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What it means to lead responsibly

As we enter the new decade, more and more leaders of organisations are thinking about what it means to act responsibly. For it is an increasingly significant factor in ensuring sustainability, and this expectation of acting responsibly applies to how one treats all stakeholders. Today, in my first article of 2020, I focus on what behaving responsibly with one’s staff means.

Of course some leaders have always understood why this is but enlightened self-interest, based on the assumption of reciprocity. And anyway it’s just in the nature of such people to be good to others.

Their style is most likely the consequence of how they were brought up, and how their early bosses treated them. This can work either way. Several of the managers to whom I reported when I joined a British computer multinational company on graduating from university in the 1960s left me distinctly unimpressed. It seemed to me that they understood little about how to motivate and coordinate others, leaving us to find our way by other means. As I read in an article recently, we may well learn at least as much from bad bosses we have endured about how not to lead as from good ones we seek to emulate.

On a much more positive note, at that critical time in my career I benefitted greatly from the wisdom of my father, as he was then leading Shell’s management training division, nurturing the leadership skills of Shell executives from around the world. He and his colleagues (including Charles Handy, who later became Britain’s leading management guru; and for a while Nick Muriuki, who was then Shell Kenya’s Personnel Manager) developed a sense of responsible leadership in them way ahead of their times.

But back to the present. Today’s employers are facing all kinds of challenges that could not even have been predicted when I was a young man. In those days when we joined a company our expectation was that we would stay there for many years, gradually rising up the ranks of management. Now, by contrast, our nomadic millennials assume they will bounce from opportunity to opportunity every few years – correction, every very few years – and expecting to be treated respectfully and be given serious responsibilities in support of worthy causes. (Let’s not overstate this though – baby-boomers too sought uplifting challenges.)

Then, globalisation and the advent of the Internet have led to the internationalisation of the job market in many kinds of activity, from the off-shoring of manufacturing to the online provision of services from anywhere on the planet. Now other fast-developing technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence are replacing increasing numbers of human beings, and in particular those who lack the skills to contribute to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

So where does this leave responsible leadership? How must leaders behave to attract and retain high-flying and mobile millennials? How can they provide jobs in communities where unemployment is high and the development of skills and attitudes needed for the jobs available – never mind those needed to become entrepreneurs – are lacking? Where to remain competitive they must introduce labour-saving technology, everywhere from banking to farming.

In our turbulent times further concerns appear. Everywhere, as people live longer, how to handle those in their “third age”? We resent them holding onto jobs beyond the age of 60, as a result of which subsequent generations are prevented from fulfilling their potential, and yet many still have much to contribute.

How do we develop a culture of diversity and inclusiveness, that not only allows different generations to work harmoniously together, but also women and men, people of different ethnicities and religions, various temperaments and preferences?

In countries like Kenya we have hundreds of thousands of long-term refugees, passive recipients of day-to-day humanitarian aid. How can they be assisted more sustainably? What is the role of government, and what can leaders beyond government contribute?

Today my space only allows me to pose the questions. But I don’t feel at all badly about that. For it offers you the opportunity to reflect for yourselves on the “so what?” of these questions, without being influenced by my responses. Please do reflect, knowing though that in my next column in a fortnight’s time I will be offering my thoughts on the subject.

How to align universities with the new curriculum

Last week I ran a session on transformative leadership at a four-day workshop for vice chancellors and principals of Kenyan universities. It was organised by the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), the Kenya DAAD Scholars Association (KDSA) and the Commission for University Education.

Today I will be reviewing the main issues that emerged from our conversation. The dozen or so gathered by Lake Naivasha, a bright and cheerful collection of dons, first discussed what transformative leadership meant in their context. Reassuringly they spoke about being change agents who, through participative management styles, bring people together around common visions and values and achieve extraordinary results. And about doing through research and innovation and, by making optimal use of their human and financial resources, deliver programmes that meet market demands while remaining financially sustainable. Sounds good.

They agreed that they need to add value in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, where many of today’s jobs will no longer exist and new ones will emerge. Also that as the products of the new Competence Based Curriculum begin entering their campuses in a few years’ time, they must have completely replaced the traditional style of lecturing and examining if they are to match the abilities and needs of their far more evolved and demanding students.

So what does this mean for styles of leadership?

The main thought I offered is that they must be experts at “aligning energy”. First internally, aligning energy vertically between their councils, management, faculty and other staff, and the students and their leaders. And aligning it horizontally, between their main and other campuses; between faculties and programmes; and between the support functions — like finance, HR, ICT and legal — and the student-facing ones.

Then there’s external energy alignment, with the Ministry of Education and the Commission for Higher Education (CUE); local and international partners — universities, research institutions and others; the schools and parents who deliver their raw material, and the workplace that receives their finished products; sources of funding beyond government and students’ fees; and other stakeholders.

Among all these areas of potential lack of alignment — with their weak collaboration, unproductive conflict, and hence wasted energy — the topics we spend time on include the silos that too often exist between departments. And more so in these times of scarce resources and the extreme pressure to become lean.

We heard from one vice chancellor who struggled to bring two programmes together and thereby utilise their resources more effectively. They resisted fiercely, eventually provoking the benevolent dictator in him to emerge. So how, we asked, can such resistance to mandatory change be reduced, given the perception among many of those involved that they will be worse off as a result?

In my work as a consultant the silo challenge is among the commonest — irrespective of the nature or size of the organisation. So I shared with the group how I help soften attitudes that prevent synergy between silos. It is, as I have written in these columns before, by having them exchange offers and requests, enabling them to “negotiate to win-win”. This requires great emotional intelligence, with leaders (and consultants) acting as mediators. And it is by stimulating learning and growth, and therefore enthusiasm, among those involved.

The other common area where alignment needs improving is between the council and management. How does each define its role? Where and how can council members add value? How do all concerned come together around common objectives, and within a healthy culture? All this requires carefully facilitated conversations, with the university CEOs central to it all.

Related topics I introduce include doing a good job with performance management, going beyond compliance and with no room for lame indicators that fall short of assessing ultimate impact; spreading a coaching culture at all levels of leadership; and letting go of counterproductive beliefs.

Such leadership programmes to help universities become more effective are quite new to Kenya. So kudos to those involved, on this occasion DAAD, KDSA and CUE, for having identified the yawning gap and for helping to fill it. Now the participants must stay closely in touch, sharing their experiences and strengthening each other along the way.