A teacher of CEOs on moulding better leaders


What you need to know:

  • It feels like the other day Martin Oduor-Otieno was running KCB.
  • He has not changed much in the eight years after his exit; still officious and thoughtful in demeanor, still erudite.
  • After KCB, he started the Leadership Group.

It feels like the other day Martin Oduor-Otieno was running KCB #ticker:KCB. He has not changed much in the eight years after his exit; still officious and thoughtful in demeanor, still erudite. After KCB, he started the Leadership Group.

“I think good leadership can transform society. And bad leadership can destroy everything else,” he says. Martin is spending the rest of his life in the space of leadership; developing and growing leaders. He spoke to JACKSON BIKO recently in his office in Nairobi’s Westlands.


I told a friend of mine that I was coming to interview you and she asked me to ask you why your name is hyphenated. Martin Oduor-Otieno. What’s the story there?

I was trying to be unique. My name is Martin Oduor. My father’s name is Otieno. In school, Martin Oduor just sounded very simple. It sounded like a name that can be replicated many times. I needed to make it slightly more personal so I attached my father’s name, put a hyphen and it has stuck. So my surname is Oduor-Otieno.

Your father is still alive?

No. He’s not. He passed on in 2004.

What lessons do you remember from him?

He was a primary school teacher. He taught me discipline, ethics, values, and faith. He was a very staunch Catholic, and that has informed my upbringing and even today, I remain quite close to the church and so do my children.

He was a disciplinarian and worked hard. I remember him telling me, ‘if you want to be taken seriously, you must always dress seriously.’

Did that come to pass?

Yeah. It did actually. The police will rarely stop you when you look sharp. He was a self-made man, started from the basics. He lost his parents when he was very young and he had to make do. By the time he got the teaching job, he had achieved quite a bit. He started a family and supported everybody else. I think a lot of the hard knocks in life were important for him and he passed some of those onto us.

Do you miss your banking, corporate life?

It was a season in my life. I was in banking for 13 years, but I’ve been in other interesting places as well, including where I am now. Banking was exciting, it was transformative, most people remember me because of it, especially because of KCB. Because we were able to transform an institution that people did not think much of at the time, into something that remains a giant to this day.

Do I miss it? Again, there’s a time for everything. I did the bit that I needed to do and somebody else needed to pick it up from there. Leadership is like a relay race, take it to the next person. But it was an exciting time, it was a fulfilling time, and I enjoyed it.

Knowing what you know now as a leading executive coach, what would you do differently in your seven and a half years at KCB?

That’s an interesting question. But also previously in my working career which has been quite long now, one area that coaching brought to me as an eye-opener was just the area of stakeholder management. This is how you relate with your bosses, how you relate with your peers, how you relate with the people reporting to you. For me, I never really had a problem relating to my peers or juniors or people reporting to me. I think the issue for me was always the people above me. And this was born out of the fact that I always believed that I was competent to carry out the work that I was doing, that I worked hard, therefore, didn’t need really to (Pause) to blow my own trumpet. That it could be seen, it was visible. I didn’t engage as much upstairs or upwards as perhaps I would. So, I’m not a party person, alright? I do my work in the office and I go home.

Therefore the question of interacting, engaging, outside of working hours, was not something that came to me very easily. I realised people wanted to be engaged even outside on weekends, small talk here and there, things which I shied away from.

In coaching, one of the things that has come up is that one needs to understand their stakeholders quite well. One needs to find ways of interacting or relating to them. That your good work alone or your competencies alone may not necessarily yield the kind of results that you’re looking for. So that is one thing that I find as I do coaching, that people are struggling with because they haven’t mapped it out and understood who is in their space and who will make or break them in their career and their lives. They don’t have the strategy for that.

Do you think some people are naturally born leaders or can anybody with certain qualities be groomed to become good leaders?

I don’t have examples, but I think that there are people who are born with traits of leadership. Some people are born and naturally lead. They inspire people and suggest things and people walk with them. They make people feel that they’re valued, which is one of the traits of leadership.

Some people have those traits from the beginning. But there are some who through determination and focus can develop those characteristics and become great leaders as well. So it’s a mix of the two. I don’t think you can say you can never be a leader. Like everything else in life, you’ve got to be deliberate about it.

I was watching something the other day about a mafia guy who runs a massive operation, leading thousands of people, money laundering, and things. He said that his strategy for leadership was getting a balance between people respecting you and fearing you. Once you attain that equilibrium you’re good to go. Does that apply in the corporate world?

I’m happy that he said that there’s a sense of balance. I was afraid that you were going to say that he said that for him it’s about creating fear in people and then they do everything he wants them to do. I’m not a fan of creating fear at all.

For me, I’m more on the respective side. Leaders should garner respect for themselves by the way they show up, the kind of things they do, and the way they lead people, the way they work with people. That if you are a leader who focuses on getting things done through fear, it’s a very short term solution. It leaves people with a bad taste in the mouth. They do it because they fear you. But if they do it out of respect, it is long-lasting, it is built on a foundation there.

