Columnists

When to pass the leadership baton

leader

Into my LinkedIn feed this week came a post by Ken Njoroge on his decision to step down as Cellulant CEO this year, after his 18 years of building a pan-African software company that has changed our world and other people’s worlds too.

As just one example, Cellulant, years ago, created the electronic wallets for Nigerian farmers to get corruption-free fertiliser subsidies. How many lives were impacted with just that?

So, for sure, Cellulant is a jewel in Kenya’s 21st Century crown.

Yet our Covid-19 year has changed so many things and seen most of us review our entire lives: what we were putting in, getting out, where we want to go, and who we want to be. And it has showed a lot of us that, sometimes, we get stuck without ever having quite noticed.

Indeed, someone, months ago, called this pandemic a reset button, as our offices closed to home working for months on end; as contracts skidded; salaries got cut; redundancies climbed; and as we got more time.

For, one of the things about how society was before was that we were mostly ‘busy’, which is partly why we didn’t notice we had stagnated. Nairobi commuting alone used to bury hours. Of course, we could still reflect on a matatu, or driving in the rush hour. But there is something about the constant noise and stresses in small, full spaces that prevent us from stretching out into big thinking in a way that can come easily in an empty room or a long upcountry walk.

So, somehow, Covid-19, which changed so many of our habits and disrupted us, triggered a lot of rethinking.

But the sum could be amazing. For look at Ken. There is no doubt of his talents, but with Cellulant now a two-decade-old business, it has a long-established cadre of experts. And in corporate sociology, there are models about the life cycle of companies and their different stages. Not surprisingly, those different stages require different leadership styles.

For most businesses, most of the time, and no matter how much they change the world, there are five stages in their cycle, which run as a consecutive sequence of launch, growth, shake-out, maturity, and decline.

In the early phases, businesses need inspirational figures, full of imagination and the ability to mobilise others into new adventures: the success of which is also characterised by top-level problem solving.

But shake-out doesn’t often work well with that same inspirational start-up entrepreneur at the top. Now, our optimist needs to cut and shape with a ruthless eye, it’s a different skill set, just as shepherding a mature business is an endeavour truly boring to the innate entrepreneur, but needful of a steady and detailed commitment.

That’s not to suggest that as Ken steps back, Cellulant will stop innovating. But just as Steve Jobs left Apple, which had transformed our computing, to create Pixar that transformed our world of cinema, only to return to Apple and change our music world, our big creators give the most by being just that: creators.

Nor do some remain as creators their whole lives. People change. I had an uncle, who had been an HR director of a global company, but then went on to be a social worker for the next 20 years, gaining far more personal satisfaction from helping families. He had made his money, his own future then was about self actualisation and what inspired him the most in terms of personal satisfaction.

And in all these rethinks, endings are not a bad thing. They change a small range of possibilities, suddenly into a big range that puts us back where we can redefine our whole lives, which is an amazing opportunity.

And, thus good luck to Ken, and to all of us who have now embraced huge changes in what we can only hope is the back end of this pandemic. We will almost all of us do more and differently than we ever would have done by staying on the train tracks we were on. For Covid-19 saw many pushed out, and now many pulling out. But now we get to build our new futures!