Meeting Kenya’s great potential in agriculture

We keep hearing that young Kenyans just aren’t attracted to farming, and that the average age of a farmer here is 60. For years too, we’ve been worrying about the fragmentation of land into smaller and smaller plots, and about the absence of collaboration between farmers so they can benefit from economies of scale. We witness the deep conservatism of many of them, as they merely emulate their predecessors.

Also, given the widespread dispersal of our small-scale farmers it’s been hard to bring them together into a strong national members’ organisation, or even to form local sustainable cooperatives. Marketing boards for different crops have more likely fleeced than nurtured farmers in their sub-sectors, and our agricultural research institutes have been insufficiently demand focused. Never mind that the research bodies haven’t been working closely enough with either the universities or the national or county governments. Let’s not even talk about sectors such as sugar and maize and coffee, and how and why producers of these crops have suffered so badly.

But having said all this, there are many sources of optimism for agriculture. And not just because food sustainability is one of the Jubilee Government’s Big Four agenda. One only has to scan the Saturday agriculture supplements in our dailies to see how much exciting knowledge is being shared, and everywhere I go these days I hear about ambitious yet realistic ways of transforming this sector – where before, unless we were talking about horticulture or dairy, we’d be hard pressed to come up with such enthusiasm.

Just in the last few weeks I was told by one professional about his high-productivity onion farming that’s going to scale in Laikipia; by another of an equally impressive initiative in Tana River with sorghum; and by my good friend Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest, about their successes in spreading sustainable new approaches to small-scale agriculture. Important too are large private sector players in agribusiness such as Bidco, Nestlé, Unilever and East African Breweries, who stimulate healthy demand from farmers and help them deliver consistent quality; and those who offer inputs, such as Elgon, Bayer and Amiran.

Then there’s so much happening with technology support for transforming agricultural productivity, including with Safaricom’s knowledge-sharing DigiFarm platform and APA’s one for insurance; through GODAN (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition), that helps farmers make use of digital information; and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, based in Nairobi.

The Kenya Private Sector Alliance(Kepsa)’s Agriculture Board is a very lively one, and numerous other sub-sector boards feed into it; we benefit from the Society of Crop Agribusiness Advisors of Kenya (SOCAA) that promotes professionalism in agribusiness; and several development partners are working hard to support our farmers too, typically in helping with the strengthening of supply chains.

One interesting new initiative I have been supporting is hosted within GIZ’s Agriculture Programme, which focuses on stimulating employment opportunities in agri-business for youth in rural areas of western Kenya by strengthening selected value chains. Last week I moderated an event that brought together private sector players to share what they could contribute to support existing youth groups active in farming so that they become exemplars for self-motivated and self-reliant profit-generators who understand whole value chains, from market demand backwards to high productivity production.

There are so many organisations offering help to farmers, not least to young people, so they can build their capacity, link up with others and access everything from inputs to technology to finance to markets, while others work on creating an enabling environment.

There’s no shortage of passionate missionaries reaching out all over Kenya to show our youth how to make a very viable career in agriculture through sound ways of increasing their revenues and reducing their costs.

Now what’s left is for us to see more youthful role models who can demonstrate their success as farmers as they go to scale, and so attract others to join them. For this to happen we must continue to bring together those who are contributing ideas and resources so that there is synergy between them and sustainability for the beneficiaries.

While the agriculture cup’s nowhere near full, at least it’s begun to fill much faster than before.

Why coaching is the best style of leadership

In the last few weeks I have paid several visits to Western Kenya, and in different ways they all revolved around the topic of leadership. I spent time with members of the County Delivery Units in the lake region; with a group of DTB bankers based in western Kenya; with staff of the Kisumu branches of Davis & Shirtliff and of Occidental Insurance; and with the faculty of KCA University’s Kisumu campus, and in each case I was helping them handle the non-technical challenges they face in their work.

Whether they were technocrats or bankers, whether they were offering pumps or insurance policies, or as academics, they were all leaders, responsible for influencing how those around them performed. The county officials drove service delivery on behalf of their governors; the bankers and the others in their branches had to see their office colleagues work smoothly together and serve their customers well; and the faculty members’ lives were dedicated to developing their students to do well in the workplace.

