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.

What Trump letters say about President

In May 2016 I attended a Trump rally in Anaheim, California. I was visiting my daughter and her family, and I was curious to observe this emerging populist phenomenon up close and live.

His campaign had built its strategy around such events, attract huge crowds and creating a political wave the Democrats were failing to heed.

For them, and indeed for mainstream Republicans, the man’s clownishness and demagoguery would guarantee victory for his main opponent Hillary Clinton, whom all polls, all pundits, confidently expected would triumph in November.

On returning to Kenya I wrote a column on the painful experience, noting that after 45 minutes my daughter and I had had enough and walked away, “with just reinforcement of the disgust we had always felt for this vulgar, ill-behaved man and the disappointment that millions of Americans support his arrogant, divisive views and his obnoxious style, ignoring – actually loving – the way he is indifferent to facts; sneers at, mocks and insults anyone with whom he disagrees; and boasts of how smart and successful he is in an endless trail of loosely connected sound-bites.”

Much of Trump’s speech, I wrote, was devoted to trying to persuade us that his winning streak was unstoppable, so surely we should be part of his success.

The media loved it, analysing everything to death, updating their predictions each day, in this most unprecedented and unpredictable of battles – which still had five wretched months to run.

In order to attend the rally we had to apply online for tickets, as a result of which the Trump campaign had access to our contacts. And ever since, at least once a day, I have been receiving mails from the man himself, from his son and from his daughter, from Vice-President Pence, Newt Gingrich and others.

“Friend,” each one starts (quite wrongly imagining me to be part of his base of enthusiastic supporters), before relentlessly stirring me up against all those awful liberals and globalists, against CNN and the New York Times and others of the “fake media” community, and against anyone who denies that Trump is other than the saviour who will Make America Great Again.

The one that greeted me at the dawn of the new year informed me that “President Trump has requested a list of all supporters who have renewed their 2018 Sustaining Membership by MIDNIGHT TONIGHT. These are the patriots who are laying the early foundation for an even stronger second year of our historic presidency. These are the patriots who refuse to let the media define our movement. And this is your chance to put your name up top, Friend.”
As always I am asked to contribute $1 to his campaign fund, “to show the President he has the FULL backing of the American people in the new year”.

“We have now entered a CRITICAL election year,” it continues, saying “the media is hoping to claim that 2018 will be a referendum on President Trump. It’s up to us to prove them WRONG. Let’s show them that we are starting off the year stronger than we started his inauguration. America is waking up to the fake news. We’re waking up to the lies liberals have been feeding our country for decades. We are still fighting to take our country, and we will not rest.”

Reading these daily missives have provided me with excellent insight into how he holds on to his base: by scoffing at the elite; promising to “drain the swamp”; and assuring the faithful that he is there to protect their interests and fulfill the wildest of his campaign promises.

With Trump the drama is constant, reinforcing both admirers and detractors in their views. One day the Fire and Fury book describes his White House as more of a mad house; the next day he tells us he’s a very stable genius.
Now he hosts a bipartisan meeting of congressional leaders that show him as a constructive mediator on immigration, immediately following which he describes African countries as sh**tholes… and then we see Mr. Politically Correct on Martin Luther King Day.

Don’t expect anything to change. I haven’t since seeing him at his campaign rally.

Kenya must entrench basic skills to plug unemployment gap

My sister’s Christmas present to me when she came from London was David Goodhart’s new book, The Road to Somewhere. I’d never heard of Goodhart, but I am an admirer of the thoughtful Prospect magazine of which he was the founder editor. (Whenever I fly with British Airways I find a copy on board, and immediately pounce on it.)

So where is the “Somewhere” in his title? Or rather, who are his “Somewheres? They are people rooted in a specific place or community, usually a small town or in the countryside, socially conservative, often less educated. And these he contrasts to the “Anywheres”, who are footloose, often urban and socially liberal, university educated (the “exam-passing classes”, the “cognitive elite”) and upwardly mobile.

In Britain, he reckons that Somewheres, many of whom are the “left-behinds”, make up roughly half the population, with Anywheres accounting for 20 to 25 per cent and the rest classified as “Inbetweeners”.

