Personal Finance

Hard succession questions business ought to address

Bob Collymore
Late Safaricom chief executive Bob Collymore who died last week. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Much of the nation stood united in grief in the past week at the untimely passing of the much-loved Safaricom chief executive and philanthropist Bob Collymore.

Cancer reared its ugly head and again claimed another innocent victim as the world still holds its breath for better scientific breakthroughs to curb the scourge on humanity.

But in the midst of the tragedy, corporate Kenya faces a heightened sense this week of accepting the need for better succession planning.

Cognitively, we all understand that tragedy can strike at any time.

However, the human brain is not hard-wired to respond well to slow-moving crises. Our subconscious brains push us to pay attention to immediate threats and solve them, such as finding food when we are hungry, protecting ourselves against violence and reacting when a rabid dog jumps in our path, among others.


In the ancient world, these immediate issues were much more pertinent to our survival. But in today’s complicated modern world, many of our individual and collective struggles represent longer-term problems.

Individually, moderation of food intake to improve long-term weight loss. Societally, reducing carbon emissions to reduce human-induced climate change. Corporately, taking action for succession planning of key executive positions.

Each of these three examples represents important survival issues, but with threats likely off in the mid to distant future.

So, we put off weight loss, solving the climate crisis, and neglect succession planning. But to make matters worse, here in Kenya we culturally hold three different traits that stand in the way of succession planning more than other regions of the world.

First, we score lower on preventing uncertainty on researcher Robert House and colleagues’ GLOBE Framework.

Some cultures like the Dutch or Japanese strive intently to reduce future uncertainty. But here in Kenya, we culturally have become content with living with ambiguity about possible perils of the future whether in the form of floods and famine and do less to try to avoid the uncertainty.

Second, in Kenya, we score lower on future orientation than other countries. In Kenya, we live more in the here and now of the present and less in the future on culture surveys also by Robert House.

Research conducted by this author and Rosalie Hall in 2018 showed the nine largest Kenyan ethnic communities all scoring low in long-term future orientation and planning preferences.

We like to solve problems as they arise, not proactively solve problems before they happen.

Third, we hold a cultural dislike for discussing death or post-demise planning. Strikingly high numbers of Kenyans do not prepare wills to instruct the distribution of their assets after they pass away. But in Western and Eastern countries, post-death planning is common and helps elderly citizens feel more comfortable with their inevitable future. But in Kenya, we fear to bring up the subject because we do not want to offend someone about thoughts of what happens once they are gone.

These three cultural traits combined with the innate human bias against long-term threat prevention make it difficult for companies to implement succession plans.

Researchers Donald Schepker, Anthony Nyberg, Michael Ulrich, and Patrick Wright found in a prestigious Academy of Management study that boards woefully under-prepared for succession planning.

Sadly, once a tragedy does strike, anxiety increases.

Stress and fear of impending changes and uncertainty for the future make employees and management scramble to solve the crisis, infighting can break out, and silos of power tussle for dominance.

So instead of enacting the pre-planned succession, in heightened states of agitation and fear, they make suboptimal rushed plans.

The hearts of millions of Kenyans go out to the Safaricom fraternity during this difficult time.

But let us also learn the perils of neglected succession planning and take prudent steps to overcome our indifference and start planning for inevitable consequences, even if the outcomes may lay out in the distant future.