My last article was about the destructive influence of toxic marauders, and today I want to explore a related phenomenon, tensions between levels in organisations. It’s tough when such relationships are made difficult by each cohort believing they’re “OK” while the others are “not OK”.

Inevitably it’s a lose-lose scenario, as the negative attitudes on each side merely reinforce one another. This unless interventions are introduced to align energy and reduce the inevitable waste that results from difficult relationships between higher and lower levels.

This is as true between boards and management as it is between senior and middle management, and on downwards to the lowest cadres. Its consequences are diminished engagement and hence reduced productivity, with higher staff turnover.

Many efforts at culture change aimed at improving such situations fail to make a difference, ephemerally raising expectations and enthusiasm and then leaving those involved disillusioned and worse off than if no effort had been made to resolve the matters between them.

Much of my work as a consultant involves diving into such scenarios, where my role as facilitator is to act as mediator, bringing the levels into alignment through helping them engage constructively with each other, for the benefit of both. Not a straightforward challenge, as skepticism if not cynicism may well be present, at least with some of those involved – often the most vocal.

Creating a safe space in which participants are prepared to be open is the first step, and we facilitators have ways of getting people sufficiently relaxed to share what’s really on their minds and in their hearts. Equally important, as in all mediation, is only to bring the groups together when they are ready to engage with each other with an adequately win-win mindset.

Even when working with just one level, upfront ice-breaking is needed, followed by discussion on what will make the initiative succeed – especially if other such initiatives have failed to make a difference before.

What does it take to develop that win-win mindset? First is to cool off on the “We’re OK-You’re not OK” ego state. Mere finger-pointing blame-games will not resolve the issues. There has to be an acceptance that in some respects we too are “not-OK”, and that for the other level there are “OK” components to their behaviour.

Then, for those at the higher level, to hold back from “looking down” on their subordinates, not to act as “Parents” to their “Children” – never mind just viewing them as naughty ones. And for those at the lower level, to hold back from seeing themselves as “Children” with unreasonable “Parents” against whom they are rebelling. Everyone involved must behave as mature, solution-oriented “Adults”.

Once the “We’re OK-You’re OK” “Adult-Adult” mindsets are adopted, getting to win-win becomes possible. So each level can identify their issues, and then to come forward with relevant offers and requests. The requests must be practical and respectful, while the offers should be genuine and generous – so as to encourage the recipients to respond positively to the requests.

It’s all about give-and-take, not necessarily immediately, but over time. And appreciation should be shown to those who make concessions gracefully.

As external mediators, we are only there for part of the journey, since after some time internal individuals with such skills will have emerged to take on the role and to nurture the fulfilment of the alignment. Make no mistake, the default position is regressing to the status quo ex ante. Those who persist with other than a win-win mindset must be nudged away from such positions, and to assist in this evolution I encourage the use of the common language of OK-OK, Adult-Adult, Win-Win… and the other variants to these positive expressions where appropriate.

I tell people that such change actually needn’t take forever. It’s a choice, I believe, and previous unhelpful ego states can and must be treated as unwanted baggage, with new behaviours being readily attainable.

Those who like to play tough must develop their soft skills, and the quiet ones must summon up the courage to have their voices heard. For everyone this means developing emotional intelligence, something we are all capable of doing if we decide it’s a priority.

Some of us are more natural mediators than others. Do reflect on the extent to which you are among the consensus-builders. For the more you are the more likely you will rise to senior leadership positions. At least in organisations with aligned cultures.

Should leaders be the ones to eat last? The US Marines believe so, as it shows they care for their people and are prepared to sacrifice for them. It’s why Simon Sinek chose Leaders Eat Last as the title of his best-selling book, first published in 2014. We selected it as the topic for our Rotary Club’s recent Book Club meeting, where we also discussed how Sinek’s American context applies here. I certainly don’t need to comment on when most of our Kenyan leaders eat – definitely not last!

