four perspectives, encouraging companies to identify the cause-and-effect relationships between them. They also pointed out that the financial performance measures of the day over-focused on backward-looking and short-term measures.

Plus, the fact that business leaders needed to show how what was happening in the other three perspectives resulted in strong financial results: they are the lead factors and the financial perspective is the lag one. Having said that though, finance must be available to fund the lead factors, so that perspective also leads. That’s the interconnectedness which is revealed so clearly by he Balanced Scorecard.

In their article, Kaplan and Norton pointed out that while traditionally it was financial experts who put together a company’s performance measures – they were after all, unbalanced in favour of the financials – now it became clear why all of the senior management team needed to participate in putting their company’s scorecard together, in a spirit of “systems thinking”. And this was also much more likely to result in productive collaboration between them.

But relative to how we see the Balanced Scorecard today it was relatively “primitive” at the outset, merely getting companies to lay out operational numbers for the four pillars, through what one might call a performance measurement framework, rather than offering a full strategic performance management tool.

The initial version was followed by a second-generation Balanced Scorecard in 1993, and a third generation in the late nineties. Since then there have been overlays that merely reflected what was trendy at the time – first Total Quality Management, now sustainability and Environmental, Social and Governance issues (where the interests of shareholders are expanded to include all key stakeholders), and maybe AI next. Meanwhile, although the Balanced Scorecard was initially only applied to for-profits, its use was expanded to not-for-profits and to government, as the four perspectives apply equally well everywhere.

Not everyone who has applied the Balanced Scorecard approach to their strategic planning has succeeded in making it work for them, and from what I have seen the main cause of failure has been overcomplicating it and also coming up with far too many objectives and measures. The other issue is not following through with managing and adapting the implementation, so like many other kinds of strategic plans, it just gathers dust on a shelf.

And as any other strategic plan it must be cascaded down the organisation, so there is vertical as well as horizontal alignment, and indeed it should reach the individual level, with each person knowing how they contribute to the overall objectives, and indeed to the overarching vision.

I and my colleague Twalib Ebrahim have helped all kinds of organisations to work with the Balanced Scorecard, from large government bodies, development partners and corporates, to NGOs and research institutions, to large and small family businesses. For our most sophisticated clients, when we explained our approach they worried it would be so simple as to be simplistic. And among the less exposed, those who had never imagined they could become “strategic thinkers”, their concern was whether they could handle it all.

Once we got going though, the inspiration of Kaplan and Norton, applied by us, pulled them all through to become enthusiastic disciples. So if you are not familiar with the Balanced Scorecard, I encourage you to find out more about it and to have a go.

Almost exactly ten years ago I wrote a column here about the launch of Joe Wanjui’s book, The Native Son: Experiences of a Kenyan Entrepreneur. In it I described the enthusiasm around the event where, as I put it then, “speakers during the evening were so effusive about the author who was being fêted that when it was his turn to speak Joe wondered whether all the talk had been about someone else who just had the same name. Indeed had the man of the moment not been his usual alive, thoughtful and sparkling self, we could have been forgiven for imagining we were listening to the eulogies at his… well, you know what I mean.”

Sadly, a decade later it is indeed time to eulogise this wonderful gentleman, and I will do so by taking from my earlier article. Going back to the book launch, I described how it took place at the University of Nairobi, where Joe had recently completed his time as its Chancellor. Among those who talked about the man and his book we heard something of his rich family life from his friend Fr. Dominic Wamugunda and from his eldest daughter and two of his grandchildren. Others like Roger Steadman spoke of him as a successful entrepreneur and businessman.

Chief Guest George Magoha, then the University of Nairobi’s Vice Chancellor, talked about the leader who for almost a decade was his Chancellor. “He found us as professors, thinking in truncated mode,” confessed the institution’s CEO, adding proudly “but now we are university managers.” In the same vein the Vice Chancellor noted that under Joe’s influence the CEO position he filled was sourced competitively, a pioneering and controversial approach for such institutions at the time.

