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It’s good to be young – but better to be effective

Nov 11, 2007 Success, Sunday Nation

Football pundit Alan Hansen, when surveying the new-look Manchester United team of 1995-96, famously stated: “You can’t win anything with kids”. Those words have probably haunted him every day of his life subsequently. Manchester United went to win the English Premiership title that year, with a team whose average age was 24, and 6 of whose members were no more than 21. It also went on to become one of the world’s most successful and most famous teams.

The Business Daily is Kenya’s first daily business newspaper. It is a high-quality publication aimed squarely at the business reader who wants to keep abreast of developments in the corporate world and the economy, and in the field of management.

Producing such a publication every day is, as you can imagine, no joke. It requires technical expertise, prudence and judgement. But here’s my point: if you walk into the BD office, you will find the whole place populated by very young people: pretty much everyone at the BD seems to be a twenty- or thirty-something. For many, it is their first experience of journalism. The BD may have got some things wrong, but it is a respected entrant into the quality newspaper market in Kenya, and is fast becoming a ‘must-read’ for the country’s business community.

Callow youngsters producing something as serious as a top-end publication? Who would have thought it? But the BD youngsters are not alone. Across the country, a newer, younger, fresher breed of employee is emerging.

At East African Breweries, the average age of the senior management team is somewhere in the mid-thirties. A decade ago, it would have been in the mid-fifties. If you visit Equity Bank, Kenya’s fastest-growing financial institution, you will not observe many grey hairs. I conducted a seminar at Haco Industries recently, and was taken aback to note how young the senior management team seemed (I was undoubtedly the oldest person in the room – and I’m not quite ready to retire to the farm just yet!).

Some of our most respected chief executives are forty-somethings: Vimal Shah, Gerald Mahinda, Richard Etemesi, Tony Wainaina, Julius Kipng’etich, Linus Gitahi, Frank Ireri, Adan Mohammed, Mugo Kibati, James Mwangi – these leaders are not any older than independent Kenya itself.

That is a damn fine thing. The stewardship of the finest institutions in the land must indeed be in the hands of those who belong to the current era – not hoarded by those who peaked during the 1970s coffee boom. This is the era of digital media, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and global outsourcing. It is not an era that is kind to those who don’t “get” it.

I wrote about the need for renewal, in nature, in life, and in leadership, in this column two years ago: “Renewal brings forth new energy, new ideas, new methods. It is a vitally necessary part of national and economic evolution…Renewal demands that the people who understand a new era and are part of its ethos, also play a key role in managing its affairs.”

But a word of caution. Youthfulness brings energy, ideas, enthusiasm and a ‘can-do’ attitude. But being young is not enough: you must also be effective. There is a wisdom that only comes through experience, as I have discovered over the years. No amount of energy and enthusiasm can give you the deep understanding of life, its nuances and vicissitudes, that age brings. You actually have to go through certain things in order to understand them.

Earlier this week I watched a TV show that assembles political aspirants in a debate format. Refreshingly, all the candidates on show were extremely young. I was delighted to see this, and silently applauded their courage and commitment.

But I was also left thinking that good leadership is about qualities, not characteristics. It really isn’t about how young you are, or how educated, or how full of beans. Merely being young or being a woman is no guarantee of leadership quality, as some members of the ninth parliament demonstrated to the country in no uncertain terms.

The new wave of Kenyan corporate entities are not succeeding because their managers are young; they are succeeding because their managers are GOOD. They are competent, skilled and effective. In addition, their relative youth gives them a buzz and drive that is often lacking in the older folk. But you can’t get anywhere without the basics being in place.

I would be delighted to wake up on December 28th to find that our next parliament is going to contain a good share of youngsters. I would be even more delighted if those youngsters turn out to be humble people of outstanding personal integrity with thoughtful agendas who are ready to serve rather than to reign.

Some of the youthful aspirants are being dismissed because they are former professional comedians. Personally, I have no problem with their background; it would make a nice change. Thus far, most of our leaders have become professional comedians AFTER joining the house of parliament.

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