Central to the requirements for being the kind of leaders Sinek wishes to see is the generation of broad “Circles of Safety” in their organisations. Within these circles staff trust one another, are therefore open and collaborative and so perform well, not least in dealing with external threats. Such leaders promote integrity and have evolved an uplifting purpose for their people, which generates the stamina to defer gratification and reach for long-term sustainability.

There’s lots more in the book about good contemporary leadership, including examples of role models who defy the pressure to go for easier short-term results. By contrast, leaders who turn a blind eye to the benefits of circles of safety tend to reduce their consideration of people issues to mere numbers, making it much easier to slash staff levels in hard times without feeling any pain or empathy. It’s why one of us homed in on Sinek’s insistence on the development of a healthy culture being at the centre of positive leadership.

For me it was interesting that the book was published in 2014. As had Sinek been writing it today he would have explicitly placed Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) issues at the heart of everything, since much of what he complained about and sought is what ESG initiatives promote: ethical sustainability.

We all appreciated Sinek’s easy-to-follow description of the four hormones, the biological chemicals within us, two selfish and two selfless ones that get stimulated in our system. On the selfish front we have Endorphines and Dopamine, that drove our ancestors to be hunter-gatherers. Endorphines mask physical pain, as in “the runner’s high”, while Dopamine makes us feel good when we accomplish something.

Then Sinek describes the selfless chemicals, that make us feel valued when we are appreciated and trusted and keep the circle of safety intact. Serotonin makes us feel strong and confident, proud, while Oxytocin delivers the feeling of friendship and love when we are with close and trusted friends. It makes us social, and feeling that we belong.

We noted that our Rotary presidents tend to eat last, after they’ve done with managing our lunch meetings, but generally we felt that leaders should be eating with their people not after them. We all agreed though that leaders should be the last to speak, having first listened to the other voices.

Uhuru Kenyatta was one of those who recognised the organised discipline of military leaders, putting senior military officers in charge of Nairobi County, the Kenya Meat Commission and elsewhere. And just now William Ruto praised the leadership style of the late General Ogolla. “Are there lessons here for our politicians?” asked one of us, “Or are they beyond redemption?” My concern is that I don’t see them ever sitting together as we were at our Book Club, discussing the fundamental issues of leadership. It’s what should be happening more of at places like the Kenya School of Government.

On the positive side though, we heard praise for the progress made in Makueni County, thanks to its first Governor, Kivutha Kibwana, and now Mutula Kilonzo Jr. I could also have added the good example of the first Governor of Laikipia, Ndiritu Muriithi, another who showed how a leader can make a transformative difference.

Towards the end of the book Sinek writes extensively on why millennials are as they are and how to handle them constructively, and here two of our members talked about their challenges in dealing with such young ones in the medical field. Sinek helps us understand the importance of when and therefore how different generations were brought up, and I mentioned that I am too old to be a baby boomer, having been born before World War II was over. I have therefore been brought up with frugality, which I have held on to since… like squeezing the last bit out of toothpaste tubes. ‘Me too,’ echoed another Rotarian, much younger than me… and a dentist by profession!

In conclusion, reading the book stimulated us positively, so my fellow Rotarians and I recommend it to you.

The group of leaders Frank Kretzschmar and I invited sat in our usual circle to share personal stories on our latest theme: “Pattern interruption – moments of change of direction in my life”. We asked them to reflect on what caused them to do things differently from then on. Which events provoked them to reflect, and so to change to another level, another direction, another style, of thinking and acting?

When considering changing direction, we shared, that self-awareness and self-distancing help: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” said Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. It is about our growth and our effectiveness.

Many give up shortly before the goal is reached. Why is that? We need to ask ourselves how finite our strengths are. Are they adequate for the challenge? Should we continue engaging or disengage? Advance or retreat? When do we stop? When do we let go? What are the opportunities and risks associated with not letting go and letting go? The decision either way will make a difference to what kind of life we lead. And also to our legacy.

