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The CEO agenda for Kenya

May 15, 2005 Leadership, Sunday Nation

Chief Executive Officers of Kenya should read John Donne: “No business is an island entire of itself; every organisation is a piece of the economy, a part of the main; if a consumer be washed away by the sea of poverty, Kenya is the less, as well as if a company were, as well as if an industry of thy friends or thine own were…and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Were Mr. Donne alive, I would apologise profusely for adulterating his famous lines. But I am sure he would understand the need. The passage summarises the battle cry raised in this column last week: that the chief executives of this country, being the guardians of vast pools of resources and expertise, must step in to salvage the country. And they must do this not just out of nationalism or altruism, but for the sake of their own shareholders. We will not have a long run in which to make profits if the short run continues to unravel.

But what exactly is the CEOs’ agenda? Should they really trample on the toes of government? Should they devote large chunks of time away from their businesses in order to help the country? No. We are not asking CEOs to storm parliament, nor to stand for election. But they can certainly use their clout in a number of high-impact ways.

Firstly, the fight to introduce enlightened policy initiatives must continue. There is no alternative to good government. What business leaders must do is set up an effective lobbying mechanism to force attention on priorities. The time for politeness, however, is over. It should be apparent by now that government does not pay any attention to politely worded lists of demands tabled at conferences. It is time to flex some muscle. Corporate Kenya accounts for a very serious chunk of GDP; it’s time to make it count. We no longer have the time to “sensitise” government to private-sector needs; we must simply force government to stand and deliver. Perhaps we should focus on just 3 headline deliverables: security; trunk and feeder roads; and liberalised telecommunications, for example. And let’s demand it in a businesslike way: timeframe – one year; monitoring – monthly; pressure – unrelenting.

That’s how results are achieved in our businesses, after all: a small set of priorities; focused attention; and remorseless measurement and monitoring of outcomes. Why should the country be any different? But the country’s business leaders must put this across with one voice and with great forcefulness. The gloves must come off.

Secondly, the private sector must gear itself up to play a greater role in the business of government. Government has proved, time and again, its woeful incapacity to manage. The change programme that would be needed to introduce good management into government today would be too colossal for anyone to handle. The culture is too entrenched, the networks of patronage too tangled. The task, rather, must be to get management out of government. The various water companies set up across the country provide an example: government (and taxpayers) retain ownership; private-sector professionals assume the management mantle – and are free to run the entity as necessary to deliver returns. Private-public partnerships have revolutionised infrastructure management the world over; here, the idea remains bogged down in the sludge of vested interests.

Equally, in many countries national and local government now issues long-term contracts to outsourcing companies and facilities specialists: to provide IT solutions; to run entire departments; to manage service delivery. The government plays the role of negotiator and regulator; the investment, structure and delivery is managed by private companies. In this country, we simply have no option but to go down this route.

A third agenda item for CEOs: corporate social responsibility (CSR) projects. CSR is all the rage: businesses are falling over themselves to “give something back” (and be photographed doing it). So far, CSR is largely a whimsical activity focused on charity and philanthropy. It has the power to be much more. Large corporations can make very large investments in their own future as well as the country’s, by focusing resources on long-term capacity building. A number of such initiatives are bearing fruit: the Aberdare Forest protection project coordinated by the Nation Media Group, for example; or the Asian Foundation’s setting up of the City Park hawker’s market. These projects go beyond mere charity: they protect future resources and allow poor people to develop a stake in the economy.

In many cases, CSR partnerships will be necessary; CEOs must get used to developing alliances with like-minded partners and NGOs. If this is done, a variety of capacity-building ideas become possible: transferring knowledge to the small-enterprise sector, for example, via “mentoring” or “adoption” of enterprises in the same industry who can then develop into full-fledged suppliers and sub-contractors; or enabling the participation of the informal sector in delivery of public services – such as waste disposal and recycling, or transportation.

If the mind is open, the initiatives will emerge. CEOs spend much time and resources on improving their own companies’ human capital and productive capacity; a refocusing of CSR onto building the capital and capabilities of others will reap huge benefits for the country. The beauty is that none of it needs to be done at the expense of shareholders. Well-focused CSR can be an investment in a pipeline of future suppliers, workers or customers. It is also a very powerful investment in the company’s own reputation for doing good, which is known to result in very strong customer goodwill.

The final agenda item concerns the issue of role models. For too long, Kenyans have observed the behavioural traits of the high and mighty and have seen all the wrong things: monumental egos, an obsessive love affair with large cars and houses; an aversion to hard work; a willingness to bend all rules. CEOs are role models in their own right, and can portray a very different picture: of the resourceful, innovative, and sensitive leader, who does not need to throw mud on others, who relies on skill and expertise rather than patronage and cronyism, and who invests for the long term rather than seeking overnight and ill-gotten success. CEOs who have demonstrated a sustained record of success (without political connections to ease the path) will usually have all the right qualities for Kenya’s youth to admire; it is time the spotlight fell on them. Those business leaders who try to outdo politicians on the balance sheet that records flashy cars, tribal poison and dubious deals, on the other hand, have nothing to offer Kenyans.

This is what the country needs from enlightened CEOs: that they become activists for positive change, using their collective economic power; that they build the companies that will assume the responsibility for management of public services; that they move their corporate largesse away from “giving” and towards “building”; and that they exhibit the change they wish for the country in their own behaviour and practices. So if you’re a business leader, pay attention to those loud bells: they’re tolling for you.

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