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How many in your organization would leave tomorrow?

The year 2003, for those who can remember it, was a time of great optimism in Kenya. A new government was in place, installed by the voters after a prolonged period of autocracy and economic stagnation. 

That optimism caused me to leave employment in order to seek greater fulfilment in my work; and it also brought me on to this page as a columnist. I was enthusiastic and hopeful, and trying to be part of our collective future at multiple levels.

Early that year, I was asked to do a talk about careers and prospects for a group of young Kenyans. I approached this task with zest, thinking I needed to reinforce our youngsters’ positive enthusiasm and rediscovered patriotism. However, halfway through my interactive chat with the young folk, I began to wonder if I had read the room wrong. Most in the audience did not seem to have much optimism in them; many spoke of better prospects elsewhere in the world.

Concerned, I decided to run a snap poll. How many of you, I asked, would be ready to leave the country and make your life elsewhere if given the opportunity? To my amazement, more than 90 per cent of those present raised their hands. I spent the rest of my time in the assembly trying to understand my audience. Why did they want to leave? Because they felt their economic prospects were severely limited; because they did not believe the recent regime change would lead to anything positive for them; because they would rather work in established, mature economies rather than believe fairy tales about our own renaissance.

This was the first speed bump in my own optimism journey. I quickly realised how different the same situation can look to different stakeholders; and how one must not project one’s own context or prospects when trying to design policy prescriptions for others. This was an educated audience of university students and graduates; but more than nine in ten were ready to leave the country of their birth at a moment’s notice. That was when I realised quite how difficult the task of rebuilding a nation by engaging its populace actually is.

The years immediately after 2003 were a mixed bag for Kenyans. Sure, we had an economic revival of sorts; we experienced rapid economic growth; we invested in enabling technologies; we began to attract International investment and attention again. Indeed, some of of our own out there in the diaspora began to return or at least to invest, attracted by new opportunities. That poll would have played out very differently in subsequent years.

But we also saw why unbridled optimism was foolish. Nearly two decades on, we are unable to break the stranglehold that corruption has on this country’s throat; we have done little to improve the lot of the common Kenyan; we are still in the hands of venal manipulators. It is no easy task to break out of our chains, especially if we see them as somehow natural.

It is no different at the level of the organization. What if you could run my poll, and get your people to vote anonymously on this question: how many of you are looking to leave this organization, should you get an opportunity to do so? How many would say they were ready to bolt?

This really matters. If the majority of your employees are only with you because there is nothing better for them, you face an uphill task. If they only make do and mark time with you, you will never realise their true potential in your organization. You might well respond to say that it is in the nature of work that most people dislike it and gain no intrinsic reward from it. Indeed, the Gallup organisation’s regular global polling of workplace attitudes repeatedly shows that no more than one in five workers feel they are engaged at work. Many more report feeling daily negative emotions in their workplaces. Work sucks, in other words.

This is not a natural law. It is a direct reflection of one thing: bad leadership. As Gallup point out in their latest report: “The real fix is this simple: better leaders in the workplace. Managers need to be better listeners, coaches and collaborators. Great managers help colleagues learn and grow, recognize their colleagues for doing great work, and make them truly feel cared about. In environments like this, workers thrive.”

Back in 2003, the realization that poor leadership is the essential problem underlying poor performance caused me to change my own career, to focus on the continuous education of leaders. This is because installing better leaders—at all levels—has a great payoff: when your people feel they can thrive with you, they stick with you and show up properly. They give you their discretionary effort; they are more productive; they yield higher customer loyalty and higher profitability. Why would you not care about that?

So are you ready to conduct my poll? How many of your people want to leave?

(Sunday Nation, 24 July 2022)

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