Marking a milestone by gleaning lessons from art of storytelling

In my last column I wrote about a storytelling event I co-hosted, and today I hold on to that theme in this my 300th Business Daily article. For as I looked back over the 11 years my column has been running, it occurred to me that what I have actually been doing each fortnight is telling a story.

However old storytelling may be, it is receiving new focus as a powerful but much neglected element of leadership. For instance, in the “Voice of Leadership” programme I conducted with Martin Oduor for the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication (in partnership with the Harvard Kennedy School) we included a half-day on the subject, and it was also the theme of one of our webinars.

During that webinar I talked about the President’s Round Table with the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (Kepsa) I attended in May. The President, Cabinet Secretaries, PSs and other senior government officials were in the room, plus 40 private sector leaders, and it lasted from noon till after six in the evening with no break.

I described how the various speakers told their stories: from the private sector, they advocated for government initiatives that would create a more enabling environment for business, and in return they committed to creating more jobs, exports and the like; and from the government side they explained what was and was not possible.

Guided for much of the day by the President, consensus was then built around agreed actions and outcomes.

My questions to those tuned in to the webinar were “How would you have performed?” and “How would you have prepared in advance?” But they were not there. So how, I asked, will they prepare and perform at the next high level meeting at which they will be presenting, responding or chairing?

Will they, like some did at State House, talk too fast? Be reading their script so they will hardly make eye contact with those they are addressing? Will they hold the microphone too near to or too far from their mouths, or will they allow their voices to project clearly? Will they go on for too long, with too much detail and making too many points, some off target?

Will they make too many requests, insufficiently accompanied by persuasive offers? Or will what they seek be reasonable, and balanced by powerful, credible offers, thus ensuring win-win business cases? Will they show emotional intelligence in how they engage? Or come across as whiners and moaners, as defensive and bureaucratic, crumbling when challenged to strengthen their case?

Will their visual aids strengthen their case, or act as visual distractions? Will their story align with those of their colleagues, as part of an integrated team offering practical proposals and solutions? If the need arises will they protect a subordinate, support a superior? And if they are chairing a session, will they drive the priority agenda, building consensus, summarising succinctly and managing time?

In my State House story, I praised the man whose great leadership inspired and motivated us all: the President. He raised us to a higher level, around a common national vision and healthy values; he allocated work to his own people and to us in the private sector; he called a spade a spade, stimulating the needed difficult conversations and building consensus around agreed stretch targets; and by differentiating between technical and non-technical issues he guided the conversations appropriately.

Many, on both sides, learned important lessons that day, and next time all will be better prepared. They will, I hope, rehearse and role play, so making the best use of the precious time available.

As part of my preparation for helping others to be powerful storytellers – and hence influential leaders – I read The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo, author of Talk Like TED. If you are a leader at any level, do yourself a favour and read it too. Also watch Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu present with impact. You may not agree with everything he says, but he certainly tells his stories with supreme mastery.

Meanwhile, I look forward to telling more of my stories in this column, and I wish you well as you tell yours.

The necessary evil that is compliance

My colleague Frank Kretzschmar and I have been hosting our story-telling Leaders Circles for 12 years. The theme for our most recent event was “The Necessary Evil of Compliance”, a topic increasingly in the forefront of our minds.

Yes, we did include “necessary” before “evil”, acknowledging that, as former Deputy US Attorney-General Paul McNulty put it, “If you think compliance is expensive, try non-compliance”.

We began by sharing what the theme meant to us, noting that where there is high trust we can be more flexible with compliance.

Everyone must comply with national laws and regulations, we readily agreed, but within organisations with healthy cultures there is scope for making judgements, while keeping a balance between trust and compliance among broader stakeholders.

These days much more work must be done on compliance and integrity matters. It’s like a fashion, said one participant, with audits sometimes carried out in a spirit of suspicion, as “investigations” that assume something is wrong.

