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Collymore Legacy: Corporate leadership is more about software than hardware

By Alex Owiti | July 3rd 2019
By Alex Owiti | July 3rd 2019
Late Bob Collymore

NAIROBI, KENYA: Let me first intimate my first meeting with Bob Collymore.  I was then working for Gina Din Corporate Communications as an Account Manager for Safaricom when Bob joined the celebrated blue-chip company in East Africa.

We had already done the first press briefing to usher him into the public domain and as usual, an onboarding was to be done by the Agency so he would know whom he would be working with when it came to PR matters.

It was an honour to be among the team that was working on the Safaricom account and of course led by the experienced Gina Din-Kariuki.

Some of the privileges we enjoyed during our work with the late Bob Collymore was an indiscriminate treatment, which included riding with him in his air-conditioned Land Cruiser V8 vehicle.

Anyone who has been at Safaricom Headquarters understands that there are two lifts in the building; the lift for the commoners and the VIP lift. Despite having enjoyed the VIP lift which had a security and moved faster to Bob’s office on the eighth floor that changed with time because he believed that his employees and management should be treated equally.

Michael Joseph was rational, tough and no-nonsense. Michael is the engineer of Safaricom. He built the company for over 10 years before retiring. However, he is never retired from his baby company. He is always in the shadow following each step of success. The success of Safaricom sits at the heart of Michael and history will always celebrate him for building one the most unrivalled telco in East Africa. Safaricom is a global case study, especially with the Mpesa invention.

I also had a privilege of working with him when I joined Safaricom account as a media executive while at Gina Din Corporate Communications.

Back to meeting Bob Collymore. Therefore, we walk into Bob’s office and wait at the boardroom. He is busy trying to catch up with the workload that came with the size of his office. Therefore, we could only get an opportunity to see him later in the afternoon as the day slows down from a busy morning.

Bob walks in with a smile and greets everyone. With his British accent, we pay attention to how he talks, his body language and demeanour. Bob liked to make jokes but also he would be sarcastic. I guess it is a British thing of avoiding direct confrontation.

So we get into the business and Gina takes over the meeting to introduce all of us from the agency. Gina then talks about how we operate and how we will position him moving forward.

Bob was not happy about how the media covered him. They were comparing him to Michael Joseph wondering whether he will fit in his shoes. The media described Michael’s shoes being bigger for Bob.

He outrightly asked us to control that narrative and that he did not want to hear it. Most of the journalists who asked him the question of fitting into Michael’s shoe met his smile and the grin at the same time.

In addition, overtime the media had to get used to his character of a soft man from outside but tough from inside. Some people thought he did not have the right qualification but unfortunately, he was already the Captain of Safaricom, a leading telecommunication company in the region. The board and those who recruited him had seen something “we” the public did not and could not decipher.

I guess the reason was that his predecessor Michael was a techie and had enormous experience in matters running a telco. Whereas Bob was coming from the soft side of things which is more corporate affairs. The reasoning of the public and other techies in the industry could not fit the logic of his recruitment.

Thus why I would authoritatively say that the soft-side or software side of Bob Collymore brought in significant changes at Safaricom. This element of soft skills catapulted Safaricom to its celebrated success today.

Research by David Deming, a professor of education and economics at the Graduate School of Education and a professor of education and public policy at the Kennedy School, shows that workers who combine social and technical skills fare best in the modern economy, as measured by a 7.2 per centage point increase in available jobs and a 26 per cent wage increase between 1980 and 2012.

In fact, according to a study completed by CareerBuilder as published by EBSCO for Corporate, 77 per cent of employers now believe that soft skills are equally as important as “hard” or “technical” skills in the work environment. However, unlike hard skills, which include job-specific training and knowledge, soft skills can be difficult to identify and measure.

During his tenure, Bob injected a new norm among his management to dissolve the traditional way of running a corporate. The free-spiritedness of a corporate to remove barriers of communication and bureaucracies that kill the morale of employees to be more efficient, effective and productive.

In the beginning, Bob started having lunch with employees at the Safaricom Gazebo. To some, it was a good thing. A leader coming from his top office down to the employees and trying to relate to them. This shocked many including some of his staff who thought he was spying on them but he was not a “normal” CEO. He broke the barrier that existed in the usual hierarchy of employees and their management.

He attended all the staff engagements when he could and brought in a different perspective to top-down leadership to a horizontal-to-horizontal perspective. Bringing some level of equality.

If you can remember, it is during his tenure that Bob brought about the breastfeeding nursery for lactating mothers. This was revolutionary because the science behind it made mothers at Safaricom to work effectively and without worrying about their infants who would have been at home, as they worked in the office.

He also brought about a lot of change in the customer care centers. He ensured that those who worked at the call centers had a good working environment to boost their productivity. As a result, Safaricom’s customer relations improved significantly and the 100 dial-up would go through faster than one imagined.

Bob also loved Corporate Social Responsibility. He supported sustainable development goals that later earned him a position at the United Nations Global Compact Board, a voluntary UN initiative that encourages businesses globally to adopt sustainable and socially responsible policies.

It is during his tenure that he also appointed many women at Safaricom at the management position.

Bob indeed had a different perspective on corporate leadership. He truly confirmed that the “software” was key to the success of a corporate more than its hardware, which is more about the technical qualification of an individual.

He revolutionized the beliefs in the tech space that were more technical to bring about a new tangent of rationale that soft skills would increase productivity when you mix it with the technical skills.

As I conclude, whereas profits and delivering shareholder value is key, focus on softer human relations is key as well. In fact, by focusing on the software, hardware too falls into place. 

Alex Owiti is the Founder and Managing Director of Alexander PR and Communication Network.

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