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My final ‘Thought Leadership’ column: the business of doing business

This will be my final column in the Thought Leadership series in this newspaper. The column began life in August 2007 and tried to bring you the best business insights from leading books and publications – and elaborate on those insights in a Kenyan and African context.

In this valedictory piece, I would like to set out the key lessons from the series as a way of saying goodbye. When I would select excerpts from outstanding business books or leading journals, I was using a particular filter. A filter was necessary because much of what is published in the name of management, strategy and leadership is, I’m afraid, just snake oil. My filter came from a deeply held personal belief: that business should be a bigger deal than it currently is.

If you think about it, business is a primal force in all our lives, regardless of whether we have ever worked in one. Business is the great engine of growth in the world; the primary creator of wealth; the key provider of employment; the producer of the goods and services that make all our lives easier, more productive, and more enjoyable. Business is a very big deal. But it is not being run like one.

My continuing role in business is as a lifelong student, advisor, teacher and observer. Much of the time, this perspective leaves me aghast: at the extent to which one of life’s nobler pursuits is corrupted. Far from being the providers of value and fulfilment to the world, too many of the world’s business leaders seem to behave no better than hustlers on the street or crapshooters in the casino.

So the abiding lesson of the six years of this column is simply this: there’s more to business than we make of it. It’s a bigger deal than the personal financial deal. We have to look beyond the crafty self-interest that passes for business nous, and develop a deeper, longer-term wisdom.

I trust you have not misunderstood me for all these years, so please don’t misunderstand now: this not a plea to make business more charitable, more community-minded, more socialistic. Not at all. Business is best when it’s just business; but business is a far better activity when we are doing it like it should be done. A few thoughts, then, as I sign off.

Great business provides great engagement for employees. It does not merely ‘compensate’ unfortunate workers for doing mind-numbing work for other people; it enrols human beings in a common mission, an adventure that provides growth and learning and fulfilment for everyone on the rocket ship.

Great business centres itself on its customers. It does not treat them with disdain or condescension; it recognizes that the customer is the only element in the business ecosystem injecting cash on a daily basis; everyone else, from employees to shareholders to governments, just divide out the takings. The customer is not a sucker to be fooled; she is the sustainer of the enterprise. Keeping the customer in the middle of the picture is the primal job of business – one that few understand.

Great business builds great brands. Not great logos and ad campaigns and promotions and tag lines, but great brands. A brand is not the packaging; it’s what’s in the box. A great brand is the manifestation of everything the business does. Everyone in the business is a brand manager – not just the spin doctors.

This stuff is hard. It’s easy to be shrewd and cunning and abusive and exploitative and self-absorbed – any quick-talking huckster can do that. It’s way, way harder to be wise, patient, inclusive and thoughtful. It’s been my privilege on this page to show you some people who ignore the easy things and do the hard thing. I hope it’s been as interesting a ride for you as it’s been for me.

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