• 02 May 2019
  • SBS-ED
  • 6Min

5 Leadership lessons from African leader Robert Collymore

5 Leadership lessons from African leader Robert Collymore

This post is part of the Leadership in Africa Series by USB-ED. As part of our commitment to providing transformative executive education, we shine a spotlight on the most innovative people and extraordinary concepts coming out of the African continent. This is episode 1 of the series.

If you are in the telecoms industry, it is a great time to be in Africa. According to a report by the World Economic Forum, Sub-Saharan Africa boasts 1 billion mobile connections, with over US$46.6 billion in total service revenue forecast for 2022. One company has superseded all others in this sector – Safaricom, a Kenyan mobile network operator. Today, we look to its CEO, Robert Collymore, to find ways for others to emulate his transformational leadership strategies.

Firstly, a bit more about Collymore. When he took the reins of Safaricom in 2010, it was a tumultuous time for many industries that were barely surviving the effects of the global economic recession just a few years earlier. 

Under his stewardship, Safaricom is now one of Africa’s most profitable businesses, with 30-million subscribers.  The road for Collymore has been far from easy, he faced a personal battle against cancer throughout 2017. However, he has remained strong and focused, with his illness only condensing his mission ‘to help as many people as I can to do the right thing’ – as said in conversation with Business Daily
Here are some of the lessons for other leaders from Collymore’s servant leadership qualities, with quotes drawn from his interview with Daily Nation:

1. Make progress your purpose

I left the UK for Japan and then South Africa where I started to gain a defined sense of purpose, began to understand there is a privilege in working in an environment you can make a difference in.”​

The Guyana-born titan has experienced living in myriad international destinations but instantly knew he had found his purpose as soon as he arrived in Africa. This desire to make an impact is an essential characteristic of a progressive leader.

The desire to contribute to the communities – and continent – you operate in is key for lasting business success because it gives you a reason for existence beyond the bottom-line. It’s also essential for companies to demonstrate this commitment as people gravitate to businesses that show dedication to making an authentic difference. Authenticity is the critical word here. This purpose has to go beyond ticking boxes to being part of the core value system of a company. 

2. See the bigger picture

My question is, can I sway people or the government to do the right thing for them? Can I make business deals that will look at climate change or impact it in a good way? Can I do more to encourage great transparency, reduce fraud and corruption?”

A purposeful leader is one who always sees the bigger impact of every decision. For Collymore, his role is more than a title, it is a way to change the world. 

Governance and ethics have to form a strong foundation for leadership. There are plenty of examples of corruption around the continent. To curb the rot, strong leaders need to be bastions of unshakeable morality. 

3. Invest in your people

“I wanted these things (big cars and houses) because they show status but at some point, I must have been 45-years, these things changed. I started asking what do I want to do and why? I started to think about the society my son was living in and the future he was going to occupy and my role in making it better. That was my turning point. Life was never going to be about the size of car I drove.”

Safaricom was recently voted the number one place to work by BrighterMonday  – beating out well-known, mega companies Google and Coca Cola Company. Collymore has been instrumental to this through an approach that goes beyond material things. 

This sense of purpose has translated into a progressive workplace for his team. This is something USB-ED advocates for strongly in our Management Development Programmes. We know that soft skills as well as hard skills are essential for servant leadership. This means sensitivity, empathy and understanding. It means flexible work hours and a focus on work-life balance. It means collaboration that breaks down siloes with a philosophy of inclusivity. These are the things we focus on instilling. 

4. Know when to rest

To some extent, the diagnosis has allowed me to let more people manage me. It made us focus on the things that are important, because not everything is important, not all arguments are important.”

With his diagnosis of Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), Collymore was forced to take a step back from his company to focus on his health. The diagnosis was an extreme example, but it unveils another core leadership principle: knowing when to step back and rest. This means the leader allows their team to grow in new ways and becomes more of a coach that supports the team from the side-lines.

Often when someone moves up into a bigger role, the desire is to give 100% at all times and completely ignore personal wellbeing. This can set a destructive precedent for a team. Having the interpersonal awareness to know when to step back is a critical management capability and one USB-ED focuses on in its leadership courses.

5. Shut up and listen

You do not always have the last word on something and you do not always have to be the first person to say something. Just shut up and listen; you do not have to always say anything. When you spend a lot of time on your own, you realise that silence actually is a pretty good thing.

It’s leadership lesson number one: listen. Again, a lot of this comes down to having the emotional intelligence and intra-personal leadership skills to frequently check-in with your team and really listen to understand where each person is at. It means staying silent or asking the right questions to let your people find the solves themselves. Creating a culture of open communication, where your team feels comfortable to share ideas and get creative is key to this. Agility is all about allowing for fast, iterative innovation that doesn’t call-out failure.

At USB-ED, we believe so much of leadership is about an understanding of self. This kind of knowledge and awareness facilitates better listening and more compassion. At the end of the day, servant leadership is about serving your team. And sometimes, the best way to do so is to keep quiet.

The Collymore leadership style is relaxed and poignant. The proof of his leadership qualities is evident in the success of Safaricom and his life beyond the company. He’s an example of exemplary African leadership and an inspiration for many, including the team at USB-ED. We are committed to unlocking the fullest potential of Africa’s leaders – current and future – through development programmes that entrench similar values to those shown by Collymore: knowledge of self, a greater sense of purpose, strong ethics and the ability to listen. If you’re wanting to take the next step in your leadership journey, these programmes may be the perfect start. 

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