Key leadership lessons I learnt from my father

Two days ago I reached the age of 75 — the age my father was when he passed away 35 years ago. So it provided an opportunity for me to reflect on our relationship and on how I was influenced by his example.

Bruno Eldon enjoyed a 33-year career in Shell. He joined the company in Romania, from where he and some of his Shell colleagues escaped the Nazis in 1941. He then rejoined the company in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine at the time) and finally again in England in 1948, where over the years he rose to be the head of Shell’s management training division.

As I was growing up, at school and then at university, I was exposed to all the latest management thinking, as my father had to keep right up to date in running his workshops for Shell executives from around the world. I learnt about the newly emerging leadership styles as organisations like Shell increasingly employed skilled knowledge workers who needed to be motivated quite differently from those who came before them.

Indeed, as I have written before in these columns, it was in those 1950s and 60s that the foundations were laid for today’s best leadership practices. Since then we have been hearing incessantly from subsequent generations of management gurus, but in essence, it’s more fancy new jargon than fundamental developments.

I was fortunate in not only having my father explain all about motivation and teamwork and appraisals and other leadership matters as practised in one of the leading global corporates, but I had the privilege of meeting many of those who participated in my father’s programmes. For he would invite them to our home for Sunday lunches, where this mere teenager would act as a co-host to those senior executives.

But my weekends were spent in other ways too. For I was the family’s gardener, cutting the lawn and the hedges and pulling up the weeds while my father played the horticulturalist. My job description included washing the car, and every evening I would wash the dishes after dinner as my sister dried them. Later, my father and I would often walk our dog, and it is here that he played the role of my coach.

I attended the London School of Economics for some of my undergraduate studies, 40 years after my father came from Romania to study at LSE. During those years, while an intern in Paris with Eurofinance (the first investment company to operate at a European level), my father came to visit me and it was the first time I remember us conversing as adult to adult rather than as parent to child: a true relationship shift.

When he retired from Shell on entering his third age my father continued with his management training and also became a management consultant, running workshops all over Europe and also in Africa. This was largely with Management Centre Europe, which was associated with the American Management Association — both still prominent institutions today.

Not many years later, now living in Kenya, I became very involved with the Kenya Institute of Management, and when I turned 60 I too reinvented myself as a management consultant, spending many of my days in ways uncannily similar to how my father spent his at that time of his life.

Shortly before he died I visited my father in London for what turned out to be our last meeting. We seemed to be aware that this would be our farewell, and as we sat in his study he notionally handed over his books and papers and overhead slides on management, many of which now adorn by bookshelves at home. Bruno was a very talented painter, and our house is also filled with his wonderful works of art.

What a shame he is not around for us to compare notes on how my life has mirrored his since he passed away. There is so much value he could have continued adding to me, and I would like to think he could even have benefited from my experiences too.

To conclude, let me invite you to share important conversations with your father, before it’s too late. Learn from him, and let him also learn from you.

Krystall: Man who drove the social reforms agenda

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

Dr. Eric Krystall (left). FILE PHOTO | NMG

In my last column I wrote about the first part of the rich and varied life of my dear friend Eric Krystall, from his birth in South Africa to his years in the UK and in America until his arrival in Kenya in 1971. Today I want to continue sharing his journey up to his death earlier this year, just two weeks before what would have been his 92nd birthday.

In his autobiography Swimming through Life he wrote about his first impressions of Nairobi, including mentioning its then tallest building, Bruce House – where my office was located from 1977, when I first arrived in Kenya.

Eric and his team immediately got down to planning their pioneering population education programme in the then new Longonot Place, and this was at a time when the country was experiencing a population explosion that easily exceeded the ability of the economy to cope with the fast increasing number of people.

With its sky-high fertility rates, Kenya had already become the first African country to adopt a population policy – under the leadership of Tom Mboya, the Minister for Economic Planning and Development. When Eric arrived, while the policy was already in place it was yet to reach the implementation stage.

Indeed the whole concept of “development” was new, he explained in his autobiography, not just in Kenya but all over the Third World. Eric & Co were greeted with open arms by the enthusiastic professionals in the Kenya government, and not least by his fellow-student from their time together at the London School of Economics, Mwai Kibaki – now the Minister for Finance and Planning.

Eric’s “Programmes for Better Family Living” took advantage of all his earlier practical American experience in implementing high impact social initiatives, and his great leadership style, based on training, sharing and teamwork, together with his ability to integrate in all environments, led to it progressing smoothly.

But ups and downs inevitably followed, both in Kenya and other countries where Eric became active with the programme. A major personal incident saw his 1980 ending on an explosive note – literally. For Eric and his wife were enjoying their new-year’s eve dinner at the Norfolk Hotel when the terrorist bomb exploded there.