It can make you defensive, lead to feelings of bitterness, and an erosion of trust. You know you didn’t do anything wrong, but did you miss something? Life becomes impossible when “Compliance Jihadists” are on the job, “dangerous purists”, we heard.

On the other hand though, one must certainly not be too trusting, and pain can come from relaxing emphasis on compliance, as others related.

One participant, having introduced a regime of strict submission of weekly management accounts, so trusted his people that he relaxed the discipline, later to discover that substantial fraud was taking place.

So compliance is indeed a necessary evil where there is no prevailing culture of integrity. As another of our leaders was once told, “If your audits are not revealing problems they’re probably not doing their jobs properly.”

But compliance can lead to lost opportunities too. In his legitimate efforts to reduce his debtors, a manager in one of the organisations represented so tightened credit that he began losing business.

Here we were reminded of Peter Drucker’s experience, that “people who don’t take risks generally make about two big mistakes a year, while those who do make a similar number.”

What still must be handled is impunity: why do we need so many speed bumps here — why not just put up speed limit signs, as happens elsewhere? We know the answer to that: because they would be ignored.

Two of our leaders went to the UK to study, and there they learned about a different code of conduct, making them ethical and complaint in entirely new ways, some that were hard to practice back here.

I talked about the over-specification of procurement Terms of Reference that make comparisons between competitors more straightforward but reduce bidders to commodity providers who compete merely on price.

It precludes the possibility of offering alternatives that may be better or more innovative, risking compliance becoming the enemy of excellence.

And another said there were too many examples of opportunities lost as a result of having had to comply with some conformity. It’s what turns the dynamic to the stale, breeding timidity unless someone has the guts to raise the red flag. Such situations can arise within the family too, he added, and also in religions, leading to fundamentalism.

Then, we must beware of seeing board members as people who merely provide oversight and ensure compliance. Not enough to add value through offering strategic and innovative thinking, inspiring and motivating, acting as champions and ambassadors.

As a result, CEOs too feel the pressure to comply. One such, we were told, had done a great job in the UK of developing learning, growing leaders, helping them accept that sometimes they had to be non-compliant in order to deliver the best product, is no longer in such a position… and is really glad he is no longer there.

We did however acknowledge that we have seen significant benefits of many compliance initiatives, not least through the introduction of technology — as with fairer tax collection, through PINs, the iTax and the e-Citizen system.

Our conclusion? Have enough but not too much compliance. Above all though, do the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.

It’s futile to stand in the way of new technology

Ah, new technology: it threatens and disrupts. It always has and it always will. In 19th century England a group of textile workers known as Luddites destroyed weaving machines to protest against their “fraudulent and deceitful” use that was designed, they alleged, to get round the then labour practices.

Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace them, and over time the term Luddites has come to mean being opposed to new technologies in general.

Another example of “Luddism” comes back to me from my early days in the IT industry in the 1960s and ’70s, when trade unions in many countries aggressively opposed the introduction of computers because they were going to destroy large numbers of jobs – in this case white collar ones.

In 1980s Kenya this was manifested through the imposition of a combined import duty and sales tax of 143 per cent on computers, as they were branded “labour-saving devices”.

The longstanding battle between the unions representing workers in the local tea industry and the tea companies who employ them over the introduction of tea-plucking machines is a further example of the inconvenient meeting the inevitable.

What led me to think about these examples of resisting new technologies is reading The Upstarts by Brad Stone, about how companies like Uber and Airbnb are changing the world.

Stone, the author of The Everything Store – an earlier book on the rise of Amazon – describes in gripping detail how a few extraordinary individuals, filled with creativity and vision, energy and ambition, defiance and obstinacy, have redefined the transport and hospitality industries. Do get hold of The Upstarts (available at the Yaya Centre Bookstop) and follow the roller-coaster ride of the movers and shakers of Uber and of airbnb as breakthrough after breakthrough was followed by setback after setback, in city after city around the world, to the point where now their presence has become accepted as the new normal.

