Why keeping a journal of events is a good idea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morality through the eyes of chief rabbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to bring pastoralists into modern economy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the new Kepsa leadership promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Covid recovery journey

Some of my readers are aware that I have been down with Covid-19 for several weeks, and I feel the time has come for my Kiraitu Murungi moment. Well sort of, as unlike the Meru Governor (whose article about his experiences was published in the Sunday Nation of April 25) I never entered the world of politics, and so it did not lead me to self-flagellate over my past.

Like for the governor, my early stage was denial. My symptoms were such that at first I was convinced I just had the flu. But acceptance came with testing positive for Covid-19, leading me to wonder where and when I had become infected. My sister in London had been warning me against indulging in the active life I had been leading, but until I succumbed to the virus I felt it was all fine.

Then, there I was in an isolation ward at the Aga Khan Hospital, confined to my bed and with no energy. It reminded me of the poem I wrote in 1980 when I came down with hepatitis, about just “watching the ceiling go by”. Here’s how Mr Murungi summed it up: “Corona had disconnected me from everything. It put me out of action. I felt weak and useless.” Yes, I relate to that.

Unwanted baggage

I only recently learned from family members that they were told by my doctor that I was close to death at one time. Wisely, neither the doctor nor they shared this with me then, and even now I find it hard to accept — surely they’re referring to someone else! This is in stark contrast to when I had cancer of the prostate 16 years ago, when I seriously contemplated my mortality. Why not now? Denial again? No, this time I managed to exclude it from my mind as unwanted baggage.

Like the governor I have been inundated with messages of goodwill through emails, SMSs and WhatsApp get-well messages, assurances of prayer, expressions of great optimism. I was quite overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from around Kenya and far beyond, wanting to respond to each one and feeling good that I was able to.

I also related to Mr Murungi when he referred to “some people being congratulated for winning a ‘heroic battle’ against Covid-19”. This was a self-delusion, he wrote. “I did nothing. I didn’t fight. At the hospital I just followed the doctor’s and nurses’ orders. I didn’t even know what they were giving me. I was too weak and subdued. It was a very humbling experience for me.”

Was I strong? Did others fight less heroically than me? Apparently so. But more often I felt like an under-performer, not finishing my meals or exercising as much as I should have, due to my low energy. Some at the hospital urged me to push harder, while one doctor reassured me I didn’t have to be “top of the class”.

Solitary confinement

Like me, for the first time in many years the governor found himself all alone. My solitary confinement – for that is how I came to think of it – lasted a full two months, where the only contact I had was with the nurses and other support staff and through the fleeting daily visits of the doctors.

My hitherto decent circle of influence was largely reduced to influencing my own daily micro-activities, which focused on major projects like having a shower (and initially just being washed in my bed by my wonderfully caring nurses) and eating a meal (despite serious loss of appetite).

While Mr Murungi reflected about his life and future while he was burdened with Covid, my thoughts rarely extended to either my past or my future. But somehow I did summon up the strength to write my articles for this column, keep up with my mails and texts, participate in a few online meetings, and more recently to keep adequately active with my directorships and a few of my consultancies. It is this that has kept me sane and hopeful.

New awareness

Eventually I moved out of the isolation ward and into my own room, itself a major upheaval – giving this change management consultant food for thought about how anxiety can be provoked when letting go of an existing environment, however preferable the new one may be.

I am no longer in hospital, but the journey to full recovery is very much ongoing. Living through these difficult days and nights has made me much more aware of what those who are seriously unwell endure, and it will make me far more empathetic towards such people in future. Realistic too, sensing what they can and cannot handle.

A look at how interviews for CJ post unfolded

Four years ago I wrote a column here about interview panels, and I was reminded about it as I watched some of the grillings by the Judicial Service Commission panel of the candidates for the Chief Justice position, and then later some of the sessions for the Supreme Court judge ones.