So, the stage was set, and around the walls of the room as always Frank and I had displayed some flip-charts with appropriate quotes. Here’s another one from Viktor Frankl: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

And here’s a stimulus from Oprah Winfrey: “One of the hardest things in life to learn is which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” I really liked this one from Andrea Goeglein: “The thing about perspective-changing events is that they usually don’t announce themselves as such.”

And this one by Hayley Williams: “Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where you stand.”

One can never avoid Winston Churchill: “To improve is to change: to be perfect is to change often.” And, Albert Einstein: “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.” Plus a final trio, first from Harrison Ford: “We all have big changes in our lives that are more or less a second chance”; then Alan Watts: “The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance”; and finally this African proverb: “Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors.”

Get the picture? Started reflecting? Those in our Leaders Circle got straight down to it, telling us about the impact of a serious illness, the loss of a father, the sudden change of career, all turning difficulties into developing strengths and opening up new opportunities.

“It is when we are disrupted and under pressure that we are at our best,” we heard, “needing to detach and be self-aware.”

Like me, one never planned to be in Africa, fearing he would be condemned to a linear existence with a large corporation back home; another realised how much there is to learn from Africa and to take back to Europe; and a couple were inspired by the leadership roles played by their ancestors, including in pre-colonial times.

One takes us back to 1956 when he was fourteen years old in Canada. To fund the purchase of his ice-hockey kit he took to delivering newspapers, tending only to read the sports pages. That is, till he learned about the Hungarian Revolution and then the Suez crisis, which led him to take an interest in the front pages too.

This is where his lifelong passion for peace-keeping began. Another member is in that space too, telling us that too often despite everything one tries no change ensues.

The Maasai among us, tells us he once lectured about his Maasai values and sense of community at Lancaster University. “Who needs certificates?” the admiring listeners asked.

I spoke about my exposure as a fresh graduate to the Iowan ‘Positive Mental Attitude’ – a contrast to my Jewish Romanian upbringing, with its exception reporting on just my shortcomings. When I was growing up at home I was the shamba boy, car-washer and evening dish-washer, and all this was taken for granted.

In just a few hours we learned so much from each other. We felt energised and challenged to take greater advantage of the disruptions in our lives. How about you?

We hear a lot about the ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’, where those at the top of the organisational pyramid have little idea about what’s really going on among their staff at the lower levels —about how they feel and how they behave with each other as a result of how engaged they are.

It’s why the programme Undercover Boss was created, where CEOs disguise themselves and pretend to be taking on trainee positions in different parts of their companies so they can get a feel for the real situation on the ground. They then return to their corner offices and fix what otherwise they wouldn’t have known needed fixing.

Among my consulting assignments, I have worked with organisations where the CEOs were indeed aware that there were issues within their icebergs. Recent changes had resulted in staff leaving and new ones arriving, including at the leadership level, and some of what the new leadership had introduced had led to a certain amount of holding back, among at least some of the staff.

So we were brought in to create a safe space within which the staff would feel free to open up and reveal what they would like to see more of and less of while accepting that they too would need to adapt in certain ways.

At this early stage, such thoughtful souls at the peak of organisations who realise their places can do with some opening up may share more with us consultants than with their own people, as they want the change to emerge more naturally, more from the bottom up and not driven by them.

They will hint at what they would like to see but not lay their thoughts out too explicitly, focusing on initiating the retreat at which staff will hopefully interact freely with one another and with them, facilitated by us.

We start such events by getting the participants to feel relaxed, including through enjoyable outdoor activities. For it is this that will see them open up, contributing what they are really feeling rather than just what they think others—not least their superiors—would like to hear. Our challenge as facilitators is to help them now articulate what they had not felt comfortable doing back in the workplace, for fear that it would not be taken positively.

It does not happen instantly, by magic, but gradually, as the zone of psychological safety expands. If it’s a two-day event so much the better, as this offers more time for the melting of timidity. We nudge, we tickle, we nurture, in larger and smaller groups and at the individual level, encouraging the participants to reveal what they had been holding back.

Some relax sooner and more than others, and they then influence their tighter colleagues to also open up.