Goodhart describes them as belonging to different “Values tribes”. The Somewheres are characterised by an unease with the modern world, a nostalgic sense that “change is loss” and the strong belief that it is the job of British leaders to put the interests of Britons first.

Anywheres, meanwhile, are free of nostalgia; egalitarian and meritocratic in their attitude to race, sexuality and gender; and light in their attachments to larger group identities, including national ones; they value autonomy and self-realisation before stability, community and tradition.

You can readily deduce which tribe wishes to remain in the EU and which craves Brexit — just as you can guess where most of Trump’s supporters fit. With nearly half of British students benefitting from higher education, and — in the developed world at least — with fewer and fewer opportunities for those without significant academic qualifications, the gap between the tribes risks widening further.

I was only a few pages into the book when I began to reflect on Kenyan Somewheres and Anywheres and Inbetweeners. For these tribes exist here as they do in Britain, America and elsewhere.

Our Anywheres are drawn to Nairobi just as their British counterparts swarm into London, expecting that the capital is the only place where they can fulfill their potential. And from there so many Kenyan Anywheres find opportunities elsewhere in Africa and way beyond.

But Goodhart suggests that there can be virtue in staying put and remaining loyal to one’s community — as we are beginning to find with the newfound draw to the counties that has come with devolution.

Just as in the developed world, we have our rising middle class professionals who are at ease in the competitive global village, and we also have our “left-behinds” — those without the skills needed to make them employable and without the unusual character-traits of job-creators.

Goodhart praises Germany for having managed the Anywhere-Somewhere balance best, with its much greater focus on “the middling and the local” — not least through its apprenticeship system that continues to confer respect on even basic jobs.

In Britain by contrast the apprenticeship system never recovered from the de-industrialisation of the 1980s. They “went out of intellectual fashion”, writes Goodhart, perhaps wrongly considered too job-specific to be of use in this era of flexibility.

And like here (indeed perhaps acting as our inspiration) polytechnics were upgraded to universities, leaving an awful vacuum of institutions offering technical and vocational training.

Like here too, in Britain these skills and qualifications are looked down upon, making the low demand for them out of balance with the great shortage of those who possess them.

At least now, here as elsewhere, there is a realisation of this folly, and steps are being taken to fill the void.

Goodhart calls for leaders who not only understand the feelings and aspirations of both Somewheres and Anywheres but can find ways of bringing them closer together rather than merely appealing to one or the other for their support.

His appeal is aimed primarily at the British ones, but surely they apply equally to ours. As we launch on our journey through 2018 I close by wishing my readers a fruitful one, whether they be Somewheres or Anywheres or Inbetweeners.

Hooray! Glass ceiling has been breaking

There’s still so much gloomy, pessimistic talk about how difficult it is for women to rise to the highest levels of leadership, but I wish there would be less of this poor-us mentality.

Not because I am a chauvinist. No, it is for the opposite reason: it is because what I see all around me is women who have reached the highest levels. And they have not done so either because of or despite their gender.

Overwhelmingly they made their way through life having developed competence and healthy attitudes. Just like most men.

Admittedly there are those, both women and men, who have barged and bullied their way into leadership, and OK there may well be many more men than women who have done so.

But let us stop describing scenarios from days gone by, focusing rather on the great place we have reached, certainly here in Kenya.

It was in 1978 that management consultant Marilyn Loden coined the phrase “glass ceiling”, during a panel discussion about women’s aspirations in which she noted how the female panelists focused on “the deficiencies in women’s socialisation, the self-deprecating ways in which women behaved, and the poor self-image that many women allegedly carried”.

I don’t know about you, but wherever I go these days, I see no evidence of either self-imposed or male-imposed ceilings. On boards where I sit and in my management consulting assignments, around me there are women and there are men.

And the gender of the director or the manager or the technical specialist is irrelevant. Some happen to be men while others happen to be women.

Some of the men are more extrovert and assertive than others, and the same is the case among the women. Both men and women possess varying levels of emotional intelligence, with some more skilled at building win-win consensus, others expecting Trump-like win-lose outcomes.

