"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

Designing the top team, Kenya-style

Dec 18, 2005 Leadership, Sunday Nation

In the light of recent events, we need to revisit the work of Jim Collins. I introduced his “Good to Great” project in this column recently. To recap, Mr. Collins and an army of researchers conducted a five-year project to answer the question: what is it that leads to greatness in companies? What attributes do corporations that achieve market-beating results for long periods of time have in common?

One of the project’s most interesting findings was about management teams. Mr. Collins came up with a counter-intuitive result: “who” before “what”. Generations of management theorists have been schooled in the maxim that you decide what an organisation should do before thinking about who should do it. In other words, the visionary leader usually imagines and depicts a glowing future, and then recruits a management team to fulfil it.

Using the metaphor of a bus to represent the company, the Collins team turned this on its head. Great companies, they told us, start with “who”. They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline – first the people, then the direction – no matter how dire the circumstances.

This is a ringing endorsement (backed up by systematic research) of the truth that great people create great organisations. As one of the CEOs in the study put it: there would only be seats on his bus for A-level people willing to put in A-plus effort. The benefits of having such people on the bus is three-fold: first, it improves the organisation’s ability to adapt to a fast-changing world; second, top-notch people rarely need external motivation, so a high-performing team is usually self-motivating; and third, if you have the wrong people on the bus, nothing else matters. You may be headed in the right direction, but you still won’t achieve greatness. As Mr. Collins tells us: great vision with mediocre people still produces mediocre results.

That was a long introduction to discuss the fiasco that has left us all slack-jawed over the past two weeks: the selection of the new cabinet. Kenya is an organisation like any other, and needs to have top people in the right seats. If we put the right talent in at the top, the country will go places. If we don’t, it won’t. In my view, our economic stagnation over 40 years is directly linked to our systematic failure to construct the right leadership teams. Mediocrity has produced mediocrity.

This, sadly, is what we observed over the past fortnight. A team of people was announced to take the key positions in the bus. Self-evidently, this team was constructed on the basis of loyalty to the driver rather than ability to deliver results. Twenty-odd team members, mostly feeling slighted at not being offered window seats, declined to take up their positions.

Another half-dozen or so former seat occupiers who had been heckling the long-suffering driver were unceremoniously thrown off the bus. They promptly threatened to set up roadblocks and stone the vehicle. Those who had declined, allegedly on principle, were now offered lollipops and ice-cream to board the bus. They threw higher thought to the high winds and climbed on, but brought a ragged crew of relatives and cronies with them.

To accommodate the new numbers, the driver and conductor came up with a novel solution: they carved some seats in half so that two people could now perch precariously where one had sat previously. The newcomers found nothing demeaning about this arrangement, and plonked themselves onto their half-seats with joy and ululations.

Needless to say, not one of the seated worthies has a clue where this bus is going; they are merely there to enjoy the ride. The bus will, as it has for decades, go round in circles.

Will we ever realise the importance of placing top talents in top positions? For political expediency, we have created yet more joke ministries. Instead of Lands and Housing, we have “Lands” and “Housing” as separate ministries. A suggestion: why leave out the “And”? Why not have a Minister for And? Another job, another politician neutered and brought into the tent, and the best part of all – no duties, pretend or otherwise!

While we’re at it, there is so much more subdivision that can be done. Education? That’s 3 ministries, surely: Primary, Secondary and Tertiary. Tourism? Domestic and International, of course. Transport? Too much for one person; divide it into Road, Rail and Air. With a bit of creative thinking, we could devise top jobs for all 222 MPs, and have the most stable government ever seen.

Did women benefit from their late entry into the cabinet? Did they, heck: they put their cause back by a decade. To enter via political extortion and on the basis of tribal balancing acts takes neither women nor Kenya an inch forward. The shamelessness of politicians knows no bounds: declining on principle one day; accepting with glee and goodies the next.

If this is funny, the price tag is not. Each additional ministry could be setting the taxpayer back a cool billion bob a year. With 34 ministries, we have more than twice the number we need to run our affairs efficiently. All because we have failed to recognise the primacy of good human capital.

When it comes to leadership, less is always more; fewer means greater. Look at the small group of high-performing Kenyan companies: I challenge you to find one where the average age is not 40-something, whose luminaries do not carry world-class credentials, whose energy and drive is not boundless. Or one that has a single top manager more than is needed.

To achieve the same for the country, we must awaken to the fact that we have to appoint people on the basis of skills, qualifications, achievements and commitment. It’s down to voters to send that message, loudly and clearly.

On a separate note: Last week I expressed the hope on this page that the police are serious about using their new Alcoblow gadgets to attack the scourge of drunken driving. That could only happen if the enforcement was done fairly and not used as another tool for corruption. This week reports suggest that Alcoblow is being termed the ‘Reverse ATM’ – a thousand shillings or so must be deposited in order to get out of the clutches of the police.

I hope Commissioner Ali is paying attention. This is exactly the behaviour that undermines every initiative to make Kenyans follow the law. No amount of fancy advertising can improve the image of the police when the reality on the ground is entirely different.

And to all the drunkards out there: it’s better that you spend the thousand bob on an enterprising taxi driver rather than a crooked policeman.

Buy Sunny Bindra's book
here »

Share or comment on this article

More Like This