Visible leadership

I’m sure many of you have watched the hit comedy series The Office in either its UK or US versions. If you haven’t, let me tell you that is one the most embarrassingly funny satires of office life that you’re ever likely to see. Its ability to make people squirm lies in the accuracy of its observation of human behaviour. I dare you to watch the series and not see things you have done yourself. The writers didn’t even have to exaggerate.

The Office also satirises various kinds of leadership style – both from the formal leaders in the fictional business and the informal ones. The wannabe leader, the rebel leader, the visitor from Head Office. Once again they are funny because they lampoon behaviours we all see in working environments every day: vanity, treachery, abdication of responsibility, favouritism, discrimination.

And that’s not so funny, when you stop to think about it.

What leaders forget is that that they’re under surveillance around the clock. From the way they greet security guards, to their clothing choices, to the food they eat and the calls they make.

They are watched by the silent majority – a group of people that, by contrast, leaders know relatively little about. As a CEO friend of mine says: ‘They know every little detail of our lives, yet we know nothing of theirs.’ Continue reading

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The whole football

Last week I  listened to a very seasoned regional business leader as he spoke to our CEO programme He came to talk to us about governance. Very soon that led to a discussion about organisational culture. About how a workforce and management team, who are properly aligned, create fewer exposures to risk.

We talked about the need for everyone to understand the big picture and he used such a good analogy that I simply have to share it here. An organisation, he said,  is very much like a leather football. It is made up of panels, sewn together. (12 pentagonal and 20 hexagonal panels in a standard football, by the way.)

In organisations, these panels represent teams, branches or departments. The people working on each panel know each other, and they also know the people on adjacent panels with whom they interact. A few of them also know what happens on panels a bit further away. But almost nobody knows what happens on the other side of the football. Continue reading

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Culture becomes central

After decades of being a ‘nice to have’, the idea of a deliberately created corporate culture is finally moving closer to the top of Board agendas. Around the world, an ever-lengthening series of corporate scandals and audit and governance bloopers have raised serious questions about the standing of business in wider society.

The Institute of Business Ethics in the UK recently surveyed 28 large companies in a wide range of sectors to find out what gets reported to the highest echelons of major organisations. They found that 82 per cent of respondent Boards monitored data related to culture.

This is a significant new challenge for business leaders and requires a systemic approach to measuring culture. The most useful information came from external feedback – customers, partners, suppliers and other stakeholders. And so it should, because (although we all want staff to be happy, recognised and rewarded)  where culture really makes a commercial difference is outside the business.

Louise Kelly of Grant Thornton in Belfast writes about The Central Bank of Ireland conducting culture reviews at the five main Irish retail banks. These focused primarily on the performance of Executive leadership teams because they are the ones required to set the tone ‘from the top’ and impact the drivers of group behaviour. The studies produced insights into behavioural and structural patterns in leadership, decision-making, communications, group dynamics and mindset that affect the way consumer needs are considered. These banks are now required to deliver action plans to address the risks identified in the reviews. Continue reading

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Truth, essential in business

It matters not how many procedures or policies you put in place, or how many dashboards you set up. If your company culture does not prize truthfulness, you will experience commercial disappointment.

And there’s plenty of disappointment about in business today. In management meetings, weekly reports and board papers. To be fair, much of it is a sin of omission rather than commission. People hate to bring bad news; so they avoid it. Many bosses like to shoot the messenger; which reinforces this behaviour. Every hierarchy place hurdles and threats in front of the truthful.

It is often said that, in Africa, people like to tell you what you want to hear. Maybe they did, in the same way, that no one ever used to place a value on timeliness. But, increasingly, modern Africans knows that if you want to get on, you must be on time. So perhaps it’s also time to dispense with our whimsical view of disingenuousness.

