Last week, I shared thoughts on the 5 C’s for a great employee (Competence, Character, Culture, Calling, and Chemistry). Over the next five weeks, I will be expanding on each one of the C’s, not only on what they mean, but on strategies for assessing whether the employee you are about to hire possesses this facet for your organization.
Olimod School Outfitters is a distributor of school and work uniforms in Sierra Leone. It was started in 1994 by my mother (Olive Taylor-Pearce); after serving as a classroom teacher and university registrar in Ghana, Kenya, and Sierra Leone for a few decades she decided that she would utilize her networks within the teaching community to solve a problem…school administrators were struggling to procure the hats and berets that they needed to supply to the school children.
This problem existed because the hats and berets were not produced in Sierra Leone; they were imported from the UK and the cost of purchase and shipping was prohibitive for school children.
Olive Taylor-Pearce used her international connections and found cheaper manufacturing sources and within a decade, Olimod School Outfitters was supplying hats, berets, socks, and other school uniform material to many of the schools in Sierra Leone, with a staff of eight people.
One of the unique quirks of this business was the fact that every workday at Olimod School Outfitters started at 8am with prayers and devotion. My parents insisted that all the Olimod staff report at 8am for bible-reading, reflection and prayers, and then at 9am the shops would be opened and trading would start.
Given my American work background, I found this to be somewhat intrusive and asked about it. My mother informed me candidly that “this is the way we do things at Olimod; we believe that God is the one who blesses this business and we do not compromise on this belief. Those who want to work for us are going to have to align with our values.”
It was not long after that Olimod hired a worker who informed my mother, after working at Olimod for about three months, that she would not be able to come to the devotion time because it was too early for her and she had other responsibilities. This worker was let go by Olimod shortly thereafter.
Prof Stephen Adei spent over a decade working for the United Nations (UN), earning a generous salary and rising to senior-level positions. However, by the time he was approaching 50, he was convinced that the UN was not the organization for him to stay in much longer. Why? Because his preferred ways of working and communication and behavioral norms did not align with the norms of the UN (many of those who know the Professor would say they are not surprised at all by this revelation, given his penchant for speaking the unbridled truth at inconvenient times!).
After a few brushes with UN executive management over his penchant to express himself freely (including mentioning his Christian faith, which was taboo) and his desire for free movement in and out of his duty station, he realized that the clash of cultures between himself and the organization that was paying him was going to become an unwelcome distraction for both parties and he left Namibia and the UN to take up a job in Ghana that paid him less than 15percent of what he had been earning in the United Nations.
I recall one of my earlier discussions with my wife after a few months in Mauritius at the African Leadership University undergraduate campus in Mauritius. “Honey, we are going to have to build our own work culture at the School of Business. This place is great, but the ways of working here are not going to work for me”. My wife, ever the conciliatory one, asked me what the matter was. “There are no offices, no assigned desks, everyone sits wherever they like, and every day I have to find a spot to perch and it is difficult to have private conversations in this place!” was my reply.
The problem I was experiencing was trying to fit into a work culture that I was totally unaccustomed to. At the ALU undergraduate campus in Mauritius, there was a plethora of futuristic innovations that were the norm. The faculty and the students used Slack as a means of communication and community building (I had never heard of Slack before and observed it to be like WhatsApp on steroids and an even greater distraction from work than WhatsApp).
Every Friday afternoon there was a Friday Lunchtime general meeting that served as a community-building and general communications meeting and folks would sit or lay down on chairs, settees, or large cushions for the meeting. Staff, faculty, and students sat together in one large office and shared places on large working tables and almost everybody wore headphones when they were working on something and did not want to be disturbed; apparently, this was the non-verbal “do not disturb” notice.
Ultimately, it worked for the staff and students, because ALU is an organization of wonderfully productive and fast-paced workers who have already achieved amazing outcomes and created fantastic learning experiences for students who have already gone on to be impactful in their communities.
But for me, a seasoned veteran coming in to start an MBA programme and the School of Business, it was a work culture that did not work for me. It was therefore not difficult for our MBA team at the School of Business to be convinced to move to Kigali and establish the programme there with a hybrid structure that allowed our team to work remotely and assemble physically three times a year for two weeks at a time.
In this manner, we maintained the ALU DNA of shared workspaces for short periods of time (anyone can stomach culture differences for a short time) and then retreated to our more familiar spaces and working habits.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines culture as “the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic”.
Put simply, it is the collection or norms, behaviors, and practices that characterize a group, company, institution, or community. Every community has its own culture; all Africans are familiar with this. What we are not as aware of is that every home has its own culture, and every company has its own culture, and every organization has its own culture.
To understand the culture of a company or organization, look at the values that are espoused and the behaviors that are rewarded; observe the rituals, the routines, the organizational structure; study the power structures, compensation and control systems; listen to the stories told inside the company about the people.
These characteristics are extremely important when considering the hiring of a new employee or associate. What are the structures and reward systems and values and behaviors that the potential employee is accustomed to and what is s/he willing to accommodate? This is a question that many employers do not ask and often end up realizing belatedly that they may have hired the wrong person, not because they are not competent or trustworthy (integrity and courage) but simply because they are not a good fit in the organization’s current culture.
This is painful for the company and the employee because it leads to a slow and long separation. Like incompatible partners in a marriage who realize that their partner is a good, decent person but not a good fit for them, both parties will go through periods of discomfort, guilt, despair, and then disengagement until one or both of them grab the bull by the horns and expresses to the other what is already evident but painful to acknowledge: this is not working out for either of us.
Dear African leader – as you build your team of people, remember that bringing on the right people to your organization is one of your most critical responsibilities. Your ability and willingness to bring on the right people and take out the wrong people will be one of the most important determinants of the organization’s success. This is not a responsibility that can be delegated to your HR manager.
The HR manager exists to support you with the systems, structures, information, and tools so that you can make the decisions about whom to hire, fire, and upskill. Your people are your organization’s greatest asset; when building your team, do not be content with looking for competence and character alone. These qualities are necessary but not sufficient. Bringing on the people with the right culture matters as well.