Whenever we read headlines like this in Africa, we are conditioned to anticipate another depressing account of local corruption. So let me break the mould by telling you straight off that today’s tale comes from the Nordics – Norway to be precise. A country that many of us would assume to be a modern day Nirvana – peopled by an honest, outdoorsy folk with a strong moral compass.
Of course, Norway is a society like any other, with every aspect of the human character. Today’s tale is about one CEO’s fight to eliminate corruption in a large company by changing the culture.
Erik Osmundsen is the CEO of Norsk Gjenvinning, a huge waste management company. Two weeks ago he addressed a forum convened by The Brand Inside in Oslo and I felt it would help business leaders in East Africa to consider their internal cultures.
In 2013 Erik initiated a programme to eliminate corruption and improve compliance. As a result, the company experienced a turnover of almost half of its top 70 line managers and strained relations with several competitors and the waste management industry association.
Erik and his senior team had identified a set of known challenges – NG enjoyed poorer profitability than competitors; NG’s organisational structure was built around people and not tasks or customers; it had a divergent culture as a result of several acquisitions.
The team also observed signature employee behaviours that indicated their company was in distress as there was little cooperation, a high degree of silo-thinking and high levels of conflict; limited understanding of common goals and strategies and decisions taken on gut feelings or for political reasons.
In addition, they made an honest appraisal of their whole industry and concluded that, although it had a proud history, it also had a ‘serious dark side’ – corruption, embezzlement and theft coupled with hard core anti-competitive behaviour. Illegal handling of hazardous waste and illegal export of waste were rife because it was ‘too easy to make big money on irresponsible waste management’.
The NG clean-up required a consistent effort and determined leadership over two long years. Based on a thorough risk assessment, the team prioritised dangerous anti-competitive behaviour, corruption and illegal exports. They then established a robust and constantly evolving set of controls.
Erik also relentlessly pushed an agenda that involved transforming and professionalising the whole waste management industry.
Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside.