At the beginning of this month, Strathmore University Business School held its Executive Education graduation ceremony, and I was invited to be their keynote speaker. It was a wonderful occasion, where more than 300 of the nearly 2,500 participants in the executive programmes that had been running this year were receiving their certificates, with many others online.

After an exhilarating rendering of the National Anthem led by the Spellcast group, the School’s Executive Dean Caesar Mwangi addressed the gathering, telling those present that while they were graduating at a time of unprecedented challenges, Strathmore expected that they would find ways to contribute significantly to shaping a sustainable and prosperous Africa.

The theme of the day was “Developing Sustainable Businesses for Africa”, and this was re-emphasised by the next speaker, Vice Chancellor Vincent Ogutu, who talked about the university’s mission of developing ethical and transformational leaders.

He then introduced the Chief Guest, yours truly.

In their remarks, both had referred to how they have known me since they were students at the University of Nairobi when I had engaged with them through my involvement with AIESEC, the international association for students in economics and commerce (now broadened to include other disciplines).

As a result of their informal tone, I felt at ease to open by stating “No protocols observed,” before greeting “Vincent” and “Caesar”. I am a protocolophobic fellow and enjoyed the friendly atmosphere that encouraged me to indulge my preferred relaxed style.

In my talk, I referred to my early life experiences with a variety of cultures that formed me as a citizen of the world and prepared me for my life here in Kenya, where I launched my management career in the late ’70s.

This is when I began nurturing Adult-Adult, I’m OK-You’re OK, Win-Win relationships among my staff and others, and which I have been promoting ever since.

Strathmore’s broader theme for the year is “Caring for our common home”, derived from Pope Francis’s appeal. I shared examples of how this is being applied in Kenya, through such organisations as Kepsa and its member organisations, as it engages with the government to care for Kenya.

Those involved in such initiatives, which include some who are members of the UN’s Global Compact and of The Blue Company, plus others who indulge in personal social responsibility through volunteer clubs like Rotary and Lions, take the longer-term view.

They are up for gratification deferral, in support of sustainable futures.

I also talked about Charles Handy, who was a colleague of my father’s at Shell and later became a global management guru. He founded the Sloan Master’s Programme at the London Business School – from which, as it happens, I graduated in 1974, as part of its sixth cohort.

I later got to know Charles Handy myself, and to learn from him personally, I revealed.

I mentioned that in his 1989 book, The Age of Unreason, he summed up the emerging trend in Western workplaces as: “½ X 2 X 3”, seeing that companies were tending to employ half the number of people they used to and expecting twice the output from them, in exchange for which they were being paid three times as much.

In the ’80s we were already seeing the transformative inter-related effects of globalisation, liberalisation and technology… with its consequences being the need for educated and mobile knowledge workers.

But no one had described the brave new world of “survival of the fittest” as succinctly as Handy, who worried before many that so many people (the other “½”) would be woefully unfit to meet the needs associated with more and more of the world’s modern-day jobs.

I added that in a 2019 article in the London Business School Review, about which I wrote a piece in this column, Handy advocated a form of learning at business schools that was “experience understood in tranquility”, and I assumed it was like this for them.

I urged the graduates to be active in caring for our common home through the kinds of organisations I had mentioned, so as to help build a critical mass of leaders with high values, able to influence the direction in which our country will head.

I have recently been exposed to a couple of situations where the manager of a salesperson has been playing an unnecessarily high proportion of the role that could and should have been carried out by the salesperson. In each case, the salesperson was an “account manager”, or “relationship manager”, two terms which I like and to which I relate closely, as when I started my career in IT vendoring in the late 1960s this was my position, one from which I learned so much.

In these recent situations, I was acting as a coach to both the managers and the salespersons, helping them migrate to a situation where the managers could leave much more of the customer engagement to their subordinates, allowing them to deal with more strategic issues.

I suggested launching the process by preparing for meetings with customers where this would happen, and agreeing on how each would contribute to the flow.

It helps to rehearse, to role-play, with the two acting as themselves and someone else playing the part of the customer who’s been used to dealing with “the big man”. So we did.

