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How to agree without giving in

A few weeks ago I was invited to run a workshop on negotiating skills for a group of senior engineers who sell capital goods for a well-known European multinational, and it took me back to the last century when I was an account manager offering large IT solutions using mainframe computers.

It reminded me of my library, where I knew I had some material on the subject. I found more books than I expected, including some which I don’t remember ever reading!

Undoubtedly the best known among them is Getting to Yes – Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, by Roger Fisher, William Ury, together with Bruce Patton of the Harvard Negotiation Project. The second edition, the one I have, was published in 1991, and I strongly recommend this classic.

Here’s the essence of the “principled” negotiating laid out there, which has you neither too soft nor too hard. If you are too soft you end up the exploited loser, while if you are too hard you fail to develop a relationship and are likely to restrict yourself to a one-off transaction, as the other party won’t wish to deal with you again.

(This was the case with Trump, during his time as a wheeler-dealer in the New York real estate business, as we learned in “his” book, The Art of the Deal.)

Principled negotiators are in between: reasonable and fair, aiming at mutual benefit. They build and preserve relationships, assuming the other party is a partner and not an opponent. Put briefly, it’s a win-win approach to interacting, the one I adopted right from when I launched into the capital goods marketing business in the late 1960s.

What kind of attitude makes for an effective negotiator? Here, let me turn to another of the books I pulled down from my shelf, The Negotiator – A Manual for Winners, by Royce Coffin. It was published in 1973, and I inherited it from my father, who in those days was a management consultant as I am now.

Coffin advises us to be self-confident and optimistic, so we can be relaxed, creative and bold. He then suggests not rushing at talks.

Rather, be patient, and take time to understand and to build trusting ties. And do so by being friendly and cheerful, and applying a light touch. If necessary, pause to review and reflect, and consult with others.

From The Negotiating Game – How to Get What You Want, by Chester Karrass (published in 1970, and also inherited from my father), I learned about the “negotiator trait clusters”.

First is task performance, involving planning, problem-solving, initiative, product knowledge, reliability and stamina. Next comes aggression (or, as I would prefer to call it, assertiveness). Here he identifies power exploitation, competitiveness, team leadership, persistence, risk-taking, courage and defensiveness.

To a softer trait now, socialising, meaning personal integrity, being open-minded, tactful, patient, compromising and trustworthy, plus displaying an acceptable appearance.

Being an effective communicator is also key, with verbal clarity and good body language, focusing on listening, generating warm rapport, plus skills in debating, role-playing and coordinating.

A final duo: first self-worth, involving self-control, self-esteem and dignity, enabling one to gain the other party’s respect – and even to risk being disliked; and possessing high ethical standards. Plus gaining the boss’s respect, and being identified with a sufficiently senior organisational rank.

Last but not least, one’s thought processes: general practical intelligence, education, insight, analytical ability, decisiveness, negotiating experience, broad perspective, and clear thinking under stress.

The last publication I’ll refer to is my Summer 2008 edition of the Harvard Business Review, whose theme was Great Deal Making – The Art and Science of Negotiating, and rereading it vividly reminded me of the lessons I learned when I was in the game, ones I now share as a consultant.

I can’t resist ending by saying that I was recently with one of the workshop participants and I asked him if what we covered had made a difference. He confirmed it had with the recent signing of a major order.

The personal drivers to success

I recently facilitated a very interesting workshop that brought together Africa region’s leaders of a long-established multinational. Thanks to Covid, this was the first time they were meeting physically, and this under their recently installed president.

As we were preparing the workshop he told me he wanted to share with his team what he described as his “personal success drivers”, his “rules for himself”.

Having come up with this thought, and looking back on other teams he had led, he regretted not having shared such thoughts with them, as a result of which he realised they weren’t sure what his expectations would be, either of himself or of them.

While fully accepting that it’s not how he always behaves, it is how he knows he should. “I am sharing these thoughts with you so that you get to know me better,” he explained, adding “I know that if I state my intentions publicly you will hold me accountable to do as I say.” All so impressive.

The first of his big three drivers, taken from Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, is getting the right people on the bus, and in the right position. Addressing performance issues decisively is uniquely challenging work, he acknowledged, and tolerating second best has a very negative impact, resulting in unfairness, toxicity and lethargy.

Job number two, he continued, is creating a winning culture where everyone is operating at their best. “Do my manager, my team, my work environment, my business make me feel like I’m all-in?” they need to ask.