Joe was absolutely for meritocratic appointments, independent of ethnic background, we heard. He brought entrepreneurs into the Council, and he encouraged other businesslike practices. In concluding, Prof. Magoha described Joe as a true friend, “telling you what you don’t want to hear… and then taking you to lunch afterwards”.

As for me, I wrote, I thoroughly enjoyed all my interactions with Joe. I’ve known him since a year after I arrived in Kenya in 1977, when I joined the Rotary Club of Nairobi. Ten years before that Joe was proposed as the first African member of the club, and in 1974 he became its first African president. In his book he revealed that he continued to support our Rotary Club and its noble ideal, as he actively supported so many other worthy causes. Which is why just recently he was made an Honorary Member of our club.

In The Native Son, Joe wrote about becoming a member of the Kenya Institute of Management’s first Governing Council in 1969. By the time I was elected to chair its council in 2000 he was KIM’s National Chairman, or patron, in which capacity he was always available to me as a source of sound advice, I remembered. It was during that time that he and I organised several Chief Executives’ Forums, a concept Joe described in his book as akin to a “mini Davos”. What a great experience it was.

In my earlier article I also mentioned Joe’s valuable contributions to KEPSA, where in its infancy he became the private sector umbrella body’s most active elder and a strong supporter. I was one of KEPSA’s founding directors, and at one of our retreats I had arranged for a presentation to be made on the emerging Brand Kenya project. Joe was present at the event and promptly offered to organise a presentation to President Kibaki, that led to the initiative being propelled to its national position.

For well over three decades I have sat with Joe at many meetings and shared many platforms with him, I wrote, enjoying the benefit of both his wisdom and his wit. To be with him you know you will be with someone who is pragmatic, straightforward and solution-oriented; and, just as important for me, someone with whom you always also expect to share a good laugh.

He was further building his foundation to promote the education of women scientists, I mentioned, and he continued as a director of major institutions in this country. Here’s how I concluded: “I salute the man who grew up feeling disrespected by the colonials as a mere ‘native’ but who emerged a proud native son of Kenya.”

Today I conclude by stating how privileged I feel that I had the opportunity to interact with Joe Wanjui in so many contexts and over so many years. He leaves a great void.

I hardly ever drive my car anywhere in Nairobi these days, having become accustomed to the convenience of calling up an Uber Chap Chap. I so appreciate not having to deal with the heavy and unruly traffic, and not having to worry about parking. Plus, I enjoy chatting with many of my drivers. Not all of them, as some seem to prefer quietness. A few open our conversation, while with others I’m the one to get us going.

Amusingly, several of the chatty ones have started by asking me which country I’m from, and it shocks them to learn that while I wasn’t born here I have lived in Kenya for nearly half a century – before any of them were born, and for some even before their parents were.

This typically leads us to talking all the way to my destination, making the time go by much more quickly and enjoyably. Often we moan about the potholes and the general state of the roads, and about the aggressive matatu drivers and the entitled Prado ones with their tinted windows that provide them with that extra anonymity.

The most interesting and easiest conversations are about politics, as we dissect the state of the economy, how our leaders are handling the issues and how their skills at selling their policies and programmes so outweigh their ability to deliver on what they promise.

For those who stay quiet, and particularly for the more serious and unsmiling ones, I hold back, as I continue judging whether they’d be OK with some chatting or whether they would rather just focus on the driving. There’s speculation on my part here, as maybe they are more introverted types who prefer spending time with themselves, or maybe they just feel I might be such a person and it would be more respectful to restrain themselves unless I initiate interaction.

The easy test is to just to make a brief comment, about the weather maybe, or the traffic, and then to see how they react. If I am sufficiently encouraged I might follow up by asking how long they’ve been an Uber driver, or whether it’s their full-time job – as for some it is not and they are also studying or doing business or are otherwise engaged.

Recently I was shown a facility on the Uber app that asks us riders if we want to converse or not – impressive, and it avoids wrongful speculation on either side. I’ve also been informed by one driver that as part of their training they are advised to stay quiet – more so with women passengers, in case their chatting is misinterpreted – unless the rider starts chatting.

