Gurnek Bains tells Alan Hosking about the strengths and weaknesses of Sub-Saharan African leaders on the world stage.
Why is Sub-Saharan Africa increasingly important for many global multinationals?
Robust economic growth on the continent and the emerging needs of African consumers create new opportunities in a global economic environment that are proving increasingly challenging. In addition, local companies are also on the rise on the global stage. Long dependent on global companies for any large-scale economic activity across national borders, Africa is now producing its own successful multinationals in fields as diverse as telecommunications, brewing and food manufacturing. This is leading to many more people from the continent being employed by either multinationals or large-scale local firms.
What strengths do African leaders display in large corporations?
It is important to understand how to leverage these distinctive strengths and to appreciate the development issues that would help to accelerate the progress and impact of African executives in larger company settings.
I, with colleagues, analysed approximately 200 reports each from each of the world’s key societies – the USA, Europe, India, China, the Middle East, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. This research demonstrated both a number of similarities that executives show across the globe and some interesting differences. These are:
– Intellectual flexibility. African leaders achieve the highest scores in the world around intellectual flexibility and creativity, with approximately 42% having a strength in this area compared to a global average of 25%. This strength possibly arises from the fluidity and creativity that people need to show given the sheer unpredictability of the environment that is the context for many in Africa. This intellectual fluidity is potentially a tremendous source of strength, particularly, as the global economic environment becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable.
– African leaders scored high on achievement drive, with 43%. Other cultures were also high but this was the strongest area for African leaders. This might reflect the compensatory drive of leaders seeking to prove themselves for the first time on a new stage. In our experience, it leads to a great desire for improvement and learning, which needs to be capitalised upon with African leaders.
– Over 40% of African leaders had a strength around “developing their teams”, compared to a global average of 25%. African leaders are very interested in the development of their people, particularly, in their immediate teams. It reflects the strong sense of in-group identification that is present in many societies on the continent and the sense that one exists in a highly interdependent and embedded way within one’s immediate circles.
– African leaders were relatively strong with respect to “positivity and emotional resilience”, although not quite as strong as leaders from the USA or Latin America. Positivity, joy and sense of fun is a feature of many corporate cultures in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the culture more broadly – but certain conditions are needed to release these attributes.
– African leaders were relatively strong in terms of “breadth of experience” and this may be due to the fact that seniority for African leaders is dependent on age and experience. However, African leaders were less strong with respect to “breadth of knowledge” – perhaps because of limited opportunities with respect to business education or training.
What would you say are development areas for African leaders?
Analytical/commercial/strategic thinking. While intellectual flexibility is a strength, African leaders are significantly weaker than many other global leaders with respect to applying a structured and analytical approach to the exploration of commercial options or the development of longer term strategy. This finding may reflect a relative lack of training or exposure to such modes of intellectual enquiry.
Navigating the environment of large corporations. Surprisingly, African leaders were relatively weak in a whole range of areas to do with interpersonal relations, influencing and networking across large corporate settings. While African leaders are strong with their immediate teams, they generally struggle to manage interpersonal and relationship dynamics more broadly. This could be down to being comfortable in engaging in one’s immediate community, yet being wary when moving outside of such boundaries. Other features of African corporate life, such as the strong preference that African leaders show for employing members of their immediate community may also be influenced by this fact.
Visionary and emotionally compelling leadership that wins hearts and minds. African leaders came across as having a relatively consensual style within their teams yet can be much more directive outside of such settings. Nearly 60% have a development need with respect to operating in a more visionary manner and driving action through winning hearts and minds. This finding may reflect a preference for using power for achieving outcomes as opposed to investing in building commitment.
Action orientation. African leaders were relatively weak with respect to moving quickly into action and this may stem from a desire to achieve consensus in teams along with a relatively cautious approach to driving decisions that have been made. Lack of action and follow through can be experienced as frustrating by, in particular, Western leaders when they interact with or seek to influence their African operations.
Organisation/structure. African leaders were not strong in putting in place clear structures and organising the achievement of goals in a timely manner. This could be reflective of an “in the moment” and flexible approach to the pursuit of goals, or show that for many their dominant experiences may have been in relatively small-scale settings, where a more flexible approach is more appropriate and effective.
Some final thoughts?
Overall, African leaders displayed some significant strengths, which global multinationals could usefully access and build upon rather than just imposing their own models. It is important that while areas of development need to be addressed, they be done in a way that builds on strengths or in a manner that does not create ways of operating that are alien or inappropriate in the local environment.
Gurnek Bains is co-founder and Chairman of London-based YSC and author of his latest book, Cultural DNA: The Psychology of Globalization published by Wiley. YSC has 20 global offices including one in South Africa and also operates extensively in many parts of Africa.
This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of HR Future magazine.