Thirdly, he believes it’s the biggest current businesses and the biggest opportunities that must always get most of his attention: the 80:20 rule.

He then listed his remaining seven drivers, all to do with empowering the best talent relative to the biggest priorities. When it matters, he likes understanding business issues and business plans “in data-based depth”, appreciating that questioning assumptions is a great way to learn, as is history.

“If we are not defensive about past mistakes, weaknesses, unmet needs and gaps with others, then each gap becomes an opportunity to grow our business,” he declared.

He wants to talk about the business the way it is, not the way people want it to be. “Face the brutal facts so we can do something about them,” he urged, acknowledging that balancing communication is an art form and separates good leadership from bad.

Trust is key to this, and rating performance on results, analysing what is working and what is not.

He will be transparent, and he does not like filtering information from his team, while trusting that everyone will to do the same. They must all “question, challenge, confront and clarify”. He then admitted to “overcommunicating”, repeating himself so as to ensure the full absorption of his messages.

And he called for “good sense email practice”. His organisation has recently introduced a matrix structure, and this is always a challenging environment within which to communicate and coordinate. But the team must get used to working within the matrix.

Don’t surprise him, he requested, and he won’t surprise them. He is accountable to his people, he readily accepted, for handling interactions with his seniors on “the tough stuff”.

And he cares deeply about how happy they feel working with each other. If something he’s doing is not working for them, he wants them to tell him. He will do the same, but as trust is being built, a go-between may be helpful.

The junior most person who is qualified to lead the way should do so, he continued, challenging such people to present proposed solutions with every challenge. For this to work well they must be empowered.

And asking the right questions will provide the path to such empowerment and hence enable the people to deliver success. “This is always better than telling people what to do,” he concluded, asking the team to help him avoid the “it’s faster if I do it” trap.

Finally, he insisted that “it is not ‘OR’, it’s ‘AND’.”, as lazy choices must be avoided. It is not, for instance, a choice between focusing on financial results or on people, or between short and long-term results. It is both.

The softer side of Kaizen

The Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the Kaizen Institute recently held their 17th Annual Congress, and I’m writing about it as I was one of the keynote speakers at the event. I have for long been an admirer of Kaizen, which is all about waste reduction and continuous improvement.

It was first largely applied in the manufacturing environment, but it soon spread to other sectors – for who doesn’t want to do away with waste, and shouldn’t we all be focused on continuous improvement?

The reason I was asked to contribute to the congress is because however necessary the technical aspects of Kaizen are, the waste reduction and improvement cannot be actualised unless the non-technical, or human, aspects are also taken care of. This is what takes an organisation from doing the necessary to thinking through to the sufficient.

These non-technical aspects require a significant investment of time and resources, but many technically-focused and task-focused people complain that this just takes away from efficiency, delaying the completion of tasks. Yet what they do not appreciate is the consequence of not investing time in aligning those involved in the tasks with each other.

It is this kind of neglect that sees people confined in their narrow functional or geographical silos; focused on short-term sub-optimisation at the expense of long-term sustainability; witnesses them indulging in conflicts that lead to stalemates and prevent timely or appropriate decision-making.

When attention is not paid to how well people communicate with one another, some will stay silent without contributing their thoughts, some will be too assertive, and poor listeners.

So my presentation urged the participants not be so “efficient” that it prevents them from being “effective”, suggesting they should invest time in building high-trust relationships, that then enable collaboration and consensus building.

They should also invest time in building a coaching mindset in their organisations, so their people develop and where personal goals align with organisational ones.

The return on this investment is that the staff will offer superior contributions, and good people will be attracted and retained, as they learn and they grow.

By taking time to develop both their technical and non-technical skills, and within a high-trust culture, leaders will feel comfortable empowering others and delegating to them, freeing them up for more strategic activity.

Another “inefficient” use of time is holding back from the default position of telling others what to do, but rather taking time to understand before seeking to be understood. For we must accept that we don’t know what we don’t know.

The speaker before me was the Kaizen Institute’s Joint Managing Director Jayanth Murthy, who proposed that we all pray for “Better, More, Faster”, for quality, growth and speed – which is what Kaizen delivers.

He reminded us that most strategies fail because of poor execution, and showed us a cartoon of a pair of exhausted fellows pushing a cart with square wheels… while within the cart are round ones!

He then gave examples of how this is manifested in real life, quoting Charles Darwin’s observation that “it is not the strongest of the species who survive, or the most intelligent, but those who are most adaptable to change”.