In Kenya our cab drivers launched protests against the Uber phenomenon, and as everywhere else we worried about fairness and about compliance with regulations (now quaintly outdated). We pondered over how the benefits of the mobile-based app should be spread between Uber, its drivers, its passengers and KRA. As we did regarding airbnb and the players in their ecosystem.

In among these weighty issues lies the leadership challenge of how to help the victims of new technology, in whichever century, to deal with and overcome loss, even as others enjoy the benefits of the new paradigm.

So while I love just pressing a few keys on my mobile phone to have a super-friendly low-cost Uber driver pick me up in just a few minutes, I mourn for the old-style cab drivers whose hitherto secure income streams have all but dried up.

No wonder Yellow Cab drivers in New York have been committing suicide, and no wonder hotel owners are pulling their hair out in frustration. In this era of the most rapid, transformative and unpredictable change we have ever witnessed, the underlying long-term leadership challenge is to prepare those they lead to be flexible and agile, able to let go of existing paradigms and to competently and confidently leap into new ones.

This of course must start at the earliest age possible, and it must never fade. It’s good that Kenya’s leaders have got the message, resulting in such strategic initiatives as our new Curriculum Framework, the boosting of technical and vocational training, the dramatic review of the role of universities and the major emphasis on acquiring and using digital skills.

In Kenya, thanks to unusually high levels of energy and curiosity, more of us are able to deal with the challenges of disruption than happens in many other countries. However, very much including in the Western world, far too many are left behind as they lack the skills and attitudes necessary for filling the emerging jobs available in the modern world.

So as we focus on the government’s “Big Four” in the context of our Vision 2030, we must support those who are already fit for purpose and also help those who are not to be so.

NCIC does more work than what comes to surface

A month ago I was privileged to attend the launch of Alice Wairimu Nderitu’s book on national cohesion and integration, Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides. Ms Nderitu was a founding Commissioner of the National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC), and before and since she has enjoyed a distinguished career promoting the cause of cohesion and integration, in Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere.

The chief guest at the launch was Dr Fred Matiang’i, the Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior, and in his remarks he said that if he were still at the Ministry of Education he would have ensured the book was made standard reading at all the teacher training colleges, adding that he would recommend to his colleague that this be so.

Let me go further: in my view every Kenyan owes it to themselves to read this book. Not just Kenyans, but all those who seek a richer understanding of how ethnic tensions come about and sometimes get out of hand, and how thoughtful, purposeful people like Ms Nderitu, her colleagues in the NCIC and others set about identifying the root causes of the problem and seeing how to build a more cohesive and integrated society in which everyone can grow and prosper.

The NCIC is largely known for going after those who utter hate speech. But this is just the visible tip of their cohesion nurturing iceberg – the one the media relishes, as it is usually prominent politicians who are put on the spot by the commission.

Being taken behind the scenes by this former NCIC commissioner is therefore particularly valuable, as it reveals the almost unknown mass of the NCIC iceberg.

She writes eloquently about Kenya’s two-steps-forward, two-steps-backward history of ethnic relations (a great summary of the country’s past, from colonial and even pre-colonial times onward); about the build-up to the formation of this, the only permanent independent commission to have been formed following the 2008 post-election violence; about how they dug into their subject, consulting widely and evolving strategies to move Kenya forward on a more sustainable basis; and about how they have been engaging at all levels in our society and in all corners of the republic to move us forward.

At the launch Ms Nderitu told us that when she was a commissioner with NCIC what drove her was to make a difference. She talked about the establishment of the District Peace Committees, designed to provide early warnings of unrest, leading to swift responses. “We knew violence was coming,” she remembers being told, “but we didn’t know whom to tell.”

She recognised what a painful topic ethnicism is, and drew attention to the need to develop facilitators who can bring people together – from the youngest age.

During her time with NCIC I supported the commission in various ways, so I know from personal experience how serious she and her colleagues were, and how many quiet initiatives they undertook. It is indeed in the nature of such work that to be effective much of it must take place behind the scenes, and so to read about it now is the more necessary. Their successors too, the current team, are equally assumed by many to be little more than “The Hate Commission”, and it is an equally unjustified jibe.

Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia was the opening speaker at the launch, and he commented that “writing is a spiritual discipline that clarifies the mind and processes confusing emotions,” adding that “a difficult day can be redeemed by writing about it.”

Reading too can serve such a purpose, although probably more mildly. So I conclude by urging everyone to indulge in the spiritual discipline of reading every page of Kenya, Bridging Ethnic Divides, and through doing so to process your confusing emotions.

But however necessary, that remains insufficient. To reach the necessary readers must not only conclude that Kenya’s ethnic divides have so sadly held Kenya back from fulfilling its potential.

We must not only decide to reach out to “the other” in and beyond our communities. We must influence others to do so. Not least our politicians, so they can seek votes and enjoy power through different paradigms.

My selection of speeches that shaped history

The Penguin Book of Modern Speeches (available at Text Book Centre and maybe elsewhere locally) reproduces a fascinating collection of speeches that have influenced history, and today I write about two among them.

The first, delivered in 1960 to the South African Parliament by then British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, was about the “winds of change” that were blowing through Africa, spelling out Britain’s intended withdrawal as a colonial power in Africa and seeking to sway white South Africans towards abandoning apartheid.

Before he delivered the speech, Mr Macmillan went on a six-week African tour that ended in South Africa. There he met with Prime Minister Verwoerd and tried to explain the need for change brought about by the two world wars.

Some saw the policy outlined in Macmillan’s speech – which he knew his audience would find unacceptably inconvenient – as an abdication by Britain of Africa and the abandonment of the white settlers. Even among the black nationalists there was an ambiguous reaction.

They had been prevented from meeting Mr Macmillan and at first were skeptical about his speech. But even at the time Nelson Mandela thought it was positive, and when he spoke to the British parliament in 1996 he referred to the address.

Albert Luthuli agreed with Mr Mandela, stating that Mr Macmillan had given Africans inspiration and hope.

When Mr Macmillan ended his speech a shocked Mr Verwoerd immediately responded, saying that “there must not only be justice to the black man in Africa, but also to the white man”.He said the Europeans there had no real other home, and that they provided a strong defence against Communism.

British Conservatives also felt betrayed by Mr Macmillan’s speech and Lord Kilmuir, a member of Mr Macmillan’s Cabinet, complained that “few utterances in recent history have had more grievous consequences,” adding that “in Kenya the settlers spoke bitterly of a betrayal”.

And hardline imperialist Lord Salisbury felt that European settlers in Kenya, alongside the African population, “would prefer to be under imperial rule regardless”.

The second speech I have selected was given in Birmingham in 1968, exactly 50 years ago, by British MP Enoch Powell, who forecast a terrible future for Britain thanks to what he saw as the excessive immigration into the country – including of Asians from Kenya.

Mr Powell’s became known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, an allusion to a line from Virgil’s Aeneid that he quoted: “As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.

”It caused a political storm, and led to his dismissal from the Shadow Cabinet by Conservative Party leader Edward Heath, who said it was “racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions”.In the speech Mr Powell recounted a conversation with one of his constituents, who said to Mr Powell: “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

In 1960, Mr Macmillan was trying to help the white South Africans – as well as the many conservative supremacists among his own people in Britain – to come to terms with letting go of what they had previously enjoyed and taken for granted.

The situation was no longer tenable, and to reach a longer term sustainability it was clear they would need to accept significant shorter term losses.

Then in 1968, Mr Powell previewed the fears being expressed by Donald Trump today. Mr Powell’s language was infinitely more elegant than that of America’s President, but they both play to the same fear of loss.

The difference is that while Mr Macmillan was confronting the fears of the elite, Mr Powell and Mr Trump capitalised on those of people much lower down the social and economic ladders.

Even today the issues raised in the two speeches are far from fully resolved. Ever since, leaders like Mr Macmillan have sought to uplift those they sought to influence by adopting higher principles that lead to inclusive societies where citizens can rise from a state of dependence to one of full participation in society, while others like Mr Powell allow people to dream of holding on to untenable pasts.

