Monday Musings

Huko, kuna wenyewe (that place has its owners)!”. You hear it often; everywhere.

‘Owners are a mysterious force behind the company. Sometimes called ‘cartels’, they exist anonymously within the organization, pulling strings and directing events and activities. Our label for them is ‘The Kingpins’.

Kingpins are the power brokers in an organization; wielding power like a phantom dictator despite the presence of an instituted leadership. They influence the rules, the processes and the culture despite the laid down and published procedures.

When a stranger or a new employee walks into the organization, they are confronted by two things: the laid down employee procedures listed in an employee handbook and a set of unwritten ground rules that often determine how things ‘work around here’. So where do these kingpins come from and what is the source of their influence?

From our experience and research, there are four things that make a kingpin: capability, a vacuum, personal stagnation and a forceful personality.

A kingpin is usually someone in a position of influence, a position they use to extend the responsibility entrusted to them. They are often competent employees who have served a few years in that organization. They understand the business and the internal dynamics very well.

Where there is a vacuum of official and formal information or a alck of transparency on procedures, a kingpin will be made. They become the de facto go-to person for anything and everything. This gives them power. They become the only access to a limited resource in a company.

A kingpin is often competent in their ‘technical’ ability to do their job and they might have a specialist skill that gives them job security. What turns them is a lack of growth or progress in the organization. When a potential kingpin is unable to grow, they utilize their energy in other ways. A kingpin could have the experience of the senior manager yet have the rank of a middle level manager. They might sit in a technical role without much leadership responsibility. This state causes them to shift their focus from alignment with the formal objectives and processes in the organization one of common good to one of self-interest.

An additional factor that contributes to the making of a kingpin is personality. While all the above factors may exist, it takes a certain character to become a kingpin. Several personality traits could describe kingpins. These include high self-esteem, frustration, and natural leadership skills. The impact of Kingpins on people is their true mark of identity.

No one grows around a kingpin. Kingpins thrive alone and no one speaks up when they are around and there is an aura of fear around them. The teams around a kingpin can resist organizational change – whether changes in processes or culture. One has to look at a combination of these factors and not just one.

How can leaders deal with Kingpins?

1. Map out the power centers
Understand where the informal power centers are in your organization. Unchecked authority over the distribution of resources is often a source of informal power. A person who is authorized to issue per diems or allowances, with their effectiveness not monitored, automatically becomes a power center. This unofficial power can be reduced by introducing process controls; a segregation of duties and checks and balances. In the example of per diems, the introduction of a dashboard to track and highlight the speed of processing expense claims, and the timeliness of per diem payments, will expose any abuse of informal power.

2. Develop people holistically
Organizations may be have been so focused on building enterprise-wide competency that they forget to focus on/deal with the individual. As employees grow in the organization, they need to align their career plan with organizational goals; for them to become leaders, mentors and coaches. Most kingpins are individuals who are frustrated at their lack of progress and over time, have become defensive and cynical. They are however influential within their peer groups and act as informal leaders to junior or power deprived employees. Energizing kingpins as mentors and coaches while rewarding them for the development of their teams, can increase their feeling of belonging and reduce their negativity. For example: Give them “people objectives” which recognize them if they develop future leaders; Give them objectives which reward the right behaviors, such as walking the talk on culture change; Make them champions of desired organizational change, channeling their influence more positively. Forward thinking organizations give their employees business goals as well as people goals.

3. Clarity: roles and information
Where there is clarity, there will be no confusion. An organization must clearly communicate the processes, procedures, and any other relevant information pertaining to the organization. When there is no communication, a vacuum is created and someone will step into that vacuum.

4. Total commitment to confront the issue
Leaders must address the root cause of the factors that allow kingpins to emerge. Kingpins are not hard to recognize, but it is rarer to find a leader who is willni g to face the real causes. This isbecause of a myriad of reasons; from protecting their own jobs to not wanting to deal with the complexity of the matters and the disruption of dismantling informal power structures. As an example, the reality is that one of the sources of a kingpin’s power may include knowledge of, or involvement in, unethical practices. Tackling such a situation will require great sensitivity and determination. However, until the root causes are addressed, the problem will never go away.

The issue of kingpins is intertwined with the culture of the company. A kingpin is a reflection of what is going on internally and can also reflect the external business practices in the company. To tackle kingpins requires that a leader is ready to tackle everything else. Some solutions highlighted here are relatively straightforward, others solutions will take extreme commitment from leadership.

In conclusion, dealing with kingpins must start from the very top of the organization. Leaders need the courage and the resilience to deal with them.

The side hustle is synonymous with the Kenyan culture. It symbolizes our entrepreneurial nature and embodies our hope for a better tomorrow. It is the sum dedciation of one’s effort and ambition put into an idea, a business and an investment. It is spoken of pride and ownership. So what could be wrong with it?

