This article was first published in November 2021 in the London Business School THINK magazine. Mike Eldon graduated from the LBS Sloan Masters Programme in Leadership and Strategy.
An LBS Sloan Fellow recalls being thrown into his first leadership role and going on to transform the organisational culture.
Three years after completing the LBS Sloan Masters in Leadership and Strategy programme in 1974, ICL – the British computer multinational for which I was working – transferred me from the UK to Kenya to run its subsidiary there. It was my first major management appointment, leading around 100 Kenyans – including a senior management team that was just taking over from a group of British expatriates and for whom this was therefore also a baptism in leadership.
My British bosses expected me to be a distant, feared and unsmiling instruction-giver, as my expat predecessors had been. To a significant extent my direct reports also expected such behaviour, never mind those in more junior positions. These were the normal parent-child, “I’m OK-You’re not OK” relationships of the time, practised not only by expats from the former colonial masters and elsewhere but also by local leaders – reflecting the deep-rooted local culture of great respect for seniors that assumed the steepest of organisational pyramids with the largest of power gaps between levels.
So here I was, plunged into a country I knew so little about, in a culture so different from the one I was familiar with in Britain, expected to act as a know-it-all in my new environment: change in reverse gear. I was determined to flatten the pyramid, and this transformation I undertook by spelling out my expectation of adult-adult, ‘I’m OK-You’re OK’ relationships and then helping the team to develop such ways of interacting with me and with others. Against the odds, I managed to nurture their path to maturity.
It was a fascinating time, acting as a pioneer for spreading the use of technology in a country that was already ahead of the game relative to elsewhere in Africa, and Kenya has been my home ever since. I continued as a CEO in the IT vendoring business as mini-computers replaced mainframes, in turn giving way to personal computers and laptops; as our customers’ huge systems and programming departments shrank with the advent of software packages; and later as the Internet linked us into the global village. So much change, with each technology not merely enhancing but completely replacing its predecessor.
From IT to management consultancy
My own work as CEO was not significantly affected by these technical revolutions. Rather, it was to help both my staff and my customers deal with the related non-technical challenges, to ease the change management that introducing IT systems always gives rise to. It was a natural transition for me out of the IT industry and into management consultancy. I helped organisations and individuals deal more generally with strategic shifts of all kinds, and with the ever-increasing and unpredictable pace of change. I took on directorships too, in which roles I also helped with such issues, and became a columnist for Kenya’s Business Daily newspaper.
One company where I have been a director for many years is Davis & Shirtliff, which operates in the water and energy sector in numerous African countries and is headquartered in Nairobi. Its Chairman Alec Davis attended London Business School’s Senior Executive Programme in 1992, and its Group CEO David Gatende participated in the same programme in 2010. This was when David met Costas Markides, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at LBS, and he recently invited him to join us by video for our Annual Management Conference.
I had just published an article on how to influence change, so listening to Costas speak on the subject at that conference – never mind enjoying how he made his points in such a lively and humorous way – was a great experience, as it was for all those attending virtually from around Eastern and Central Africa.
Costas is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy, with social psychology a key ingredient. In his talk he reflected on how strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to how they are able to influence people’s behaviour.
Behavioural change that lasts
He told the story of the patients who had been released from hospital following major heart surgery and were told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives: no more smoking or drinking alcohol; healthy eating and plenty of exercise. All very logical and rational. The group was followed for two years, and it was found that whereas all heeded their doctors’ advice in the first month after surgery, 90% of them had reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.
In Change or Die, author Alan Deutschman described what differentiated the 10% of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas related. It was how the doctors went beyond instilling fear in their patients by identifying the consequences of bad behaviour to also talking about positive futures that would result from good behaviour – like envisaging playing with their grandchildren or walking their daughter down the aisle. So to encourage people to change, we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional, we heard.
Costas also talked engagingly about how leaders must create an environment that supports the desired behaviours. So if you want your people to be proactive, question what’s happening, collaborate across silos, experiment and assume responsibility, you must generate an appropriate culture based on supportive values; devise measures and incentives that reward such behaviours; develop structures and processes aligned to what you are seeking; and hire people who are likely to be responsive to your aspirations.
