Everything you are doing right now is a waste of time if you don’t listen to Paul Kagame’s Opening Remarks at the 12th National Leadership Retreat at the Rwanda Defence Forces Combat Training Centre in Gabiro, Rwanda on March 1, or share it around.
I’m going to number the lessons so it’s easier for you to follow, which is not to say that you might be dense or slow, but, for instance:
1. The first short bit is in Kinyarwanda, so if you’re back here with the complaint that you don’t understand Kinyarwanda then please practice a little patience and go on for a few more minutes till you begin to understand the language he is speaking. Besides that, there is a sublime message about lessons being in existence all around us, even in strange languages…
Again on patience; it’s just over one hour forty four minutes but is such a valuable listen that it is TOTALLY worth the time spent – more than once!
We’ve heard it said over the years that Kagame leads Rwanda like a business-type Chief Executive Officer, and this speech underscores that once again, so kudos to the man.
Listening to the speech one morning after I had gone into near apoplexy during discussions with a wide range of fellows ranging from a wretched gardener to a highly paid senior manager in an otherwise respectable company here in Kampala, I started forwarding the link to all and sundry – starting with the gardener (who has What’sApp!)
But I realise, of course, that the lessons I infer may not be the same ones that others will, so I must share my interpretation and favourite quotes here for anybody else to use.
2. “…this time around we are here for serious business; for change that must take place. That’s what brought us here…and that we are not just in a hurry to leave this place and go back to business as usual.” The man demanded that the collection of senior government officials at the retreat should come up with “something different” for our people (read clients or customers or citizens or colleagues, depending on what you do).
3. “Instead of people coming here hurrying to go back; they are going back in their minds before they have even arrived here!” <— you know how many times we do this, don’t you? Go for a meeting but all through you’re thinking about the evening or weekend ahead…
4. In a tongue-in-cheek comment on workshops, even though this one was obviously useful, he went: “I think we need to extend this period and sit here and reflect…meditation. To have time to meditate and really think; because I don’t think you have time to think seriously. You just need to be kept in one place doing nothing maybe and to feel how good it is to do nothing, and reflect over that, and then maybe when you go back you will do something…” Kagame’s wit is cold, but note that there is a difference between ‘thinking’ and ‘thinking seriously’.
5. A meeting or workshop “can’t be an end in itself. It must be a process to lead us to something more concrete. That’s what I want to hear and that’s what I want to see.” The man is intelligent; too many people hold meetings for the purpose of holding meetings – a subject I am weighing in on during coming weeks.
6. Kagame tells his people, as we should ours, that he is “not capable of changing anybody here to be different or to think differently, but I am capable of keeping challenging you!” THAT is the role of a leader, and when your leader challenges you, take the challenge rather than complain or gripe or do the usual things people do.
7. “People here everyday repeating themselves, being defensive, talking too much, everybody has explanation…everybody is right… it is the other one who is wrong, it is not him, it is not her…and we keep at that for all these years. Nobody takes responsibility, nobody owns up…” THAT is the quagmire many business environments (obvious in governments!) get into, and as he says, nothing gets done!
8. “You ask what happened and somebody dries up…even the simplest thing to say ‘there was this problem; this is why we did not do it’ or ‘we discovered we needed to do something different and differently’…nothing!” Eh! Even Kagame has this problem?! I find it a little uplifting, but on the other hand…
9. “And it is ALL OF US. We see it, we know it, we let it pass! We know what goes wrong every single day; but we expect that somebody else is going to do it; and somebody else is YOU. There is no other person going to do it!” Collective responsibility; and he keeps coming back to this. “This Rwanda of ours, who is going to do it for us? There is nobody interested in your business, in your country. If YOU are not interested, you are dead.” <—substitute Rwanda with your company, family name, anything, and you will get it. That idea that “They” are supposed to do this and “They have not done that…” and the thought that some donors or business angels will solve a problem? Drop it. It’s YOU! YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.
10. “How do you switch off and nobody can find you to deliver things we have the possibility for? I am not asking you to deliver impossible things! How can we fail to deliver on what we have means for?” Good question. And one we must ask everyone whether in business or politics or service delivery.