For sure we must support and strengthen the former, and condemn the latter.

Influence, not power yields better output from employees

My first leadership experience came when I arrived in Kenya in 1977 to be the general manager of the local subsidiary of a multinational IT company.

Both the Kenyans who reported to me and the Brits to whom I reported expected me to be the proverbial “Big Man”, perceived as all-knowing, all-wise and all-powerful.

And when I refused to buy into such an impossible scenario, when I took time consulting with and developing the newly-promoted management team around me, I was branded by my bosses as “weak and indecisive”.

It was something I learned to live with, knowing that my style meant that the staff felt more respected, more empowered, more motivated – and hence more productive.

Dominant personalities anywhere tend to impose their will on others. Never mind if their title and corresponding authority make it possible for them to adopt a “do as I say” approach.

Yet more so in these days of flat organisational pyramids and loose networks, not to mention the nomadic tendencies of knowledge workers, it is unlikely to get a leader very far.

The challenge for such leaders is to graduate from being perpetual overloaded decision-makers and dispensers of instructions to becoming spreaders of positive influence.

OK, other than in the middle of a crisis perhaps. You need a particular kind of strength to hold back from micro-managing, and a boldness to trust others and to delegate to them.

This in turn presupposes an optimistic disposition and a positive view of human nature. It was Douglas McGregor who in 1960 introduced his Theory X and Theory Y, where Theory X supports the view that we humans are lazy and try to avoid work. Theory Y, meanwhile, postulates that working comes naturally, and also that under suitable conditions people do seek responsibility.

Each set of assumptions leads us to a different view of how we can and should lead. If we think people are intrinsically lazy then we must control them firmly for work to get done.

Theory X also imagines that most people prefer to be told what to do, and dislike taking risks or assuming responsibility. So again, we must play the “stern parent” to the “naughty child”.

Theory Y calls on us to provide inspiring visions and to focus on aligning individuals’ objectives with organisational ones.

If this is present then they will feel free to use their imagination and creativity to perform optimally. Adherents to Theory Y believe that leading through supportive influence rather than controlling authority is the path to take.

The way we lead is reflected in how we behave, and to grow our circle of influence we must be emotionally intelligent.

This means that we must, as Stephen Covey told us, “seek first to understand, then seek to be understood”, which in turn requires us to ask questions rather than feel obliged always to provide answers, and to be open listeners.

We must lead by example and build win-win relationships with those around us. We must be coaches and enablers of those we lead, appreciating that the more they grow and the more trustworthy they become, the more we free ourselves to focus on higher level strategic issues.

Such cultures, where leaders create enabling environments for learning and growth, should percolate throughout an organisation. So when we talk about leaders and leadership we don’t only mean CEOs and directors.

Indeed there are no exceptions to leading, as we should all exercise reflective self-leadership, where the coach within acts as our positive influencer.

In today’s world of rapid and uncertain change, no leader can afford to pose as “The Big Man”.

Contemporary leadership requires men and women in positions of responsibility to reassure those around them so they may cope with all the inconvenient disruptions of this 21st century while fulfilling both their own goals and those of the organisations where they work.

Leading through influence is far less efficient than exercising top-down authority. But unless one approaches leadership in this subtler style, respect and loyalty will be eroded and for sure the outcome will be unsustainable and ultimately self-defeating.

Kind of leadership needed to deal with a crisis effectively

I was in London last month at the time when snow covered the city, to work on a leadership programme with the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR).

One of those with me carried a wonderful book that I then also bought, The Greats on Leadership by Jocelyn Davis.

In it Mr Davis offers summaries of what 24 great authors have had to say over the centuries about different elements and circumstances of leadership, and then discusses these in a contemporary context.

So for instance he builds on Machiavelli’s writing to explore change, Plato’s to examine justice, Bernard Shaw’s to promote vision… and Shakespeare’s to help leaders deal with crises.