This doesn’t mean people in the field can do whatever they want. There must be parameters that define their limits, beyond which they must consult with their bosses – such as if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy. Above all, Costas told us that we must “treat people as people”, not as “human resources” or robots. They must feel special, working to support an uplifting purpose with which they engage.
For Costas the new normal involves frequent and unpredictable sources of disruption, with inadequate time in which to respond. But the optimist within him reassured us that we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. Yet this requires going beyond simply asserting that leaders must lift their people psychologically and emotionally. Leaders must reach out to both the heads and the hearts of their people, enabling them to visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.
Leading the way in tech
Through the good number of visionary and empathetic leaders that have emerged in Kenya, the country has reinforced its leadership position in technology – we’re known as “Silicon Savannah” – not least with its global pioneering in processing money transfers through mobile phones.
The change to widespread financial digitisation has been made possible by the implementation of appropriate infrastructure, an enabling set of regulations, and not least the good education level and high energy and curiosity of Kenyans generally. As a result, and accelerated by the Covid pandemic, cashless transactions have become a new normal, including in the remotest of areas and among the poorest of citizens.
So are Kenyans generally good at managing change? We have developed an unusually diversified economy with a strong service component and a robust private sector that benefits from a highly developed entrepreneurial spirit. The era of expatriate leadership is long gone, and indeed so many Kenyans fill senior leadership positions all around Africa and more broadly globally.
Do we need to apply more of what Costas writes about and talks about? Of course. And, as everywhere, those who would most benefit from doing so are the ones least likely to. Here I particularly include the usual suspects: politicians and government bureaucrats; small-scale farmers and pastoralists; and family businesses – including many large ones that should know better.
My own time at LBS was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence and preparing me so well for that life-changing overseas assignment all those years ago. I was by far the youngest in our class, and unlike my fellow students (we were only 16 in all) I had not yet benefited from significant formal leadership experience. But my account management and other previous positions had required me to exert influence even in the absence of authority – if anything, a greater challenge. I had also interacted with the top management levels both among my IT customers and within ICL. And I was ahead of the game as far as use of computers was concerned, more so having spent a year running ICL’s IT strategy workshops for CEOs and top civil servants.
So much of what I learned during the Sloan programme – from fellow students as much as from faculty members – affirmed both the good and the bad of what I had been seeing and doing. I was particularly attracted to organisational development as a topic, as we discussed it in the context of the turbulent industrial relations prevailing at the time in the UK that resulted in a three-day week (although not at LBS). I appreciated the practical approach our professors took, while it took us some time to become reaccustomed to the classroom setting. I have since also treasured my friendship with several of my colleagues in that sixth iteration of the Sloan programme: we still have lunch each time I visit London.
Promoting business school exposure among its staff was entirely new to ICL, and its general environment was actually anti-intellectual. The result was that in order to reintegrate me into the “real world” I was initially posted to a sales branch in the City where neither my boss nor my two salesmen had any university exposure at all and were considerably older than me.
To survive my time there I kept quiet about what I had been exposed at LBS, or I would have been mocked for spouting “ivory tower theories”. Little did they realise what stimulation they were missing out on. I learnt so much about building relationships of mutual respect with others very different from me. It took a great deal of holding back on what I might have offered, and required great humility and other aspects of emotional intelligence. Happily, my patience and perseverance were rewarded when I was asked to move to Africa.
Costas’ recent session for us reminded me of my uplifting days on campus next to Regent’s Park, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised London Business School then and showing it to be as vibrant now as it was in the 1970s.
Challenges for leaders today… and how to overcome them
- Uncertainty: Build a culture of trust, allowing for empowerment and delegation, hence agility to handle change
- Staff retention: Identify an uplifting purpose; emphasise learning and growth, careers beyond present jobs, and provide coaching
- Compliance: Handle this “necessary evil” calmly and holistically, with leadership from the board and properly resourced specialist functions
- ESG: Find ways of doing well by doing good – it takes time, but may be easier and more beneficial than you imagined. Helps to attract and retain staff, customers, investors and others.
Nairobi-based Mike Eldon, a Sloan Fellow of London Business School, is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT; co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership; director of Davis & Shirtliff and Chairman of Occidental Insurance; a member of the Advisory Council of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance, and a columnist with Business Daily. [email protected]