As Macharia Gaitho wrote in his column immediately following the CJ interviews, the ten-part series provided the kind of drama we expect from reality TV shows. My article today, however, is not as a theatre critic. It is to review how the panel handled the candidates.

The interviewing commissioners were clearly a very knowledgeable, well-researched and generally well-prepared group of professionals. Their task with the CJ candidates – ten interviews of around six hours each on successive working days – was a daunting one. I was very impressed by how they managed to fill the six hours, but I’m not sure quite so much time was actually needed.

Being almost exceptionlessly from a legal background it was not surprising that the panelists’ approach was often remarkably pushy. Well, lawyers are used to being adversarial to the point of intimidation. And no doubt the candidates, all from that same learned profession, were as accustomed to the kind of jousting that unfolded.

As I witnessed the cross-examinations I also thought about how PhD candidates “defend” their theses before probing professors – the assumption being that the dons’ main job is to expose flaws and weaknesses in their paper. Indeed I remember one of the Chief Justice candidates referring to their “defence” in one of their responses.

I wondered to what extent the panelists had agreed beforehand who would be the “good cops” and who would play the “bad cops”, as we definitely saw a spectrum from grim and skeptical to more friendly and appreciative.

To me the most fascinating aspect of these reality TV shows was the body language of the commissioners. Some were more laid back and smiley; some inscrutable; and one often downright hostile (apparent despite wearing a mask – just from the eyes).

They will have planned the flow of the interviews and who would handle which aspect, aligned to their areas of expertise; and they will have discussed the role of the chairperson – the only one in the room without a legal background. She played her part calmly and appropriately, opening and closing each interview; asking about leadership issues; and mainly directing the traffic from commissioner to commissioner.

For sure they will have drawn up a ratings matrix, allocating marks to each candidate after their interview. (I remember the article I wrote in 2011 commenting on the advertisement for the Chief Justice position that appeared then. Amazingly the requirements did not include expertise in leadership and strategy.)

Some of the panelists probed more deeply in following up on answers to their questions than others. Indeed with a few of the interviewees I got the feeling they felt there was no point trying, as they’d given up on hearing anything relevant or impressive.

As I read over my earlier column on panel interviews I thought it would be good to reproduce this paragraph, about how panelists observe candidates. It comes from my experience in such a role, and I imagine the eagle-eyed commissioners were assessing the same issues.

“How good are the candidates at listening? And how directly do they respond to the questions put? If they’re asked an inconvenient one, do they switch to answering one they would have preferred to have been asked, one that would have allowed them to remain within their comfort zone? Are their answers too short, safe and superficial? Too long, rambling and repetitive – as though buying time in the hope they’ll still come up with that killer point? Or do they engage in a lively, interesting and meaningful dialogue? Does the interview manage to transform into an interesting conversation among equals, as opposed to remaining a duel between the grillers and the grilled?”

Many of those reading this column will have been members of interview panels, and so you will relate to my analysis. Hopefully it will lead you to reflect further on how to perform in such a role in future. And for those yet to indulge in such fora, be aware of quite how much expertise and preparation are required.

Awesome how hospitals have managed Covid-19

From time to time in our lives we are doomed to spend days and nights incarcerated in a hospital, as medical teams take care of what ails us while they set us onto the road to recovery.

Over the years I have had the dubious privilege of observing at close quarters how complex and interwoven it all is, operating 24/7 and with the very lives of patients often at stake.

And all this before Covid!

I immediately come to Covid, as I was one of those who caught the debilitating virus some weeks ago and so I have been at the Aga Khan Hospital for a long time. (Personal reflections for another day.)

There, at close quarters, I have observed so much high quality teamwork displayed by their extraordinary frontline care workers, who amazed me by their apparent assumption that they are just doing their demanding jobs like any other collection of professionals.

Top hospitality

It’s obvious that running a hospital – certainly for inpatients – includes everything needed to manage a hotel, requiring all aspects of gracious hospitality while ensuring the high capacity utilisation that will make the entity financially sustainable. And then there’s that transformative extra: healthcare.