Hm, maybe that’s rather more prudent than necessary as surely, just as with us riders, they learn to assess who prefers silence and who would enjoy conversation – particularly if, like me, their passenger is sitting in the front seat next to them and they can observe body language more easily. Indeed the mere choice of sitting in front means one is more likely to be a chatty type.

For those who make my trip with them fun by chatting with me, they become my friend and I’m sorry to have to just MPESA them my fare and leave when we arrive at my destination, knowing it’s unlikely we’ll ever meet again. For the quiet ones, I respect their preference – provided they show adequate friendliness.

As I’ve been reflecting on these interactions with my Uber drivers it’s led me to think more broadly about how we and those beside us decide whether to stay quiet while spending time alongside each other. It can for instance be on adjacent airline seats, where we might well be together for several hours, including for one or more meals.

I love it when I can strike up a conversation with such a neighbour, accepting that it’s not what everyone wants. On a recent flight to London the lady sitting next to me spent the entire journey looking out of the window next to her or buried in her phone. I got the message!

How sensitive are you to what your Uber driver’s preferences may be? How good are you at launching conversations – whether with such a person or with anyone else? Some are better at it than others, putting those they are with at ease and having the time pass by more interestingly and enjoyably. It’s a skill worth developing if you are not.

My last article was about the destructive influence of toxic marauders, and today I want to explore a related phenomenon, tensions between levels in organisations. It’s tough when such relationships are made difficult by each cohort believing they’re “OK” while the others are “not OK”.

Inevitably it’s a lose-lose scenario, as the negative attitudes on each side merely reinforce one another. This unless interventions are introduced to align energy and reduce the inevitable waste that results from difficult relationships between higher and lower levels.

This is as true between boards and management as it is between senior and middle management, and on downwards to the lowest cadres. Its consequences are diminished engagement and hence reduced productivity, with higher staff turnover.

Many efforts at culture change aimed at improving such situations fail to make a difference, ephemerally raising expectations and enthusiasm and then leaving those involved disillusioned and worse off than if no effort had been made to resolve the matters between them.

Much of my work as a consultant involves diving into such scenarios, where my role as facilitator is to act as mediator, bringing the levels into alignment through helping them engage constructively with each other, for the benefit of both. Not a straightforward challenge, as skepticism if not cynicism may well be present, at least with some of those involved – often the most vocal.

Creating a safe space in which participants are prepared to be open is the first step, and we facilitators have ways of getting people sufficiently relaxed to share what’s really on their minds and in their hearts. Equally important, as in all mediation, is only to bring the groups together when they are ready to engage with each other with an adequately win-win mindset.

Even when working with just one level, upfront ice-breaking is needed, followed by discussion on what will make the initiative succeed – especially if other such initiatives have failed to make a difference before.

What does it take to develop that win-win mindset? First is to cool off on the “We’re OK-You’re not OK” ego state. Mere finger-pointing blame-games will not resolve the issues. There has to be an acceptance that in some respects we too are “not-OK”, and that for the other level there are “OK” components to their behaviour.

Then, for those at the higher level, to hold back from “looking down” on their subordinates, not to act as “Parents” to their “Children” – never mind just viewing them as naughty ones. And for those at the lower level, to hold back from seeing themselves as “Children” with unreasonable “Parents” against whom they are rebelling. Everyone involved must behave as mature, solution-oriented “Adults”.

Once the “We’re OK-You’re OK” “Adult-Adult” mindsets are adopted, getting to win-win becomes possible. So each level can identify their issues, and then to come forward with relevant offers and requests. The requests must be practical and respectful, while the offers should be genuine and generous – so as to encourage the recipients to respond positively to the requests.

It’s all about give-and-take, not necessarily immediately, but over time. And appreciation should be shown to those who make concessions gracefully.

As external mediators, we are only there for part of the journey, since after some time internal individuals with such skills will have emerged to take on the role and to nurture the fulfilment of the alignment. Make no mistake, the default position is regressing to the status quo ex ante. Those who persist with other than a win-win mindset must be nudged away from such positions, and to assist in this evolution I encourage the use of the common language of OK-OK, Adult-Adult, Win-Win… and the other variants to these positive expressions where appropriate.

