A talk by Eric Kimani to the British Council Leadership Forum in Nairobi, Kenya on 19th September 2007
Distinguished guests ladies & gentlemen,
I am delighted to have been invited to come and share some thoughts with you.
Tonight I have chosen to address one of the topics you asked me to speak on-target setting or planning for success. This is a wide topic and I have chosen to provoke our thoughts on Personal Branding.
To answer the question why brand yourself I will narrate in short a chapter by Tom Peters the management guru in one of his books – “The Circle of innovation”.
He tells the story how in 1980 Percy Bernevik left his job in the US to take up the leadership of the giant Swedish engineering firm ASEA.
There he inherited a 2,000 –person headquarters. He pruned it quickly to 200 people!
In 1987 ASEA merged with Switzerland’s Brown Boveri to create the world’s largest Electrical engineering firm Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) inheriting Brown Boveri’s 4,000 strong headquarters. Six months later the headquarters was down to 200! As of 1998 the headcount had gone down to 140 down from 6,000. The message is that if it has not happened to you it soon will- 59 out of 60 of you and me here tonight are at risk and hence the need to brand ourselves!
How do we brand ourselves?
- 1. Keep time! As a general rule we have little respect for time. You give someone an appointment and they come half hour or an hour late. You call a meeting and half the people turn up late. Until you have a reputation for respect for time you will not project yourself as a powerful brand. I have chaired a professional committee for over 8 years and we meet from 7.30 to 8.30 a.m. and occasionally to 9 am. We have never started the meeting late or ended it late! I chair many others and I will be on time 99% of time. I have a reputation for keeping time. It is part of my branding effort. I have little respect for people who do not keep time. Ordinarily they are unreliable and weak brands. This is an area of life that is easy to improve. In some cultures like Germany, it is commonly taken as a personal affront to be late and they will cancel important business or social appointments on this score alone.
- To build a powerful brand of yourself you must be passionate at what you do. I once worked for a large tea company and my calling/visiting card besides my name had the inscription “Passionate about Tea”. And those who knew me will tell you I was passionate about it! I have heard someone comment that if I worked at Sameer with the same passion heaven would be the limit for “Yana”. I am intending to print new business cards screaming “Yana where the rubber meets the Road”! Like Martin Luther said once- if you are a sweeper sweep to the glory of God. I say if you are a teacher here tonight teach with passion; whatever your vocation give it your best. If you cannot account for the day don’t bother to wake up and burn energy and fuel through the Nairobi traffic. If you do not show up on time to passionately deliver a measurable product you will not be a powerful brand. I get to work often earlier than 6.30 a.m. to keep my brand equity higher than the competition! My friend Bill Lay the CEO of General Motors sometimes comes for coffee to my office before 7 a.m.! Martin Oduor Otieno the CEO of KCB Group gives me a 7 a.m. appointment! This is the branding I am talking about! These men are passionate about the work they do!
- You must learn how to deliver extra-ordinary service. You must be reliable to your customers- and this applies whether you are talking of a finance department staff, HR or any enterprise. For 10 year we have run a small family business with my wife in a service industry dominated by big competitor firms. Our customer base is largely what I would call the 5-star institutional market. Our customer retention in that decade has been close to 95% – the greatest reason for this is that we are reliable in service delivery! Most great managers and leaders are head hunted for their extra ordinary service delivery which portrays them as powerful brands.
- Understand globalization. I will never forget a picture that appeared in the Economist somewhere in the late 90’s showing a Maasai herdsman looking after his cattle with his legs traditionally crossed and talking on a mobile phone- it looked so distant then; it became a reality so soon thereafter. The world is not a global village anymore but a virtual one! Jobs are no longer limited to within borders. The boundaries are no longer in existence except in our politicized minds! Our competition for the jobs and market share is not local – it is global. Entrepreneurial competition is also now global. I am incoming chairman of Help Age International the leading global Non-Governmental Organization on ageing with headquarters in London. I fly out on a Wednesday night to attend board meetings and other functions on Thursday and Friday and I am back in Nairobi on Saturday night! I tell people to stop complaining about Chinese and get their acts together- China is here to stay! We must be prepared to compete with China and anyone else on a global level. Today Indians are sub-contracting Kenyans on technology for back office operations; the government of Kenya has announced that each constituency will have a technology village. In the Sameer Export Processing Zones we have American Corporations run by Kenyans on Kenyan soil but the call centre customer has no clue and does not care who handles the call! The world has truly flattened. To appropriately brand yourself, you must understand globalization and the flattening of the world. I heard a serious joke the other day that not long ago mothers threatened their kids in America to think of the starving Indians and eat their food; I hear that today they are implored to read or an Indian will take their jobs! To project yourself as a powerful brand in the world we must understand globalization.
- Jobs have been re-engineered and continue to be re-engineered by technology. I joined Sameer Africa 2 years ago. Six of us had 6 secretaries. Today we share 2! It takes weeks or months before anyone types a letter for me in the office! Today you can buy your air-ticket from the comfort of your office or home; print your boarding pass and show up at immigration. Travel agency has been totally re-engineered by technology- what next? You must think and brand yourself appropriately!