If you were to sit down with one world leader, dead or alive, who would that be and what would you ask them?

(Long silence) But why would I be asking them stuff?

Because you admire them?

(Long Pause). You know, my challenge with leaders is that there’s always a point at which they will do something that will let you down. When I look at leadership, and I look at people, and I look at leaders, I pick up the good things that they do.

So let me give you an example. Nelson Mandela. Great leader. But I didn’t like the way he broke up with Winnie. Winnie had done a brilliant job all along, supporting him. Yet it came to a point where they could not resolve their differences. They had to go their separate ways and die their separate ways. I hold him highly as a leader, but I think they could have solved the situation. As I look around, I see bits and pieces of this in leaders and that pains me. I see the good and I see the bad. And yet my role model leaders should be on the good. If that makes sense to you.

Maybe it means that there are no perfect human beings and that good comes with flaws. For the case of Mandela, what if it was just a question of emotional intelligence, matters of the heart?

Hmmm. But this is the thing, is leadership only for specific situations or incidences or should it, or is it possible to build a wholesome leader? A leader who has got this emotional intelligence. A leader who can be a good leader in the corporate scene and also be a good family role model. In the West, for example, virtually everybody is divorced because in the Western culture divorce is an easy thing. (Pause) So when you ask me to choose one leader, I struggle.

What would you say is your weakness as a leader?

I’m probably not as outgoing as people would want me to be. I used to play golf. It must be more than 10 years now since I last played golf. I left golf for reasons. One was because my shoulders and my back were causing me a bit of trouble, some golfers thought it was just because my swing was horrible and that’s why that was happening. But also, I found that I was spending a lot of time on or around the golf course discussing business issues and yet I was going to golf to relax. I found that I was carrying my office stress onto the golf course and I couldn’t shake it off.

I’m an introvert. That probably could be seen as a weakness in leadership circles, because leaders are supposed to be these guys who are all over the place, scream at the top of their voices, and host parties every day. They are out and about. And that’s not me.

Do you find that there’s some sort of similarity or parallel between how you lead at work and how you lead at home?

Yeah! I find that I’m the same person everywhere. I lead with respect. I try to build a consensus type of atmosphere, camaraderie collaboration at work. Those who have worked with me will tell you the same.

They will tell you that even in terms of decision-making and style, that is almost the consensus type style of decision making. It’s only when I’m kind of the last man standing that I’ve got to sort of say okay we’ll go this direction. Similarly, at home, I lead in the same way. My children are now all adults and they’ve got families of their own but it’s been the same in the family. We get along like we were brothers and sisters. I don’t behave differently there than I behave here.

What’s your creed of fatherhood?

Show up the same way you would like your children to show up in the future. Be a model. Lead by example.

How many children do you have?

Where I come from we don’t count children. (Laughter)

At 64, what do you remember having dominated your 50s as compared to say your 40s?

So let me go back. In my 30s, I was learning and trying to get grounded in my profession. We started having children when we were young, therefore I was focused on the family. In my 40s, I was also trying to work hard and get mature in my career. I became CEO at KCB when I was about 50 or 49. So a lot of that period before the 40s was dominated by career. In the 50s, my children were now getting out of school and my formal career was almost beginning to taper off.

But I must say that through all that the only dominant factors have been family and career. The two have kind of intertwined with one another just because they started happening at the same time. I got married two years or three years after university so everything then started happening at the same time.

When do you find yourself most unhinged?

When I’m on holiday or over weekends. I’ve tried not to carry work home and therefore my weekend is for family and travelling. When I was in the corporate world, I loved going on leave. I had 30 days leave and I would go to the village and just go do nothing for 30 days.

Do you mind sharing some advice on money and the pursuit of it? You must have some lessons on money.

So let me say this, Biko. One should earn his money. I don’t believe in short-cuts. People should work for their money. When one works hard for their money, they should enjoy it also.

They should not work so hard and wait one day in the future to enjoy this money. Just like leadership is a journey, enjoying one’s money should be happening at the same time that you’re making it.

Do you play chess? (There is a chessboard on the table)

I don’t. But my son used to work here, he’s a lawyer. He plays chess.

What makes you extremely happy at this point in your life?

The greatest joy for me comes from the fact that I’m still in relatively good health, and therefore I’m able to do the things I do. I’m able to support other leaders in their growth. I enjoy that quite a bit. Family is also is something that I’m very grateful for. I was saying the other day, I don’t apply oil on my hands, so my hands tend to look dry.

So a lady friend said to me, ‘Martin, your hands look so dry. Let me...’ She reached into her bag to give me oil to apply. I don’t know if she said it or I’m the one who said it, but by the end of the conversation, I was like ‘I don’t want my 40 years of marriage to go down the drain because I went home with oiled and perfumed hands.’ (Laughs) Family, health, the church makes me very happy.

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