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LESSONS FROM BOB COLLYMORE

Bob's legacy: Leadership more about software than hardware

They said he couldn't do it, couldn't fill Michael Joseph's big shoes

In Summary

• Over time, the media got used to his demeanour, soft outside but tough inside.

•  Some people thought he lacked the qualifications but he was already Captain of MV Safaricom. 

The late Bob Collymore.
The late Bob Collymore.
Image: FILE

When I first met Bob Collymore, I was working for Gina Din Corporate Communications as an account manager for Safaricom when he joined the celebrated blue-chip company.

I watched its transformation with Collymore at the helm.

At Safaricom Headquarters there are two lifts, one for 'commoners' and one for VIPs. Despite the VIP lift having security and moving faster to Bob’s office on the eighth floor, that changed because he believed employees and management should be treated equally.

 
 

This was the beginning of the installation of the Bob Collymore 'software' that changed the corporate face of Safaricom.

Michael Joseph was rational, tough and no-nonsense — the engineer of Safaricom. He built it for over 10 years and he never lost touch. History will celebrate him for building the unrivalled telco Safaricom is a global case study, especially with its invention of M-Pesa. He was a hard act to follow.

Back to meeting Bob Collymore .... Bob walks in with a smile and greets everyone. With his British accent, we pay attention to how he talks, his body language and demeanour. Bob liked to make jokes but he could also be sarcastic.

We get down to business and PR guru Gina Din introduces us from the agency. She explains how we operate and how we will position him moving forward.

Bob was unhappy with how the media covered him. They were comparing him to Michael Joseph, wondering sceptically whether he could fill his shoes. 

Bob outrightly asked us to kill that narrative and said he did not want to hear it. Most journalists who asked him that 'big shoes' question learned it was the wrong question.

Over time, the media got used to his demeanour, soft outside but tough inside. Some people thought he lacked the qualifications but he was already Captain of MV Safaricom. The board and the recruiters had seen something 'we' the public couldn't decipher.

 
 

I guess the reason was that his predecessor Michael Joseph was a techie and had enormous experience in running a telco. Whereas Bob was coming from the soft side of things, more corporate affairs. 

I can authoritatively say the 'soft' side or software side of Bob Collymore brought enormous positive change to Safaricom. This element of soft skills catapulted Safaricom to its celebrated success today.

Research by David Deming, a professor of education and economics at the Graduate School of Education and professor of education and public policy at the Kennedy School, shows that workers combining social and technical skills fare best in the modern economy. This is measured by a  7.2 per cent increase in available jobs and a 26 per cent wage increase between 1980 and 2012.

According to a study by CareerBuilder as published by EBSCO for Corporate, 77 per cent of employers now believe soft skills are equally as important as 'hard' or technical skills. However, unlike hard skills, which include job-specific training and knowledge, soft skills can be difficult to identify and measure.

Bob injected a new norm to dissolve the traditional way of running a corporate. He injected a free-spirit mindset to remove barriers of communication and bureaucracy that kill employee morale. Instead, they become more efficient, effective and productive.

In the beginning, Bob started having lunch with employees at the Safaricom Gazebo. To some, it was a good thing. A leader coming from his top office down to the employees and trying to relate to them. This shocked many employees who thought he was spying on them. But then Bob was not a  'normal' CEO. He broke the barriers in the hierarchy of employees and their managers.

He attended all staff engagements when possible. He brought a different perspective —from a top-down leadership style to a horizontal-to-horizontal, or lateral style. Bringing some level of equality.

Bob introduced the breastfeeding nursery. This was revolutionary because mothers at Safaricom were able to work effectively and without worrying about their infants who would have been at home while they worked.

He also brought about many changes in customer care centres. Bob ensured that those who worked at call centres had a good working environment to boost their productivity. As a result, Safaricom’s customer relations improved significantly and the 100 dial-up would go through faster than one imagined.

Bob loved Corporate Social Responsibility. He supported sustainable development goals that earned him a position on the UN Global Compact Board, a voluntary UN initiative encouraging businesses globally to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

He appointed many women to management positions.

Bob indeed had a different perspective on corporate leadership. He truly confirmed that 'software' was the key to success, more than hardware and technical qualifications.

The Safaricom space was more creative and productive because it mixed soft skills and technical skills.

Bob also confirmed that school degrees and paper are overrated. Corporates should learn from him and how he managed Safaricom to become the most profitable company in East Africa.

As I conclude, whereas profits and shareholder value is key, focus on softer human relations is crucial as well. In fact, by focusing on the software, the hardware works better. 

The writer is the Founder and Managing Director of Alexander PR and Communication Network.


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