So I just do not relate to the generalisations we hear so commonly about men and women being “different”, with the assertion that women are “more emotionally intelligent” and “better at bringing people together”. I know plenty of men who display these soft skills more than many of the women I come across… and vice versa too.

But as more women have gained levels of education equivalent to those of their male counterparts, and as they have emerged into workplace environments that increasingly assume gender is not a factor in determining career development, so many have risen up the ranks naturally and smoothly.

For sure there are still far more men at the highest levels, but what we have been witnessing is an ongoing evolution.
Where we are today with gender diversity is so much improved compared to where we were even a few years ago, and the upward trajectory of competent women has by no means tapered off.

So while it is easy — and common — to continue to describe the cup as half-empty, it is much more realistic and helpful to focus on how it continues to fill.

If you restrict yourself to snapshots in time you will still see many gaps and much to complain about. But if you look over time there is much to celebrate.

Of course in the political arena, than ultimate bastion of male chauvinism, the situation is radically different. Yet we must not over-focus on what it takes to survive and succeed in that macho culture where the rough win-lose dynamic of elections is intrinsic.

And we must also accept that in rural areas and in some parts of the country generally — yes, and also in many organisations — it remains hard for women to sit at top tables. But you see my point.

Some of my readers know that I am married to Evelyn Mungai, and I am happy to confirm that she has only reinforced my observations on the contemporary status of women in Kenya (not least herself).

In her recently published book, From Glass Ceilings to Open Skies, she included the stories of almost 40 women as they journeyed to positions of leadership.

And let me tell you, I am not at all sure they did so that differently than had they been men.

Great leaders don’t shy away from bold visions and targets

How much can your organisation grow: incrementally? Significantly? Massively? And how quickly: never? Eventually? Now?

If yours is like others I have been working with recently, some among your colleagues will feel that only modest growth is reasonable and practical, while others — maybe just the odd outlier — are convinced that transformative expansion is feasible.

What makes the minority radicals reach their much more optimistic conclusions? Is it the confidence and boldness of their personalities?

No doubt, but from what I have been seeing it is also because they have experienced at least one other situation where they were the lone voice proclaiming the potential for dramatic expansion and not only managed to persuade their colleagues it was worth having a go at it but then actually witnessed success in achieving so much more than everyone else had imagined was possible.

It is such a mindset that in his book Good to Great led Jim Collins to advocate the defining of “BHAGs” (Big Hairy Audacious Goals), as the outstanding performers he wrote about did. And this spirit of bravado was echoed in Sean Covey’s WIGs (Wildly Impossible Goals) in The 4 Disciplines of Execution that he wrote with his FranklinCovey colleagues.

I am also reminded of Joel Barker’s The New Business of Paradigms, in which he stated that it is easy to become paralysed in “the terminal disease of certainty” as one becomes trapped in an existing paradigm.

As I quoted in an earlier article on Barker’s healthy provocations, he challenged leaders to ask: “What is impossible to do today in your business that if it could be done would fundamentally change it for the better?” Including, of course, doing what would have it grow at multiples of the present rate.

So whether we’re talking about setting radically more ambitious growth targets or about doing a much better job of achieving them, it is definitely worth asking what it would take to multiply one’s annual growth rate, to explore what can be done to transform the achievement rate of even short term goals.

I like having participants in strategy sessions wear Edward de Bono’s different coloured “thinking hats”, reflecting different attitudes to life.

Enough team members should wear his yellow ones, where the sunny and positive colour leads the wearers to be optimistic and hopeful.

More should wear the complementary green hat, given that green is the colour of vegetation and abundant fertile growth, thus indicating creativity, freedom and new ideas.

And OK, we’ll allow some others, the pessimists and the sceptics, to don the black hat, reflecting a gloomier disposition. They will keep the others sober, explaining what is not possible, and why the ideas proposed cannot work.

My role in the situations I have participated in, mainly as a facilitating consultant but also as an independent director, has been to embolden the more timid black-hatted participants and also to help the yellow- and green-hatted to do the same, so that consensus is built around a common vision.