Those who manage hospitals must worry about catering and cleaning; security and waste management (big time).

The stocks of medicines and equipment must be available and up to date, with the labs and the testing centres fully equipped and competent to serve the medical teams.

Plus there are the usual back-office support functions: finance, audit, HR, ICT, legal, transport… not to mention dealing with medical insurers and other stakeholders.

The more I think about it the more I wonder how they manage, the more in awe I am, the more I find it hard to imagine who would wish to take on such extraordinary challenges, ones that incur such risk and require such knowledge, learning, expertise, discipline, stamina, resilience, emotional stability, judgement and goodwill.

I have occasionally acted as a consultant to hospitals, helping their people work effectively with each other in these challenging environments.

What I learned was that, at least as much as in other organisations, in hospitals there are very distinct sub-cultures.

Casual observation

For obvious reasons the doctors are highly influential, and traditionally the senior ones who ruled the roost were known for being insufficiently respectful or helpful to their juniors, who in turn were unhappy about the extent to which their typically more up-to-date knowledge was taken advantage of.

Then there’s the critical relationship between doctors and nurses: how flat is this pyramid, how big are the power gaps here?

My casual observation as a patient at Aga Khan Hospital is that for much of the time it works remarkably smoothly, with excellent delegation, empowerment and teamwork.

People are constantly learning about the latest developments in their fields; most are good at consulting with each other; and so their respective roles and relationships are clear.

Having said that, some of the nursing staff are inevitably bolder, more pro-active and solution-oriented than others (bearing in mind too how stretched everyone is because of Covid).

Effective partnerships

Some of the nurses are great at developing easy relationships with patients, and all are conscientious about carrying out tests, dispensing medicines and fulfilling their other technical functions.

But, partly based on their personality, partly on their expectation of the extent of their role (like going beyond the technical to include the interpersonal), what I found was that too often I was the one who initiated the brief conversations that led to easier and hence more effective partnerships between carer and patient.

Very understandably, expectations management is another challenge in hospitals (as it is with almost everyone in Kenya).

Life is so complicated, unpredictable and interlinked in hospitals that their challenges are unique.

Our heroes

I can comment as a patient that for much of the time it was hard to know when something was likely to happen, or the sequence. More communication would be helpful here.

All this I have been observing just as an idle patient, not knowing what I did not know, just experiencing what I was experiencing.

Inevitably though, my performance management hat remained permanently in place.

My bottom line? It is right for these healthcare workers, in whatever function and at whatever level, to be enthusiastically applauded and celebrated as our heroes.

Mr Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadedrship. [email protected]

Undercover CEO: Do you know what goes on here?

I hadn’t watched an episode of the reality television show Undercover Boss for some years. But recently I came across an episode as I was browsing the channels. For those who are not familiar with the concept, in a way it’s good, very good.

The CEOs of large organisations have themselves disguised as someone applying for a low level job there as part of a “documentary”.

But the actual purpose is to reveal to the boss what’s actually happening on the ground, and the cameras follow their part-artificial part-genuine journey. The episode I watched was about the boss of a huge and very successful player in waste management.

We see the false-bearded roughly-dressed CEO being hosted by employees who have no idea that he is their ultimate leader. They work with him so they can assess his suitability for the job he is apparently seeking, and they also open up on their personal lives and on how they feel about their jobs and employer.

It’s all appealing, as the highly sympathetic anonymous boss (they always come across as really good folk) engages in one work environment after another with successive staff members. They are all knowledgeable and helpful, and they all come with major personal financial and other challenges.

Interestingly, many work in the most appalling settings, for many hours a day, and often far from home. They wonder whether to stay on with the company, but most seem to have been there forever: it’s just how their life unfolds.