I tell people that such change actually needn’t take forever. It’s a choice, I believe, and previous unhelpful ego states can and must be treated as unwanted baggage, with new behaviours being readily attainable.

Those who like to play tough must develop their soft skills, and the quiet ones must summon up the courage to have their voices heard. For everyone this means developing emotional intelligence, something we are all capable of doing if we decide it’s a priority.

Some of us are more natural mediators than others. Do reflect on the extent to which you are among the consensus-builders. For the more you are the more likely you will rise to senior leadership positions. At least in organisations with aligned cultures.

Should leaders be the ones to eat last? The US Marines believe so, as it shows they care for their people and are prepared to sacrifice for them. It’s why Simon Sinek chose Leaders Eat Last as the title of his best-selling book, first published in 2014. We selected it as the topic for our Rotary Club’s recent Book Club meeting, where we also discussed how Sinek’s American context applies here. I certainly don’t need to comment on when most of our Kenyan leaders eat – definitely not last!

Central to the requirements for being the kind of leaders Sinek wishes to see is the generation of broad “Circles of Safety” in their organisations. Within these circles staff trust one another, are therefore open and collaborative and so perform well, not least in dealing with external threats. Such leaders promote integrity and have evolved an uplifting purpose for their people, which generates the stamina to defer gratification and reach for long-term sustainability.

There’s lots more in the book about good contemporary leadership, including examples of role models who defy the pressure to go for easier short-term results. By contrast, leaders who turn a blind eye to the benefits of circles of safety tend to reduce their consideration of people issues to mere numbers, making it much easier to slash staff levels in hard times without feeling any pain or empathy. It’s why one of us homed in on Sinek’s insistence on the development of a healthy culture being at the centre of positive leadership.

For me it was interesting that the book was published in 2014. As had Sinek been writing it today he would have explicitly placed Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues at the heart of everything, since much of what he complained about and sought is what ESG initiatives promote: ethical sustainability.

We all appreciated Sinek’s easy-to-follow description of the four hormones, the biological chemicals within us, two selfish and two selfless ones that get stimulated in our system. On the selfish front we have Endorphines and Dopamine, that drove our ancestors to be hunter-gatherers. Endorphines mask physical pain, as in “the runner’s high”, while Dopamine makes us feel good when we accomplish something.

Then Sinek describes the selfless chemicals, that make us feel valued when we are appreciated and trusted and keep the circle of safety intact. Serotonin makes us feel strong and confident, proud, while Oxytocin delivers the feeling of friendship and love when we are with close and trusted friends. It makes us social, and feeling that we belong.

We noted that our Rotary presidents tend to eat last, after they’ve done with managing our lunch meetings, but generally we felt that leaders should be eating with their people not after them. We all agreed though that leaders should be the last to speak, having first listened to the other voices.

Uhuru Kenyatta was one of those who recognised the organised discipline of military leaders, putting senior military officers in charge of Nairobi County, the Kenya Meat Commission and elsewhere. And just now William Ruto praised the leadership style of the late General Ogolla. “Are there lessons here for our politicians?” asked one of us, “Or are they beyond redemption?” My concern is that I don’t see them ever sitting together as we were at our Book Club, discussing the fundamental issues of leadership. It’s what should be happening more of at places like the Kenya School of Government.

On the positive side though, we heard praise for the progress made in Makueni County, thanks to its first Governor, Kivutha Kibwana, and now Mutula Kilonzo Jr. I could also have added the good example of the first Governor of Laikipia, Ndiritu Muriithi, another who showed how a leader can make a transformative difference.

Towards the end of the book Sinek writes extensively on why millennials are as they are and how to handle them constructively, and here two of our members talked about their challenges in dealing with such young ones in the medical field. Sinek helps us understand the importance of when and therefore how different generations were brought up, and I mentioned that I am too old to be a baby boomer, having been born before World War II was over. I have therefore been brought up with frugality, which I have held on to since… like squeezing the last bit out of toothpaste tubes. ‘Me too,’ echoed another Rotarian, much younger than me… and a dentist by profession!

