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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.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs

I was recently facilitating a session with a new board, helping align them with each other and with management and become fit for purpose. And as I was listening to their contributions and the reactions from management I could see that the newcomers, with all their fresh energy and enthusiasm, too often were unaware that some of what they were proposing was either happening already or had been shown not to be effective.

As the discussions progressed the directors graciously realised that they didn’t know what they didn’t know. Such inaccurate perceptions aren’t unusual for recent arrivals on boards – nor, by the way, for many who have been around a long time. Plus of course, for those further away from the decision-making and other activities, armchair critics are smugly convinced they are more expert than the experts.

The answer, as I have mentioned before in these columns, is for leaders and others to ask more than tell, to listen openly, applying what Prof. Edgar Schein calls “humble inquiry” – the title of his book on the subject. In his 2021 book, Think Again, another great professor of organisational behaviour, Adam Grant, also writes on this common phenomenon. I love how Grant helps us find our way in this fast-changing world, having already written here about his earlier book, Originals.

So now I offer some thoughts from Think Again – whose sub-title is The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. “Knowledge is power,” Grant affirms, adding “knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”

It’s logical to assume that the more competent we are the more confident we become. 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, with such over-confidence having become known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Sadly, as I too have found, over-confident people are the ones least likely to seek guidance from others – in particular, their juniors – and they are the ones who will shun coaches or mentors.

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’s only their confidence that is lacking. This can turn out to be helpful, as it keeps them away from the know-it-all mindset and encourages listening and learning, rethinking and unlearning.

We have heard about the “confirmation bias” Grant mentions, the search for evidence that supports what we already believe, and he adds “desirability bias”, seeing what we did or didn’t want to see – as those who didn’t want to see Trump as President sought data to show a lower probability that he would be elected. Finally, there’s Grant’s “I’m not biased” bias, which speaks for itself.

To be relaxed about rethinking we must be confidently humble, with our egos in check, Grant tells us. This requires us to think as scientists do, treating our views as mere hypotheses to be tested and reviewed, and so enabling us to remain agile. This mindset contrasts to the “preacher” in us, wedded to tightly-held sacred beliefs; the “prosecutor”, only out to see the flaws in others’ positions; and the “politician”, who merely lobbies for approval from potential supporters.

Much of how we think is a function of our beliefs, and often it is these beliefs that hold us back, as Spencer Johnson revealed in that brilliant fable Who Moved My Cheese and its wonderful follow-up, Out of the Maze. Strong justification, Grant advises, for nurturing healthy beliefs at as young an age as possible.

Awareness of all these impediments to and characteristics of quality thinking not only gets us to think about how we approach our own thinking but helps us influence the thinking of those around us – the subject of the second part of Think Again.

For each and every one of us, whether at the personal or family level, whether in our organisation or our community, we need to re-assess our thinking process so as to ensure we’re fit for purpose in these volatile times.

My dearest wish is that as our politicians think about Kenya beyond the 2022 election they too absorb the wisdom of Grant. But given that this appears highly unlikely, it is we the voters who should do so.

Challenges to change in dynamic business world

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.

Balancing the State and people power

Eight years ago I wrote a column about Why Nations Fail, the book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, and more recently I acquired the subsequent one by these two economics professors, The Narrow Corridor.

It’s another global analysis of how liberty and wellbeing flourish in some states but degenerate to authoritarianism or anarchy in others.

New opportunities and threats emerge, as some successful societies continue to thrive while others falter.

In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson concluded that nations thrive when they develop “inclusive” political and economic institutions, and fail when those institutions become “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of only a few.

Inclusive economic institutions that enforce property rights, create a level playing field, and encourage investments in new technologies and skills are much more conducive to economic growth than extractive economic institutions that are structured to extract resources from the many by the few.

Inclusive economic institutions are in turn supported by, and support, inclusive political institutions, which distribute political power widely so as to establish law and order, the foundations of secure property rights, and an inclusive market economy.

Conversely, extractive political institutions that concentrate power in the hands of a few reinforce extractive economic institutions to hold on to power.

What are they telling us now, in The Narrow Corridor? In most places and at most times, the strong have dominated the weak, and human freedom has been suppressed – either by force or merely through customs and norms.

States have either been too weak to protect individuals from these threats or they have been too strong for people to protect themselves from despotism. Liberty emerges only when a delicate balance is struck between the state and society.

Which nations are more likely to succeed and to fail today? Which countries are becoming more inclusive in their economics and politics, and which ones will be leaving the narrow corridor of balanced liberty that requires adequate but not excessive state power?

With Covid having intensified inequality between rich and poor, between the digital and the non-digital, is the corridor narrowing further – including in countries like America?

