As I interact with different kinds of people, in one-on-ones or group sessions, in board meetings or workshops, I am exposed to bright sparks who speak too quickly. And as I listen to them I speculate on why they’re breaking the vocal speed limits.

My first thought is that the root cause of the fast speaking is fast thinking: needing to speak at a pace that keeps up with the speed at which their scripts are being formulated upstairs. Others, however, rush through what they have to say because they don’t want to occupy too much of our time, or are actually bound by a time limit and don’t want to miss anything out.

Whatever the reason, the consequence is that they leave us panting with exhaustion as we try to keep up with their jet-propelled outpourings. Their speed also takes away from their gravitas, leading us to see them as less senior than we otherwise would. A slower pace, with appropriate pauses too, would both help us absorb and up our image of them as people of presence and poise.

Then there are those who speak too softly, so we can hardly hear them. Maybe although we can’t even figure out some of what they’re saying we don’t want to upset them by keeping on asking them to repeat what they’d said and to kindly speak up. What’s the mindset that delivers these whisperers? From what I have observed they are often people of humility – or what I describe as “excess humility”. They don’t wish to be perceived as noise-makers, trumpet-blarers, and swing to the other end of the volume spectrum.

Other categories of those whose speech we find challenging include ones who insufficiently open their mouths to utter the vowels between their consonants; those who avoid eye contact; and those who indulge in what is called “verbal ticks” – repeated and unnecessary use of “you know”, “sort of”, “like”, and ending sentences with “right?” Plus the “um” and the “er” utterers.

Most of these people just aren’t aware of what makes them less effective communicators than they could be. Probably no one has ever given them feedback, coached them, or encouraged them. Some have had their shortcoming pointed out to them, but they’re so accustomed to how they have always spoken that it’s just proved too hard to change — plus they underestimate the negative consequences of not doing so.

So as I come across the too-fast and the too-soft and other sub-optimisers, I sometimes approach them after the session to chat with them about how they could up their game: what they could do differently, and with what positive consequences. I also have them explore the root causes of speaking as they are doing, to help them overcome whatever psychological or other factors holding them back from being at their best.

If I have the opportunity to see them in action again, where they know I am watching and listening intently, they may try harder and then I can give them specific – and hopefully by then positive – feedback. I talk with them about rising through the four stages of their adaptation, from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, then conscious competence and finally unconscious competence – the new normal, where they no longer have to think about the adjustment.

A few years ago I wrote an article about how communicating clearly is a core competence, at all levels but more so at the higher ones. Yet too many fall far short, lacking self-awareness and the need for improvement.

What about you? Are you communicating as well as you could? Should you be seeking feedback? Should you be getting help to up your game, so that you can enjoy the benefits of being the new optimal you?

Be conscious of how those around you communicate, and as you come across the speed merchants, the whisperers and others who aren’t performing at their best, see if you can find a way to help them. Not everyone’s up for it, but you should be able to judge who is, and then to engage with emotional intelligence so they don’t feel offended.

Needless to say, the one whose communication you should be most conscious of is yourself. Find a way of listening to and observing yourself – including through studying video recordings of you – and assume the possibility of continuous improvement.

The Institute for Responsible Leadership (where I am a co-founder) recently partnered with UNITAR (the United Nations Institute for Training and Research) with whom IRL collaborates closely) to broadcast a webinar on youth and responsible leadership.

Keynote speaker Sebastian Hofbauer talked about how youth have become significant “influencers” through the use of social media – some positive, but many not so. The latter are primarily in it for the size of their following and the revenue they therefore generate.

So we need government regulation, he suggested, but also self-regulation, this in partnership with the private sector and including through the UN Global Compact. Much helpful food for thought.

In my contribution as a panelist, I focused on two youth organisations with which I have been closely involved since the late 1970s. Both have been spectacularly successful at developing highly responsible young leaders – many of whom have gone on to occupy the highest positions of leadership in Kenya and way beyond.

The first one I spoke about was Rotaract, the young persons’ Rotary, where young adults aged 18 and over join – as in Rotary itself – to offer service while enjoying each other’s friendship, and where they also develop their leadership skills, not least through learning by doing.

There’s no better way of accelerating one’s development and one’s career than by joining such volunteer organisations, and the earlier one does so the better.

For here one is exposed to projects and committees, to managing people and funds, while learning about policies and programmes, meetings and minutes, and so much more about leadership.

Rotaracters apply Rotary’s “4-Way Test”, so in everything they think, say or do, they ask: “Is it the truth?” “Is it fair to all concerned?” “Will it build goodwill and better friendships?” and “Is it beneficial to all?” It is young adults who practice such values as honesty and fairness that are attracted to this organisation, and their membership there reinforces these further.

The first Rotaracter I met was in 1979, a young man called Stephen Musyoka, whom the Rotary Club of Nairobi where I was a member selected to benefit from a post-graduate scholarship at the Mediterranean Institute of Management in Cyprus. Now better known as Kalonzo Musyoka, he went on to develop a very successful career in politics, where practicing the 4-Way Test is so challenging!

