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Company cornerstones without colour

By | February 17th 2009

By Anderea Morara

Most employees are pretty much the same in terms of attitude and approach to work.

A good manager is therefore able to predict when things are generally okay or when something out of the ordinary is in the offing by casual contact with a few employees.

However, Claxton Omanya was such an unconventional case. Even the way he pronounced his name "Claxton" (Crackstone), left one with an eerie feeling.

His demeanour gave the impression that he always had something up his sleeve, and most managers are bound to want to keep a close watch on him.

Within one year after college, he had been sacked three times. However, in the early 1980s, there were plenty of jobs for graduates in East Africa and landing a job with his honours in Bachelor of Commerce degree was not difficult.

I met him when he was on his fourth job with one of the oldest and most established investment companies in Africa.

His appearance was still scruffy as usual, with harsh tufts of beard unevenly distributed on his massive chin, though his unruly hair seemed to have benefited from a recent stylish shave.

He, however, seemed stable and focused, unlike the time I met him just after his third sacking. He definitely seemed to act as one who had purpose and urgency in life.

He looked at me pleasantly and shook my hand firmly. "I am pleased to see you. You are the only man who gave me a sympathetic ear and even bus fare, during the period I was being fired before even settling on a job as if I was the plague incarnate. Do not tell me you are in a hurry. Let’s go in here for a quick lunch."

It was an impassionate offer that I could not refuse. The lunch was not quick. However, as we went through the three-course meal, I got to learn that Claxton was now Number Two (Assistant Manager) in Product Development and Market Research for the Eastern and Central Africa region.

Cosmopolitan flair

He gave me his impeccably embossed business card and invited me for a quick visit to his office. The company occupied three floors on one of the most prestigious buildings in Nairobi’s Central Business District.

Literally, all the staff had a cosmopolitan flair, quite distinct from Claxton’s rustic mien.

Claxton looked like a fish out of water as the rest of the staff, who were mostly men, had clean-shaven chins and dressed immaculately almost exclusively in blue suits.

It did not take long to learn why the company had retained Claxton and even given him one of the corner offices.

He was able to crack a problem that had been nagging the company for years within the first month of his being hired.

He had since developed three new products, two of which had hit the market like wild fire. Within only nine months in the company, he had helped the regional office double sales and get unprecedented earnings.

He had been given a brand new car and a generous cash bounty at the latest annual company awards ceremony.

Creative powers

Thus, no one was insisting that he be clean-shaven like the others: lest like the Biblical Samson he lost his creative powers.

A jagged chin was a small price for the company to pay so long as Claxton’s creativity and innovativeness was assured.

The management of this company had overlooked many things about Claxton. It all started from the aptitude test at which he scored the highest, beating the next candidate by 30 points.

The aptitude test was heavily skewed towards problem solving and inventiveness – areas where the company considered itself weak.

When he obtained top marks, management straight away put him on problem solving without requiring him to go through the usual induction protocols.

When in only three weeks he provided the company with a viable solution, he made himself inviolable.

Therefore, no one had been talking about his grooming. Claxton had a different character from the company norms, but his aptitude and innovativeness made him an asset that the management was willing to keep without making any qualms about his appearance or his fidgety mannerisms.

I guess they reckoned that fidgeting and apparent uneasiness was because of "invention labour pangs". His Managing Director reportedly used the phrase "colourless cornerstone" when referring to him.

So before you trash an employee because of his weird behaviour, do a proper diagnosis of what is bugging him.

You might be throwing out talent and creativity – attributes that may stand you in good stead in these days of accelerating competition.

The writer is the Executive Director of Capacity Development Africa Ltd.

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Company cornerstones without colour
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