11. “You are just lost in yourselves…several individuals operating all over the place, it’s not we as a system. You are having a problem realising a system to work as a system. It is just scattered individuals minding their individual business and not the business of this country.” <—teamwork & collective responsibility again.
12. Meanwhile, throughout the tirade, a few people interject with explanations and suggestions but Kagame doesn’t accept any of them – not just out of anger, but because he wants work done, NOT explanations of why work cannot get done. <—again, do you recognise this? And he doesn’t let anyone wriggle out of the blame-sights; not that blaming is a good thing, but on the receiving end taking responsibility so a fault can be fixed IS useful.
13. At one point, the man insists that one government official should tell people how much time has been lost. This is another factor that many employees don’t fully understand – time lost can never be regained and is invaluable, regardless of the opportunity ahead. Always make use of the opportunity you have NOW!
14.”I am putting this question to you not because you were there as individuals, but because as institutions you lead, you were there. What do you think goes wrong and why does it continue getting wrong?” <—and THAT was the crux of the matter, THAT’S what the retreat was supposed to address, summarised into one simple question.
15. “We can’t keep repeating ourselves and doing nothing about it.” <—again and again, do YOU recognise this at YOUR place of work? If so, share this link.
16. “It’s the young people, it’s the old…there are many categories. It’s those who think they know everything, it’s those who are struggling…but you find they all behave the same way! We have the young people who are always making everyone aware that they are young people. Yes, I don’t mind, I am grateful, but what are you delivering? Young is good but it’s even better when you are using that young age to deliver something, because you are quicker, you think faster, you think better, you are educated…Well-educated, fine! But what is your being well-educated delivering to these people…? If you are not doing what is expected of you, it doesn’t matter how much educated you are; you probably wasted that money that took you to school!” <—we’ve talked about this here, haven’t we?
Moving on swiftly:
15. “You better listen more to the one who criticises you because it challenges you to think. Critically. And see what you need to change and improve yourself. Don’t listen too much to those who praise you.” <— surround yourself with critics rather than friends and praise-singers. When people complain about something, don’t go on the defensive, but instead WORK ON IT.
16. “The challenges we have as a country, Rwanda (replace with YOUR country or company or family) and the context in which we operate are completely different from what you see elsewhere. We are not spoilt for anything; we have to struggle every single day to get what we want to get. Nobody is going to deliver it to us.” <— true of everyone! No pain, no gain. You’ve got to work to get anything
17. “Therefore you can’t even do things on the basis that you are better than so-and-so. We have many people to compare ourselves with to deceive ourselves that we are actually very good. How can anyone be there complaining when we are actually better than a whole list of entities you can name?” <—NEVER compare yourself to people or organisations or companies that you feel are inferior to yourself. “For me, it is what are we getting from it that transforms the lives of our people? Period!” <—focus on the objective. And he went on: “If you want to make comparison, compare yourself with those who have achieved what we are struggling to achieve! How can you compare yourself with people sitting and swallowed in a mess?” <—You would think that this is obvious but…
18. Underscoring that point: “You should be more daring. We shouldn’t be comparing ourselves with the worst. You should be more daring than that. You should be comparing yourself with the best and saying how much more do I need to do to be there?” Aim high with focus and seriousness, chaps, in whatever you do.
19. “A system is just the aggregate of different parts. If the different parts are sick you transmit that into the system. You delay a decision or you make a wrong decision, it transmits into the system. And we are failing as individuals to take stock of our own weaknesses and problems that we transmit into the system. Get rid of these weaknesses and problems as individuals!” <—YOU have an individual role which you must play correctly and well, and if WE all do our bit then the entire system, company, government, country will run well.
20. “You can’t be a mayor or a governor or a minister or a… if you are hurting the people you are leading, you’ve already gone against the very constitution. Justice must apply…”<—this as a reference to corruption in high office, and we just have to pray that it becomes a mantra taken up right across the continent!