In conclusion, reading the book stimulated us positively, so my fellow Rotarians and I recommend it to you.

Nearly six years ago I wrote a column here about what I called “the necessary evil of compliance”, the theme of a Leaders Circle I had just co-hosted. In it I quoted former Deputy US Attorney-General Paul McNulty, who rightly pointed out that “If you think compliance is expensive, try non-compliance”. And in our conversation we agreed that one must be neither too trusting nor insufficiently so.

These thoughts were on my mind while attending the first day of the recent Nielsonsmith conference on “Compliance, Anti-Corruption and Ethics in Africa” where I was representing the Blue Company, one of the sponsors. During the conference I saw quite how prominent this compliance issue has become, with more and more organisations appointing compliance managers dedicated exclusively to this function.

We first heard from Tomell Ceasra, the co-founder of MEACA, the Middle East and Africa Compliance Association, and then from Laban Omangi, the chairman of the Compliance Society of Kenya, who told us how the society was formed in 2020 to bring together the compliance community within the finance sector, and now how it is spreading more broadly.

They’ve been studying the way to bring various institutions together to assemble compliance guidelines, and to offer professional training and certification in their specialty. They work together with Business Member Organisations (BMOs) and with regulators. And they worry about dealing with the financing of terrorism and with money-laundering funds derived from the proceeds of crime.

On the subject of whistleblowers, we heard about the factors that inhibit such people, including fear of retaliation; no response and no action being taken following their input – perhaps due to “untouchables” being involved; and a general lack of trust. Rita Mwangi, the Chief Legal and People Officer of Simba Corporation, talked about international and local legislation and how to comply. She highlighted the low positioning on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index of all but a very few African countries, with most either stuck where they are or regressing.

I was happy to hear her say we don’t lack legislation, either internationally or locally, rather what we need is improved enforcement – including through the increasing requirements of ESG reporting. As far as private sector self-regulation is concerned, because membership of many BMOs is voluntary the good guys join but the bad ones do not, thus evading the pressure to comply.

Peter Odedina, the Chief Compliance Officer of Airtel Africa next went into specifics on how to be compliant. He talked about the tone at the top being a key culture driver; appropriate incentives and penalties being important; the need for policies, codes of conduct; appropriate staff induction and ongoing communication with them; and the importance of enjoying an appropriate and aligned appetite for risk.

5% of the top line revenue of any company is lost due to fraud, he asserted. So what are the red flags? 43% are people seen to be living beyond their means, benefitting from a close association with vendors or customers; 23% face financial difficulties; and 21% are wheeler-dealers.

“Are compliance issues integrated into our organisation’s strategies and values, influencing the attitudes and behaviour of our people, thus forming an ethical culture?” we were asked.

The theme of the panel where I was a member read “Tone from the Top, Mood in the Middle, and Groove on the Ground”, where the role of middle managers was one of the issues discussed. There’s a whole spectrum at this level, from those who act as interpreters and mediators between the lower levels and their higher bosses, and those who are blockers and distracters. Much of course depends on that tone at the top. Are senior management keen to see the learning and growth of the next layers, so they rise up the organisation? Are they coaches? Do they provide a healthy performance management environment, with appropriate incentives? Do they inspire and motivate others to live their vision and values?

I was rather an exception in the room. Pretty much everyone else was deep in the compliance ecosystem, while I was viewing the topic from a much broader perspective. Those there were preaching to the already converted – which is fine, as it gave them the opportunity to interact, to learn and to reinforce each other. I hope they continue doing so beyond the conference, and that the event will have led to new alliances and collaborations that will raise the level of compliance… while not suffocating innovation and risk-taking.

As I interact with different kinds of people, in one-on-ones or group sessions, in board meetings or workshops, I am exposed to bright sparks who speak too quickly. And as I listen to them I speculate on why they’re breaking the vocal speed limits.