During the show from time to time the CEO comments to us viewers as he reacts to what he has been seeing and hearing. He shows deep and genuine sympathy for his loyal people, and is determined to not only sort out their work challenges but also to offer them personal financial support for their marriage, for educating their children in college, for buying a house, for going on a family holiday…

Towards the end of the show, the CEO reverts to his normal look, and back at the head-office he hosts those who had been with him during his rounds. (As they are called for the meeting they have no idea it’s to chat with the boss, as they’d been informed the interview is about whether the person they’d been with should be employed.)

You can imagine how emotional the surprise reunion becomes, as the CEO appreciates those he had spent time with, recruiting some into head-office task forces to sort out the problems that had been revealed. The tear-jerking highlight is the offer of generous financial support packages to meet their various pressing needs. Happy endings!

So, why am I writing about all this? Because it’s so ridiculous! However gripping the viewing, to me as a director and a consultant I find it quite unbelievable that head-office leaders of long-established and financially successful organisations can be so completely ignorant of what’s happening in their environments.

Surely they don’t need to go undercover, surely no one does, to be in touch with conditions on the ground and with how their staff are being treated and the circumstances in which they operate. It’s as though there’s no board, no senior management team, no HR, no anyone or anything getting feedback on pressing needs.

My life is dedicated to ensuring that wherever I am I see people working happily and productively together, and being treated decently and fairly. Neither I nor those around me have ever needed to adopt a false beard or a funny wig to uncover inconvenient realities. Yes, in real life we have our “mystery shoppers” and suchlike.

But why wouldn’t our visits, our channels of communication, our performance management and so many other systems, be able to shine the light on the kind of issues the Undercover Bosses go to such lengths to reveal and that should be glaringly obvious?

This leads me to my conclusion. What if you, the CEO of an established organisation, went underground? What would you discover that you don’t already know?

Or to put it more soberly, how do you and your fellow leaders ensure there are no such howling skeletons hiding in plain sight in your cupboards?

Who rises to the top of pyramid?

For the first 12 years of my career I worked for a British IT multinational, in both field offices and in the head office, and it was in the late 70s, for the last two of these, that I came to Kenya to manage its local subsidiary here. So from different perspectives I was able to study the company’s organisational culture, who was likely to get and not get promoted…and why.

I was able to see how it was so often the crafty individuals manoeuvred their way up the corporate ladder, driven by politics and personal interest. Indeed their prime energy was devoted to such jostling, undermining competitors and cosying up to their seniors. Let me just say that when I finished my contract with this corporate I vowed I would never work for a large multinational organisation again, unwilling to engage in the unhealthy win-lose manoeuvring required to climb the greasy pole to its upper levels.

Since then, as a local business partner to a variety of multinationals, in both management and in board positions, and also as a consultant, I have seen the same patterns. This independently of whether the head office was in America or the UK, France or The Netherlands, South Africa or Egypt. The same is often true of multilateral development partners like the World Bank and the UN, bilateral ones, and international NGOs. And let’s not even talk about government administrations, never mind the disruptions that follow elections.

The pattern is consistent. In all such organisations, every few years the whistle blows and the next round of musical chairs is activated. New faces seek new structures that typically simply introduce a different mix of advantages and disadvantages. Too often the underlying motivation is for the new incumbent to show what great change champions they are — while being disturbingly indifferent to the chaos and confusion in the build up to their “brilliant” new set up and to its subsequent chaotic implementation. (See Boris Johnson!)

The actual purpose, I have seen, is to boost their short-term CV, showing what bold innovators they are…while ignoring the waste of energy and compromised productivity as staff must deal with the insecurities that have been activated within them during the transition. No wonder many will assume — however justified or otherwise — that they will end up as demotivated losers.

It is also worth mentioning the challenges that exist with voluntary organisations like business member and professional associations, and also ones like Rotary (where Yusuf Dawood in a recent Surgeons Diary article complained about dysfunctionalities at its highest levels). More so where volunteers are involved, the tendency I have witnessed is for those with high ego needs to find their way to prominence — and it is why I have never been shy to point out the particular requirement for low-ego humble leadership among such entities.