Mr Davis turns to Shakespeare’s Henry V for inspiration on the subject, lauding the victor over the greatly superior French forces in the battle of Agincourt as a “learning leader”.

I read this chapter with particular interest as on my return from London I was a member of the faculty delivering the Transformative Leadership programme run jointly by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communication and the Harvard Kennedy School, within which one of my sessions was on the voice of leadership in periods of crisis.

Our whole programme was based on the Adaptive Leadership approach promoted by Ronald Heifetz, the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, about which I wrote in an earlier column.

Heifetz explains how leadership must be treated as an activity rather than a position, and in his chapter on crisis Davis quotes Heifetz at length on the subject.

The Harvard professor, acknowledges Mr Davis, writes eloquently on the “learning zone” and its importance to teams and organisations in crisis, showing how it exists between the overly cool comfort zone of complacency and the too-hot-to-handle zone of danger and panic.

In normal times we exist in the comfort zone where stress levels are low, but an emergency hurls us into the high-stress danger zone. There, effective leadership as practiced by the likes of Henry V delivers the sharp focus and fast action that overcome the tendency merely to fight, flee or freeze.

Mr Davis then explains more about how to remain in such a zone at these most difficult times. He does this by constructing a chart that shows “Unity” on the vertical axis and “Agility” on the horizontal one, where both need to be high for the learning zone to be alive and well – more so during and after times of crisis.

It’s not so hard for unity to be high in normal circumstances, when there is less urgent need for extreme agility. He calls the upper left quadrant, with high unity and low agility, the “complacency zone”, where signs of impending crisis are met with a chorus of “Around here we always… “.

He then takes us to the lower right quadrant, his “Disconnection zone”, where agility outweighs unity and everyone worries about saving their own skin – the Titanic syndrome. At least as lamentable is the lower left “Blame zone”, where both unity and agility are low and the concern is blame-avoidance.

Finally to Henry V territory, the upper right “Learning zone”, where great leadership first asks how we can resolve our problems and move forward together; then how I contributed to the difficulties and what I must do differently to avoid making the same mistakes again; and only after to examine how they, the other team members, contributed to what happened and how I can coach them to learn and be better prepared for the next crisis.

In the discussion during my session on leadership in crisis the participants — some of whom were in leadership positions in large hospitals — reviewed the recent one at Kenyatta National Hospital, where head surgery was performed on the wrong patient. And later they reflected on how they had dealt with crises that involved their own organisations.

What about you? Are you in the league of Henry V? Or would the Titanic have sunk under your command too? In this volatile and uncertain world of ours, it’s good for all of us to reflect on how effectively we will deal with our next crisis.

Customer service steps that turn SMEs into giants

You and I undertake customer journeys every day. Some are more or less fine throughout, and some have their ups and downs; some are consistently outstanding and some are the opposite, while with yet others it’s as though it depends on what those with whom you interact ate for breakfast that day.

As I reflect on my journeys with suppliers it always amazes me that in a country like Kenya, where people are naturally so friendly and helpful, we still endure the most awful experiences.

I ask myself how do the organisations from whom we buy that are at the low end of the spectrum continue to exist. OK, some are actually or virtually monopolies. But there are others who face many superior competitors.

But let me start with the best of the best, like the Laptop Clinic in Westlands, where I go when my PC decides to stress me. I almost look forward to it playing up, knowing that I will be treated so well from the moment I enter their premises till I leave, entirely satisfied.

I am confident they will always fix my problem, provide value for money — and thank me for being their customer. They are the sort of people you unhesitatingly recommend to others.

Another example, not unrelated (this is where I take my mobile phone when it needs medical attention), is the Safaricom Platinum store in Sarit Centre.

Admittedly it is there for Safaricom’s ‘Business Class’ clients, but it makes the best of the airlines pale by comparison. The staff there can never do enough for us, whether it is in dealing with the technical issues or offering us a cup of coffee… and then another. Their approach is consistently delightful.