At the core of each engagement, in one as a consultant for the World Bank, with one as a faculty member of the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications, and with others as a director of the respective organisations, I had the participants explore ways of aligning the energy of those around them to pursue common goals so that desired outcomes were achieved. That, after all, is what leadership is about.

In each case we spent time examining how to communicate in ways that influence their colleagues and customers positively, including by developing their emotional intelligence and their negotiating skills. They learned how to overcome undue resistance to change; build consensus to apply common approaches; and reduce the wasting of time and energy that comes from indulging in profitless conflict.

The word that captures the essence of the style I apply is “coaching”. And the “coaching mindset” that underpins it involves developing trust and hence strong relationships, through for instance asking more than telling, and encouraging rather than criticising.

The mission those with whom I interacted were challenged to adopt was to become champions of such a “coaching culture”. So that not only do they apply the coaching mindset in the way they operate but to nurture it in others too. For it is through the spread of the coaching style of leadership that an organisation can be uplifted.

We have had enough of the Big Man, know-it-all approach to leading. It may deliver results in the short run, and it may well be necessary in times of crisis. But generally speaking it is more likely to inhibit through the fear on which it relies, suppressing creativity and innovation, and making it much harder to orchestrate succession.

By contrast, a coaching culture promotes candid and respectful conversations among staff that foster reflection, self-awareness and empowerment.

It integrates coaching approaches into the everyday mindsets and interactions across functions and between all levels. Where a coaching culture is present, feedback is valued as a form of ongoing development, conversations are engaging, solutions are collaborative, and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn.

The whole concept of coaching is still in its infancy in Kenya, and not least in the public sector. Indeed I have yet to come across any government entity where a budget exists for funding coaching programmes. And what a shame that is, as so many leaders – in government at least as much as elsewhere – could benefit greatly from working with a coach to transform their effectiveness.

So I issue this plea to all our leaders and to those responsible for leadership development: please consider introducing coaching as a normal part of learning and growth. Think deeply about developing a coaching mindset as a central characteristic of leadership, and this within a broader coaching culture.

Before concluding this column I wish to pay tribute to Nick Muriuki, whom I first got to know fifty years ago when he worked with my father in London with Shell, and who passed away a few days ago. He was a true role model for great leadership, filled with humility and humour and always willing to share his great wisdom.

How to help children gain self-esteem, resolve issues

I was in London recently to celebrate a milestone birthday of my sister Ruth, and joining me there from America were my daughter Amy and her two delightful sons, 11-year old Jack and nine-year old Daniel. One evening Amy and I took the boys to see a spectacular musical play, School of Rock, which is about a struggling rock guitarist who was kicked out of his band and then disguised himself as a temporary teacher at a prestigious primary school so he could pay off his rent.

After seeing the musical talent of his students, they formed a rock band together. The project replaced normal lessons, as he encouraged the students to defy the strict discipline of the school and embrace their talents, gain in confidence and have fun. He comforted one whose overbearing father disapproved of rock music; reassured another who was worried about not being “cool”; and uplifted an overweight girl too self-conscious even to audition as a backup singer despite her amazing voice.

He taught the children that rock ’n’ roll was the way to stand up for themselves, which increasingly they did – much to the fury of both their parents and teachers.

The renegade teacher later smuggled his charges out of the school to compete in a “Battle of the Bands,” where the headmistress and the parents caught up with them. While outraged over the deception, they were eventually won over by the children’s talent and confidence on stage, and celebrated their great performance with them.

What a great production, and what a great message for parents, for teachers… and for the young ones too.

As Amy and I reviewed what we had experienced with the boys we reflected on how the unhappy guitarist we met as the play opened was filled with “I’m not OK” feelings, bemoaning his “loser” status. As for the children, constrained by antiquated rules about what was forbidden – both at home and at school – they were forced into a life of obedience and compliance, where enjoyment was frowned upon and creativity and curiosity crushed.

