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January 17, 2019

Let it go if you can’t carry on

As you know I am in the business of adjusting company cultures. Sometime this means intervening to rebuild an established culture that is broken. But I’m pleased to say that a characteristic of our region is that we have developed a raft of new enterprises in the last decade. Businesses that have grown rapidly… and normally under the direction of one or two founders. They have recognised or, better still, anticipated a customer need; and developed a clear point of difference in product or service. They may even have gone some way to establishing brand equity. These businesses entering their second decade are not broken, but their muscles are strained. And both principals and employees are stressed. Rapid growth is exciting but exhausting. The adrenaline rush begins to lose its effect, and the company develops institutional behaviours built around coping. So while the numbers continue to climb, energy levels begin to plateau. I’m sure that if we could measure this we would have a curve that predicts subsequent revenue growth. A flattening of soft issues that will in due course impact on the hard measures of the business. I’ve seen this most markedly effect tech businesses. This comes as a shock for those of us who have absorbed movies like ‘The Internship’ with its fictionalised depictions of the Google work environment. Working for tech companies in East Africa is not a brightly coloured rumble in the jungle – with inspiring meetings, relaxed protocols and fun on Fridays. It’s much more like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and tech employees are the Oompaloompas.


Tech businesses grow on the ingenuity and sheer effort of a few brilliant people. Initially they attract and collaborate with other bright sparks. But the challenge comes when success builds egos and increases bureaucracy. First in horizontal levels, which means that fewer and fewer employees are able to continue their collaboration with the bosses. Then laterally, as business or departmental silos emerge. When I intervene in a second decade enterprise, my initial focus is on helping the principals. The people who are most stressed, most puzzled by the fact that 10 years in they seem to be working harder than ever. Most resentful of what they suspect is employee inertia or worse than that disloyalty. I try to open up the internal dialogue and the collaborative spirit. Sometimes I have to prise absolute control of the business from the vice-like grip of its founder. Because the incontrovertible truth is that leaders cannot ‘carry’ businesses indefinitely. Nor should they try to. There’s talent to employ. So now CEO’s here’s some homework. Use the link below to reinforce the learnings hidden in this column, and begin your journey towards more sustainable business success. Follow the on screen prompts, and give it your all!

Chris leads the Brand Inside’s African operations. [email protected]

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