There is potential conflict between the side hustle and the employee contract. The employee contract portends that one is hired to perform certain duties at certain times. The company buys your time, mental and physical efforts to enable it attain its strategic objectives. A conflict arises when an employee infringes on that contract, compromising the employee’s focus on making the full contribution the company to meet its objectives. The ambition of a company at this this point is at odds with an individual’s ambition.

What does a leader do when faced with this conflict between the side hustles of the organizations employees and the company’s goal achievement? If a leader takes a forceful approach, they could issue warning letters and fire employees at the risk of eroding the psychological contract with employees through fear. If a leader takes a blind or soft approach, the organization is vulnerable. Like any other awkward workplace issue, the side hustle needs to be confronted and managed. The side hustle is a rampant construct in Kenyan organizations and affects employee engagement and optimization of human resource output. Companies must therefore accommodate the reality of side hustles.

1. Have an environment of open communication
It is important that a business recognizes the existence of side hustles among its employees. Employees should be encouraged to articulate their ambitions and personal goals at the point of recruitment. These goals should be incorporated in the leaders mentorship plan and monitored alongside organizational goals as part of personal alignment. In addition, organizations must proactively enable employees to understand how a side hustle can co-exist with the day job, setting boundaries and rules. This requires an environment of open communication to exist for the employees to feel safe to open up about their ambitions and trust the intention on leaders.

2. Have a policy developed by all stakeholders
A clear policy developed by all stakeholders will ensure that the boundaries and expectations are set. When a policy is developed from everyone’s input, there is buy in which makes everyone accountable. This is unlike a top down policy where the staff is obliged to abide.

Some principles of the policy could include:

  • Side hustles should not damage the productivity of an employee .
  • Side hustles should not be a drain on company resources.
  • Side hustles should not lead to conflicts of interest in the workplace. Employee side hustles must not impact the company’s performance and they cannot do business with the company indirectly.
  • Side hustles should be brought into the open, so that they cease being a taboo.
  • If in doubt, employees should be encouraged to discuss their side hustles with their bosses to understand if there is a conflict of interest.

3. Monitor, Evaluate & Create
Every side hustle varies and through continuous monitoring, the policy can be evaluated and amended based on key learning’s. For example, one side hustle could be time dependent and this could lead to an agreement on flexi working hours. Another side hustle could be seasonal and this could lead to an agreement on taking immediate off days without a long approval process. The side hustle policy should be alive within the organization through continuous communication.

A note on different workplace settings
It is easier to manage side hustles in the workplace in some situations than others. In a factory, employees tend to have their time tightly managed and side hustles can probably be managed quite easily by a well-communicated and enforced internal policy.

The same is largely true among office-based employees where, while access to company resources and inappropriate business opportunities may be greater, people are generally quite closely supervised and behaviors can be observed.

For field-based staff more prescriptive guidance may need to be needed. Such staff tends to be out of office and operating alone for long periods with company resources, such as a vehicle, at their disposal. For these types of employees a more prescriptive and tighter policy may be required.

It makes no sense for a company to bury its head in the sand on the issue of side hustles. Forbid side hustles and a company make a criminal of everyone… from floor-sweeper to CEO. Our advice is to be sensible, accept the reality, implement a rational policy, ensure people understand it, and move on!

You hear it, you accept it and you pass it on. You don’t question it or check if it is valid. ‘Martin from finance told me. It must be true!’ you say.

Welcome to the corporate ‘grapevine’, or as some call it the ‘rumour mill’. Information channels where news moves like the wind and spreads like wildfire. The juicier the rumour, the quicker and more widely it will disseminate. As a rumour passes from person to person it morphs – taking on new dimensions, becoming ever more sensational and, probably, moving further and further away
from having any foundation in truth.

The grapevine is a fact of working life. There is no way of elmi inating gossip and rumours at work. Let’s face it, everyone loves the grapevine – across all functions and at all levels in an organization – from directors to floor-sweepers.

Grapevines especially thrive where:

  • There is an absence, deficit or clear inaccuracy in ‘official’ ni formation from the company;
  •  Leaders of functions or business units do not talk to their teams frankly about the company and its performance;
  • Employees simply do not trust the information they are getting from the company – or they feel that information is being withheld;
  • Employees know more (through leaks for example) than the custodians of the ‘official company line’.

Leaders may not like the grapevine in their organization, but eliminating it is like Kenya putting a man on the moon… it just isn’t going to happen!

Managing the corporate grapevine

All of this does not mean that good companies cannot manage the grapevine – maybe not completely, but certainly in a way that can minimize any negative impact on the business.