For us it’s a joy to see the iceberg melting and to feel good for the leadership that what they wanted to have revealed and tackled is emerging. Very importantly, this can only be the launch of a journey, and let no one imagine that at the end of a couple of days of interacting, however effectively, one can put a tick in the culture-change box.

For sure this can only act as the launch of a journey, and before the end of the event the way ahead must be fully defined and owned: the overarching purpose above all, and the who-must-do-what-by-when. Then the momentum must be maintained, which too often it is not. It’s so easy, as people “get busy” on returning to their workplaces, and for whatever impact was made at the retreat to fade.

Certainly at the top, but by no means just at the top, people must hold each other accountable for following through on the consequences of the retreat, celebrating when this happens and drawing attention to when what had been agreed would stop happening re-emerges as the default position.

The progress along the change management journey must be tracked as a standing agenda item at management—and also board—meetings, and after around 90 days there should be a regathering of the participants to review what’s worked well, where challenges still exist and how to tackle them.

I hope I have made you adequately anxious about the iceberg of ignorance, and stimulated you put on your deep diving kit so as to explore what you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

A while ago, I facilitated a session with the board of a major Kenyan organisation, where I had them reflect on what they were proud of as a board and as individuals, and what additional aspects they wished to be proud of later.

The team is undergoing a review of its culture so as to take it to the next level, and as the directors reflected on the initiative they felt they could and should be more involved.

This is very much the norm at the director level. They are typically far more concerned about the numbers, the financials, which is what led the two Harvard professors, Kaplan and Norton, to come up with their Balanced Scorecard.

Through this framework they had company leaders place equal emphasis on the factors that deliver the numbers: the products and customers; the systems and processes; and the people – the element they described as “learning and growth”.

It is of course the people who define and live the culture, perceived through how they behave, which reflects their attitudes, these being a function of their values.

How many directors feel competent, and hence confident and comfortable dealing with such soft issues? Not many. “Leave it to the HR people,” they may well say, as they return to their easy-to-measure revenues, profits and suchlike.

I have written before in this column that few people at any level possess the expertise needed to enhance a culture.

At best they may find ways of defining the existing one, with all its ups and downs, and of sketching out the aspirational one, with the usual words to describe it: trust and openness, innovation and collaboration….

But as for how to migrate to that better world and overcome present challenges, don’t ask them. Indeed some will tell you it’s a waste of time, as most culture-change programmes fail to make a difference.

Then, as I read what others write on this subject – not least at the national level – too often I again see descriptions of how awful the present culture is or how wonderful living Utopian values would be, calling for a transformation to that ideal world but without in any way guiding us on how to travel along the journey towards it.

Yet while it is true that many culture-change initiatives fall way short of what they were intended to achieve, some do deliver both significant and sustained impact. What differentiates the two?

First, it’s investing time in bringing people together for open conversations that generate what I call “purposeful reflection”, where participants discuss and agree on what they will do more of and less of, start doing, stop doing and continue doing.

This requires the presence of a safe space, or as it is now sometimes described, one of “psychological safety” – which, allow me to state, is more readily created by external facilitators skilled in creating such a space and conducting such activities.

Without going into other critical success factors for culture change, let me jump straight to the need for enthusiastic support from the board.

Everyone must know that at the top level, it is accepted that culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast – or, as I put it, that there must be a culture strategy component within the overall strategy.

The directors must be part of the strategy development and then participate in the conversations about culture, adding value to them and being role models for the desired culture.

They must also appreciate that changing a culture is much more than a one-off event but a continuous journey, one that requires focus and time, plus the relevant specialised skills and experience among those driving it.

And the performance management system must be such that those who embrace the desired culture are recognised and rewarded – which is why “Change Champions” are often identified as part of the process.

These days it is expected that directors undergo training, and this is now indeed the norm. But beyond programmes that relate to governance issues of oversight, compliance and risk management, how many cover the softer areas of leadership, like culture?