21. At this point, Kagame whips out some logic that must make having a big government job in Rwanda a sleepless affair. According to the big man, people who know what is going wrong and yet do nothing about it or don’t raise the red flag are probably doing something wrong themselves or too blind to be in positions of authority themselves. “You are not supposed to be in that place in the first place. If you are not part of it but you don’t see it…there is something wrong with you also. Otherwise, if you are not part of it and you see it, what stops you from taking action or initiating action?” <— it is not easy having a big government job in Rwanda, luckily for the citizens there!
22. (In an exasperated tone): “Your characters; what are they worth? Some individual character….? It’s like, ‘You have to accommodate me the way I am whether you want it or not’. I don’t want it; period! Why should we be hostage of your terrible characters? Why should Rwandans (replace with YOUR country, YOUR family, YOUR customers and clients) become hostage of your bad character, or your individual profit and selfishness…?” <— see, he refuses to accept the justification ‘people are like that’; the way YOU should refuse to justify or accept silliness in anyone as a character trait.
23. “Everybody is full of self-importance and doing nothing for this country…for this country that has suffered the way it has! Our people. I’m not talking about YOU so much; I’m talking about the more than 11 million Rwandans who are there who even know we are here thinking about them, planning to do things for them and they are there thinking about individuals here who are just lost in themselves and doing petty petty things.” <— gwe, this is talking RAW. But if you believe you are important, Kagame reminds you that you are NOT as important as the people you should serve, who look up to you for that service.
24. “Something negative will always happen. We should all look for reasons why something should NOT be done or should NOT happen, instead of finding reasons for why something (wrong) should happen. (We) should drive in the direction where we say ‘something should be done to remedy this’.” <—if we collectively pull in one direction, if enough of us push for the correct action, we should be capable of making a marked difference. The challenge now is to get as many of us as possible gunning for ‘the right thing’ and ‘the general good’.
25. “I am here to discuss those you call ‘in spite of’; we have achieved this ‘in spite of this’. If you say Rwanda has made progress in spite of this weakness my time should be spent on ‘this weakness’, NOT what we have achieved. what we have achieved we have achieved!” <— DON’T rest on your laurels, as the adage goes. Don’t be satisfied with past achievements and become complacent. Don’t stop aiming high. Don’t be content with a hit here and there.
26. “It’s not just achieving that I am thinking about. It’s two things: 1) How do we sustain what we have achieved? 2) How do we deal with ‘in spite of’ things so that we make more progress?” <— like Kagame, be clear and focussed about your targets/goals/objectives. He refuses to budge from his position over close to two hours in spite of the arguments people, including persuasive ones like Andrew Mwenda, put forward.
27. “If we have delivered things 70% and we have not delivered things 30%…” <— the man is NOT easy to please; and this is commendable. A good leader doesn’t settle easily for apparently good results. 70% good actually means 30% bad – it’s a matter of perspective!
28. “If we have delivered things 70% and we have not delivered things 30%, 70% of my worries are on the 30% we have not delivered and 30% of my worries are on the things that have been delivered. I have more worries about the few things that have NOT been delivered, and less worries about things that have been delivered. The things that have been delivered, my worry is sustainability. But not delivering on the 30% may actually cause the problem of sustainability for the other ones that have not been delivered.” <—again, perspective. He focusses his thinking rightly on what matters to him and why.
29. At one point, Kagame reminds everyone how after a trade mission to the UK, a foreign investor flew into Kigali from the UK, using his own money, to ‘follow up’ on a matter that Rwanda should have had more of an interest in. <— does THIS remind you of anything, in YOUR country or YOUR company? Like a client ‘following up’ on a sales offer your people made to them?
30. “When we went to UK, we did not go as Minister so-and-so individually or President individually…we went as Rwanda as one system!”. <—again, the collective and responsibility. When your employees go out to meet clients do they realise that they do so as THE COMPANY and not just in their individual capacity? When your Sales Executive sends an email do they understand that that email has gone out from YOUR ENTIRE COMPANY and not just humble, little, old so-and-so?
31. “We went there, we came back. But we did not really have a plan of how we are going to attract people as Rwanda, not as ‘when Francis remembers’ or ‘when Kanimba decides to remember’.” <—ALWAYS conduct deliberate planning for official activities, whether country trade promotion or company sales!
32. “This person was even begging us, ‘Can you allow me to follow up for you…?'”
33. “…but this is something being discussed MONTHS after the meeting.” <—do you recognise this as well? An issue being raised in a meeting and not tackled that very day or at least the next, but then being raised again weeks or even months or even YEARS later?
34. “I thought you were exposed to this modern world we live in but when you come home it’s like…to not even be sensitive to this time wasted since October?! Instead of you, these ministers, to have sat when they came back immediately in October and work out something and connect with whoever they need to connect with, they just came and switched off until somebody else from outside came and was literally begging us…on something that is obvious. And even then someone can delay them saying ‘we are still thinking about it or what do do…'” <—tell me you DON’T recognise this in your company, country or even your home!
35. “You fight with an army you have. If you have a sick army, that’s the one you have; that will be reflected in the battle. You cannot have a sick army and fight a war as if you have an army that is quick on their feet. The sickness in the army will be reflected in how you fight the battles. How things can be done and should be done is known, but the gap arises because of how people translate what they know into what they do and should do.” <—this, being part of the famous exchange with Andrew Mwenda, and is self-explanatory.
36. “We have to call a spade a spade…” <—he didn’t just call a spade a spade, he spent almost two hours naming an entire workshop, literally!
As I said, if you don’t stop and listen to this speech to gain motivation; if you don’t share it with all your workmates and employees, and employers and members of parliament and government technocrats on the continent of Africa, you are wasting both time and space just being alive.
Paul Kagame was talking to ALL OF US.
LAST week I sat down to coffee with a former junior colleague of mine to whom I first revealed my ‘Toilet Approach To Work’ thesis months ago.
Unbeknownst to him, I had designed a mini-project to alter the way he lived his life and heighten whatever positives he might have, without presuming to be his mentor.
The process was lengthy and threatened to be frustrating, especially because he tended, like many do, to avoid my grumpy, critical and seemingly judgemental presence.
After realising that my tips and hints were probably just littering the air around him, and almost suffocating myself with the resultant frustration, one morning I snapped and summoned him for a chat.
It went well in that he listened and responded appropriately, but he kept blocking my points with excuses and reasons.
I had learnt the conflict resolution tactic of looking away briefly from your opponent/adversary, and as I did so to avoid an explosion at the young fellow, my eyes fell upon the toilet door.
It wasn’t attractive or catchy in any way, but I focussed on it as I contemplated my next move. I did consider, briefly, sending him through that door (NOT head first in anger!) to think about his life and that’s when the theory presented itself so quickly I turned back to him:
“Do you plan your day before you leave home for the office?”
“Er…yes. I think so…”
“I make sure I have enough transport…”
“THAT’S not planning. See that toilet door?”
“Do you plan your trips to the toilet?”
As expected, since I was making it up, we stumbled a little over this part until I had the explanation laid out:
Work should not be approached the same way; work needs to be approached with purpose, plans, objectives, motivation and energy.
The ‘Toilet Approach to Work’, I told him, covered the tendency people like him had of approaching work the way they do the call to the toilet.
For instance, some people go to the toilet and don’t even know what they will do once they’re there. They start at the urinal bowl, then find themselves having to sit on the toilet. Even then, they are totally unsure of the quality of their output, solid or not.
Either way, approaching work like one does the toilet generally results in waste material.
You don’t plan anything and just present yourself and the relevant bits of your digestive system, then biology takes over.
Whatever you’ve got is what you let out, until it’s done.
Approaching work like one does the toilet also leaves a foul smell, evidence of the quality of work you do, I told him.
And to avoid the foul smell lingering, approaching work like one does the toilet necessitates the application of air deodorisers and whatnot, which is an additional cost to the workplace correcting what you’ve done wrong.
He shouldn’t, I insisted, approach work like he was going to the toilet.
Instead, I implored the fellow, plan your day, set measurable targets, and spend time at work ensuring that you’re being useful and producing stuff that your colleagues will be pleased to see after you’ve left.
By this point, he had coughed up a little protest but I pressed on:
Many people, especially in workplaces, leave for the toilet with insincerity saying silly things like, “Let me come…” or “Be right back…” or “I’ve got to check on something…”
Then they screw their faces up into serious looks as if heading into the cubicle to concoct the cure for Ebola.
That, I explained, is the same as making empty promises to deliver reports “by COB” and “OTIF” and “meeting targets”.
If you’re going to do something, just do it!
In the toilet, you’ve got to keep your head down, aim low, make as little noise as possible, and avoid physical contact with other people; if you do the same in the workplace then you’re a liability.
The toilet approach to work, I concluded, is as small-minded as the space allocated to the toilet in any ordinary workplace.
Think big. Aim high.
Don’t approach work as you do the toilet.
And please, ALWAYS wash your hands as you leave.
Long before I joined British American Tobacco (BAT) as a staffer, I was a journalist and one day got invited to the BAT offices by their Comms man, Henry Rugamba, to be shown round their new open-plan offices in the hope that a feature commentary would result about the progressive nature of the company.
Open plan offices were quite modern back then, and exciting. They signified a new way of thinking, and suggested sophisticated behaviour. The company with an open plan layout was forward looking and led the way in everything else. Employees of such a company were less likely to use foul language, since they would look ridiculous in front of everyone; and also less prone to the temptations that come alive behind closed doors.
It had one door leading to the entire office – thus necessitating electronic, keypad or fingerprint access. It had soft-back chairs and modern office desks, and coffee machines.
Eventually it was in those same offices that I was involved in making some drastic, staff-driven changes to management, spurred on by the same openness encouraged by having an open-plan office, but I will get to that later.
That day, though, Henry effused about the open plan layout and must have wondered why I was so unmoved by the brief tour. But you see, my office at the time was the newsroom at The New Vision, which was as open plan as one could get without working outdoors. And even though the chiefs had their territory marked by way of desk placement, we were basically equals in most other things.
Shortly after that, I started working with the Vice President, Prof. Gilbert Bukenya, and was assigned a plush office on the second floor of the President’s Office wing of the Parliamentary Buildings.
I was a ‘big man’ employed at Director level and on a special contract, moreover in State House.
Within fifteen minutes, I was disconcerted by the silence and solitude of the massive room with its red carpeting, and wedged the door open so I could interact with people going by through the corridor. That way, I figured, I would quickly get to know most of the people in the building and also introduce myself all round.
Some minutes later, I witnessed someone almost suffer a heart attack as they were walking past when he realised the door was open and I was sitting right there! The fellow didn’t know whether to run forward or somersault backwards and essentially did both at the same time, with the net effect that he stayed in one place and stumbled comically.
The next person to come along was also discombobulated, and eventually one polite, elderly secretary chosen to bell the cat came over to quickly greet me and remove the wedge.
I protested and even though she firmly told me how “we don’t do this” I insisted on having my door wedged open. Twenty minutes later, another staffer walking by recovered from her shock to also try to shut the door; and another an hour later who didn’t even say a word but shut the door all the same.
I realised I was probably going to spend my days explaining to people why my door was open, and walking across the expanse of office to wedge it open again. And I gave up.
But since we spent most of our time working out of doors in the field, I realised that at the highest level of government most of the work is actually done in an open-plan environment; the President’s meetings are always out in the open, and just about anybody gets to meet him at State House, talking openly about anything that suits their fancy.
So when I eventually got to BAT as an employee, I figured I knew it all and was quite surprised when our Managing Director showed tyrannical and unpopular tendencies. It didn’t take us too long to rise up and change him – not by revolution, but through open dialogue and clearly stating our displeasure directly to him.
Open plan flattens space so employees are essentially the same. We all use the same desks and chairs. We all breathe the same space. We are not too special to look at each other. We are just workmates sharing space to achieve the same objective. It’s easier to talk and share views and ideas. Work gets done faster. The negatives of bureaucracy are fewer or less burdening.
Experience has convinced me about the usefulness of the open plan environment, and to this day I try to break down office walls so that employees can avoid closed minded environments; and so managers don’t become kings in little office castles.
Worse, closed doors allow managers to operate like little gods; their staff only entering into the shrine on occasion to receive curses or blessings depending on the strength of their sacrifice – be it a report here, an invitation card there, a problem solved or a problem being presented.