How impressive therefore that Mr “I’m not OK” was the one who helped his charges feel increasingly empowered and “OK”, as he transformed their self-esteem and their enjoyment of life while simultaneously becoming “OK” himself.

The happy ending saw the parents and teachers also buy into the new scenario, feeling their children were “OK” too. The opening scenes of mutual disapproval gave way, however gradually and grudgingly, to win-win celebrations, allowing us to leave the theatre inspired and uplifted.

The next day we went to see another musical show, Matilda, based on the best-selling novel by Roald Dahl. Like School of Rock it is also set in a school, and with strikingly similar messages.

Here we met the precocious Matilda, a voracious reader whose crude parents showed nothing but contempt for books and the knowledge they offer.

Compounding her misery was a brutal headmistress who mercilessly bullied her students, but the talented child rose above the daunting challenges she faced. Here though the ending was not a win-win, as both her parents and the headmistress were forced to exit in shame.

So much to share with Jack and Daniel. Did they feel “OK” about themselves? Did they see others as being so? Do they have grown-ups in their lives who treat them as “Not OK”, eroding their self-esteem and making them feel like losers?

If so, how do they push back in ways that make things better rather than worse for both them and their elders?

And how do they relate to each other, where sibling rivalry can lead to futile win-lose attempts that inevitably result in lose-lose? Here I introduced them to “negotiating to win-win” by exchanging offers and requests, with each one promising to do less provoking and more compromising.

I also encouraged them to get on with their own conflict prevention and resolution, releasing their mother from having to intervene as mediator.

So reflect on the stories of both the plays I mentioned, and share them with your children. Think deeply about what they tell you about winning and losing, and enjoy feeling more “OK” about yourself and those around you.

How firms can better engage shareholders

I was recently invited by the accountants’ body, the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Kenya( ICPAK) to run a session at their 7th Annual Governance and Ethics Conference. The topic they chose for me was “Inside the boardroom: the realities of shareholder engagement”, and this in the context of the overall theme of the event, “Sustainability and Convergence”.

I felt challenged by the title thrown at me, and I was happy to accept for an extra reason: I am the chairman of the council of KCA University, and since ICPAK is our sponsor I would be addressing my shareholders, the institute’s members.

In preparing the presentation my mind first took me to the two key words in the theme, and I began with “convergence”. For in whatever I do, whether as a director or a consultant, I am always focused on convergence, on helping to bring people together, aligning their energy by building healthy cultures.

As for “sustainability”, in today’s world we are increasingly conscious of the need to think beyond the next quarter, the next year, to longer term sustainability. This inevitably requires organisations of every kind (not just the giants) to be sensitive to shareholders yes, but now more than ever to all key stakeholders.

I could readily see why the two words were chosen together, for surely unless there is convergence between stakeholders – among whom the shareholders – you can forget about sustainability.

So here was my launch platform. I would elaborate on how to bring about convergence, this in support of sustainability, and then explore the engagement of shareholders in such a context. Within the context, my terms of reference clearly specified that I had to discuss how this should unfold in the boardroom.

Did this make my task easier or more difficult? In the boardroom, shareholders are represented by the directors they appoint at their Annual General Meetings. Such representatives sit alongside independent (typically non-executive) directors, and executive directors (those who participate in the organisation’s management). But in the boardroom good governance allows no room for differentiation of perspectives, however much the actual realities may differ.

Each and every director must only be concerned with the best interests of the organisation. They all strive to add value as best as they can with that one unified objective, and none among them is more or less important or influential.

So where does engagement with directors who represent shareholders come in? Why must they be singled out for special attention? It is because their principals, as Roger Hitchcock of the Sirdar Group expressed it to me in the context of private companies, are “legitimately selfish” in their objective of seeing some combination of dividends and growth. Yet when these directors enter the boardroom they are obliged to become, like any other director, “legally selfless”.

Much comes down to how a chairperson engages those at the table. In those boardrooms, is their leader talented at converging fellow directors around building sustainability? Does that leader know how to engage the “legitimately selfish” outside that room so they focus only on becoming the “legally selfless” within it?

