Decoding Michael Joseph

Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph
Safaricom CEO Michael Joseph. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

If achievements were shirts, it would seem like Michael Joseph was that person you always remember for wearing one particular green shirt — the Safaricom shirt. Naturally, he owns many memorable shirts but it’s the green shirt that you are most likely to remember him in.

His urban lore of starting Safaricom — a Sh240 billion corporate blue whale that keeps mowing down the corporate marshland — from a five-person office to what it is now, is well documented.

M-Pesa, one of his other brainchild, is a dictionary word, a Kenyan verb and currently, for all intents and purposes, a fabric of Kenyan society. Its staggering success has made it a study in Ivy League schools.

M-Pesa, if you will, is a Kenyan party trick. And Michael, born South African and now as Kenyan as the next guy, stands at the stern of this ship, a no-nonsense captain that isn't known to take prisoners.

And because of his reputation of success, he was picked as chairman at Kenya Airways, another ship with a mast full of holes. Kenyans are waiting to see if there are more rabbits left in Michael’s hat.


He is currently briefly holding fort at Safaricom, sitting in the same office as his late predecessor and friend Bob Collymore, who incidentally, had succeed Michael. Michael comes with his own, almost, wintry atmosphere and a classic gloves off style of management.

“I’m not a consensual type of leader, definitely not. I'm more of a dictatorial type,” he told JACKSON BIKO when they sat down recently in his office.


Do you like people?

That is a very interesting question from you. No. (Pause) Not very much. I enjoy people that I relate to, and I can talk to, people that can understand me. Because I have a very caustic sense of humour and people sometimes misunderstand me. They think I’m arrogant or not nice. In general, I’m not a great people’s person. I’m actually quite a shy person. I have always been very shy and I’m not a great social animal, so all these are hard for me.

How do you feed your IQ?

I do not read business books. I think I have read one business book in my whole life. However, I read a lot, I am intensely curious. I am always looking at new things, how things work. In addition, if you look at the Kenya Airways job, for me it was an intellectual challenge because I do not know anything about how airlines work.

How are you doing so far?

Slowly...extremely slowly. It is frustrating. It has been three and half years now and I have been trying to find and suggest to the powers that be, and all the stakeholders, how and why it's so important to save this airline. I still do not think people understand why we should save Kenya Airways. It is not a business proposition; it is a strategic proposition for the country. I need to get people to buy into it. I think we now can see sunlight at the end of the tunnel.

Where is that sunlight coming from?

From the president.
How has being at Kenya Airways [KQ] for that long and not making any progress affected your intellectual esteem, given your famed level of impatience?

It is challenging because people see me as the architect of the success of Safaricom, which is not entirely true. The possibility of failure is quite high at KQ and many times, my friends, family, and business colleagues have called and asked; ‘why are you doing this? You have your reputation at stake.’

Because if something happens to Kenya Airways people will say, it is my fault.

However, I continue because I think it’s the right thing to do, because the president asked me to do this job. And because I think it's the right thing for this country and I want to be successful. And I'm not going to give up. My nature is not to just walk away from a problem.

Does it sometimes feel like you fell on your own sword?

Yes. Many times. Particularly at 3 o’clock in the morning when I wake up and see the things that are facing me.

Where do you get your greatest validation?

From people that I meet on the streets or people that I meet in everyday life. They say, ‘you can do it.’ They believe in me. Or if I get on an aeroplane and I fly, people come up to me, and tell me, the pilots, the staff, they all say, ‘we believe in you.’ And I can’t let them down.

When people talk of Safaricom, they mention Michael Joseph but Kenyans also have a way of overhyping things. Do you sometimes feel like this success was thrust upon you and magnified?

Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I think is this really me? Am I fooling myself? Sometimes I have this feeling that it’s not really me.

But I also think that you can’t take away what I have done. We came to Kenya in 2000 when the mobile phone was just beginning to take off in Africa.

We didn’t have to fight to get to our market and so we made some very good decisions in our early days and that set the course of the success of Safaricom. Also over the years, as CEO, I made mistakes, I did things wrong.

Who’s that person who tells the emperor that he is naked?
Mostly my wife. (Chuckles)

Can anyone learn to be a leader from reading management or leadership books?

OK, first, this is my opinion. I’ve read one book that I thought was valuable; “Good to Great, Why Companies Make The Leap and Others Don’t” by James Collins.

I don’t believe that you can be successful from reading a book. Unless it is inherently in you, you can’t be successful from studying something and then implementing what you studied. It only gives you some guidance.

Many times, I am asked, ‘what's the secret of your success?’ There’s no secret really, because it’s nothing more than working hard, integrity, being dedicated and passionate about what you do. Success isn’t money, a fancy car but an internal satisfaction that you feel.

How important is being liked as a leader?

(Sighs) I once met someone who told me, if you want to be liked buy a dog. Of course everybody wants to be popular, to be liked, we are human beings. But in this kind of job it’s difficult. People will dislike you, that’s just the nature of the job.

Is there one particular leader you would like to sit with for dinner and somewhat just learn from them?