After me came another confident optimist, Jas Bedi, the Chairman of KEPROBA, the Kenya Export Promotion and Branding Authority, who talked about the huge potential in Kenya for import substitution and exports, and about the need to have a borderless EAC and for the continent as a whole. We must add value, and consolidate imports as a regional redistribution hub, he also insisted.

The room at Kempinski was filled with Kaizenologists from leading manufacturing companies around Kenya… all taking “inefficient” time away from their tasks back in their gemba (Kaizen terminology for the workplace), so as to learn and to share. Ah yes, the full spirit of Kaizen lived here: the best knowing they can still get better.

Taming the abuse of power

Readers of this column will have seen previous articles of mine in which I have written about Leaders Circles I have facilitated with my colleague Frank Kretzschmar. The last one was about sustainability, and the theme of our most recent one was “How we deal with power: from victim to perpetrator to victim”.

We’ve all heard that “information is power”, and as Frank and I looked up other suitable quotes before our story-telling gathering we came across some useful provocations, including “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best,” from doomsday merchant Edward Abbe; and, also pessimistically, William Gaddis shared that “Power doesn’t corrupt people, people corrupt power.”

More upliftingly, Lao Tzu told us that “Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.” And Alice Walker reminded us that “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”

How power is wielded lies at the centre of whether things work or don’t work, we briefed our participants as we invited them to the event. Power itself is values-neutral. So at what point does it become good or bad? Where and how does abuse begin?

Who determines that power was indeed abused? How is it even possible that power does get abused? Does it happen when moral concepts are excluded from the exercising of power? When corruption is used to distort rules of the game that had been based on a broad consensus? When individual powerful people lose all sense of self-awareness and proportion?

We are seeing that too many neurotics and egocentrics are key players in the power game. And as a result, we give up on essential issues out of comfort, thoughtlessness or anticipatory obedience. They then take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Are we not to blame for this?

So how do you tame the abuse of power? As leaders, you cannot do without power. How do you empower yourself and others? And how far may or must you go in order to gain (back) power and influence?

How do the exercise of power and ethical action coexist, for there are fewer and fewer fixed reference systems? Exercising power without stepping over the boundaries of individuals is not possible. But is it possible to exercise power while remaining innocent? It is undoubtedly a question of balance.

We were interested to hear where and how those who participated in our event have succeeded in keeping power in the good area, and this we certainly did. We learned about the challenge of leading volunteers, in business and professional organisations, and in service clubs like Rotary and Lions.

And we talked about the need to “decolonise” and spread decision-making from the over-influential Global North towards the Global South, including in how research funds are allocated.

We also heard stories of power abusers – from our own traffic police to Vladimir Putin – and of being the direct victims of more powerful and unconstrained players.

One spoke about the fragility of power, as evidenced in the Arab Spring (and more recently in Sri Lanka, and with Johnson in the UK); while another worried about the constraints faced by the UN Security Council in fulfilling its mission of holding the world together.

I reflected that rather than wanting to feel powerful, my expectation was and is that I can be of influence, and above all in bringing people together – as a mediator, an integrator, a connector.

I enjoy helping others to building their capacity so I can empower them, and hence delegate to them. I see the goodness of power-sharing, which requires openness and trust.

Here I am, deep into my third age, a time of life when most of us no longer expect to wield direct power (except, perhaps, in the political arena). One way in which I hope I am being of influence is through these columns.

A few weeks ago I published by 400th one, and this one marks fifteen years since by first contribution here. My sense has always been that I largely preach to the already converted, but my hope is that my readers will emerge reinforced in their views, and so promote them more boldly. I might even convert a few here and there, and who knows, perhaps enable them to become more powerful.

In closing, I urge you to exercise your power by voting next month for men and women who will wield power responsibly. Or else you will be their victims. But hey, I’m preaching to the converted.

Management roles that shape top performers

Each of us as a manager enjoys aspects of our roles where we feel more comfortable, with others we’d rather have someone else handle. But the more senior and cross-functional we become the more we need to reach adequacy all round.

And yet very few of us ever expand our comfort zones to take us from the necessary to the sufficient. So which are these different aspects?

I was recently exposed to a categorisation of the needed components that I found made a lot of sense. It is based on the work by Ichak Adizes, the founder of the Adizes Institute, and the four roles he identified that management must fulfill are the Provider, whose voice tells us “Just get the job done, nothing else matters”; the Administrator, who wants us to “Follow the rules, pay attention to the details, and heed the process”; the Entrepreneur, who wants to “Make it exciting, creative, provocative”; and the Integrator, who helps us “Create harmony and respect the social norms, while making people happy”.