Companies should ask themselves: “How can we make sure the grapevine does not impact productivity, corporate performance, employee motivation, or our employer brand (people leaving or not joining).”

Here are some ideas:

1. Understand and listen to the grapevine
Without becoming Big Brother figures, leaders should make it their business to understand what is going on in the grapevine. This is not difficult, but requires some homework – Who are the most influential members of the grapevine? Are there informal forums that can be set up to air and discuss the grapevine talk? Basically, find ways of demystifying the grapevine and learning the hot topics in the grapevine at any particular time.

2. Design messages for the recipient and do not be afraid of over-communicating
It is important to clearly frame the key messages to employees. Messages should be employee centered; address the issue from an employee’s perspective by clarifying intent, impact and actions required.

Also, make sure at least some of the messages address the issues that are doing the rounds in the grapevine. Talk to the grapevine’s concerns. Leaders and employees should not be talking past each other.

And don’t forget… people forget. The same message repeated several times, the adoption of a catchphrase, the use of visual devices or logos – all of these will help to embed the message and avoid misunderstanding or a lack of alignment. NOTE: Hasn’t the plastic bag ban caused havoc and isn’t everyone complaining that there was not enough sensitisation? NEMA will tell you that all Kenyans have known for months that this day was coming. They’re right. But did those Kenyans internalize the message? No. Why? Was the message repeated often enough? Were the right and enough channels used? Was the language used in the message appropriate?

3. Have a communications strategy, based on reality and fit for purpose
Understand how employees like to receive their information and use multiple channels.

  • Electronic newsletters have a role for corporate news, but can be infrequent
  • An SMS service provides real time information for employees for very brief updates
  • Unflashy e-mails, for example from a manager to his team, can be highly effective – being immediate, informal and ‘connecting’
  • Informal get-togethers can be powerful, a short address followed by a 15 minute Q&A, then downtime for the team as a group. The key is consistency… the first one might be awkward, but press on!

4. Employee feedback mechanisms
To a company grappling with grapevine issues, simple steps like an open-door policy cost much less but are worth much more than an employee climate survey. Give employees their voice. Let them be heard. It’s sometimes tough at first, employees given their first chance to be speak up can go overboard with outlandish requests etc. But stick with it. Once the concept is established employees will become more objective and conversations will normalize. Sometimes, employees don’t necessarily expect leaders to solve particular problems, they just want to be able to talk and be listened to.

5. Create an environment of openness
When discussing and deciding what to communicate to employees, leaders should ask the question “Why not tell our people about this?”. Too many times leaders operate on the “Why should we tell them?” principle. This is not conducive to containing a grapevine.

Leaders sometimes withhold information from employees (which they can often get from other sources anyway) for no good reason. Just tell them! Is the company having a difficult first half-year? Tell them, and the details… and introduce a scheme to mobilize employees to promote the business. We are all in this together after all. Is there a company lawsuit everyone is reading about in the newspaper? Tell them and give a Q&A. Is the government planning legislation that may negatively impact the business? Talk about it and encourage employees to use their contacts with legislators etc.

But it is not possible to be open about everything.

How do leaders earn and maintain credibility and trust amongst employees when it is simply impossible to tell them everything? It’s tricky, but there will often be situations where leaders are unable to tell employees in advance about issues that will affect them.

Think about a restructuring. The individuals directly impacted will have to be told first privately and maybe the union. But other employees might feel they were the last to know. And that is true to an extent.

In such situations, it is important to tell employees, after the event, why they could not be told before the event. This diffuses anger and disappointment at leaders being secretive. A reasonable employee will usually accept the explanation… after all if they were being retrenched, would they like to read about it on the noticeboard or be engaged one-on-one first?

6. Bring people onside
It is common-sense that most of us are less likely to engage in juicy gossip about people we like than people we dislike or distrust.

Similarly, employees are less likely to engage in grapevine talk that damages the morale, productivity or employer brand of their organization if they are aligned with the company. What does ‘aligned’ mean? Well, the company tells us everything they reasonably can. We know what’s going on. They speak in our language. They listen to us. They sometimes, but not always, act on what we say or ask.

7. Feed the grapevine
When leaders are really good at this stuff, they are so attuned to the grapevine they can use it to their advantage.

Have you ever heard of a ‘controlled leak’? Politicians sometimes let a policy idea slip into the public domain as a rumor just to understand how popular it might be. If it bombs in the ‘grapevine’ they drop it. If it flies, they formally adopt it as policy.

Leaders can use the grapevine in a similar way. For example, union negotiations may not be going well. A rumor can be fed in the grapevine to the effect that management has reached the end of its tether and will start sending employees home if the union does not show more flexibility. This message will reach all intended recipients with the usual lightning speed of the grapevine.