Take the example of a board agenda item, again in the context of a for-profit company, to decide on how much of a dividend to pay. Directors representing shareholders may be inclined to press for higher amounts, but they must not succumb to such temptations if it is other than in the interest of the company.

If higher disbursement will starve the organisation of needed capital then sustainability will be compromised. So the mature, responsible shareholder-elected person in the room will go for gratification-deferral, in support of future benefit.

I am happy to report that I duly performed at the conference, in front of around two hundred of KCA University’s shareholders. I laid out my thoughts on convergence and sustainability, taking time to review how what is discussed at board meetings will support these two key pillars of governance and ethics.

You’ll have to ask those present how well I engaged them on the subject. But alongside addressing my theme, I can confess that I did take advantage of this unusual opportunity to enhance shareholder engagement with the university.

Leading a board isn’t for glamour but hard work

In my last article I found myself in the boardroom and today I remain there, following my invitation by Strathmore University Business School to be a panelist on their “Leading the Board” programme.

In what follows I will refer to the main issues that emerged, and I’ll start by reporting on our easy consensus over the stark fact that holding a board position in this era is so much more challenging than it used to be. Not only do we find ourselves in uncertain and complex times, ones that require unprecedented agility, but cumulative laws and regulations have become frighteningly explicit about the onerous responsibilities of individual board members for the wellbeing of the organisations they lead. The consequence? They are no longer positions of glamour and prestige.

With expectations of directors at an all-time high, the positions have become transformatively more demanding. There’s the obligation to take care of the interests of all stakeholders, and ethically at that. Then compliance is the word of the moment, as a result of which those who sit around the boardroom table must constantly be assessing risks and learning more about how to discharge their responsibilities appropriately.

To ensure compliance they must be up to date with the latest legal, financial, technological and other trends, while at the same time not being so constrained by these that focus on performance is lost. And in this age of social media they never know when some threat to organisational reputation may suddenly emerge, requiring instant assessment and response.

The task of bringing their colleagues together in navigating these turbulent waters belongs to the board chair.

And here too the panel discerned some clear trends. Given the increasing focus on transparency and accountability, board chairs cannot allow their teams to be mere rubber stamps for management’s recommendations. But equally, they must not arbitrarily impose their views on others but ask questions and listen openly. And this they must do with each other and with management.

Chairs must develop teamwork between directors, so trusting relationships form that enable the building of genuine consensus. The panelists emphasised that where unresolved conflicts exist boards cannot make proper decisions or add serious value. So they must also spend informal social time together away from board meetings to complement their hours in formal meetings with formal agendas. Comprehensive board induction is essential too, covering both the hard and the soft elements of the director’s role.

In all that we aired, sharing healthy values and behaving with emotional intelligence were deemed critical, not least on the part of the chair, so that consensus could emerge by “negotiating to win-win.”

Talkative director

An interesting point about how the chair manages time at board meetings arose from a question posed by one of the participants who asked how one deals with a board member who consistently talks too much. It led us to suggest that prior to each board meeting the chair and CEO must agree on its purpose and agenda, as a result of which the time needed for each element and the overall length of the meeting can be proposed by the chair at the beginning of the meeting. As far as the talkative director is concerned, the chair would probably need to have a word with the time-consumer offline, doing this in their role as coach.

This led us to the need for annual board assessments, through a process – not unduly heavy – whose purpose is continuous improvement. It includes reviewing the board as a collective; the chair and individual members; and the board’s relationship with the CEO and management generally.

As important as any other success factor is the quality of the relationship between the board chair and the CEO. The two must engage in regular close consultation, developing mutual respect and accepting that each must motivate and engage the other.

One of my fellow panelists rightly concluded that membership of a board is above all a privilege. It is a position of trust that requires the holder to be available and to contribute, in a spirit of giving back.

Board members are there to make wise decisions, to add value and to leave a legacy behind them when they eventually step down. Still up for it?

Educating for uncertain scenarios that await us

In the latest edition of the London Business School Review I was pleased to see an article by my dear friend Charles Handy on how business schools must adapt for the future.