In 1986, when I became the President of our Rotary Club, one of my main goals was to relaunch our Rotaract Club, that had meanwhile faded away.

I challenged two young professionals in the IT company of which I was CEO, Henry Njoroge and David Muiruri, to gather together a group of suitable people to form one, and indeed before my year was done the Rotaract Club of Nairobi Central was launched.

Since then it has continued to thrive, a permanent source for developing responsible leaders. Indeed the current President of our Rotary Cub, Gideon Akwabi, became a Rotaracter in 1989 and emerged as a leader there before joining our Rotary Club in 2012.

The second example I chose was AIESEC, which was launched in 1948 as an international association of students of economics and commerce, enabling them to be exposed to other European countries and cultures in the aftermath of the Second World War.

When I was an undergraduate in the mid-sixties I undertook AIESEC internships in France and America, and they were life-transforming exposures for me.

I became a member of the advisory board of AIESEC Kenya soon after arriving here in the late 1970s, and ever since I have enjoyed mentoring generations of AIESECers – the brightest and the best of responsible young leaders.

AIESEC partners with major institutions that act as hosts for internships, and these days it attracts students from all disciplines and actively supports the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

You can just imagine how that develops their members as responsible young leaders. Like with former Rotaracters, AIESEC alumni are consistently sought after to occupy leadership positions. (One such is Polycarp Igathe.)

I am currently involved with the inspiringly responsible leaders of the AIESEC chapter at Strathmore University, whose Vice-Chancellor Vincent Ogutu I first met when he was an undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi… as a result of him being a member of AIESEC.

So you can understand why I am such an enthusiastic advocate for young women and men joining these wonderful organisations, as they are extraordinary incubators of responsible leadership.

Even as many organisations continue asking for help with teambuilding, more recently change management has also gone mainstream. While the massive Covid disruption has brought change yet further front and centre, even before the pandemic spread around the world, the 21st century VUCA phenomenon of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity had confirmed constant change as the new normal.

Let us also acknowledge though that this century is certainly not when change first confronted humanity. It was back in 500 BC when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that “change is the only constant” – and so it has been, both before and since. Those who assume that changes will be but temporary, or that they will happen without having to manage their consequences sensitively and positively, will surely come to regret behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

So in this article I’ll share something of what I have learned through my work in helping organisations of all kinds with their change management initiatives – including in these last months through some online engagements.

First, we must “start with the end in mind”. Why is change needed? To enable what vision to be actualised, what purpose to be fulfilled? What is it about the present strategy and way of doing things that will prevent the actualisation of the vision and purpose?

“The way we doing things here” is as good a definition of culture as any… and, as Peter Drucker pointed out, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So what is that culture, what are those values, attitudes and behaviours which would overcome dysfunctionalities in the present culture? And given the gaps between the actual and the aspirational way of doing things, what will it take for people to migrate from the one to the other, in the context of the needed strategy?

I say migrate because change management – like teambuilding – is not something that can be achieved simply by going away to one of those nice lodges in Naivasha for a couple of days. Those who take the subject seriously accept that it involves a journey. Yes, the journey can be launched at such an event. Indeed it’s a good way to do so. And crucial to such a launch is spending time towards its end defining specific follow ups as to who must do what and by when.

To take the process from the necessary to the sufficient – which many stop short of doing – the participants must agree on how progress towards living that new needed way is to be assessed. What periodic feedback will be obtained regarding progress, for instance as in: none / a little / a lot / transformational? How will those involved celebrate what will have changed for the better while continuing to work on remaining challenges? And how will the expectation of ongoing continuous improvement feature?

To my surprise, I have come across clients who were planning to undergo a change management initiative separate from their teambuilding one. But discussing the need for teamwork as a critical change enabler with them, they agreed to merge the two into one. They readily accepted that to build a high performance team in this VUCA environment requires the agility to deal with change; and that where change must be handled, building trust between team members is more critical than ever. Yes, team qualities like agility and trust are essential for supporting change.

The most vital dependency for any change programme is positive, authentic leadership at board and senior management levels. Such leaders must visibly own the process and its purpose, and they must be role models for the target behaviour.

Then, given the fear and anxiety the term “change management” often provokes – however justified or otherwise – the question arises as to whether it’s good to call such initiatives by that name.

How can we nudge mindsets from negative emotions to more uplifting ones, as we encourage those involved to learn and to grow, expanding their competencies and their confidence, helping them become more empowered, recognised and motivated?

Such people will see change not as a threat but rather an opportunity, something to be looked forward to with joy and excitement… while accepting that life comes with its challenges and its ups and downs.

Now wonder Heraclitus concluded over two millennia ago that “since the very nature of life is change, to resist this natural flow is to resist the very essence of our existence”.