- To create a brand of yourself you must stop thinking employment/employee and begin to see yourself as an independent contractor irrespective of whether you are a cleaner, a CEO, a teacher or a middle executive. No independent contractor will refuse to show up for work or do a shoddy job because the repercussions will be major in lost income and bad future references. A couple of years ago a Jewish friend who thought I was a good brand stopped me at a roundabout to offer to ask whether I would take a job contract with a certain company! I did and it was one of my most lucrative jobs. Not long ago I negotiated a very good job contract in a Java Coffeehouse! I tell people that I am not employed by Sameer Africa- I work with Sameer Africa and my intentions are to passionately deliver an extra-ordinary performance that will raise my brand equity higher! Begin to be known as the best Accountant around; the best lawyer; the best sales person; the best at whatever you do- it is at the heart of the brand you wish to become. You are Chairman/CEO/of life; forget that you work for someone. It is liberating like you cannot imagine. In the same way Coccola, Yana, Keringet are powerful brands, you need to make Kamau, Otieno or Kioko a powerful brand! You must understand that it does not work any longer to tell a prospective employer that I was Finance Director, or General Manager of XYZ- You must say what it is you achieved- A measurable achievement! I know this one man that was CEO of a company that then fired him many years ago and for the last 20 years all he has told anybody who cares to listen is that he used to be the CEO of XYZ….! He made a poor brand of himself and no one ever employed him again.
- To brand yourself, you must pass what one management writer called the Painter test. Imagine that your painter did not turn up for work would you pay him on a daily rate? Why is it then that a manager who habitually misses work and deadlines only gets away with a down grading on his/her annual appraisal while a painter would go without pay? Would you recommend a painter who misses to show up or does a shoddy job? In the same measure a Brand You requires that you pass this test. This test is increasingly becoming the measure in an era of performance management.
- Branding yourself for success demands that you exercise power that is far beyond what is vested in your employment, contract or work environment. I tell those wishing to grow their careers that authority is never given; authority must be grabbed. Most well branded managers know that you take action and then seek affirmation- Powerlessness is indeed a state of mind. I have done things in the past that even my immediate boss could not have the “power” or “authority” to do. I once successfully recommended to my boss’s boss to relieve him of his job and give it to me. I got it without undermining anyone!
- Powerful branding demands a high level of moral authority. This is the highest form of authority anyone can have- far higher and transcendent than any form of formal authority. Moral authority will give you access to people and places you have never imagined. It increases your brand visibility. This is the kind of authority Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King etc had. Moral authority gives you access to a very large circle of influence. I am sure Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai will be remember far into the future for the moral authority she built than for the fact that she was in parliament! Recently I conceived an idea to strengthen the activities of Palmhouse Foundation- an educational trust I co-founded with my wife and whose mission is to finance the secondary education of bright and deserving children. I invited 13 extremely highly regarded and placed Kenyans to become the Advisory and Oversight Board. Some are men and women I would otherwise hesitate to ask for any kind of favor because of their high status in society. Not one of them turned down the request! And why? What authority did I have? I have moral authority. Moral authority belongs to those who offer themselves for the well being of others. The reward you get is a powerful circle of influence and a very high brand visibility! Many of you know me for higher positions I have held in society but I can guarantee you that none of those positions would beat the Palmhouse Foundation and its moral signature on my life.
- Personal branding demands higher credibility. Credibility comes from trust. I recommend a book by the chairman of one of the leading companies in the USA titled “winners never cheat”. Those looking to establish a truly transcendent brand must be trusted. I have on many occasions told the story of a man who years ago offered me a seven digit “thank you” for something he perceived I did for him. I was aware that I had done nothing out of my work/job and he had won the contract transparently and performed it judiciously. I turned down his thank you offer. To this day he remains perhaps one of my greatest brand testimony to many in his very wide and global circle of influence! Credibility and trust are central to protecting your brand equity! Nothing will kill your self-confidence and self worth as taking a bribe and no matter how rich you become through this avenue, you will remain a weak brand in the market. I know many seemingly successful and rich people who would pay anything to increase their brand presence but their credibility kills it!
- To increase brand visibility it would help to build yourself a website. I have had one since 2003! Some of the most incredible lessons I learn today are from some of you who visit and post messages on my website. It is need not be the most state of the art. Very soon a website will become as much a necessity as an email address and if you do not have one you are “mteja” – you cannot be reached. Four months ago I received an email from Australia from a man I do not know. He was looking for the founder/chairman of Group Four Security a gentleman by the name Ed Van Tongeren. He told me in an email that he had been looking for him for a long time because he once saved his life many years ago but they lost contact. When he went to the World Wide Web and searched, the only Ed Van Tongeren was mention in a speech I posted on my website. I was able to connect the two gentlemen. I trust you understand the power of the website.
- Finally learn and upgrade your skills to improve the brand you! Read voraciously. I am an accountant, lawyer and motivational public speaker! To retain my command on these and many areas I have to read widely. Only this way can you learn to anticipate the future! People ask me where we get the time. I respond by saying to them redeem time! Many people spend unnecessary time on TV, and reading newspaper from end to end. Like my chairman likes to put it by the time you finish reading the news paper your morale is so reduced by the bad news that are the hallmark of our newspapers that your output is greatly reduced. I read all my three papers in about 10 minutes and if I missed to read them I would not notice. I can go without TV for days. I choose to do things like reading that enhances my brand.
Having spoken about how to set targets and brand ourselves for success, I will conclude by trying to answer the question often posed;
How much success does a man need?
I will attempt to answer this question with a short story told by the famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in his book- “How much land does a man need”. In this book he narrates the story of a man who was asked to walk all the land he needed as long as he had to be at the starting point before darkness. The deal then was that he would get all the land as far as he walked and back. He started at day break and walked and walked and walked. Every time he thought it was time to start heading back he would think of a little more land to walk ahead.
The sun started threatening to go down and he started walking back. The sun was now threatening to set faster. He began to run. He ran, and ran and ran. He tried harder and faster. Finally as the darkness was about to fall he crossed the finishing line with final leap and fell on the ground with blood oozing out of his mouth he died! His servant who had accompanied him dug a shallow grave long and deep enough to bury his master’s dead body. Leo Tolstoy answered his question- how much land does a man need? – Only enough to cover him from the head to the toe.
How much success do you need?
Thank you and God bless you.
©Eric Kimani 2007.