He opens by recollecting that 51 years ago he returned to England from America to join the fledgling London Graduate School of Business Studies, now the London Business School. There he launched the Sloan Masters Programme, in which I was a student 46 years ago.

“A business school was then an American import,” he writes, “largely unknown in Europe.” He recalls that a friend wondered why he wanted to teach typing and shorthand, assuming the school was another name for a secretarial college! Since then of course such institutions have become widespread all over the world, and an almost essential basis for a business career.

However new times bring new challenges, warns Mr Handy, with multiple opportunities and dangers. So it is not enough to learn from the past, increasingly an inadequate guide for the uncertain scenarios that await us. Business schools have always been educational pioneers, he acknowledges, with their simulations and case studies and live projects.

But now, in this era of fast-changing technology and political disruption, they risk becoming “out of touch, irrelevant and over-priced” and so must change radically if they are to avoid losing their influence.

Next, absorb this great to-do list for business students from my favourite management guru: they should take nothing for granted, question accepted wisdom, and display boundless curiosity and unrestricted imagination. They must be bold but humble, respectful of authority but doubtful of its conclusions.

As far as their teachers are concerned Mr Handy sees them as only first among equals, who must learn to act more as mentors and encouragers rather than as experts laying down the law to obedient listeners. Amen to that.

And to reflect the new form of learning not only will the design of the lecture theatre have to change, but its very name. (In the spirit of this radically different concept I have been saying for some time that I would ban the term “lecturer”, thanks to the know-it-all attitude implied and applied.)

I am familiar with William Wordsworth’s quote that for him poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquility”, so I related well to Mr Handy referring to the form of learning he is advocating as “experience understood in tranquility”.

Ideally, he suggests, students would be thrust out alone into the world, to return after some months to the tranquility and reflection of the classroom.

Who are most suited for such programmes? Not necessarily those with the highest academic scores – despite these being easier to assess, he acknowledges. His final plea for the business school of the future is that it should not provide an overly academic environment, and so faculty selection and promotion too should be based on broader criteria.

Only when the faculty list includes professors of philosophy and drama, education and psychology, will business schools be appropriately equipped for the very different world ahead, he concludes.

Leadership styles

Imagine how good I feel remembering that among the undergraduate subjects I took within my economics studies was one on French existential literature, and that later at the London Business School our class reflected on different leadership styles by analysing the writings of Plato, Shakespeare and others.

So this is my message to both faculty and students of business schools: take note of what Mr Handy recommends and dramatically expand your comfort zones. (You can read his full article at

Through my involvement with tertiary education over the years I know only too well how hard this will be, for most teachers and for the overwhelming number of learners. I say this as whenever I lead undergraduate and even graduate classes I always find it so hard to get the students relaxed enough to contribute substantively.

Given common practice such active participation lies way beyond their expectations. Yet when I nurture their confidence, gently but firmly, they eventually find their voices.

Therefore to have our education be fit for purpose in these demanding times, big doses of “tough love” will need to be dished out… not least to our very traditional lecturers.

Top managers need to boost leadership skills

We are all so busy these days, and the more senior we are as leaders the busier we are. In among the frantic activity and the e-mails, with our ambitious targets and tight timescales, there’s no time to reflect – never mind to invest time in doing so with others at our level.

When I entered the workplace in the late sixties we only talked about “management”. The “L” word emerged later, but now we talk more and more about the need for enlightened “leadership”, almost looking down on mere “management”.

Yet our most senior leaders are the ones least likely to get together and invest time in reflecting on how they can further develop their leadership skills – in particular the non-technical ones, those that inspire and motivate and bring together those whom they lead so they may perform at their best, individually and together.

When in the early seventies I was facilitating IT strategy workshops for top leaders in the UK, I remember how hard it was to get the targeted participants to attend. Their immediate instinct was to consider whom among their subordinates they should send, rather than benefitting themselves. While some may have genuinely imagined they knew enough about the topic so as not to need to invest in the time required, I suspected that many feared their sheer absence of expertise would be revealed if they were to be in the room.

