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January 17, 2019

Going off-Message

Thanks to the efforts of well-meaning people, many organisations in Africa now ascribe to a vision, a mission and a set of values. Some of them are short, sharp and to the point. They tend to come from places with very directive or decisive leadership. Others are rather bulkier and reflect a perceived need for internal consensus.

Whatever their genesis, as soon as they are communicated they begin to establish expectations. Expectations of better service for customers. Expectations of firmer compliance to authority. Expectations of fairer treatment for employees; expectations of a robust business culture to attract investors.

The vision and values can be the standard for the organisation to follow: quite literally the flag around which the troops rally. But they can also be a rod for your own back, because once you use them to set expectations everyone has to begin delivering upon them.

From that very day until eternity…or at least until you decide to amend them.

This can come as a bit of a shock for the internal group that defined the value set and is now looking forward to getting back to normal working life, secure in the knowledge of a job well done. It can also prove a challenge to those in the organisation least used to being challenged.

Last week I came out of a meeting at a top Nairobi hotel and in the car park I saw a marvelous vehicle. A very smart Range Rover Vogue SE. It looked fresh out of the box. Truly a thing of beauty: painted in a distinctive pale grey rather than the more conventional white. A colour that set off the brilliant red number plate to perfection: UNEP 802K.

That number plate got me thinking. What I thought was: “someone has gone off-message here.”

You see a Range Rover is a big machine. A car that will deliver 26 miles (41.8 kilometres) per gallon (3.79 litres) of fuel consumed.  A vehicle with a declared carbon emission of 219g/km. It’s a powerful beast as well, with a top speed that would blur the readings on any radar gun deployed in this region. (But perhaps we should discount this, as the red number plate is said to act as a talisman against police interference.)

At first glance the purchase and operation of such a vehicle might seem at odds with an organisation dedicated to championing the ecological agenda. But it’s prudent to look deeper before coming to conclusions, so I chose to reference the mission, vision and values of UNEP.

UNEP’s mission is: ‘To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing, and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.’

It’s quite a long sentence, and it was probably composed in plenary sessions and ratified by caucus. But it is clear, and to me it creates similarly clear expectations for organisational behaviour.

UNEP’s value set was harder to find. Perhaps due to a a glitch in their website my searches all returned ‘no results found'. I did however find a PDF document that outlines UNEP’s operating principles. These were well crafted but purely administrative in nature. The sort of thing Bob Cratchit might pen to guide his fellow clerks, never daring to presume it should apply to his employers Jacob Marley and Ebeneezer Scrooge.

UNEP is no Dickensian creation, but it has been around a while. Since 1972 in fact, which highlights another challenge that organisations face with maintaining the right behaviours. Over time the workforce evolves and often becomes larger. The people who were there at the start, and who shared similar values and excitement at inception, move on. New folk arrive and need to be onboarded with care lest the natural drive for self-determination begins to impact the organisational consensus.

All the more reason for those people at the top of the organisation to be rigorous about their own habits and routines. About their appurtenances and privileges. For the eyes of employees are upon them, so what they do becomes aspirational. It becomes "the way we’d all like to do things around here."

If this remains unchecked, over time the organisation may risk losing its external perspective. And forget that, where it parks its Range Rovers, other eyes will see and unforeseen conclusions may be drawn.

Organisational values: they’re for life. Not just for Christmas.


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.



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