Leadership-Made-In-Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: Square pegs in round holes


There’s nothing quite like seeing people working in their purpose. They love what they do, they can do it for hours, they are inspired, they are energetic, and they are productive. It’s electric! Run into someone like that and it almost makes you want to feel jealous if you are not working in your purpose. This person gives off the aura that she would do what she is doing even if there wasn’t much money in it. Her affection for her work is palpable. She does not come to work or engage in her work because she has to, she engages in and comes to work because she wants to.

I once saw a traffic policeman like that. He was conducting traffic at the middle of a busy intersection in the middle of a hot day. Ordinarily this would not have been a remarkable sight and like most drivers I would have just driven past him, mechanically and subconsciously obeying his manual traffic signals.

Yet, there was an aura about how he directed traffic, an enthusiasm about him that infected his entire body and even from several meters away in my car, separated by air conditioning and a closed window, I could tell that the man was enjoying himself and had the feeling that he was revelling in his task. He cleared the traffic so efficiently that I almost drove into a car in front of me after passing through the intersection because I was watching the policeman in my rear view mirror to catch another glimpse of him as he carried out his duties with enthusiasm.

My cousin had a similar passion for his work – installing and repairing HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems. He absolutely loved his work and pursued it with a passion. He took pride in what he did and enjoyed working with the people around him and it showed in the meticulous care he took in ensuring that his work was of the highest quality.

He quickly earned a reputation for doing high quality and diligent work and was engaged by hundreds of homes and corporate clients to install, maintain and repair their HVAC systems. Interestingly but tragically, he died in a car accident on his way to doing what he loved; he travelled to a regional town to install a system and on his return his vehicle plowed into another one and he died from his injuries.

My uncle the indefatigable Prof Adei is another example of someone working in his purpose. Throughout his years in GIMPA, he was enthusiastic about his work and passionate about the delivery of learning experiences in leadership for public servant leaders. After GIMPA, he continued to enthusiastically deliver leadership lessons, writing books with gusto and plowing his energy for leadership development into Ghana Christian. Whenever I get him talking about leadership and organizations, his eyes light up and he quickly goes into teaching or learning mode. It is not hard to see that the man lives for his work, and his work keeps him going from strength to strength.

Sadly, these people are often the exception, rather than the norm when we look around us. Walk into many offices and you will run into people who do their jobs as if their jobs were the cause of deep pain and frustration for them. They are unenthusiastic, give minimal or average effort, and act as if “if it wasn’t because of the money that I get paid in this job, I would quit today and tell my boss to get out of my way!”

As tempting as it is to imagine that this image only applies to a low-level government worker, the reality is that this situation applies even to executives in high-paying jobs in corporate Africa or in some NGOs. There are millions of adults in Africa living lives of frustration and torment, working at jobs that they no longer enjoy or perhaps never enjoyed, and feeling stuck because they cannot find a way out without losing something that may be precious to them (money, status, health benefits, subsidized school fees, official car, etc).

How did we get this way? What happened to these people? Who is responsible for the situation in which they find themselves?

To find the answer, let me take you to a football field. In a team, there are typically eleven players on the pitch and 18 – 22 players in the squad. The coach is responsible for training the players, selecting the players to go on the squad or off the squad, selecting the team to play on a given day, and selecting who should be subbed out because they are either unproductive or tired or injured or not suited to the strategy of the game. From time to time, players get subbed or “snubbed” (ie, not chosen to play on a given day) by the coach and get quite irate at the coach for doing it. Ultimately, the coach is responsible for ensuring that the players are put in the best situation that fits their talents and passion.

In organizations, leaders carry a similar responsibility. At ever level of an organization, leadership happens. Leadership is influence and the direct supervisor of any employee (regardless of the employee’s level in the organization) has the greatest opportunity to influence an employee.

The supervisor is responsible for selecting the employee, training, preparing, and placing them in the best position where the employee’s skills, talents and passion will make him the most productive and engaged. When the employee is not engaged or productive over a long period of time, it is the supervisor’s responsibility to recognize it, diagnose it and resolve it. The resolution may include a range of actions from counselling, coaching, performance management, discussions, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, repositioning, reassignments, and eviction.

Why did I say that the responsibility lies with the supervisor? Why not with the employee himself? This is because the employee is typically too deep inside the forest to see the forest from the trees. The employee is too afraid of change to be willing to bring change upon himself or to suggest change.

The employee is often too married to the comfortable to make himself uncomfortable. Just as a player is almost never going to take himself out of the game at the right time and is more likely to hang on a little too long in the game – and cost his team points because he not sharp – so the employee may hang on too long. It is the duty of the supervisor to recognize when a change needs to be made, and to make that change.

The change does not always have to be a change in the employee. It does not have to be a change in position. It can be a change in the job responsibilities, scope of work, location, orientation, or any number of things. But when an employee is not performing at his / her optimal capacity this is a symptom that they are not working in their purpose. When they are not working in their purpose they must be re-purposed. Repurposing is the job of leaders. Managing is doing the everyday stuff that keeps the company running for today. Leading is the strategic work that ensures that the company runs like a well-oiled engine, on all cylinders, generating full power and very little fumes.

Dear African leader, are any of your direct reports not performing at their full potential? Are any of your direct reports looking like they would rather be somewhere else? Sit with them; ask them questions, listen to them, and most importantly, own the outcome of ensuring that they get repurposed, repositioned, re-assigned, or retrained into a situation where they can perform optimally. It is not easy to do; it takes courage, insight, humility, wisdom, candor, and love. It may take time. Whatever it takes for you to do it, do it, because square pegs in round holes do a disservice to an organization. The organization is counting on you.

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