Touch a heart and ask for a hand, by Austin Okere

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Austin Okere, CWG Plc, Human resources
Austin Okere, Founder of CWG Plc

 

Employees believe that employers couldn’t care less about them and are only out to exploit them.

Employers believe that employees couldn’t care less about the business and are only after the monthly pay. How do we strike a balance?

I was a guest speaker at a workshop of the Entrepreneurial Development Centre (EDC) at the Lagos Business School a couple of months ago to share insights about my entrepreneurial journey and CWG Plc, the company we founded 25 years ago.The major points of interest were:

1.The company is listed on the Nigerian Stock Exchange

2.As Founder, I have since 2015 retired and handed over to a second generation of Executive Management.

How is this possible? They ask. Many Nigerian founders do not think remotely about retiring, and less so of listing their companies and taking them Public. The companies simply folded up after the founder departed the scene. They do not seem to have a succession or sustainability plan in place. This is not entirely fair I quip, because some of our banks have successfully gone through succession from founders. They were forced by regulation, was the chorus.Could this be as a result of a lack of trust or foresight?

The case of employers and employees is very typical, akin to that between landlords and tenants; they both need each other to survive, but the relations tend to be testing, needing the best of leadership skills.

Perhaps, because the attendants were mostly entrepreneurs or aspiring to be, the Human Resource issues that dominated the discussion were:

  • Staff are not loyal
  • Staff are stealing or doing underhand deals
  • Staff are resigning without notice and consideration
  • Staff are ungrateful and always disgruntled

Why is this so, and could there be a way to strike a balance? My take is that many enterprises do not clearly define the essence of their existence; i.e. WHY they exist. A necessary battle cry to rally the troops behind. Something that they can believe in, and join the enterprise to be a part of. Something they are proud to go home and talk about. In my experience, it is not all about the pay, but also about self-worth and pride in the job; the notion of being part of something special. Folklore has it that even the handymen at the site of the Apollo Mission in America boasted to whoever cared to listen that they were working very hard to put a man on the moon!

To buttress this point; how much did Barack Obama’s campaign pay the thousands of volunteers who worked tirelessly to get him elected? The money was not as important as the mission and conviction. ‘Yes, we can’! We could hear them chanting from the bottom of their hearts all day long on CNN and other news channels. They were working hard to bring about ‘a change we can believe in’ they claimed. The same dynamics held for Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid rule in South Africa. It was more about the conviction in the mission than the financial reward for the effort.

One could argue that these are not exactly typical enterprises, but I would say the same scenario plays out even in business enterprises. Many Management books talk about the pride in working for companies such as Coca Cola, Chrysler and IBM; and more recently, Google, Tesla, and Facebook. I recently read that it is hard to tempt anybody working for Elon Musk even with a 50% additional salary offer.

Here in Nigeria, GT Bank in my view, came close to what could qualify as corporate apostles. It is exactly this culture that we tried to create at CWG; the culture of touching a heart and asking for a hand. Many employers are so disconnected from their employees that they would easily miss a major tragedy in their personal circumstances; and this is not saying that we should run a nursery. But at the same time, employees are not machines, they are emotional beings. A little empathy can go a long way.

People joined our company because they believed in our WHY – providing technology solutions that enable growth. It helped greatly that we run an open and equitable system. Nothing is hidden; nothing needs to be if we are co-travellers on a common quest. Everybody knows when we are doing well and also when the tide is against us. At one of our most challenged periods, following the global financial meltdown, we all agreed to a temporary 30% cut in commissions, which would be accumulated and paid when our fortune turned (and yes; everybody had a fixed and variable salary as part of skin in the game). People asked jokingly what I had given the staff at CWG that they were all so loyal to the company. Perhaps it is this ‘something’ about CWG that interested both Columbia Business School (CBS) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to write case studies on the company for their MBA curricula.I have spoken about CWG Plc, because this is the company I know.

On this thorny issue of a balance between employer and employees’ interest in the enterprise, I posit that distrust occurs when either the employer has not been able to motivate the employees to believe in the cause, or the employees do not feel that the rewards of the cause are equitably distributed.

It will be interesting to share your thoughts.

Austin Okere is the Founder of CWG Plc & Entrepreneur in Residence at CBS, New York. Austin also serves on the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Innovation and Intrapreneurship and on the Advisory Board of the Global Business School Network based in Washington DC.

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