Eight lessons businesses and brands can learn from Raila Odinga

By Daniel Oyier | Sunday, Apr 26th 2020 at 09:26
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While Kenya's turbulent political scene often presents an unemptied dustbin of discarded hopes and little to emulate even for the most discerning business guru, still there's something to be learned from one of the key players within its kakistocratic mixture.

Such a figure is Raila Odinga, Kenya's former Prime Minister and current Orange Democratic Movement party leader. He is arguably one of the most influential politicians in modern Kenya.

Having joined politics in the high day of president Moi's jackboot regime, he has evolved from a firebrand figure of the 1990s to a polished statesman. His political journey, like that of any other militant African politician, hasn't been smooth. Despite his tribulations at the hands of the late president Moi, consisting of arbitrary arrests, torture, and detention without trial, his key vision for Kenya hasn't changed: An unending devotion to the pursuit and installation of a just, equitable, all-inclusive and fair governance of the country.

Unfortunately, this has often been spinned by his distractors as his characteristic cacoethes for power.

Today, business leaders and brands can profit by picking a few lessons from his checkered political career.

1. Have a vision

Whether in business or politics, the momentum for progress only comes from a clearly defined vision. Raila Odinga's single most pressing aspiration has been to achieve expanded democratic space according to unfettered civil liberties and equity through well-documented legislation.

Together with his fellow agitators, his first taste of victory was the re-introduction of multiparty democracy in the early 1990s. But this wasn't his endgame.

He teamed up, again, with like-minded leading lights of the time and pressed on for more civil rights and freedoms, culminating in the momentous pivot point with the promulgation of the 2010 constitution.

2. Grow a following

You want your product to sell and be a household name? You first need to position it in a manner that appeals to the buyer. Understand your market then use a language the market understands to deliver your message. Interact with your customers, understand the shortcomings of your own value proposition then improve on them.

Raila has perfected the art of crafting messages that always elicit an almost visceral response from his numberless supporters while he positions himself as their saviour.

His bulging political base has been and continues to be the envy of his competitors. Whether he appeals to their minds or hearts is not the matter, the real issue is his political following is almost national.

3. Do not forget your history and culture

In order to see farther into the future, we must, from time to time, take a look back into the past. The past is rich with lessons that inform us on how to tackle the future.

A business with no organizational culture is a passing cloud. You must inculcate your organizational culture in your team.

Raila has exemplified this by reminding us time and again about our journey so far as a country. He has enumerated what we need to do next while also taking time to mingle with the ordinary folks to watch football matches, visit the elderly and the sick (like the late Martin Shikuku and Kenneth Matiba) in their hospital beds. All these gestures ingrain into the psyche of his followers the value of humanity.

4. You don't have to be number one to be in business

Businesses grow gradually from obscurity to prominence if they're lucky. Most successful businesses aren't even in the limelight. Just because a business is not the leader in its niche does not mean it has no products or services to offer and, therefore, no customers.

Despite not becoming president, Raila Odinga has remained more relevant politically than most elected leaders today. His relevance has been attested to from time to time and, at one instance, exemplified by the demand by Kenyans that he steps in to push the government to reign in the runaway cost of basic necessities in the country. And he did head their call with the result that prices of selected food items were later subsidized.

The lesson here is that the market leaders sometimes get arrogant and haughty and forget who is their most important asset-the customers. When this happens, even the most ardent customers will look for the same product from your competitors. It's just business.

5. Keep your hands clean

As a business, no entity will want to associate with you if there are strings of scandals in your wake. Even a whiff of negative sentiments about you in the marketplace can seriously dent your reputation and hurt your products and services offering.

Kenya's history is replete with political assassinations, looting of public assets, and ethnic clashes. Knowing that these vices are contrary to what he stands for, Raila has avoided them like the plague.

6. Not everyone plays by the rules

Politicians world over are hardwired to constantly seek shortcuts and to capitalise on systemic weaknesses to attain their goals.

In 2007/08 election debacle, Raila expected the then Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) to diligently do their job and return clean results, while for Kibaki and his cohorts, it was all about retaining power at all costs and Raila only realized this too late.

In business, don't expect everyone to play by the rules. People will undercut you, copy and or imitate your product, use all unfair practices to gain or maintain their market share.

Be prepared with legal countermeasures. Do not counter illegality with illegality.

7. Embrace diversity

All businesses know that there are more people who are not your customers than are customers. You must constantly seek out the non-customers with a view to converting to customers and retaining them.

Raila demonstrated this in the year 2013 by limiting his competitors Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto to Rift Valley and Central Kenya regions while taking majority command of the rest of the regions comprising Nyanza, Coast, Eastern, Western and Nairobi. He achieved this by embracing diversity.

He also had political advisers from other ethnic regions, including from his competitors' communities.

8. Learn to use your competitor

Upon realizing that the system is inherently rigged against him and while cognizant of the work yet to be done to attain even a semblance of his ultimate goal of a fair Kenya for all, he chose to join his erstwhile competitor Uhuru Kenyatta in a mutually agreed arrangement that would, at least on paper, steer the country on a path of peace and prosperity thereby ensuring a win-win outcome.

Businesses, too, can cobble up joint strategies with their competitors that ensure both record mutual gains at lower costs compared to bloody cut-throat wars that consume tremendous resources for meagre results.

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