Peter Ndegwa: Biggest agony in my career


Safaricom PLC CEO Peter Ndegwa during the interview at the Capital Club on March 9, 2021. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NAIROBI

“I know how to be a CEO,” declares Peter Ndegwa, Safaricom’s new honcho. He is in a blue power suit and shirt, the tie tossed away because it is the end of another day shaking the big telco tree. 

He is at Capital Club, seated next to a plastic plant, in a small windowless, but intimate, meeting room named — with no irony at all — Rudisha. 

Even though his relationship with his necktie has ended for the day, Mr Ndegwa’s day is yet to end. Days are endless for a man who runs a mobile network that has dominated over 60 per cent of the market share and boasts a little over 30 million subscribers, and a staff of more than 6,000.  

His days tend to merge like a desert mirage and spends most of them asking questions or talking like he is now. Self-assured, assertive, right-angled, intelligent, officious and long-winded. And why not? 

He is a dyed-in-the-wool corporate animal — 11 years at PwC, seven at the East Africa Breweries Limited (EABL) and nine at Diageo, his last post in Amsterdam as managing director Continental Europe.

JACKSON BIKO sat across him — and the plant with a missing soul — for a powwow over tea, which he hardly touched.

We met five years ago when you were moving to Nigeria. How have you changed as a man?

First, I’m five years older. [Chuckles]. I’m more experienced as a business leader. I got inducted into the Nigerian way of doing things. My son was six, now he’s 11 and a half. My wife was working when we were in Ghana, she stopped working and is now doing her doctorate in management. The Nigerian experience was interesting because it brought size into perspective — I’m talking of 200 million-plus. You can’t be in that space without learning the spirit of fighting.

I have learnt that transition is about family— it’s not just you transitioning because you have a role. Your family has to be happy and comfortable. My wife enjoyed Nigeria more than Ghana. Ghana was too slow for her. When I was transitioning between the European job and Safaricom, I took six weeks off. I went to Asia to climb a mountain. I also climbed Mt Kilimanjaro. I have learnt that when you transition into a new role, your family also transitions.

If the roles were reversed would you follow your wife if she got an opportunity that required her to move somewhere else?

I think you can only make that decision based on the stage you are in your life and what works for the family overall. Coming back to Kenya, for example, was important for two reasons; it would ground my son who has never lived in this country. Second, my wife was getting to a place where she was going to do her thesis and Kenya was always the best. My next move, we agreed with my wife, was not going to work for me alone but for the family.

What are you better at, being a husband or being a father?

I would say probably being a father. [Laughs]

What are you struggling with as a husband?

Time. And that’s also one of the reasons why this job is better because at the European job I travelled a lot. But the thing that people forget is being abroad is very good for the family, because you don’t have funerals or weddings or people just dropping in to say hello. There is a lot more bonding and travel time than we think. We have experienced more European cities than we imagined possible in our lives.

What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever had to do in your life?

[Pause] In Nigeria I had to cut off about 45 per cent of the organisation in the three years. It wasn’t easy. I had a union that had refused to approve it and there was some resistance within the company.

The organisational change was big and it was not easy. Guys thought we were crazy.

I remember standing at the union and saying ‘show me an alternative’ and they told me, ‘you don’t have an alternative.’ So I did what I had to do, which was the right thing.

This was a business risk but I was also taking a personal risk from a leadership perspective because it could have gone really wrong. So that was a bit scary.

But the thing I learned in my career is to stand for what you believe in. And it’s not just in personal life but also in professional life. Don’t take the easy way out because there’s always some easy way.

How do you disengage from feelings like empathy and compassion when you have to make a decision like this that sees loads of people losing their livelihoods? And does it change you?

You don’t do that type of change in one day. It’s a gradual learning curve. I was always used to change. At EABL, we did a lot of changes. I saw leaders make changes and I saw the ingredients of what makes it a success.

