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One year ago, I met a personable young Eritrean lady living and doing business in Uganda. At our first client/consultant meeting over lunch, (she was the client and I was the consultant), I learnt that when she came to Uganda as a refugee 7 years ago, she didn’t know English or any of the languages we use in East Africa. She was up against a serious language barrier, combined with the fact that she didn’t know anybody in Uganda. But as we spoke that day (in English) I remember thinking, what an engaging manner, what clear thoughts and what depth of passion. In that time, she let me see who she was, what she believed in and where she wanted to go in life. I remember also, that I blown away by her business acumen. She had started a business that is marketing and sales intensive, demands the highest quality of customer care and relationship management to succeed and here she was recounting success stories with customers. Over seven years she had grown from a start-up company with two employees in a foreign country to a profitable dollar-denominated business, employing seven full-time employees and is still growing. She had all this down to her CV before she had turned 30 years!

But right now she had a different kind of problem on her mind. It was growing and it was eating away at her mind. She had called for this meeting because she had a strong sense that that if it is not addressed quickly enough, the risk to the business could be too high. She couldn’t bear the thought of watching her company collapse. Her personal circumstances had made her a fighter and she was ready to fight to save it. It was in her eyes and in her voice.

She asked me a question that I have asked myself before and other leaders have asked themselves or others before. But it was the way she put it that made it sound so different. She asked me, ‘’why after all I have done and continue to do for my employees, don’t they look at the business the same way I do. Why can’t we sing from the same hymn book? I pay them well and train them in Nairobi for six months on company funds. But they bring in their least effort. They come late most times, snack away at the desk all day, chat on their phones during office hours, keep the company mobile phones lines off, share company business cards with personal mobile numbers scrawled over the top in their handwriting and the other day one of the customer executives swindled twelve thousand US dollars in a single transaction”.

I saw her deep frustration and naturally I was empathetic. Clearly they were not singing from the same song book with her people. So I proceeded to go through the usual routine organizational and people tick-box exercise with her. Employment contracts were in place, roles and responsibilities were defined and clear to everyone, who is boss is clear, the pay and benefits compared well with other companies of the same size in the same sector and the staff’s qualifications and experience were just right. In fact the industry regulator’s compliance assessments for this business were always positive. We ticked every box together. Although it seemed like everything was in place to run a business well I thought she needed to balance the score between task focus and people focus.

In answer to her question and the deep needs for her organization, I took her on a journey, sharing some of my experience and lessons learned when I consulted for a marketing and sales company a while back in Muyenga, Kampala. From my understanding her business had potential to succeed financially and with everything she has already done, I thought the current gap could be filled with a few leadership lessons from Muyenga. But only as she deemed appropriate.

Coincidentally the owner and managing director of the company in Muyenga was also young and vibrant, with such clarity of thinking and strong business acumen just like the young Eritrean lady. In the Muyenga business, the owner / manager had done everything that the young lady had done, but he had gone several extra miles in his leadership style and model. This was the essence of our next conversation in the consultation that followed the first meeting.

Posted by Maggi @HRiCon

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