Happily, the organisation that invited me to spend time with their board appreciated this need, and I am confident that their directors will now ensure that matters to do with culture remain firmly on their radar.

I was recently asked to be a panelist at an event hosted by Hofstede Insights Africa and its Kenya partner, Priority Activator Consulting.

Its theme was Aligning culture and strategy – leveraging culture to drive organisational performance, a topic where I feel very much at home.

With us were around 30 CEOs who had been invited to engage with our panel, and the keynote speaker was Hofstede’s Group CEO Egbert Schram, who described culture as “the oil that lubricates strategy”.

His early background was in wildlife management, examining their behaviour patterns, which he subsequently applied to humans – always focusing on gathering and analysing data.

This led him to quote from a study which revealed that only 15 percent of CEOs feel their corporate culture is where it should be – as a result of which their organisations underperform.

One of the big causes is the “iceberg of ignorance”, where CEOs lack awareness of problems lower down in their organisations because they only engage with senior colleagues.

So the cascading downwards of what they perceive to be needed behaviour change fails to connect with the actual needs on the ground.

Culture is about how we relate to our colleagues, our work, and the external environment, he explained.

And he asked what excites us: enjoying life? Striving for the best? Something else? And where do our incentive schemes lead us: to achieving financial results? To deal with people issues? Then, who gets promoted, and why?

An expatriate CEO shared that in his home country, he was used to a much smaller power distance between levels. He has an open door, but too few of his people are relaxed enough to enter his office and express their views.

In hierarchical organisations, Mr Schram said there’s too much upward delegation – more so if the bosses are approachable.

And an emotional dependency on them may develop, including on non-work-related issues. So unless one empowers lower layers this becomes a bottleneck, preventing the company from growing.

Fellow panellist Catherine Musakali quoted Peter Drucker’s “culture eats strategy for breakfast” line, saying it surprises her how few boards include culture as a topic on their agendas.

This led me to describe my tweak of Drucker’s quote, where through the Balanced Scorecard approach I use in my strategy development work with clients I have them devise a culture strategy that feeds into the overall one.

Having said that, we find that companies which enjoy a healthy culture but lack a robust strategy do better than those with a great strategy but without a healthy culture.

Erick Ngala, the managing partner of Priority Activator Consulting, reinforced this point, emphasising that organisational performance is a consequence of its culture plus its strategy.

A lady CEO worried that women in leadership still have a hard time, with some of her people considering her to be “bossy”, to which she did not relate.

And another CEO felt he shouldn’t get too close to his people, otherwise, he would find it too hard to take disciplinary action when needed, or to deal with poor results and bad news.

My comment: when I arrived in Kenya in 1977 I was expected to be bossy and serious, to be feared. I defied that, with my default position being a cheerful one.

But people had to know that if the need arose I did have a big stick available. It took a while for my staff to come to terms with this “situational leadership” style… and some probably never did.

What is the role of the CEO in all this? What works and what does not? Does it vary depending on the size of the organisation? Is it different when going through a period of disruption?

These were the questions for this event. For me, CEOs are at the centre of a 360-degree ecosystem.

Above them are the shareholders with their values, represented by board directors; then other independent directors, among whom hopefully the chair.

It is the chair who should bring together a collective board perspective on culture, which is shared with the CEO and the senior management team – noting that the CEO is a board member too.

Critical to all this is the alignment between the chair and the CEO. Not forgetting the head of HR.

I was recently asked to run a team-building workshop based on the 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Let me summarise what author Patrick Lencioni laid out in his gripping fable about how Kathryn Petersen, DecisionTech’s newly installed CEO, faced the ultimate leadership crisis: uniting a team in such disarray that it threatened to bring down the entire company.

For most of the book it is uncertain as to whether she would succeed, but her experience from elsewhere allowed her to work with the awkward set of characters who made up the senior management team, and against all odds the company survived.