Here in Kenya, the widespread absence of our most senior leaders from such workshops and seminars is worrying. The common practice is for the top dogs, particularly in the public sector, to come and open or close a workshop (often reading a speech written by others), avoiding being present throughout and hence missing out on the opportunity to listen, to learn and to share.


The consequence is evident, as far too many of our leaders have never been exposed to what it would take for them to fulfill their potential in leading others. They have risen through the ranks, through functions such as finance, production and marketing in the commercial sector, and also through other technical fields in government, but without actively learning about what it takes to lead others.

They have had to progress by trial and error, and by emulating their predecessors and elders – however good or bad they may have been. (I should add that much of what I learned about leadership stemmed from reacting against what I considered to be the poor style of those who have led me over the years.)

Education sector

Take leadership in the education sector. When I served on the council of the Kenya Education Management Institute – responsible for developing the capacity of head teachers and education officers – I was impressed by the quality of its programmes, helping participants to become strategic thinkers and contemporary leaders.

But when it comes to leadership at the university level, our dons have enjoyed no comparable source of guidance. (Some programmes are at last being introduced.) No wonder that these former lecturers and researchers face the challenges they do. What about our Cabinet Secretaries and PSs, our Governors and County Commissioners?

The Kenya School of Government has for some years been running the successful Strategic Leadership Development Programme for upper-middle level technocrats, but nothing comparable exists for the top of the pyramid.

My perception? Despite the infinite need, there seems to be a lack of a want. So this is a plea to the highest level leaders in our country.

However busy you are, whatever pressures crowd in on your time and energy, please do yourself a favour and reach out to each other and to those who can bring you together for purposeful reflection on how you to exert your leadership responsibilities to greater effect.

All of us can benefit from rising up to our mental “balconies” from time to time, to look down on the arena in which we operate day to day, look back on where we have come from, look ahead to where we wish to reach… and above all to look inward and re-evaluate and adjust, maybe even to transform.

It’s not all gloom and doom in government

We are at a time when we’re not sure whether to be depressed by all the bad news regarding the debt, corruption, unceasing politics and other ills that continue to drag Kenya down, or to be hopeful that initiatives such as the Handshake, the Big Four and the Multi-Sector Anti-Corruption Programme will lift us to a higher level.

Following the media it’s too easy to buy wholesale into the doomsday scenario, where our cynical mindsets see only more horror stories, ongoing impunity, and mere idle talk about dealing with all our very serious challenges.

In my column however, I do like airing positive stories, about earnest efforts that are constantly taking place behind the scenes to get us closer to fulfilling our extraordinary potential. On this page I can occasionally shine a light on the unsung heroes who do what they do not for the publicity and their ego but because they simply want to contribute to building a better Kenya.

Regular readers are familiar with my involvement with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa), much of whose work – by design – takes place away from the glare of the media. And today I want to share something about what happened at a recent meeting between the Kepsa leadership and CS Fred Matiang’i, in his capacity as Chairman of the National Development Implementation and Communication Committee.

First, I was so impressed by the deep analysis that had been carried out by the relevant sectors – manufacturing, agriculture, health and housing. They clearly laid out the bottlenecks they were facing, coupled with very specific practical proposals on what the various arms of government must do to create a more enabling environment for the Big Four.

As I listened to the four presentations one thought was uppermost in my mind: the wish that Dr. Matiang’i would simply take the whole list of proposals and just have them be implemented. For I am convinced that were he and his colleagues to do so, we would indeed see our productivity and competitiveness transformed, and the desired national goals fulfilled.

Then, when Dr. Matiang’i responded he affirmed the basic premise that “the private sector is the engine of growth” and that “the business of government is to support business”.

He said the mission of his cabinet committee is to make the government more aligned and cohesive, readily admitting that bureaucracy is the enemy – as a result of which “nothing gets done, with those involved just going round in circles”.

“What matters,” he said, “is getting work done. It doesn’t matter who is boss; we are just concerned about outcomes, not just process.” He talked about taking decisions together, with courage and commitment, so as to resolve bottlenecks and fast-track project implementation. And this without endless memos and meetings, never mind having to go to Naivasha to hold them!