In every organisation all four must be performed well. And yet, Prof Adizes has observed, none of us can or does reach the highest levels of competence in the complete quartet. Indeed being really strong in one makes it more unlikely that we’ll do so well elsewhere – or even get on well with those who do.

If a person is unable to perform one or more roles the deficit must be filled by others. If they perform all roles to at least a satisfactory level, they’re an OK manager.

If a manager copes brilliantly with integration and at least one more role, and all other roles are performed at a satisfactory level, we can say that the person is not just a manager, but a leader.

And if all the roles are well covered among the management members, then we have a high performing team.

The book I read by Prof Adizes was Leading the Leaders – How to Enrich Your Style of Management and Handle People Whose Style Is Different from Yours”, one of 20 authored by him. I also completed the Adizes Institute’s Management Style Indicator” questionnaire, where the profile of me that emerged came as no surprise.

My top style is that of Integrator, then Entrepreneur, followed by Producer, with Administrator lagging quite far behind. So I am described as a “PaEI”, with capital letters for the styles where I am at ease.

I’m sure that as you have been reading this you will have been reflecting on how you rate on each of Prof Adizes’ four components of management, even without taking the assessment questionnaire. And you will also have been smiling (and groaning) as you have been contemplating your peers, your superiors and your subordinates.

You will have concluded who complements whom; and who clashes with whom, thanks to the incompatibility of their over-focused styles.

You will also have noted which teams cover all four components well, and which find the going tough thanks to too many individualistic entrepreneurs and no integrators, say.

So where are the gaps, at the personal and team levels, and how to fill them? For such gaps are everywhere, and the higher we rise in an organisation the more of a handicap they become. What’s your next career step, and the ones thereafter? What muscles will you need to develop that till now were not so important to enable you to perform well?

Too often it’s the most brilliant techie (a Producer) who’s promoted to becoming the supervisor of other techies (as an Integrator) but lacks the personality, skills, or even interest, to play such a role.

They never developed the non-technical skills needed for management – or for interacting with team-mates, customers etc. – to complement their technical ones. Do they have the potential to transform an “i” into an “I”?

Who does your organisation seek and attract among the P, A, E, I types? Do you look for those with more than one capital letter, so they can develop a career with you, beyond the immediate job for which they are being recruited?

We are always going to feel more at ease with some of the four styles than with others. But be very aware of what each job requires, and either reach adequacy wherever that is needed, or make sure there’s someone else in the team to play that role.

Avoiding family wars that ruin businesses

These days I am being invited more frequently to help align family members within their businesses so they can lead the organisations they own more effectively.

I am encouraged by those who reach out to me for such assistance, as it speaks of being realistic about the importance of cohesiveness among them and of feeling optimistic that they can indeed do better.

In my capacity as an adviser — or, as I often label myself, coach — I first listen to each family member involved, getting a sense of their personalities and styles, and of the roles they play in their enterprise.

In a spirit of “appreciative inquiry” I like to start by having them tell me about the achievements they are proudest of and the strengths that explain them, and then asking them to share the challenges they face — including and not least with other family members.

For this to happen I don’t rush into these topics, but begin by building a relaxed, cheerful and trusting relationship with them, getting them to talk more generally about their lives, while revealing something about mine.

Business school

As I was preparing to write this article I caught sight of a book I’d bought some years ago at the London Business School bookshop but had never got round to reading.

Published in 2008, Family Wars is about some of the biggest family-run companies in the world, showing how in-fighting among family members threatened to bring about their downfall.

It covers families such as Ford, Gucci and the Watsons of IBM, using these as examples of different categories of wars, not least between fathers and sons, among siblings, and as a result of marriages between families.

It also provides advice for anyone involved in a family business, offering suggestions on how to avoid such problems.

The book’s authors are London Business School Prof Nigel Nicholson, whose research interests include the psychology of family business, and Grant Gordon, the director-general of the Institute for Family Business and a fifth-generation member and former senior executive of William Grant & Sons, the distillers of Glenfiddich whisky (my favourite).

Despite relating stories of specific family “wars” they are careful to point out that many with family ownership outperform other kinds of organisations, and that some of the world’s oldest companies are those that have remained owned by their founding families.

