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An outsiders perspective on the inside of Business, Culture and Leadership in Kenya

By December 16, 2011August 1st, 2018No Comments

Over the last two weeks I have had the privilege to meet a variety of business professionals in Nairobi, including human resource professionals, business editors from the two main newspapers The Standard and The Nation, PR experts, Hotel Marketing Directors and leaders of local non-profits. In general my entry point has been to discuss the opportunity for a business to participate in team building and as a corporate social responsibility programs whereby supporting ACV Kenya in their efforts to educate young girls of Kenya.

As I was able to get a better understanding of some of the challenges of business in Kenya, it became clear that while team building is something that many companies do believe in, there are also critical needs in areas of culture change and leadership development. Here’s my insight.

My experience in the business context of Nairobi has ranged from highly inspirational to highly disappointing. I have heard the stories of business leaders who came from remote villages with disabilities who have become educated and made a powerful positive difference, as well as those that simply exude total apathy. And in both instances the surrounding employees throughout the business were a reflection of the culture. And as in any company, that culture is reflected at various points in the business.

I arrived at one meeting and the guardian at the gate began to give harsh directions about moving and parking the car. Once past the gate the first reception guard immediately began talking about how no visitors can have an appointment that is not confirmed. Imagine a dark frown, closed body language and in general bad attitude. I like to refer to those people you first meet at a place of business as “directors of first impressions.” They are a direct reflection of the culture of that organization. You can imagine how the meeting with that HR professional went.

On the other hand I have had meetings with very sharp professionals diligently analyzing the workforce culture and how to facilitate positive change. Many meetings even included smiling happy receptionists and even happy security guards! I have to tell you that a smiling happy Kenyan is quite a contagious thing! Magical actually.

CULTURE is essentially “the way things are around here.” Yes, smiles included! Workplace culture is based on an ingrained sense of norms, values and beliefs that take form in how people behave, interact and go about doing their business. And culture has a dramatic impact on team performance. A culture creates expectations of performance and also the critical element of how people hold each other accountable.

TEAM: “A team is a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.” – From The Wisdom Of Teams, Katzenbach and Douglas, Harvard Business School Press, 1993.

A key part of this definition of team is the mutual accountability. This is where the overall culture in Kenya may be challenging.

The “Yes” Culture: This appears to be a very common situation where you will be told yes to whatever the request is, even if they don’t really mean yes. And if not yes, then “later,” which really means “never.” Reminded me of the Jack Johnson song, “seems to me that maybe, pretty much means no…”

Where does this cultural norm come from? The roots seem to be in the culture of the village. The village culture is one where everyone helped each other out and shared everything. Even if there is nearly nothing to share, they shared anyway. And there was always the intention to help out another person in the community village. The idea of uhbuntu, or brotherhood, reigns supreme.

Fast forward to modern day business. And at an initial perception, this may seem like to be highly beneficial as the team-support concept is one that can be a powerful driving force. However, if there is an employee that does something wrong or isn’t performing well, the common tactic is to watch that person’s back. And what the culture significantly lacks is straight talk and telling it like it is.

This can lead to a culture where performance drops and people in the company take precedent over the business results. Overall work place engagement can suffer as the commitment may not be to the company.

And in essence this is really just a culture that is fostered just like any other. Keep in mind that this Yes cultural norm is just one example of a type of culture that may be ingrained in a company that may not promote healthy interaction and positive business results. And I am also not saying to strip away the history and culture of the people of Kenya. They key point here may be to focus on the bright spots. Those area that do produce positive results and also respect the history of the culture or Kenya.

So how does one shift a culture? This is the million dollar question. And the million dollar answer begins with one word: LEADERSHIP. Leadership is the art and science of mobilizing others to want to achieve shared aspirations. Business leaders in Kenya have the responsibility to foster a positive culture with norms and behaviors that produce a healthy and productive work environment. It starts with a clear vision of the culture to be created and continues with fostering empowering team members who hold each other accountable for the vision.

This needs to be done on both cognitive/intellectual capacities as well as the emotional. The vision of positive change must be inspiring as well as celebrated as progress is made. These are but a few critical ingredients to the process lf leadership.

It is the ability of the leader to FOSTER POSITIVE CHANGE that will be the positive driving force in a sustainable organization. Leadership, change management, team performance and culture change. These concepts are all skills and strategies that can be learned and implemented with a committed workforce. And in my opinion, experiential training is one of the most powerful and effective ways to support those efforts. Engaging, inspiring and facilitated experiences which focus on promoting the critical skills necessary to propel a sustainable organization into future success.

But only if a company is willing to take the proactive steps to train and develop their employees to shift the culture and empower a new way of doing business.

Tim Walther
– from Nairobi, Kenya

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