He explained that his cabinet committee meets every Tuesday morning, and then on Wednesday mornings the Technical Committee, composed of the PSs, immediately follows up.

The CS appreciated the pragmatic ideas offered by the private sector, and looked forward to building the partnership with us to the next stage. Specifically, he invited us to work with the Technical Committee, holding them accountable for delivery of the agreed actions and desired impact.

All this was music to the ears of us private sector listeners, and as the encounter reached its conclusion we heard expressions of feeling “refreshed” and “rejuvenated”, as we looked forward to a swift re-engineering of government (June of this year is the target), with fewer competing and conflicting institutions and regulations among other initiatives. It reminded me of the Rapid Results Approach, which to date has been applied in only a scattered few and ephemeral cases without it in any way building to the intended “new normal”.

So now we are at least seeing a serious opportunity to break through the stalemate. Let us not be unduly cynical, appreciating that much of the important work must be done without fanfare. So, as I have said before, know that there are plenty of very good and very impressive Kenyans – including in the public sector – who are working very hard at proving the naysayers wrong.

Why I feel sorry for senior state officials

I feel very sorry for those who work in government, and almost as sorry for those who interact frequently with them. For the public servants, it is not aspects like their remuneration or their office environment that I worry about, however inadequate these may be for some of them. No. My sympathy for them – and for those who meet with them – arises from how frequently their daily schedules are convulsed by someone “from above” who hauls them off without prior notice to attend another meeting now. It doesn’t matter whatever else they may have been doing or planning to do, and no matter with whom.

No effort will have been made to ascertain if at the time they were just sitting around idly, like an Uber driver waiting to be booked for a ride, or pursuing some insignificant task that could readily be postponed. And there will have been no evaluation of the relative urgency or importance of what they were involved in relative to what they were being called away for.

So very frequently, “above” imposes and decides. Like a spoilt child. It’s the way the government does things, and everyone submits, knowing it is just not possible for the summoned to explain why now would not be convenient and to offer counter-suggestions.

It is not surprising therefore that many government officials reach their offices well before dawn, so they can at least progress the critical items on their agenda for a couple of hours before the expected chaos kicks in. The more senior they are the more common this is, and I really admire these victims of top-down summoning for their sense of responsibility. (I just hope they are more sensitive with those around them when arranging meetings of their own.)

I have written in a previous column about showing up for appointments with top level government officials, only to be informed on arrival that they had been “called away”. I received plenty of supportive messages following that article, thanking me for airing the common grievance. Not surprisingly though, my writing led to no improvement in the situation! On the contrary, my sense is that meetings in government have become increasingly more disrupted.

It’s a much more serious matter with large meetings than for ones with just a few participants. To give a recent example, on the second day of the National Anti-Corruption Conference the programme was due to start at 8.30am, but we only got going three hours later. Well over 2,000 of us were seated at Bomas, being entertained by choirs while we waited, so the man and woman hours wasted can readily be calculated.

I know that at the topmost levels of government crises explode every day, in any country in the world. It is why, when asked what he found most challenging in his job as Prime Minister, the recently retired Harold Macmillan is said to have replied, “Events, dear boy, events.”

Yet some administrations deal with unforeseen issues in more considerate ways than others. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for instance, is much admired for the disciplined way he keeps time, arriving at meetings on schedule, and expecting others also to do so.

So this is another appeal to my brothers and sisters at the pinnacles of government, and to those responsible for scheduling their meetings, to be more sensitive to the disruption they create when they summon others to instantly convened functions. I do so with utmost respect, appreciating that they are not acting frivolously. But my suggestion is that they should at least first ask whether the person being requested to cancel other plans abruptly had another commitment of equal urgency and importance, and so if their meeting could take place later or if someone else could represent them.

For that is another challenge. When called from above, no delegation is possible. But the consequence is that someone else will have to represent the one called away at the function they were due to attend, or it has to be cancelled or postponed. And so the chaos cascades downwards and outwards.

