Conversations are important

Being in business in Africa offers us many opportunities. I rate as the most significant the opportunity to do things right, first time. By which I mean learning from other markets and applying our own intellectual and emotional impetus to doing business better

As our homegrown commercial enterprises scale up and regionalise (even globalise) we re-engineer strategy, finance, production, distribution. But to me the golden opportunity is to redesign our company cultures. In particular to give people at many levels in an organisation the chance to contribute to the bigger business conversation.

So it was with interest that I read recently about a new approach to leadership. The catalyst for change (as so often) is technology, and in this case its impact on communication. Gary Hamel of London Business School explains: “The open and meritocratic architecture of the internet allows us to express opinions, expose misdeeds and build on-line communities. It makes us less tolerant of the closed, top down power structures we experience in the off-line world’”

International communicator Dik Veenman goes further: “Whether we like it or not, the workplace has been democratised. Employees expect to be heard, they expect to be involved and they expect to have things explained to them.”

“Deference has given way to reference,” says Veenman “ And with the explosion of technology and social media we are more likely to make a decision on anything from a restaurant booking to a new employer based on the information available online and recommendations from peers rather than any glossy marketing output.”

What to do?  Well Hamel and colleagues recommend that we resuscitate the humble conversation. Repurpose it for business. They acknowledge that organisations already run on conversations. The un-codified and often overlooked lifeblood of companies. Conversations are what give the day-to-day operations of a business its momentum. Organisational knowledge is shared, reviewed and created in offsites, team meetings, phone calls, town hall sessions, one-to-one appraisals and corridor talk every second of every business day.  Conversations are, quite simply, how business is actually done.

Yet as we all know many workplace conversations are meaningless, empty or even actively destructive. A few months ago in this column I highlighted how many grapevine conversations inside African businesses revolve around sexual rumour, spying and even witchcraft. Bizarre as this sounds, it makes more sense when you consider that ordinary staff members have no other reference point or means of explaining why things happen in the business. Senior management teams often absent themselves from the company conversation. Preferring to issue diktats; and expecting the hapless HR manager to handle any feedback from employees.

There are however clear exceptions. I heard last week of an international bank whose Kenyan leadership decided they wanted to talk to every staff member, every Wednesday afternoon. So they now produce an internal TV programme every weekend, featuring company news, and inviting and publishing staff comment. At 4pm every Wednesday this programme interrupts every computer screen in the bank, and 4000 staff are reconnected to the company conversation. To any MD who has ever waited 6 months for his monthly company newsletter to come out, this will sound like the stuff of dreams. But it’s happening every week because this bank believes in the value of a company conversation.

Back to Dik Veenman “In practice we can see traditional ‘command and control’ leadership giving way to a more inclusive management style. Trust in traditional leaders and what they say is at an all-time low, highlighted in the Edelman Trust Barometer. Only one in five respondents to the 2014 survey said they trusted business leaders to tell the truth and make ethical and moral decisions. In the 2015 survey CEO’s came out particularly poorly with the trust deficit significantly higher in the developed world.”

So, it would appear that here in Africa we have a margin of time in which to reconsider how we lead employees, before the juggernaut of online opprobrium thunders into us. So here’s an opportunity for leaders, HR professionals and other internal communicators.

Recognise that employees are no longer prepared to merely ‘toe the line’. Take steps, as Stanbic Bank has done, to inform them more fully and to encourage them to be part of shaping a better future.


Next week we’ll look at how we can prepare the ground for better company conversations.



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