Needless to say, this assumes the account manager is actually fit for purpose, particularly in dealing with people at a higher level than theirs, for if not their skills must be developed through training, coaching and other exposures.

In my recent examples, the relationship managers were indeed capable of engaging effectively with more senior people in customer environments, possessing the necessary combination of competence and confidence to fulfil both the technical and non-technical aspects of their work.

Too often, however, the more junior person lacks the confidence to deal with more senior customer representatives.

In my first ever sales training course I was introduced to the notion of “the nodding manager”, who as much as possible merely listens to their subordinates interacting with customers, with a supportive body language that shows their endorsement of what they are hearing.

So, as the meeting progresses, the manager says less and less and their junior ups their contributions and hence their credibility and acceptance. One must surely study the behaviour of the customer, to assess their readiness to be “degraded” in this way.

For in one of my recent situations, the senior customer person who’d been used to dealing with a manager had to be nudged to have their counterpart in the vendor organisation now be at a lower level.

Where their ego had assumed they’d be dealt with by their counterpart, they were now being asked to be humble enough to agree to the downward switch.

For me as a customer that wouldn’t be a problem, as it seems obvious that everything should happen at the lowest possible level. If the more junior person in the hierarchy is fit for the job, that’s all that matters.

Provided that between them and me as their customer we know where an issue is beyond their pay scale and we need to escalate higher office.

That’s an important point for relationship managers. As I wrote in an earlier article, where a matter needs escalation, whether within their own organisation or in the customer’s, they must develop the skill to know when and how to do so.

It should neither be too soon nor too late, and it should be pursued with emotional intelligence so that no one is offended. Escalation management is as important a skill as delegation management.

When all those years ago I was an account manager, I was allocated a small number of large customers where I was the one coordinating the software and hardware technical people supporting them, as well as the finance folk.

What a learning-by-doing experience this was, where I had to motivate and coordinate those involved on my side and help them not only to perform the technical aspects of their work effectively but also to communicate well with the customer staff.

And despite having these responsibilities I was not their line manager, having no direct authority over them – just influence.

My sense is that most account/relationship managers receive inadequate preparation for dealing at multiple levels with their customers.

They are insufficiently equipped for either handling problems that arise or proactively initiating new sales.

Socrates reminded us that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But who should be doing the examining? Too many of us have never considered the possibility of it being ourselves, of imagining that we have the capacity to self-examine, and acknowledging that it is an important skill to develop.

When we are growing up we assume it is our parents and teachers whose role it is to pass judgement on us, and this assumption remains with many of us for the rest of our lives. We continue being “children”, expecting the ongoing oversight of “parents”.

On arriving here in the late seventies as a manager I expected – as I had been accustomed to in the UK – that the appraisal process would be initiated by appraisees assessing themselves. I was shocked by the pushback I received.

“But that’s your job,” I was told by some, and asked why I was avoiding my responsibilities. Did I not know my appraisees well enough? Was I insufficiently aware of how they had been performing? Had I been too lazy to prepare my assessment?

For some, it just did not feel right to think or talk about themselves. They weren’t the ones who should be doing it, period. Part of the problem was that they were not prepared to “brag”, to “blow their trumpet”, for such immodesty would be against their principles of humility.

(Which is why so many CVs lack the marketing appeal their authors actually merit.) On and on, so many justifications for self-assessment avoidance.

Yet for me one of the main ways I judge a person is by how self-aware they are, by their ability to observe themselves objectively and draw appropriate conclusions about what’s working well that they should feel proud about and what needs to change.

Such is the mature, emotionally intelligent person who looks in the mirror to learn from experience and to grow. Yes, they must be open to the input of others, but more as a way of enhancing how they study and coach and improve themselves.

Some weeks ago I wrote about Think Again by Adam Grant, a book I have been talking about ever since I read it. In my article I shared Grant’s take on self-awareness insofar as the relationship between competence and confidence is concerned.

It is logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become, I wrote. And yet, Grant points out, some of us feel confident despite lacking competence.