Too much of senior people’s time is being wasted. We can do a lot better.

Leadership in and beyond Rotary

A speech held by Mike Eldon at the Rotary Club of Nairobi on 7th February 2019

In Rotary we are all leaders in our profession, and here today we are all past, present or future leaders in Rotary. Sometimes we lead, and sometimes we are led, and in Rotary we must establish our reputations as performers and leaders afresh. We are all of equal status, and in this flat organisational pyramid of ours we must remain humble.

We are amateurs (from the French ‘aimer’, ‘to love’) and volunteers (again from the French – ‘vouloir’, ‘to want to’), leading other amateur volunteers, all professionals. And this profoundly influences the appropriate leadership style we should adopt.

We must first create and communicate the vision and values of our Club, in the context of the District and of Rotary International. We must inspire our members, appreciate and respect them, consult with them, coordinate them, delegate to them and empower them. We must do all this with a sense of humour, with a light touch – and not least at the weekly meetings, where we are the MC for 52 shows, plus at other social and project events. And we must not be ‘know-it-alls’, but rather, as I wrote in one of my recent articles, to practice ‘humble inquiry’, asking more than telling – and hence building trusting and positive relationships.

Then, we must deal with the egos of our members, some too high, some too low. We must handle their sensitivities and insecurities, that too often lead to conflicts and tensions and require us to pour oil on troubled waters, to negotiate, to mediate and help mend fences. For this is how to motivate and engage them. This is ‘talent management’ everywhere, and not least in the context of Rotary.

But possessing the soft skills necessary for all this, however necessary, is still not sufficient. For in addition Rotary leaders must also be professional managers: of projects, of processes, of finances, so that the Club runs like a well-oiled machine.

When I joined this Rotary Club in 1978 the members were predominantly older men and overwhelmingly white, with just a few Asians and Africans. I was in my early thirties, and by far the youngest. Of course there were no women! What a contrast to our membership composition these days – so diverse, of gender, of age, of sector, with several sub-cultures, each possessing different interests and preferences. The challenge to our leaders is to find ways of bringing them all together so that everyone is adequately happy, and accepting that many activities will appeal to some members much more than to others.

Today too we are all subject to the far greater pressures on our time that this 21st century has imposed on us, making volunteering that much more challenging.

These were key themes of last year’s PETS, and it was good for our incoming leaders to have the opportunity to discuss such issues. But PETS is a one-off, and Rotary leaders need ongoing opportunities to review their leadership styles and challenges. The DG, AG and Country Chair are available as mentors, but leaders should also reach out to others among us who can help coach them along their yearlong journeys.

Our Club used to be known as The Rotary Club of Nairobi. We were considered cocky and arrogant, imagining ourselves to be above and distant from all others. I never related to those images of us, but happily I believe we are no longer perceived in such ways. We are still respected and admired, but not with those negative connotations of years gone by.

There is so much expertise in our Club, so much institutional memory. We have held on to longstanding members, while attracting vibrant young men and women to join us. We have a rich array of vibrant, high-impact projects. And we enjoy good and productive relationships with our Rotaractors and Interactors.

What has enabled all this? Consistently good leadership down the years, generating positive energy among so many of our members, from the newest to the oldest.

The title of my talk was to do with leadership ‘in and beyond Rotary’, and it leads me to suggest that of you can lead peer volunteer professionals such as we are in Rotary, with all our expertise and all our egos, who can you not lead? It is for sure why many Rotarians, like Manu and Joe and Yusuf here, who have learned so much about leading volunteers in Rotary, have gone on to lead so many other important organisations as volunteers.

In conclusion, let me ask each of you: where are you headed in contributing to the leadership our Club so it can continue into an equally successful and sustainable future? How much are you learning about and practicing leadership here – bearing in mind that this is a cost-free risk-free opportunity to have a go, and so to learn and to grow? And finally, how are you applying what you are learning about leadership in our Rotary setting to your day job and to all your other activities?

What I have been trying to do here today is to stimulate you to reflect, and to do so purposefully. I wish you well with your reflections… and to their positive consequences.