In 1983, after a stint in Rome, the opportunity arose to start the USAID-funded “Family Planning Private Sector Programme”, which was again a great success, supporting private sector company clinics to add mother and child health and family planning to their services. One of its high impact and enduring features became the use of puppet shows as a communications tool, following a great example Eric came across in South Africa.

He arranged for over 500 Kenyans to be trained as puppeteers, and all over the country shows were put on dealing not only with family planning but with other topics that were otherwise too sensitive or embarrassing to discuss openly. “Puppets against AIDS” followed, and also productions to combat topics such as female genital mutilation, early marriage, corruption and conservation.

In 1984 I introduced Eric to my Rotary Club, which became a further avenue through which he was able to work on social issues – not least Aids and including beyond Kenya. A few years later I also persuaded him to become our president, where he was again able to apply his great leadership skills.

Meanwhile Eric and Abigail had separated, and in 1991 he married Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass fame. Since then he has been enjoying life out there in Kitengela, overlooking the Nairobi Game Park. A great swimming enthusiast, he built a pool on the compound, and there as well as by the ocean in Watamu where they own a property, Eric was able to contemplate his life’s journey, one that both started and ended in Africa.

There is much more I could have told you about my friend, but for now let me just end by saying how honoured I feel to have known him as I did. For those of you who would like to learn more about his life you can access his autobiography on Amazon. I strongly recommend that you do. And if you want to contribute to the Puppetry Hub, go to https://secure.changa.co.ke/myweb/share/38278

Curtain falls on a man devoted to social equality

Eric Krystall passed away last month, just a couple of weeks before his 92nd birthday. He had been living in Kenya since 1971, just a few years before I arrived, and I have known this wonderful man for nearly 40 years. He has been a dear friend, and I feel so badly that I will no longer be able to chat with him.

Nine years ago he published his autobiography, Swimming through Life, which I read immediately it appeared and had intended to write a review of but never did. So now I read the book again, deeply regretting that I am not able to sit with him so he can elaborate on all those fascinating episodes of his life.

Here’s how Eric’s son Paul opened his foreword to the book: “Eric Krystall has lived an extraordinary life – a life dedicated to ending some of the gravest social injustices of our age.” So true, and so good that Paul and Eric persuaded Eric’s other son Nathan to work with their father to take us through his rich and meaningful journey.

Eric was born in South Africa, to where his Jewish father had migrated from Lithuania in 1899, and he lived there for the first 28 years of his life. It was the time of the rise of apartheid, and as the country moved further and further towards segregation his stance moved further leftward. When he joined Wits University it was one of only two not to be segregated, but while he was there the government moved to bring exclusion of blacks to Wits too.

As a result of being active in the protests against segregation he became the first student to be denied a passport. But despite his anti-apartheid activities he managed to leave the country for England, to study at the London School of Economics, where several South African professors were already faculty members (and where I also studied a few years later). There he heard Tom Mboya speak about the desire for Kenya’s independence, and studying with him was Mwai Kibaki – with whom he organised a joint forum comparing the situation in South Africa to that in colonial Kenya.

During part of his time in London Eric lived close to Baker Street, at the time I was just starting at my high school very close by. To help him pay for his education he took a job at John Bell and Croyden, the pharmacists to the British royal family, and I can’t resist adding that when I was a student I took a vacation job at Fortnum & Mason, grocers to the British aristocracy.

In 1960, on graduating from LSE, Eric – now married to American Abigail – moved across the Atlantic, and while undertaking his post-graduate studies there became deeply engaged in the civil rights movement that struggled to improve the condition of African-Americans, listening to among others Malcolm X and getting to know Martin Luther King, while also organising fora decrying apartheid in South Africa.

On completing his Master’s he immediately went on to his PhD studies and then to the deep South for his post-doctoral fellowship. During his days in America he prepared the arguments that successfully petitioned John F. Kennedy to allow African Americans into the Peace Corps, and he helped train Peace Corps volunteers before they set off for Africa.

Eric was exposed to so many emerging disciplines, from behavioural science to conflict resolution to population studies – all of which were to provide the base for his amazing contributions to the social development of Kenya when he moved here nearly half a century ago.

The opportunity arose when he contributed to a proposal for an East African population programme. He was selected to lead the Kenya element, which became the first to be funded by the recently formed United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA).

He wrote in his autobiography that he was heading back to Africa to share the knowledge and skills he had acquired, “to help a new country to grow”. So what did he become immersed in once he arrived? You’ll have to wait till my next article to find out about his impact on population development, on the fight against Aids and on so many other related issues.

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.