Lencioni is of the view that teams are inherently dysfunctional, made up of imperfect individuals who suffer from inflated egos and pursue selfish goals. Here’s how the book opens: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”

I’ll comment later on that view, but let me continue with his valid conclusion that strong and deliberate steps must be taken to facilitate teamwork. The fictional book shows how a skilled team leader can do a great deal to make their team effective, and it takes us through Kathryn’s manoeuvres to rescue the dysfunctional group of characters the board had hired her to sort out.

Through his story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the heart of why teams struggle so badly. At the base of his pyramid of dysfunctions lies the absence of trust, which prevents team members from showing vulnerability within their group.

In the context of building a team, trust enables team members to be confident that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Teammates must become comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

Above mistrust comes fear of conflict, where those involved seek artificial harmony over constructive, passionate debate. Next, and again as a result of the lower dysfunction, is lack of commitment, merely pretending to buy in to group decisions, thereby creating ambiguity and lack of clarity.

All this sees team members avoid holding each other accountable, with low standards the consequence. And finally there’s lack of focus on results, as status and ego interfere with harmonised action.

To conclude, therefore, Lencioni urges us to find people who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decisions, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team and not on own egos.

While the book is certainly exciting to read, full of breakthroughs and setbacks, I emerged less than convinced by Lencioni’s pessimistic view of human nature, and I also had reservations about his exclusive focus on overcoming the negative dysfunctions while insufficiently nurturing their positive counterparts.

Lencioni has his CEO relish conflict as a means of resolving issues, and while where there are conflicts they should indeed not be avoided, I am not convinced that she need have taken her team on such a painful journey.

Indeed in my workshop I had the team focus on how to build on the positive aspects within their team of the five functions of trust, dealing with conflict, commitment, accountability and focus on results.

It’s a great quintet of team factors, but my approach of working with “Appreciative Inquiry” would have me guide Kathryne differently. Also, my experience is different from Lencioni’s in that I have not found teamwork to be “so rare”.

However, I strongly recommend that you read the book, since it will stimulate you – as it did me – to reflect deeply on how people behave and what drives them, and then to assess whether the approach Lencioni advocates is the one you as a leader would feel is the one to adopt. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.

Before the workshop, the team members were also invited to watch a TED talk by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson that nicely complemented the Lencioni book.

Here’s the link: The essence of her talk was that where there is complexity, uncertainty and interdependence, one should promote curiosity and experimentation, accept fallibility, and so deliver psychological safety. Sounds like good advice.

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]

In a recent article about that wonderful book Influencers, I mentioned an example of influencing that reminded me of my hospital experience earlier this year.

A large medical centre’s service quality scores had been steadily decreasing, I wrote, as patients and their families felt they weren’t being treated with care, dignity or respect. So a team was formed to locate those among them who scored highly, to see how they behaved in ways that resonated with their customers.

The good behaviours the team found among the high scorers were: smiling; making eye contact; identifying yourself; letting people know what you are doing and why; and ending every interaction by asking “Is there anything else that you need?”

A strategy to influence the behaviour of the other staff was initiated, resulting in the centre’s scores rising significantly.

Splendid. And yet I now have an update on this, emerging from a conversation I had with the CEO of Gertrude’s Children’s Hospital, Robert Nyarango, who introduced me to the book If Disney Ran Your Hospital: 9½ Things You Would Do Differently, by Fred Lee, a former hospital executive.

On Googling the book, I came across a link to a TED talk on the subject by Mr Lee, one of the most engaging speakers I’ve encountered in a long time.

In the talk, he refers to the exact list of five positive behaviours displayed by the best carers as quoted in the book I’d read… insisting this is far from sufficient to generate the kind of “customer experience” that is possible – and that is offered by organisations like Disney at their Disneyworld sites. (No wonder they call those who visit them “guests” rather than “customers”.)

So what should carers do more than smile, make eye contact and so forth? Mr Lee takes the deliberately mild example of a nurse taking blood for testing, where the patient still may feel unduly anxious about the prospective pain and the complications that may arise.

Where there’s anxiety, he explains, the blood pressure rises and so the pain threshold falls.