But let us not over-generalise. There are of course many exceptions to these dog-eat-dog cultures. Ones where their leaders hold on to the uplifting vision and values of the organisation and strive to help others do so, recognising and empowering those who perform in the interests of all.

My clear lesson over the years is to hold back from joining organisations where self-absorbed characters play with their selfish short-term agendas. I will only associate myself with a culture where I can feel at home with my ethical values, working with like-minded men and women for the greater and longer-term common good.

There are many good leaders around who seek nothing more than to be able to fulfill their potential by building responsible sustainable organisations around them.

The challenge is to create that coalition of the willing where such people strengthen and support one another, share best practice among themselves, and form role models for the rest of society.

Let us keep away from witnessing the “Peter Principle”, where people are “promoted to their level of incompetence”, and as a result “fail upwards”. We are better than that, and not least in Kenya, where over the years it has been my privilege to mingle with so many world class responsible characters, great leaders who would and often do thrive anywhere in the world. Not least in Rotary.

The good guys and bad guys in customer service

Like each of you, I experience both wonderful and dreadful customer journeys. And like my fellow columnist Sunny Bindra, from time to time I write about them. I enjoy recognising and celebrating the good by name, while venting about those at the other end of the spectrum, usually without revealing their identity.

Today I want to reflect on two experiences where I have found the extremes of good and bad in the same organisation. In each case the good guys heroically tried to protect me from the bad ones. They apologised, they explained, and they comforted me. But there was only so much they could do, as they were not senior or empowered enough to resolve the ridiculous and unnecessary problems created by others.

I felt very sorry for them, and indeed expressed both by sympathy and admiration for their attitude and behaviour, as they tried ever so hard to put a brave face on the indefensible, to be loyal to their employer and to keep me from exploding with rage.

It’s not always that problems are caused by bad people. It can be bad systems – bureaucratic, unresponsive ones that are complicated, slow and inflexible, preventing the good guys from doing what they would like to do so as to be able to serve their customers well. Whatever the cause of the blockage, be it human or otherwise, customer-focused organisations empower their front-line staff to make reasonable judgements that overcome the problems they and their customers confront.

My first example is Kenya Power, where like so many of its customers we have been charged beyond what seemed reasonable given our consumption. Somehow I managed to get through to their customer experience manager, and she kindly linked me up with a professional technician, who’s been assessing our situation for quite some months. Simultaneously though, others from Kenya Power, sometimes extraordinarily rude characters, have been coming to switch us off from time to time, dismissively disinterested in their colleague’s assessment work. Despite their single-minded aim of disconnecting us, on each occasion my protector prevailed on them to hold off.

My other example is a bank, where those in my branch are exemplary in how they interact with me. But as with quite a few banks these days, they are rendered impotent in dealing with their bureaucratic impediments to smooth customer journeys. Like for instance they must get me to fill in forms by hand – relative to information they surely already possess online; and they have to send me on visits to my notional home branch as the one I always frequent cannot process what needs to be done.

Everything must be escalated; feedback to me takes forever, usually only after I have chased repeatedly; and it is typically completely unsatisfactory.

As we all know, Kenya Power is a monopoly. I have no choice but to work with them as best as I can. But for a bank to operate this way in the 21st century is unthinkable. Surely it cannot survive like this, and surely the good people such as my branch level heroes may well not wish to continue working in such an unresponsive and indifferent environment.

By bigger point is this: in your organisation, do you have good trustworthy people struggling to deliver what they wish to deliver and are so capable of delivering to their customers – whether external or internal, by the way? Must they grapple with either negatively disposed colleagues or disabling systems? How long can you expect to keep such perpetually frustrated good people?

And assuming you are in management, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? Are you perhaps blissfully unaware of such tensions?

You had better assume that they do exist, and figure out where and why. Then reform or remove the bad performers; review and relax the bureaucratic bottlenecks (while ensuring tight controls of course); and empower and recognise those who live healthy values and who care about giving good service.