We should continue to break them down, so there are no mysterious issues behind closed doors, building fear and uncertainty outside of them; and people don’t disappear with keys and turn maniacal with the control that it gives them (including toilet keys).
I RECENTLY began attending meetings at an organisation that shall remain unnamed where, as expected during such official meetings, a sensible amount of tea and coffee is served and consumed.
That automatically necessitates trips to the ‘washrooms’ at one point or another, and on my first such trip I was distressed to find the door to relief firmly locked. I danced gingerly at the end of the corridor as I investigated the whereabouts of the key or the person in charge of granting access, until I was directed to toilets on the lower level of the building.
These were ordinary toilets, it turned out, as opposed to the locked ones protected for ‘Management’.
With time, I was given such clearance that whenever I stepped out of the room the person with the key (sitting in an ante-room with the door wide open in order to respond to such events in a timely fashion) sprung into action and provided access.
At our next meeting, the Toilet Key Controller had realised it made sense to simply leave the door unlocked for the duration of the meeting. At one point in the day, however, apparently because a couple of ordinary staff had gained access to the special ‘Management’ toilet, the Key Controller took to locking the door at intervals – coinciding with one or two of my trips.
Eventually, I got fed up of the anxiety I felt every time I made my way down that corridor. I long ago decided that toilet access was too low down in the order of priorities in my life to cause me such angst.
And luckily I got to the toilet to find the Key Controller had left the set of keys behind. Within seconds I had hidden them in a difficult place, and it was while I was doing so that I realised how ridiculous the situation was.
This special toilet was not remarkable at all. One of the two toilets didn’t even have a toilet seat, there was a layer of dust over everything, cobwebs here and there, and piles of broken plastic things that started out in life as buckets, brushes and other items I could not recognise.
The water in the bowl was generally clean to the eye, as was the one running out of the taps. There were hard bits of things that seemed to be stones masquerading as soap. Or maybe they were just stones that cynical toilet cleaners had placed there as a prank.
I laughed a little at the thought that oppressed staff were generally playing an elaborate prank on ‘Management’ by not cleaning the windows, gathering bits of rubbish into the corner, and then locking the toilets to mock them. They just hadn’t labelled the toilet door: ‘VIP’.
Any office in which such an arrangement exists is unquestionably poorly managed, by people with a low-self esteem who seek to mimic their counterparts in companies where the senior staff have en suite toilet cubicles. It is a sad environment in which that low self-esteem in ‘Management’ trickles down.
For instance, what was the motivation of the Toilet Key Controller? What do they tell their spouse in the evenings when asked “How was your day?”
“Man, today someone hid the toilet key! I looked for it everywhere but I couldn’t find it anywhere…”
I couldn’t imagine their career aspirations; was there someone below them in charge of the toilets for general staff?
Locking a toilet is one thing; deploying an entire human being to manage its being locked is another; doing both yet the toilet is dirty and has neither seats nor hand washing soap points to a serious lack of priorities on the part of the toilet owner.
I must confess to having left many toilet doors unlocked after being given a key, because I am an anarchist that way. Some people believe that everybody should have access to drinking water, as water is life; if that is the case, then they should have access to facilities naturally at the other end of that equation.
A pal of mine, Rukaka Mugizi, took up a toilet habit that some people found irritating but I quite liked. While he was resident in Kampala after spending a few years ago studying medicine in Cuba, he began photographing toilets in various places round the city.
It started with the toilets of a popular local that a number of us frequented, in Bukoto. Rukaka could not understand how yuppies and middle class people could spend time and money drinking beer and eating chicken at a place with toilets this bad.
One night he took photographs of the loos, and then emailed them round the next day in the belief that in broad daylight his mates would appreciate better the ironical error of their night-time ways.
It didn’t work. It couldn’t – many at that time worked in places where ‘Management’ kept dirty, semi-functional toilets securely under lock and key, and I cannot say what domestic toilets looked like. So, for a while, everywhere he went he took photos of toilets and emailed them to the group.
Sadly, he eventually stopped; but the group didn’t stop drinking and eating chicken at the dirty-toilet, water-less kafunda because of this. Neither did they tell their ‘Managers’ to focus on more important issues in the office than access to the toilet.