We hear from Mr Lee about a study that related the lower pain levels felt by patients whose blood was taken by nurses who received only compliments from patients: the positive consequences of feeling psychologically comfortable with the person inserting the needle.

To distract from patients’ anxiety, carers make small talk, like asking if they live nearby, or getting them to talk about their family. Then, they mention how expert and experienced they are, displaying a reassuring combination of competence and confidence – this with a light touch.

Mr Lee quotes that famous line from W. Edwards Deming, about only managing what you measure, but he adds the far lesser-known additional thought from Deming that being satisfied cannot be measured or scripted, as it only comes from the heart – like wanting to deal with the person again.

The approach to patients by the former hospital executive was transformed by reading the 1999 bestseller The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, who described this new way of thinking about connecting with customers and securing their loyalty through offering positive experiences beyond good service.

As I have been doing from time to time since my release from hospital earlier this year, I will again relate to my own customer experience while a patient. The gentleman taking my blood each day was a very jovial fellow, and of course, I wouldn’t have minded were it not that his visits were at 5 am.

He would enter my room with a loud greeting and switch on the light, shocking me into premature wakefulness. I would dread that daily pre-dawn knock on my door by the man I came to call my Dracula, and his high-energy entrances made me feel so uncomfortable that after a few days I requested him to tone down his whole performance, which happily he did.

Here I have been describing how to generate the best possible customer experiences in stressful hospital environments. But as you have been reading I hope you have extrapolated to your own situations.

You have your customer experiences, both positive and negative. But how do the customers of your organisation experience their interactions with your staff?

Do your people know how to put your customers at ease and make them feel good about having interacted with them? Can they hardly wait to deal with them again?

Since writing my last article on how to influence change, I have had the privilege of listening to Costas Markides, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School and author of several outstanding books on the subject — including his latest one, Organising for the New Normal.

He was a delight to be with online at the Davis & Shirtliff management conference in which I was participating, making his points in such a lively and humorous way. Don’t take my word for it though, listen to him on this podcast, ‘Resilience mindset and the new normal’ on YouTube. You won’t regret it.

Costas — which I am sure is how he’d like me to refer to him — is, like me, an economist by education, and again like me he migrated into strategy. As with anyone who works in this field these days he reflected deeply on how the strategy must incorporate innovativeness, agility and resilience, and concluded that so much of what differentiates those who succeed relates to influencing people’s behaviours. He, therefore, focuses on social psychology as a key ingredient in his mix.

Why do people behave as they do, he asks, and what is it about the organisations within which they work that makes them do so? For sure leaders cannot simply tell their people to be, say, resilient and innovative. You won’t be surprised to learn that Costas is a great storyteller, and one he loves to quote is from the Harvard Medical School, which carried out a study on patients being released from hospital following major heart surgery.

Each of them was told that on returning home they needed to stop leading dangerously unhealthy lives — no more smoking or drinking alcohol, healthy eating and plenty of exercises. 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 percent of them reverted to their bad behaviours within six months of their operations.

In Change or Die, the book about this case by Alan Deutschman, the author describes what differentiated the 10 percent of outliers who held on to what was good for them, Costas relates. 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 we must make the need for the change positive, personal and emotional.

Another factor that influences how we behave is our environment, and Costas talks engagingly about how leaders must create one 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 — like if what they are considering lies outside the defined strategy.

Above all, Costas tells 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. He tells us we must see these disruptions as not just threats but opportunities too. But this requires going beyond simply asserting that.

Leaders must lift their people psychologically, emotionally, reaching both their heads and their hearts, so they can visualise the fulfilment of the opportunity. Then they will commit to fighting with you.

Let me conclude by mentioning that an extra reason why I so enjoyed interacting with Costas was that nearly 50 years ago I spent a year at the London Business School as a student in their Sloan Masters programme. It was a great experience for me, building both my competence and my confidence. His session reminded me of those uplifting days, taking me back to the stimulation that so characterised the place and showing me it to be as vibrant now as it was then.