I related very closely to what I read about both the kinds of challenges that family businesses commonly face, and how to prevent them and handle them if and when they arise.

Not least about the wisdom of “appointing skilled non-family professionals to fill business leadership roles”; “appointing a neutral ‘ombudsman’ as co-mentor of a sibling team”; and “instituting appraisals and regular feedback on work output and mentoring for family members”.

Not surprisingly, Grant and Nicholson refer to the lack of trust as “the real killer”, where one person sees another as unreliable, inconsistent, devious or duplicitous. And – as I do – they advocate for a spirit of forgiving and seeking forgiveness.

To avoid undue conflict, a culture of equity and fairness must prevail, with no cheating and taking of shortcuts. Worst of all is the hiring of lawyers to sue one another, never mind if the dirty linen starts getting washed in public.

Just as insufficient cohesiveness leads family members to either waste energy in fruitless attempts to win battles at the expense of a relative, or to disengage and scatter, so excessive cohesion, where families retreat into their own exclusive world, are also unhealthy.

Consensus builder

The challenge is to nurture an atmosphere where differences can be aired and consensus built, in a spirit of give and take.

Yes, we want the leadership team in family businesses to be diverse — including these days by including the women. We want representation of a spectrum from elders to millennials, and it’s good for members to have varied exposure to education and to other cultures and countries.

Some will have a greater appetite for risk than others. Some will be more focused on longer-term sustainability and on being fair to all key stakeholders and some will be keener than others on professionalising.

The question is how such diversity can be brought together without generating wars, and by whom.

Who in the family is the consensus builder, the mediator? Or does the business, as so many do, require external help to keep the peace and allow each family member to contribute and thrive in their own way?

What conductors of orchestras teach us on leadership

In a recent edition of BBC’s HARDtalk, Stephen Sackur interviewed the Music Director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Iván Fischer.

The image we have of orchestral conductors is that they are the ones in charge, the ones directing those with the musical instruments — who in turn are mere recipients of their master’s voice. Not so with Fischer though. He doesn’t believe in this dictatorial know-it-all leadership style.

He enjoys bringing out the creativity in his players, and indeed he wants to hear them play in the full sense of the word so that the child within them comes alive.

He doesn’t conduct to be seen as a person of power, but rather as someone who brings the music, the players and the audience together so that they are all engaged and delighted to be sharing the experience of the concert.

Fischer also spoke of too many orchestras being like dinosaurs, doing what they’ve always done and resisting change, risking extinction.

Contrary to Sackur’s expectations, he explained how he has introduced all kinds of innovations, including selecting a much wider variety of music; placing members of a choir among the audience so they could surprise them when they stood up and burst into song and getting himself Covid vaccinated while conducting a live concert, to encourage those watching to follow suit and also get jabbed.

As I listened to Fischer reflecting on how conductors of orchestras exercise leadership it led me to compare myself to an orchestral conductor. At this stage of my life, as a chairman of boards, a consultant, a facilitator, a mediator, a coach, I no longer “play instruments”.

My job is about helping organisations to align around and live their visions and values, so that great “music” is performed (the products), to the delight of the “audience” (the customers). That is my value addition.

I don’t need to be better at playing individual organisational “instruments” (functional specialties like production, accounting, IT, whatever) to indulge in the kind of “conducting” that occupies my life. As it happens the “instrument” I mostly used to play was the marketing one, but more importantly, I was always a member of an “orchestra”, knowing I had to do better than be a great soloist.

I also tried to be aware of what it was that I did not know, and be ready to admit where my talents and experience did not lie.

In any of the roles I play these days, the instruments are not in my hands. My job, like that of the conductor, involves a great deal of listening and observing, to get a sense of where the music is good and where and how it could be better.

Like all leaders, including conductors, I need to adequately trust and respect the musicians around me, building both their competence and their confidence, and so to empower them and delegate to them.

Fischer clearly enjoyed the HARDtalk interview, displaying a great sense of fun. It was evident that he also enjoys conducting his orchestra, and I very strongly related to that. I expect that I and those around me will enjoy working together, not least because we will be performing well together.

For me, leadership with a light touch should be the default position — and not least in times of crisis. That’s not to say the big stick is never needed, but the delicate conductor’s baton is much to be preferred wherever possible.

So I must thank Sackur for inviting Fischer to be interviewed. And like it got me thinking about my leadership style and contribution, I hope reading this article will help you ponder on yours.