And with ones like Hungary, India, Turkey and the Philippines having shifted to more autocratic styles, we have been confronted with the reality that political liberty is not such a steady or durable phenomenon.

Is Kenya within or beyond the narrow corridor? And either way, where are our ever-manoeuvring politicians taking us? Are we still just passive citizens waiting for our tribal princes to tell us for whom to vote?

Or will we at last select those who best understand what lies within the narrow corridor and how to have us inhabit this privileged space?

If America itself is finding it hard, with Republicans burying their heads in the Trumpian sands as they deny truth and sneer at science, and with us facing our elections in a year’s time, should this be cause for gloom and doom?

During our years since independence it could be argued that we have done better than many other countries – and not just in Africa – at surviving within the narrow corridor, balancing the power of the state and that of the people.

We should feel good about our evolution into multi-party politics and the devolution of power to the counties, about our reasonable freedom of speech and our relatively open economy.

Could we have done better? Of course. Will we? That’s a hard one. We have among us everything from Utopian optimists to self-flagellating pessimists.

What’s for sure is that, as everywhere, the struggle between state and society will continue. But it is not further constitutional tweaks, with yet more laws and regulations that will take us closer into the desired corridor or keep us there.

And it is not more duplication and fragmentation of state institutions.

No. It is all to do with values and how these are reflected in behaviour. How are we encouraging good behaviour, that promotes integrity and cohesion? And how are we penalising bad behaviour that prevents it?

We citizens must take seriously our responsibility for influencing the leaders of state institutions in ways that can see our vision of shared prosperity be actualised.

With all the talent and energy that exists in Kenya, surely this is doable.

Being responsible leader in the era of tech advances

In my last column I challenged readers with a series of questions on the meaning of responsible leadership in how leaders behave with their staff. I largely held back on answering those questions until today, and I hope that merely listing them was helpful. Here now are some responses from me.

Being responsible to those one leads revolves around fairness: actual fairness, and beyond that the perception of fairness. Do employees feel they are being treated respectfully, that they have opportunities to learn and to grow, that they are trusted and rewarded appropriately?

I see many organisations in Kenya where fair working conditions do exist, but I also witness others where leaders so distrust their people that they deliberately keep them in the dark about the context of their work. One can understand the logic of those who hoard information and hold back from delegating. It is because they don’t trust their people, concerned about their technical competence or their integrity or both.

They have presumably suffered from enough untrustworthy employees letting them down, as a result of which they feel they need to protect themselves from the risk of further disappointment.

What they fail to appreciate however is the impact on those same employees who, feeling distrusted, react appropriately. They will be less engaged and less motivated, and may well behave like sulking or rebellious teenagers do with over-stern parents or teachers.

So which risk is higher – trusting too much, or too little? And what can leaders do to attract the more trustworthy people in the first place, and then to retain them? No surprises: it is where fair working conditions exist that the best talent seeks employment. When staff are valued their employers help them fulfill their potential, of course in ways that are aligned to the interests of the organisation.

As they learn and grow they can take on more responsibilities, and hence contribute more – thereby earning the right to higher remuneration. In one company where I am a director, I love the way the chairman-owner explicitly states to his people that he pays them as much as the company can afford, not as little as he can get away with.

Millennials are more known for assessing the culture of an organisation before determining whether they wish to become part of it, and increasingly they look for their employer to be committed to an uplifting cause, pursuing “purpose beyond profit”, and so “doing well by doing good”. Safaricom have articulated their cause well, and others are also doing so.

Let me now turn to the challenge of employees whose skills have not kept up with contemporary trends – typically to do with the rapid advances in technology. Here employers are faced with the dilemma of whether to let go such staff or to explore ways of still benefitting from them, by offering them the opportunity to reskill and by allocating them responsibilities where they can remain relevant.

Should everyone be forced to retire at the age of sixty, so as not to block succeeding generations from finding opportunities? Surely not. While some may have seen their energy fade and should indeed be put out to pasture (nicely) others may still be found value-adding roles, perhaps as wise elders mentoring upcoming Young Turks.

Another question I raised in my last article was how to act responsibly when to remain competitive one is forced to adopt technologies that replace people, and this in an environment of high unemployment. The realities are there, and one cannot hide one’s head in the sand. What we know is that with each industrial revolution as many jobs are destroyed new ones are created.

But they require new skills, and we need active collaboration between government and private institutions to develop them – not least in the technical and vocational domains. Employers must play an active role in not only defining the needs but in participating in developing them.

Oh dear, I am once more reaching my word limit, and there’s so much more to write about. But I’d like to think that I have laid out enough aspects of leading people responsibly that you will now reflect on where you stand and on how to get to your next level.