My first thought is that the root cause of the fast speaking is fast thinking: needing to speak at a pace that keeps up with the speed at which their scripts are being formulated upstairs. Others, however, rush through what they have to say because they don’t want to occupy too much of our time, or are actually bound by a time limit and don’t want to miss anything out.

Whatever the reason, the consequence is that they leave us panting with exhaustion as we try to keep up with their jet-propelled outpourings. Their speed also takes away from their gravitas, leading us to see them as less senior than we otherwise would. A slower pace, with appropriate pauses too, would both help us absorb and up our image of them as people of presence and poise.

Then there are those who speak too softly, so we can hardly hear them. Maybe although we can’t even figure out some of what they’re saying we don’t want to upset them by keeping on asking them to repeat what they’d said and to kindly speak up. What’s the mindset that delivers these whisperers? From what I have observed they are often people of humility – or what I describe as “excess humility”. They don’t wish to be perceived as noise-makers, trumpet-blarers, and swing to the other end of the volume spectrum.

Other categories of those whose speech we find challenging include ones who insufficiently open their mouths to utter the vowels between their consonants; those who avoid eye contact; and those who indulge in what is called “verbal ticks” – repeated and unnecessary use of “you know”, “sort of”, “like”, and ending sentences with “right?” Plus the “um” and the “er” utterers.

Most of these people just aren’t aware of what makes them less effective communicators than they could be. Probably no one has ever given them feedback, coached them, or encouraged them. Some have had their shortcoming pointed out to them, but they’re so accustomed to how they have always spoken that it’s just proved too hard to change — plus they underestimate the negative consequences of not doing so.

So as I come across the too-fast and the too-soft and other sub-optimisers, I sometimes approach them after the session to chat with them about how they could up their game: what they could do differently, and with what positive consequences. I also have them explore the root causes of speaking as they are doing, to help them overcome whatever psychological or other factors holding them back from being at their best.

If I have the opportunity to see them in action again, where they know I am watching and listening intently, they may try harder and then I can give them specific – and hopefully by then positive – feedback. I talk with them about rising through the four stages of their adaptation, from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then conscious competence and finally unconscious competence – the new normal, where they no longer have to think about the adjustment.

A few years ago I wrote an article about how communicating clearly is a core competence, at all levels but more so at the higher ones. Yet too many fall far short, lacking self-awareness and the need for improvement.

What about you? Are you communicating as well as you could? Should you be seeking feedback? Should you be getting help to up your game, so that you can enjoy the benefits of being the new optimal you?

Be conscious of how those around you communicate, and as you come across the speed merchants, the whisperers and others who aren’t performing at their best, see if you can find a way to help them. Not everyone’s up for it, but you should be able to judge who is, and then to engage with emotional intelligence so they don’t feel offended.

Needless to say, the one whose communication you should be most conscious of is yourself. Find a way of listening to and observing yourself – including through studying video recordings of you – and assume the possibility of continuous improvement.

The group of leaders Frank Kretzschmar and I invited sat in our usual circle to share personal stories on our latest theme: “Pattern interruption – moments of change of direction in my life”. We asked them to reflect on what caused them to do things differently from then on. Which events provoked them to reflect, and so to change to another level, another direction, another style, of thinking and acting?

When considering changing direction, we shared, that self-awareness and self-distancing help: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” said Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. It is about our growth and our effectiveness.

Many give up shortly before the goal is reached. Why is that? We need to ask ourselves how finite our strengths are. Are they adequate for the challenge? Should we continue engaging or disengage? Advance or retreat? When do we stop? When do we let go? What are the opportunities and risks associated with not letting go and letting go? The decision either way will make a difference to what kind of life we lead. And also to our legacy.

So, the stage was set, and around the walls of the room as always Frank and I had displayed some flip-charts with appropriate quotes. Here’s another one from Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And here’s a stimulus from Oprah Winfrey: “One of the hardest things in life to learn is which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” I really liked this one from Andrea Goeglein: “The thing about perspective-changing events is that they usually don’t announce themselves as such.”