Reputation, trust and credibility are assets that no brand or organisation can afford to lose, and the surest way to lose them is to lie. Honesty may not always pay, but lying always costs. Continue reading

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Marketers as CEOs

It’s been a while since I last looked into the likelihood of Marketers in East Africa reaching the C Suite, or even holding the top job in our biggest companies. My methodology tends to be qualitative, picking up data from what I read and what senior business or academic colleagues tell me. But I have to say that I don’t yet discern a surge of CEO candidates with marketing backgrounds. Instead I am aware of several senior Marketers who have left the corporate world to become entrepreneurs and apply their experience and talents to their own businesses. If that is the most likely destination for decades of practical marketing experience, then one has to say that the corporate sector is missing a trick. But maybe the few really top Marketers want it that way. Preferring to test their skills in the commercial arena, backed by their own money … to arm-wrestling senior colleagues from Finance, Procurement or Operations for the rest of their careers.

But the net effect seems as true today as it was when I touched on the subject nearly a decade ago. In our biggest companies, the direction of Marketing may rest in the hands of discipline leaders who have reached their limit of their career development.

In America,  Kimberly Whitler from the University of Virginia has run a number of comparative studies on the subject. She’s interested in which kind of companies create conditions for Marketers to lead the whole enterprise. Her work is based on data captured from LinkedIn. Whitler notes that what distinguishes the Top 15 such firms is:

  • They regard Marketing as a P&L function, not a staff or discipline function.
  • They operate in the most competitive categories.
  • They have a sustained track record of investing in Marketing talent
  • They promote enterprise-wide learning and leadership training for all discipline heads.

Continue reading

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Workspace woes

The world of work still needs an effective solution to the shaping of productive office space. Here in Africa, relatively few of us have the privilege of working in offices. Far more people work in small retail outlets, factories and out under the hot sun.

For the modern office worker, anything seems better than the dark-panelled dens of the public sector, or the stark concrete and glass of academia. So many of us feel happy when we see an open plan office. ‘Here,’ we say, ‘is a modern company. I am going to enjoy working here.’

But sometimes we are disappointed. I have never liked open-plan workspaces (even those with glassed off offices for managers and rooms for meetings). My first experience of them was in Europe, where huge spaces housing tens of people were eerily silent. I found that silence inhibiting – it was as if everybody was listening to every call I made. Consequently, I spent a lot of time making calls in meeting rooms.

To be honest, I have never found open plan offices in Africa to be silent. There is always a hubbub, and sometimes it’s cheerful. But the problem here is that everything that happens becomes everyone’s business. Work and personal matters combine in an endless buzz that increases tensions between colleagues.

Then we have open plan environments where the bosses like to shout, and invoke apprehension. These are truly counterproductive, as employees spend most of their time anticipating unwelcome attention. Continue reading

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Incivility is counterproductive

One of the many differences between people on either side of the Millennial divide is their approach to email. Those of us who began to work before the dubious blessing of email tend to aspire to ‘zero email’ – the happy utopia of an empty inbox. We work diligently through our mails, and increasingly become caught in a spiral of catch-up because the flow of emails never stops. Nevertheless, we drive ourselves to respond and file incessantly, with Calvinist zeal.

Back in January 2017, French workers actually won the legal right to ignore email and SMS messages after working hours. Quite what that has done to the productivity of a nation that espouses a 35-hour working week, I couldn’t say.

Younger people in work are now displaying an alternative behaviour. They understand that a clean inbox is an unrealistic goal, so they are practising ‘email infinity’. This means accepting that the number of mails in your inbox will always be infinite because your time to deal with them is finite. So you ignore most of them. In fact, at the extreme end of this behaviour, employees are using out-of-office settings to deflect the deluge. They have a point – how can you answer 500 emails when there are only 480 minutes in the average working day?

But here’s the rub: reducing your email engagement may do you some good as an individual, but it creates a much bigger problem in the medium term. Think about the three constituencies most workers influence – customers, colleagues and suppliers. Just how does deliberate non-communication make them feel? Continue reading

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Controlled growth

When you start a Company, you begin with a small group of colleagues. Initially hired for the technical abilities the business needs. But soon, through departures and hirings, you find yourself surrounded by a group of like-minded people. The non-aligned self-select themselves out, or you will let them go because they don’t feel like a good fit. There’s nothing rational in this, which is why it works so well. All successful leaders hire and retain for attitude.  But at some point even they reach the headcount threshold that challenges the culture.