Before concluding I wish to refer to another leadership analogy, as proposed by Sunny Bindra in one of his recent Sunday Nation columns. He was encouraged by the leaders and teams who have understood that collective intelligence is the future.

“A boss who gets it grows and coaches others to develop ideas and make decisions, and does not hoard power,” he wrote. “Instead of coming up with answers, this boss creates the conditions in which others can contribute answers. The boss becomes the gardener, not the biggest tree in the plot that takes up all the sunlight.”

So, are you the gardener or the big tree, the conductor with the big stick or the delicate baton?

Dr Manu Chandaria Wisdom Session with Irene Gathiaka & Mike Eldon

(Dr. Chandaria wasn’t able to join us for a while, so I filled in by offering some background on him and on our efforts that led to the launch of KEPSA.)

Managing change in Kenya

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]

Do your part to end civic illiteracy ahead of polls

Some of us struggled more than others in 2021: some with their health, some with their livelihoods and others with both. For me, as readers of this column are aware, my severe encounter with Covid-19 meant I was out of action for quite some time. But here we are at the beginning of a new year, and I thought it would be good to share some reflections on the state of the nation as we enter this season of election frenzy.

For quite some time now we have settled into expecting only Ruto-Raila front-page headlines in the dailies, as the media responds to our apparently insatiable appetite for following the non-stop race to State House, with all its noisy competition. Huge political rallies are the order of the day, as our politicians roam the country building momentum for their respective causes.

They gather their packed crowds, where few wear masks and those who do mainly hang them around their necks – great for spreading Covid-19. And this while shopping malls understandably require visitors to show their Covid certificates. Some have rightly asked “why not those attending rallies?”

These rallies, and so much else around political campaigning, are costing millions of shillings each and every week, and we are still gathering speed for the increasingly hectic cash-spraying we shall witness in the months ahead. This causes many of us deep concern about where all the money is coming from, with no limits imposed, as though an endless easy supply is on tap.

Equally concerning is the overwhelming attention being paid to campaigning by our politicians and others at the expense of worrying about Covid-19, the state of the day-to-day economy, and the country’s longer-term development. Except, admittedly, through their evolving manifesto headliners, with their catchy high-cost giveaway approaches to reducing unemployment and poverty.

The media loves following this source of vivid entertainment, with its cast of colourful, adrenalin-fuelled personalities. The crowds love it too, happy to enjoy as many rallies as they can be bussed to. For whom will they vote though? For the ones they believe will make the best leaders, the most skilled at governing? Or the most “generous” today, the most entertaining, the ones who are from their own ethnic group?

My sense is that reasonable awareness exists about who can perform well as leaders. But such rational awareness is too often overwhelmed by behaviour that succumbs to short-term gratification (a nice way of describing handouts).

Over the holidays, reading Robin D.G. Kelley’s foreword to America at War with Itself by Henry A. Giroux, I came across the term “civic illiteracy” – a “cultivated and imposed state” in that country according to him, and I related it to such a phenomenon here, where politicians have led voters to expect to be paid if they are to be supported. How sad.

I have never heard a single one of the candidates, at any level, refer to our national values – the ones buried deep in our Constitution and never sought out by our leaders. Such values were well promoted in the BBI document, but inevitably the politicians– and hence the media – merely selected the component that they claim mitigates against our winner-take-all style of elections and ignored everything else.

So, while the politicians play with their politics, the rest of us must find immediate and practical ways to deal with issues such as containing Covid-19; increasing the productivity of our farmers and the competitiveness of our manufacturers; mitigating the consequences of climate change; nurturing self-discipline in our schools; and reducing the digital divide.

I have now lived in Kenya for not too far off half a century, and throughout my time here I have seen the amazingly high potential of this wonderful country and its energetic, enthusiastic and entrepreneurial people, many highly educated. They are why Kenya has achieved so much since it threw off the shackles of colonialism. Equally however, it has consistently been my strong feeling that Kenya has greatly underachieved relative to its great potential.

We have outstanding leaders here, world class – including and not least in the very challenging public sector. But not so much in the world of politics. As we enter this year of elections, my appeal to you readers of the Business Daily is to do what you can to influence those around you to vote for candidates who will create that enabling environment within which we can all feel proud of living our Vision 2030 by that time.

PS. Just a few hours after I wrote this article I heard the President’s New Year message, in which he called for leadership over politics, and for boldness and vision over popularity. Kudos, Your Excellency.