And this one by Hayley Williams: “Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where you stand.”

One can never avoid Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change: to be perfect is to change often.” And, Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Plus a final trio, first from Harrison Ford: “We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance”; then Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance”; and finally this African proverb: “Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors.”

Get the picture? Started reflecting? Those in our Leaders Circle got straight down to it, telling us about the impact of a serious illness, the loss of a father, the sudden change of career, all turning difficulties into developing strengths and opening up new opportunities.

“It is when we are disrupted and under pressure that we are at our best,” we heard, “needing to detach and be self-aware.”

Like me, one never planned to be in Africa, fearing he would be condemned to a linear existence with a large corporation back home; another realised how much there is to learn from Africa and to take back to Europe; and a couple were inspired by the leadership roles played by their ancestors, including in pre-colonial times.

One takes us back to 1956 when he was fourteen years old in Canada. To fund the purchase of his ice-hockey kit he took to delivering newspapers, tending only to read the sports pages. That is, till he learned about the Hungarian Revolution and then the Suez crisis, which led him to take an interest in the front pages too.

This is where his lifelong passion for peace-keeping began. Another member is in that space too, telling us that too often despite everything one tries no change ensues.

The Maasai among us, tells us he once lectured about his Maasai values and sense of community at Lancaster University. “Who needs certificates?” the admiring listeners asked.

I spoke about my exposure as a fresh graduate to the Iowan ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ – a contrast to my Jewish Romanian upbringing, with its exception reporting on just my shortcomings. When I was growing up at home I was the shamba boy, car-washer and evening dish-washer, and all this was taken for granted.

In just a few hours we learned so much from each other. We felt energised and challenged to take greater advantage of the disruptions in our lives. How about you?

Last October I was invited to be one of the facilitators at a British Council-sponsored induction workshop for the newly appointed vice-chancellors (VCs) and principals of public universities, and recently I was invited to play a similar role at a leadership training workshop for all the VCs and principals of the public universities. My topic in October was ‘Transformative Leadership and Integrity’, and this time round I was asked to talk about ‘Strategies for Enhancing Organisational Culture’, with Equity Bank’s James Mwangi handling my earlier topic.

The theme of the October workshop was ‘Developing Visionary and Effective University Leaders’, while the more recent one being on ‘Developing Strategic, Focused and Results-Oriented University Leaders’.

On each occasion, for several days the VCs were exposed to facilitators from various sectors. The participants interacted with each other and the facilitators and reflected on how to follow up on what they had learned while together.

Impressively too, there’s a Vice-Chancellors’ Committee, a forum for consultation, coordination and cooperation, and it was this committee that organised the two workshops. It is chaired by Daniel Mugendi, the VC of the University of Embu, and the coordinator of the programme was Peninah Aloo-Obudho, the VC of Maasai Mara University.

Where else do we see such organised collaboration between the CEOs of institutions in a particular domain – whether in the public sector or elsewhere? Kudos to the Vice-Chancellors, and also to the Ministry of Education, its Higher Education and Research department, the British Council and the quartet of sponsoring banks, namely KCB, Equity, Co-Operative Bank and NCBA.

It was bold of them to include my topic of culture strengthening, as many leaders – I might even say most – and in whichever sector, while having an adequate sense of their current culture and being able to put together a statement of their aspirational one, have little or no idea as to how to transition from one to the other.

Indeed, as I spelt out in my presentation (and as was the topic of my last column), they might not even have a proper idea of the actual culture, being overwhelmed by “The Iceberg of Ignorance”.

So my contribution was to give the vice-chancellors some ideas about how to dissolve the iceberg and get their various stakeholders to open up and talk freely about the extent to which they are living their values and what they need to do more of and less of to live them more fully.

Universities are complex institutions, with multiple internal and external stakeholders, each with their own expectations of how to behave and how to interact. So how to bring them together to unify around the visions and values of their university? How to align the council with the senior faculty and other management? How to align the back-office functions with the outward-facing ones? How to make the academic and non-academic trade unions and the student unions partners rather than adversaries? And that’s just internal stakeholders.