Army officers will tell you that the optimum unit size for effective command is 100 soldiers. Big enough to operate independently, yet small enough for the leaders to know their troops intimately. Serial entrepreneurs talk about the moment when you can’t remember the names of the people you meet in the corridor.

British Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, coined the Rule of 150 as “a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.”  I would imagine the actual number would vary by nature of business. But I agree that there comes a point when the leadership needs to stop and think about how best to tackle the next phase of growth.

Carrying on as before may feel safer but invariably leads to stress and sometimes to failure. I believe that this is the moment when you need to consolidate the best aspects of your organisational culture and actively train new joiners and refresh existing staff on ‘the way we do things around here.’ Continue reading

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Looking for leadership

Looking ahead to 2019 there are plenty of reports circulating about economic growth in East Africa. Perhaps some of them haven’t been updated recently, because I’m not so sure. I speak to many business leaders and very few of them have made hay in 2018.

Kenya is still trying to normalise after double Election damage in 2017. Tanzania’s President may be a principled man, but there’s no money circulating in that market. Uganda is getting high on the faintest whiff of oil, and last week I attended a Tullow presentation on Project Oil Kenya which should have had the assembled CEOs skipping out into the street, throwing their papers in the air. But it didn’t, and not least because none of us know of an African economy that has been transformed by oil.

So I’d bank on 2019 being another tough year for business leaders. And tougher for their customers and employees. These three constituencies are, of course, inextricably entwined. Each is capable of making a significant impact on the other. Irritable customers meeting demoralised employees is a recipe for disaster; so in 2019 our business leaders will have to ‘up their game’. They alone can moderate the emotional temperature and turn bad karma to unexpected gain. Continue reading

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A little help

December offers leaders a good opportunity to pause and reflect on the well-being of their people. The context is perfect. Whatever their faith, almost everyone regards the Christmas period as a time for reconnecting with what really matters in life. Many consider the achievements, failures and learnings of the past year. They make decisions about what they will do in the year ahead. Actually, the best decisions will be about what they will no longer do in the New Year.

Last week I heard an entrepreneurial CEO tell our Amalgam Leadership Programme participants that he uses the year-end to improve his delegation. “I look at what I’ve done, and decide what was a good use of my time. The rest delegate to the right people. It develops them, and frees me up for more of what I should be doing – thinking ahead of the business.”

Recruiters tell me that January always brings them a fresh crop of candidates to add to their inventory. These are the good people – the ones who have decided to move on and test themselves with fresh challenges. Not the 85% of staff who are happy to stick like limpets to their current employment contract. These ones (increasing in numbers each year as the Millennial Mindset takes root) have taken stock of their experience and decided to roll the dice again. What a rich hunting ground for new employers.

So at year end, the organisational leader actually has two opportunities to refresh relationships with staff. With high performers, who may be on the verge of departure; to recognise the strong contribution and identify exciting new opportunities for them. And with the rump of the business, to engage with staff whose residual value is high, but whose motivation may be waning. The people who will never be on the Dream Team; but nonetheless are needed for sustainability. With this group, your challenge is to reassure them that their decision to hang around was valid. That you appreciate them and notice the contribution they make. Make them feel valued afresh.

It’s time to re-articulate the Company narrative and celebrate the good things. Time to give a little lift to the people upon whom your success depends. Yes, that might be the Christmas party – despite the longstanding patronising tradition it has become. But how much better for a leader to be spontaneous. Short personal conversations, handwritten notes. Informal chats with departments. Small, thoughtful gifts and unexpected allowances (more time for travel, help with a medical bill). At Christmas time a little more fellow feeling can produce dividends in the New Year.


Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa


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