And the biggest one is how attentive you are that you’re letting people go. That is usually the biggest agony at a personal level. You deal with it by asking yourself; ‘why are we doing it?’ Because if you’re doing it to save the business, those people might not be there anyway if you don’t save the business. But you have to do it with respect, transparency, and humanity. Still, it’s very difficult emotionally. I think over time you learn the how and the why of it rather than the what.

If life was a movie, would you be a villain or a hero?

[Laughs] I don’t think I would be a villain. I’m wired to be fair as a person. I think I can detach myself emotionally, but I want to bring the best out of people. And that’s why inspiring dreams is important.

When were you most unfair to yourself?

Generally, I don’t give myself credit. So inadvertently because I won’t give myself a lot of credit, I might not give others credit. So from my leadership development, I start to say, ‘okay you need to be aware of what others need, not just how you’re wired.’

Obviously, you want to succeed in this new role, but have you ever thought that it might go south?

I’ve taken very difficult, challenging roles which I knew nothing about, like the sales director role which I took in Kenya, which I had never sold anything. I think of it as a psychological contract. What is it that I’m supposed to do and what strength do I bring?

Then I see what’s the downside. Sometimes we have illusions of risk. Risk is there, but sometimes it’s not or it’s not as big as we imagine it to be. And the reason is that we tend to want to justify why something fails.

I’m very pragmatic and very logical to risk and failure. So I'm very realistic about the things that we need to do at Safaricom to be able to deliver on the vision that the business has.

The world is ending at 10 pm today. Who is the one person you'd want to apologise to and for what?

[Laughs] Wow! [Long pause] I think my family. For not being always there. Covid-19 has shown that we can be there for our families more. I think the way I internalise this whole work-life balance is the balance you choose at that moment in your life rather than the pure purity of how much time you spend at work and home.

Have you seen a therapist before in your life and for what?

I have. I saw one because I couldn’t sleep. I went to India and I did a sleep test. To be fair, I have never been a great sleeper, with the intensity of work and all. In India, they told me there was no problem with me, that my sleep quality was good. I just need to have a rhythm.

When you think of your childhood, is there a particular sound, smell, image that dominates that thought?

The sound and smells of a farm. [Chuckles]. Cows. Coming from school and helping at home. Farmlife was very peaceful but also very positive even though it was a modest upbringing. Education was a big thing.

I went to Starehe Boys, so I was a great role model in the village. Again, not a hero. I didn’t feel like a hero by the way.

Bob Collymore, may he rest in peace, had jazz, art, and his colourful socks. Joseph has his ranch, I don't know, riding horses and staring at sunsets. What's your shtick?

[Laughs] Goodness! I think if there’s one thing that I really want to support is education. Whether that is the school near my village or not. My former school, Starehe, is not necessarily in great shape, so maybe it needs people like me.

The other area is sport, golf. I’ve started to play golf seriously without it affecting my job. I play in the morning before 7.30 am. I know golf feels elite, and the only reason I will go into golfing is so that I make it accessible to all children, regardless of their family background.

So I would say sports and education would be the two areas. And I’m starting to think also how these would work for Safaricom rather than just purely for me.

In what environments do you find yourself most vulnerable?

Large crowds but thankfully, nowadays speaking to many people is not an issue because I’ve had to do that for many years.

What surprised you most about Safaricom when you got in?

Hierarchy. It’s so hierarchical. And a little bit of fear, people not wanting to challenge it. Which goes against what I want.

I want people to be free and know they can make a career regardless of where they come from or who they are. If there’s something I could do is collapse this structure so that people can feel free to innovate and deliver on their careers.

What’s your wife’s language of love?

I’m not sure but I would say words of affirmation and gifting.

And what's your language of love?

Certainly not words of affirmation because I have a very low need for affirmation. If you didn’t compliment me for a job well done it would have zero effect. [Laughter]. My language of love is empathy, understanding.

How do you reward yourself, what's your extravagance?

I travel with my family and when we do we don’t play around. I say we work so hard and if you’re on a three weeks holiday you might as well as pay for the best hotel and use the best airline.

If you were a country, what country would you be?

(Pause) The Czech Republic; understated but has depth.