I described ways of negotiating win-win outcomes, with each stakeholder willing to indulge in give-and-take dialogue. This requires time and mediation skills to bring everyone closer together so that energy is not wasted in unproductive stalemates and conflicts.

I wish the Vice-Chancellors well as they go back to apply what they had learned in the forums.

Back to my opening thoughts, where I praised this coming together of CEOs. Too often our training institutions stop short of inviting the top leadership to such gatherings, only reaching the upper-middle levels, and not least in the public sector – although the Kenya School of Government is now reaching further upwards.

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At the top level we know that some actually worry about exposing themselves to colleagues for fear of their shortcomings being revealed. And, the know-it-alls merely look down the organisational pyramid to see whom they should send for training.

But there’s no one too senior to learn, up to and including Cabinet Secretaries and the President. For those at such levels, one-on-one coaching is ideal, complementing group learning. And for the VCs and other CEOs, coaching should also be considered.

We hear a lot about the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’, where those at the top of the organisational pyramid have little idea about what’s really going on among their staff at the lower levels —about how they feel and how they behave with each other as a result of how engaged they are.

It’s why the programme Undercover Boss was created, where CEOs disguise themselves and pretend to be taking on trainee positions in different parts of their companies so they can get a feel for the real situation on the ground. They then return to their corner offices and fix what otherwise they wouldn’t have known needed fixing.

Among my consulting assignments, I have worked with organisations where the CEOs were indeed aware that there were issues within their icebergs. Recent changes had resulted in staff leaving and new ones arriving, including at the leadership level, and some of what the new leadership had introduced had led to a certain amount of holding back, among at least some of the staff.

So we were brought in to create a safe space within which the staff would feel free to open up and reveal what they would like to see more of and less of while accepting that they too would need to adapt in certain ways.

At this early stage, such thoughtful souls at the peak of organisations who realise their places can do with some opening up may share more with us consultants than with their own people, as they want the change to emerge more naturally, more from the bottom up and not driven by them.

They will hint at what they would like to see but not lay their thoughts out too explicitly, focusing on initiating the retreat at which staff will hopefully interact freely with one another and with them, facilitated by us.

We start such events by getting the participants to feel relaxed, including through enjoyable outdoor activities. For it is this that will see them open up, contributing what they are really feeling rather than just what they think others—not least their superiors—would like to hear. Our challenge as facilitators is to help them now articulate what they had not felt comfortable doing back in the workplace, for fear that it would not be taken positively.

It does not happen instantly, by magic, but gradually, as the zone of psychological safety expands. If it’s a two-day event so much the better, as this offers more time for the melting of timidity. We nudge, we tickle, we nurture, in larger and smaller groups and at the individual level, encouraging the participants to reveal what they had been holding back.

Some relax sooner and more than others, and they then influence their tighter colleagues to also open up.

For us it’s a joy to see the iceberg melting and to feel good for the leadership that what they wanted to have revealed and tackled is emerging. Very importantly, this can only be the launch of a journey, and let no one imagine that at the end of a couple of days of interacting, however effectively, one can put a tick in the culture-change box.

For sure this can only act as the launch of a journey, and before the end of the event the way ahead must be fully defined and owned: the overarching purpose above all, and the who-must-do-what-by-when. Then the momentum must be maintained, which too often it is not. It’s so easy, as people “get busy” on returning to their workplaces, and for whatever impact was made at the retreat to fade.

Certainly at the top, but by no means just at the top, people must hold each other accountable for following through on the consequences of the retreat, celebrating when this happens and drawing attention to when what had been agreed would stop happening re-emerges as the default position.

The progress along the change management journey must be tracked as a standing agenda item at management—and also board—meetings, and after around 90 days there should be a regathering of the participants to review what’s worked well, where challenges still exist and how to tackle them.

I hope I have made you adequately anxious about the iceberg of ignorance, and stimulated you put on your deep diving kit so as to explore what you didn’t know that you didn’t know.