READ: Big picture thinking needed from the private sector for national transformation

In the process the optimists may have to somewhat soften their stand, while the pessimists must stretch and increase their appetite for risk.

So what can you do to rise to a different level: to become very much better at serving your customers, with both existing and new products?

To acquire or merge with another company? To enter into joint ventures or other forms of partnerships? Should you restructure, bring in new people, develop a new culture? Must you tighten and shorten your processes?

From time to time it is good to go away and dream big dreams, bigger than you ever thought possible.

But I warn you, the initiators of such dreams are typically outsiders and newcomers, not those who are familiar with how things have always been done. They may well not be from the same sector or industry.

They may be a director, or the CEO, or some middle-level Young Turk. At first such folk may be scoffed at, merely humoured.

But if they persist and if there is substance to their transformative thesis their view can gather irresistible momentum. The challenge is for the new bold vision to become comprehensively and universally owned. And that requires great leadership. Try it!

Keeping consultancy simple does not mean it’s simplistic

As a non-technical chief executive of IT companies over many years, I was conscious that one of my key roles was to understand what benefits our clients were seeking from investing in technology systems and to match these with what was being proposed by our technical staff.

I was an interpreter and a mediator, bringing together supply and demand to the satisfaction of both parties. The challenge was to absorb the essence of the need and the response so as to help align the two.

I had to rise above all the jargon used by the techies on each side, and engage with the clients’ leadership in language to which they could relate. Vital to this was conveying what was intended in a simple and straightforward way.

In my current life as a management consultant this business of ‘Keep it Simple, Stupid’ (KISS) continues to serve me well — I believe it helps me with my columns too.

But it is not without its challenges, as so many of the organisations with which my colleagues and I interact seem to revel in over-complicating much of what they do.

What we have found is that the more educated and sophisticated the senior leadership, the more they expect that we will engage them with impressively complex models and frameworks and methodologies with theories of change and multi-dimensional matrices, overelaborate manifestations of the balanced scorecard and very clever assessment as well as incentive schemes.

So when we offer them the simple approaches to strategy development, culture change, performance management and such like that we have evolved over the years, a good number are unimpressed.

And the reason is that they mistake the simple for the simplistic, imagining our uncomplicated approach, our absence of management-speak, to be beneath their intellectual dignity to apply. They are also skeptical that our simple approach is sufficiently robust to be effective.

Many large international organisations, not least development partners and NGOs but also corporates, have teams of head-office boffins — no doubt supported by consultants paid multiples of what I and my team command — who roll out intricate strategies and plans, systems and processes, that boggle the mind and often do more to distract from delivering on their organisations’ visions and goals than to support their achievement.

Never mind that before people have fully understood the ramifications of what has been handed down to them the whole thing has more than likely been replaced by yet another intricate masterpiece.

It was Winston Churchill who once apologised for giving a long speech, explaining that he hadn’t had enough time to write a short one. Well, similarly I believe those who roll out complicated ways of doing things haven’t spent sufficient time making them less so.

And while what we do may look simple and indeed be simple, it takes intense preparation and deep concentration to focus on purpose and deliver impact: we are actually like the proverbial swan, gliding smoothly along the surface yet paddling like mad underneath.

Disparagingly, it is said that consultants and coaches are merely people who “borrow your watch to tell you the time”. To me, however, there can be much goodness in that. For our job is to bring out the wisdom in the group or the individual, not to preach from on high.

The less we do the better, and the more we can help our clients to read what their watch is telling them without us the better. To succeed we must therefore be excellent listeners, and skilled at continuously assessing at what speed and in what direction to guide the process.

In many of our workshops, coaching sessions and other initiatives we smilingly give those involved “permission” to be simple. Sometimes we are forced to instruct them to be so!

And it is very gratifying that once we have completed an assignment it is not unusual for one or more of them – including earlier skeptics – to tell us how much they appreciated the way we progressed their issues in impactful yet uncomplicated ways.

Let me conclude by asking: are you so afraid of being seen to be simplistic (including by yourself) that you do not dare to be simple?