Leadership Made in Africa with Modupe TAYLOR-PEARCE: Do not hire anyone you cannot fire


Whether it occurs in governmental organizations, (e.g., a minister who was pivotal in the election of her/his President or is a close relative of the President), non-governmental organizations (a politically-connected local hire whose relative is the supervising minister of the NGO), for-profit organizations (a relative of the CEO/owner), employees of an organization that have limited or no accountability are poisonous to the health of an organization.

When any person who is drawing salary from and/or making decisions on behalf of an organization is in a position of knowing that his/her job position is not only guaranteed but unshakeable, that employee becomes a cancer to the organization. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This kind of power given (consciously or subconsciously) to any employee or agent of a company is detrimental to the employee’s performance, organizational morale, and the organization’s overall performance.

It is rumored that when Paul Kagame became President of Rwanda he paid a visit to his relatives in his village and informed them that they should no longer consider to be one of their relatives because the responsibility that he has for running the country would not allow him to participate in many family activities and should not be interpreted by his relatives as a blank check for collecting favors from anyone in his government. Whether that story is completely true or not, I cannot attest.

However, I can attest that many African Presidents have had their leadership tenures tarnished by hiring relatives into positions of significant authority and then struggling with the decision of what to do when the relatives’ performance in the job becomes so detrimental that it negatively affects the country.

African leaders have hired cousins, uncles, sons, wives, and other close relatives into cabinet positions only to find out that these people, no matter how qualified they were for the job, eventually became toxic to the organization as they became lax in the performance of their job and realized that no matter how poorly they performed their job would never be at risk. This situation then emboldened others in the relatives’ inner circle to engage in levels of misbehavior and non-performance that embarrasses the President and damages the country’s economy. Does this sound familiar?

Of course, most people in Africa are not Presidents and may never become the President of a country. However, many people in Africa are leaders; leaders of large and small organizations, organizations that depend on their leader to make optimal decisions for the organization and its stakeholders to achieve a bright future. Do we – everyday leaders – make some of the same mistakes that has just been attributed to many African Presidents?

Sadly, we do. Every day, entrepreneurs, school principals, community leaders, business managers, and CEOs make the same mistake; we hire people whom we cannot fire. (for those not familiar with my terminology, “fire” means “terminate their employment”).  We get blinded by the allure of loyalty, faithfulness, familiarity, camaraderie, and history, and we allow ourselves to make sub-optimal business decisions by bringing on board people from our childhood, our family compound, or our in-laws, to work in our business.

With few exceptions, these decisions end in disaster, regret, underperformance, stagnation, or organizational decline. One of the most commonly heard of laments among Africans in the diaspora is the lament of how their brother/sister/cousin/aunt/uncle mis-managed their investment in Africa. It is such a tried and true old story now that whenever I travel outside Africa I simply avoid any diasporan who starts to regale me with those stories.

You would think that after decades of hearing about these horror stories, the diasporans would have learned their lessons and stopped hiring their relatives! But then again, I realize that even for African leaders living in Africa (non-diasporans), the same mistakes are being made.

A young lady recently bemoaned to me about how she had studied Agriculture in University and wanted to make farming her career. She had a job working for an NGO and decided to engage in agriculture with an eye to quitting her job and doing it full time. To ease the transition from salaried to non-salaried status, she decided to start farming while she was working.

She leased a large plot of land – about five acres – and hired people to farm in the land. They were to grow rice and cassava and some vegetables. She made the sad mistake of asking her uncle – her mother’s brother – to oversee the farm. Not only did the uncle fail to properly oversee the workers, but he also fraudulently colluded with the workers and other people to defraud his niece of some of the harvest.

When she finally caught him – after several weeks of suspicion and denials from the uncle – she was horrified to learn that none of her senior relatives would support her in holding the uncle accountable with decisions like taking him to the police or seizing his possessions. She finally decided to cut her losses, sold off her farm, and is now considering investing in animal husbandry (pigs and poultry) in a different part of the country.

Dear African leader, hiring decisions are decisions with long-term ramifications. More than just the salary or compensation that you will pay an employee, the decisions made by the employee may impact your organization for decades, long after that employee has left your employ.

Hiring decisions are not to be made lightly and not to be made with short-term solutions in mind. Too often, because we are under pressure to fill a position, reduce the burden on our time, satisfy a customer, or win a bid, we make hiring decisions based on short-term fixes that leave us gnashing our teeth in regret in the long term. Here are five qualities that you need to prioritize as you make a hiring decision:

  1. Does the person you are hiring have the demonstrated competence for the position that you are considering? There are many ways to determine competence, and in a future article I will discuss some of the more reliable methods; however, let me alert you to two that are the least reliable: the interview and a CV. An interview is an extremely unreliable manner of determining competence. CV’s are generally inaccurate and missing key information to determine competence.
  2. Does this person a person of integrity and courage? Character speaks of what a person is made of and reveals itself when people are under extreme pressure and also when they are in a position where they cannot easily be held accountable. Character matters greatly. People lacking integrity should not find their way into your organization.
  3. Does this person’s preferred ways of working and communicating align with the norms of your organization? This is the facet of hiring that makes many African leaders go for relatives, because they misinterpret “culture” to mean coming from the same village or family.
  4. How close is this job related to this person’s passion and calling? If this person did not need to earn money, how likely would s/he be to perform this role that I am about to give her/him? Calling is important because it is too easy for employees to give you just-enough-to-not-get-fired level of effort and there is a mile of difference between that level of effort and the level that comes from people who are passionate and committed to what they do.
  5. How well can this person get along with the rest of the team? Does this person have the capacity to get along well with the current team (including me) that I have right now?

Take the time to analyze these five facets before bringing on board anyone into your organization. Most importantly, make sure that your new hire is someone whom you are not so emotionally connected to that you would not be able to terminate their employment. The future of our organization depends on your ability to bring on board the right people for the organization and to get the wrong people out of it.


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