Finally among my podium providers let me single out PrideInn, at whose Nairobi properties I recently ran some workshops. Unlike the other two this is a much larger set up, with many more staff. And this is precisely why it is so impressive.

Because each and every one of them, all the time, is only concerned to see that we are well looked after. It is not because supervisors and managers are touring around asking us if everything is OK. No it’s everyone, everywhere. It’s just the culture of the place, the norm.

Now let me move to a totally different category of service providers: banks. Lots of good people work here too, both in branches and in head-offices.

But the financial services sector has faced so many challenges, has become so regulated, and is faced with so many compliance constraints, that it becomes very hard for them to do the right thing for their customers.

I feel really sorry for their customer-facing people, the ones in the branches and in the business development function, as much of the time they are faced with having to tell us what is not possible — however reasonable and in everyone’s interest it may be.

They are the messengers of bad news, and they speak thanks to some eagle-eyed character in the credit department or the legal office who has spotted a reason-why-not that cancels out any earlier expectation of a loan or other facility being granted.

Worst of all is when issues are being handled by a call-centre, where you never know who will be dealing with you, and never the same person.

Plus you may well have been put on hold before even speaking to anyone… while being told by a recording how important your business is to them.

There is no possibility of any relationship being built between you and the bank, and hence of anyone getting a feel for the full background of your case or for your trustworthiness.

Too many of my experiences with such call-centres, ones where I have complained about some aspect of the bank’s service, involve the unfortunate agent muttering apologies on behalf of their employer, without having any ability to do anything about it.

In future those that survive in our ever more competitive environment are the ones who offer the best customer journeys.

The three companies with whom I led will be among them. But I truly fear for some of our banks.

The trouble with Kenya’s long list of neglected values

Several times a week, as I drive towards Westlands and beyond, I exit from James Gichuru Road and circle the oval onto Waiyaki Way.

It is obvious we should keep to the right-hand lane on James Gichuru, awaiting a gap in the traffic driving west so we can line up for the U-turn that will launch us on our way.

Like many others I keep in that right lane. But some do not. They know that by doubling up to our left they can easily get ahead and then insert themselves in the line for taking the U-turn. This is because there are enough accepting, resigned Kenyans who allow such selfish and entitled behaviour.

If we were in a queue at a supermarket it would be called pushing in. Here though, it is just a case of the survival of the fittest, the less inhibited.

And if, like me, you resist the pushing in, the driver gets angry with you for preventing the rudeness.

That shows quite how far some of us have sunk in switching off our consciences and just doing what it is possible to do, irrespective of the illegitimacy of our actions.

But enough venting. I merely offer this example of the choices that confront us each day in deciding whether or not to behave decently to launch some reflections on our national values.

They have been defined in our Constitution, and here’s the list: patriotism, national unity, sharing and devolution of power; the rule of law, democracy and participation of the people; human dignity, equity, social justice, inclusiveness, equality, human rights, non-discrimination and protection of the marginalised; good governance, integrity, transparency and accountability; and sustainable development.

There you are, 18 of them. All good, all appropriate, but what difference has embedding them in this supreme law made? Then, what impact have we seen from Chapter 6 of the Constitution, regarding the ethical standards required of our leaders?

Who is even aware of the existence of Kenya’s National Values System?

Who is familiar with the values that underpin the economic, social and political pillars of Vision 2030?

So many questions; so few answers. So many laws and regulations; so many institutions, including the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission, the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, the Directorate of National Cohesion and National Values… But with what consequences?

I think about these questions every day, asking myself what we could be doing differently that would result in more drivers keeping to that right hand lane on James Gichuru Road.

And I also wonder what holds back those who insist on living healthy values despite so often losing out to those who do not.

What, despite the impunity that allows for so much bad behaviour, explains the existence of many highly ethical sub-cultures here — in government as elsewhere?

