For the first 12 years of my career I worked for a British IT multinational, in both field offices and in the head office, and it was in the late 70s, for the last two of these, that I came to Kenya to manage its local subsidiary here. So from different perspectives I was able to study the company’s organisational culture, who was likely to get and not get promoted…and why.
I was able to see how it was so often the crafty individuals manoeuvred their way up the corporate ladder, driven by politics and personal interest. Indeed their prime energy was devoted to such jostling, undermining competitors and cosying up to their seniors. Let me just say that when I finished my contract with this corporate I vowed I would never work for a large multinational organisation again, unwilling to engage in the unhealthy win-lose manoeuvring required to climb the greasy pole to its upper levels.
Since then, as a local business partner to a variety of multinationals, in both management and in board positions, and also as a consultant, I have seen the same patterns. This independently of whether the head office was in America or the UK, France or The Netherlands, South Africa or Egypt. The same is often true of multilateral development partners like the World Bank and the UN, bilateral ones, and international NGOs. And let’s not even talk about government administrations, never mind the disruptions that follow elections.
The pattern is consistent. In all such organisations, every few years the whistle blows and the next round of musical chairs is activated. New faces seek new structures that typically simply introduce a different mix of advantages and disadvantages. Too often the underlying motivation is for the new incumbent to show what great change champions they are — while being disturbingly indifferent to the chaos and confusion in the build up to their “brilliant” new set up and to its subsequent chaotic implementation. (See Boris Johnson!)
The actual purpose, I have seen, is to boost their short-term CV, showing what bold innovators they are…while ignoring the waste of energy and compromised productivity as staff must deal with the insecurities that have been activated within them during the transition. No wonder many will assume — however justified or otherwise — that they will end up as demotivated losers.
It is also worth mentioning the challenges that exist with voluntary organisations like business member and professional associations, and also ones like Rotary (where Yusuf Dawood in a recent Surgeons Diary article complained about dysfunctionalities at its highest levels). More so where volunteers are involved, the tendency I have witnessed is for those with high ego needs to find their way to prominence — and it is why I have never been shy to point out the particular requirement for low-ego humble leadership among such entities.
But let us not over-generalise. There are of course many exceptions to these dog-eat-dog cultures. Ones where their leaders hold on to the uplifting vision and values of the organisation and strive to help others do so, recognising and empowering those who perform in the interests of all.
My clear lesson over the years is to hold back from joining organisations where self-absorbed characters play with their selfish short-term agendas. I will only associate myself with a culture where I can feel at home with my ethical values, working with like-minded men and women for the greater and longer-term common good.
There are many good leaders around who seek nothing more than to be able to fulfill their potential by building responsible sustainable organisations around them.
The challenge is to create that coalition of the willing where such people strengthen and support one another, share best practice among themselves, and form role models for the rest of society.
Let us keep away from witnessing the “Peter Principle”, where people are “promoted to their level of incompetence”, and as a result “fail upwards”. We are better than that, and not least in Kenya, where over the years it has been my privilege to mingle with so many world class responsible characters, great leaders who would and often do thrive anywhere in the world. Not least in Rotary.