This position is lonely. It’s a position of solitude where you have to make decisions and there aren’t many people to get advice from. Not many people know the context of which you’re making decisions.

But Bob Collymore was one of them. I had dinner with Obama [Former US President Barack Obama] once. It was interesting. He was like everybody else; big ego. It’s difficult to talk about yourself in such situations, you want to talk about him.

Talking of ego and leadership, what has been your experience with ego and how do you manage it; when do you exert it and retract it?

Bob and I talked a lot about this. Because in Kenya, when you’re in such a position, you’re an icon and it’s very easy to think you’re infallible.

I think what brings me down to earth is just walking out of this office and seeing what goes on around me. You can’t always live in this plateau where people look up to you and do whatever you want them to do.

You need to get back home and do the things that you normally do at home. Physical labour helps a lot. We have a house in France with no workers, everything has to be done by us. That really brings you down to earth.

If you were to write your book and somebody had a chance to read only one chapter of it, which chapter would you recommend?
I would probably say the first struggles of going to the US when I was 40. It was a very deep emotional time for me. I was a successful business person and in one year, I lost all my money because of my own stupid decisions.

The whole being an immigrant, not knowing a single person, with my family back home and the temptation to give up and go back...

Do you believe in God?


How old are you now?
I think I just turned 74.

You think you just turned 74. Ha ha. What are you trying to unlearn at this point in life?

To be a bit more of a people-person. I should be intentional with it because I find myself even more and more uncomfortable.

You are in your fourth marriage, I believe. I find it fascinating that on one side, you are very successful at work, and on the other side, you have gone through three marriages.

That you are very good at one thing but you are not good at another thing...

Look, you have to put them in perspective. When you tell people that you have been married four times they go, ‘oh really, what did you do, you must be a really bad person!’ I’m not gonna get into it.

There are good reasons why all those marriages didn’t work out. I regret to divorce my first wife, to some extent.

However, if I had not have done that, I would not be where I am, for sure. Things happen in your life and they are not always nice. But every one of those experiences has been a stepping stone to the next phase of my life. It’s not really been a downward turn, it’s been an upward progress.

Do you get better at being a husband when you have done it so many times?

No. (Laughs) The reasons for my divorces had got nothing to do with me being a bad husband. It was just circumstances.

What are you learning now as a husband, as a man, as a father, outside work?
I think I’m more tolerant. All my children are grown up but I still have a role to play in their lives and I just want to do the best I can.

I’m not a perfect father, particularly to my children from my first marriage because I left when they were young.

Of course, now, we’re very close, but we still regret the gap between the time we left and the time we became closer.

Can you be a successful leader or a CEO and be a successful father and husband?

Absolutely. It’s a completely different skill set. But I’m not in a position to comment, because I became successful after my children left home.

How was it coming back here, to this office after Bob died? Describe that feeling that morning?

No. (Grimaces). I’m a very emotional person. It’s been quite difficult. Bob and I were good friends, and we became very close friends in these two years that he spent in London in hospital.

How did Bob’s death speak to your own mortality?

I was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, I went through this life threatening disease, and some tough emotional times. I promised to live the rest of my life to the fullest because I might have died in 2003. But we’re all going to die so I’m not worried about death so much.

With Bob, I was worried for him because he was younger, he had so much to live for, he had young children. And, he was just a good guy. A guy who read all these books. He had thousands of books.

He used to send me books to read. I loved him. People misinterpreted it, they thought it was some other kind of relation but it wasn’t.

It was always about two guys getting together and spending so much time talking about serious honest topics that guys don’t talk about especially when death was all around.

You are in a high-pressure job, you lost a good friend, do guys like you go for therapy? Would you be open to the idea of sitting before somebody and opening yourself up?

I’ve never been to therapy so I don’t know. I don’t think I need it. In the last three years with Kenya Airways and now Safaricom, there have been times when I’m drained and it’s eating me up and I ask myself; ‘why are you doing this because in two years’ time you'll be forgotten, no one will even remember you even existed.’

How's your health now?
What is your spirit animal?

An elephant because it’s big. It doesn’t give a damn. They walk out of the bush, and nothing stops them, they eat what they want. They have a good memory, but also, they’re smart, very intelligent, very emotional. I love elephants. I like the environment. I really enjoy the tiny things; the bushes, the leaves, the insects, the flies. Nature is at my core.

I’m told you love talking about your dog.

(Big grin) Yes, my boy! He’s called Hugo, a Jack Russell. He's 10 now. Dogs love you unconditionally, they are always happy to see you.

They don't need much. Just, give them some attention, they live it. He's a very special boy. He’s very smart, he understands me. He’s like a son.

Tonight I’m flying back to Lewa, because he’s alone, my wife went to London, so he’s alone at our house and I don’t want him to be alone.

Do you have any regrets?

I hinted about my first marriage; I separated from my first wife when my children were very young, 11 and 9, and I regret that. I regret leaving, and the gap that I was not there when they were growing up.

What's your greatest extravagance?

Oh! I have a fetish for suitcases. I like to buy new suitcases.