This speaks of arrogance and complacency, of a lack of self-awareness. (In the context of appraisals, it may just be the appraisee’s way of negotiating for a higher pay review or a promotion.)

At the other end of the spectrum Grant draws attention to the “imposter syndrome”. Those who suffer from it feel they’re not up to the task, even in situations where they actually are competent and it is only their confidence that is lacking, I explained in my article.

This can turn out to be helpful, he and others have pointed out, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. Interestingly, many of those with whom I interact in appraisals display what I call “excess humility”.

Such people over-focus on their weaknesses while taking their strengths for granted – prompting me to move them away from their self-flagellating mindset.

Such guidance is part of what coaches offer, as coaching individuals or groups to indulge in constructive self-exploration is very much part of what those who play this role are meant to do.

So devote time to reflecting purposefully about yourself, generating self-knowledge that helps you navigate your way through life. Do so in calmness, in a quiet place, perhaps by going for a walk. Write about it, indeed make this a habit by doing so in a journal.

Yes, do also seek input from bosses, mentors, coaches and others, and be open to their contributions. Celebrate with them what is to be celebrated, and work on what needs to be worked on. Enjoy the journey. Not least the one where you accompany yourself.

Two days ago I reached the age of 75 — the age my father was when he passed away 35 years ago. So it provided an opportunity for me to reflect on our relationship and on how I was influenced by his example.

Bruno Eldon enjoyed a 33-year career in Shell. He joined the company in Romania, from where he and some of his Shell colleagues escaped the Nazis in 1941. He then rejoined the company in Israel (the British Mandate of Palestine at the time) and finally again in England in 1948, where over the years he rose to be the head of Shell’s management training division.

As I was growing up, at school and then at university, I was exposed to all the latest management thinking, as my father had to keep right up to date in running his workshops for Shell executives from around the world. I learnt about the newly emerging leadership styles as organisations like Shell increasingly employed skilled knowledge workers who needed to be motivated quite differently from those who came before them.

Indeed, as I have written before in these columns, it was in those 1950s and 60s that the foundations were laid for today’s best leadership practices. Since then we have been hearing incessantly from subsequent generations of management gurus, but in essence, it’s more fancy new jargon than fundamental developments.

I was fortunate in not only having my father explain all about motivation and teamwork and appraisals and other leadership matters as practised in one of the leading global corporates, but I had the privilege of meeting many of those who participated in my father’s programmes. For he would invite them to our home for Sunday lunches, where this mere teenager would act as a co-host to those senior executives.

But my weekends were spent in other ways too. For I was the family’s gardener, cutting the lawn and the hedges and pulling up the weeds while my father played the horticulturalist. My job description included washing the car, and every evening I would wash the dishes after dinner as my sister dried them. Later, my father and I would often walk our dog, and it is here that he played the role of my coach.

I attended the London School of Economics for some of my undergraduate studies, 40 years after my father came from Romania to study at LSE. During those years, while an intern in Paris with Eurofinance (the first investment company to operate at a European level), my father came to visit me and it was the first time I remember us conversing as adult to adult rather than as parent to child: a true relationship shift.

When he retired from Shell on entering his third age my father continued with his management training and also became a management consultant, running workshops all over Europe and also in Africa. This was largely with Management Centre Europe, which was associated with the American Management Association — both still prominent institutions today.

Not many years later, now living in Kenya, I became very involved with the Kenya Institute of Management, and when I turned 60 I too reinvented myself as a management consultant, spending many of my days in ways uncannily similar to how my father spent his at that time of his life.

Shortly before he died I visited my father in London for what turned out to be our last meeting. We seemed to be aware that this would be our farewell, and as we sat in his study he notionally handed over his books and papers and overhead slides on management, many of which now adorn by bookshelves at home. Bruno was a very talented painter, and our house is also filled with his wonderful works of art.

What a shame he is not around for us to compare notes on how my life has mirrored his since he passed away. There is so much value he could have continued adding to me, and I would like to think he could even have benefited from my experiences too.

To conclude, let me invite you to share important conversations with your father, before it’s too late. Learn from him, and let him also learn from you.