Take the often-quoted example of Singapore, known as a “Fine City” thanks to citizens knowing they will be fined if they even drop litter on the pavement. Singapore’s national values are just five: nation before community and society above self; family as the basic unit of society; community support and respect for the individual; consensus, not conflict; and racial and religious harmony.

It is infinitely more powerful and memorable than our endless and highly conventional list, making it easy for leaders and others to quote and hold people to.

The leaders themselves are called upon to act as role models for the values, and they have become embedded in the national culture. It’s just the way life works there.

So what about us? We need not continue to make do with our fatalistic acceptance of the unethical.

But it is not enough to have long lists of values laid out in worthy laws and regulations.

And the more institutions we have that are meant to be helping us improve the less effect any of them will have — never mind that they are largely low profile.

We need a short, punchy set of values.

We need the President and other senior national and sub-national leaders to talk about them and live them.

We need those who do not abide by them to suffer the consequences, and those who do to be rewarded.

Look at your ‘core values’ once more for urgent rework

In much of my management consulting I help organisations clarify their values, and this is often the most interesting and challenging aspect of my work.

Almost all my clients have an existing bundle of “core values” (I’ve never seen the need for the “core”), but few pay much attention to them — even if they can remember what some or occasionally all of them are.

Visions and missions also earn limited ongoing attention from most leaders, but when it comes to values many run out of energy altogether.

A common challenge with values is that there are too many, making it hard to keep them in mind. I recommend a maximum of five, fewer if possible, so they can more readily be recalled and people can easily focus on them.

Anyway, most values relate to each other, so in talking about one — assuming, that is, they are indeed talked about— it is easy to refer to others that didn’t make the cut. (The numbers business is why I am concerned that our Constitution lists 18 values, hardly any of which Kenyans can identify.)

Another challenge is that an organisation’s selected values are likely to appear in random order, without a flow or a storyline. So I prefer punchy phrases to single words, and my favourite expressions are those in Centum’s “Golden Rules”.

Here are some from their list, to give you a flavour: “We escalate the solution, never the problem”; “A bad decision is better than indecision”; and “We do not email where a conversation would do”.

Among values we often see “professionalism”, “teamwork” and “integrity”, each of which includes many component values. So, while we understand what being “professional” means I feel it’s rather lazy to just throw out this word without identifying which elements within it are of the greatest significance to one’s environment.

Similarly with teamwork. It’s just too general, too vague. Which aspects of teamwork does the organisation already live well, that it must hold on to? Which ones are more aspirational and must be worked on, hence also qualifying for consideration?

Is it trust (it often is) — the need to be trustworthy and hence trusted? Collaboration? Being supportive of one another? Listening openly? Engaging constructively? Displaying low but healthy egos? Select whichever of these is the most relevant and powerful, knowing the others are implied.

These days, everyone feels they must list integrity as one of their values —otherwise people will imagine you don’t care about honesty or fairness, compliance or good governance.

But as one participant in a values review pointed out to his group recently, surely integrity should be taken for granted without having to shout about it. And anyway, because the “I” word is so overused, isn’t it better to pluck out a specific component and find a more original and hence powerful way of expressing the concept?

Along with Integrity, other “I” words find their way into the lists, Innovative, Inclusive and Impactful among them. “R” words are popular too, including Respectful, Responsible, Reliable and Responsive — interestingly complementary and also explanatory of one another.

Speaking of first letters, wordsmiths like me enjoy arranging values so that their opening letters themselves form a word — which means finding a good mix of ones that begin with both vowels and consonants. And another way of assisting the process is to have all the values start with the same letter.

The conversations generated around selecting and expressing values are themselves helpful, providing material to share with others subsequently.

But the process must go beyond the selecting and sharing to the living. Which ones should be celebrated because they are strong?

Which ones are in less good shape and what attitudes and behaviours must change, so as to close the gap between the actual and the aspirational?

Finally, are the leaders role models for the values?

And how is everyone encouraged to embrace the values by recognising and rewarding them for so doing, while helping those who do not to change?

These are the conversations we need to have… at all levels and not least at the national one.

Watch this space for more on that.