Sunday, 17 November 2013

Daddy, please stop frowning

I quickly recognized the power of looks from a tender age. If my dad came out of the bedroom in the morning wearing a smile, a kind of vibrancy pervaded our house. You’d hear people humming while they brushed their teeth and laughter from the bedrooms. Morning chores were quickly discharged and everyone, down to my baby brother, would be dressed and ready in time to go to school. But, if he emerged from the room with a long face, the day turned out to be a nightmare for everyone. My sisters will be at each other’s throats like polygamous wives, my baby brother screaming at the top of his lungs while being bathed and I will be sulking from being saddled with a time-wasting task like looking for my other brother’s socks which had the annoying habit of going MIA.

When I first noticed this phenomenon, I had to be sure that it was not a figment of my thoughts. So, I sought confirmation from my very intelligent immediate younger brother. He replied that he thought he was the only one who felt that way and so we swore never to look into daddy’s face when he came out of his room in the morning. Needless to say, the others who kept looking caught the bug and tried as we did, our day was every bit as unpleasant as theirs because we are family. I am sure that dad never knew the magical powers of his morning visage but inexplicably it set the tone for the day for his family.

It’s the same way that the action or inaction of the head of an organisation sets the tone for his subordinates and a business-owner sets the tone for his company. In business jargon, tone is akin to organizational culture; it is the invisible but palpable landmark that sets one business apart from another. Organizational culture can either be enervating or invigorating. I have been to businesses where it appeared that every worker had it in for me, from the janitor to the manager. I have been to a company where I felt that the motto should have read something like “Rip ‘em off”; even their door almost ripped my shirt. And I have been to warm and efficient organisations where I wished I could get a job offer and hand in my resignation to my boss.

We will quickly examine three ways that you can set a winning culture for your business.

The first is by your example as the business owner. Employees mostly reflect the kind of leadership they see; not the kind you preach. If a business owner comes in at 10 a.m., his employees are taught that 9.55a.m is the actual resumption time. If he leaves work by 4p.m, they will all be gone at 4.01p.m, before the fumes of his departing vehicle even gets to disperse. If an entrepreneur screams at her customers, the employees are inspired to take it a notch higher and add a punch to their faces. And if she is motherly, employees learn to treat each other and customers too like brothers.

A new generation bank in Nigeria had a CEO who was described by everyone who met him as fatherly. It was not long before it became a household name and an epitome of dignified, polite and professional banking. Everyone rushed to open an account with the bank with little or no marketing by the staff. But a few years ago, the management of the bank changed and a new CEO was appointed. Even though the same staff, technology, capital and customer base are still in place, this bank has lost its standing as a household name. When I inquired from a friend, who heads one of their branches, what was responsible for this turn of events he pointed at the new CEO. He said that all the CEO wants is for them to make more profit at any cost and that the bank is fast losing its soul. He continued that the hostility that customers now feel arises from the pressure workers are constantly under. “We cannot see our customers as kings. To us, they have all become tightfisted meal tickets”, he concluded.

The next thing to watch out for in order to set the tone for your business is what you penalize.

In the bank where I worked for four years, there was a terminology we often used, we called it “shredding”. It was the act of tongue-lashing erring subordinates to the point of tears rolling down their cheeks or making them tremble with fright. I promised that I would be different as I climbed but I am sorry to announce that I wasn’t. The shredding custom was so pervasive and like all bullies I know, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to stop. It turned out that what I thought was a branch-specific thing was actually a bank-wide phenomenon. The day the big boys from the head office came around, instead of correcting the bad attitude, they actually came to show us how it is done. To this day, junior staffs still complain about the bank’s shredding culture.

It’s important that we penalize only bad things; good things should not be. When I was still working in the bank, (please bear with all my bank examples, they just seem so apt) a supervisor came around and asked me why I was keeping an electronic record of cards I handed out instead of putting it in writing. I explained that, “It is faster and easier to manage and I thought…..” She cut me off at that point and made it clear that I was not paid to think; she said others had been paid to think and I was to simply comply. In effect she was penalizing initiative. A Steve Jobs would never do that.

The last factor to building healthy business culture is what you consistently reward.

Rewards can be in the form of silent consent, a nod or even promotions and recommendations. A few years ago, certain forex deals were prohibited for commercial banks and those who infringed the regulations were fined. I heard of a CEO who perpetually disregarded the orders, not because he was not aware of them but because of something more sinister. He would ask how much the bank stood to profit from the forex deal and compared it to the fine. If the fine was dwarfed by the profit, he would set the fine aside and approve the transaction. Would you believe that most of his lieutenants down to the cashier in the branches had their crafty ways of bending rules and cutting corners? As you would expect, a lot of the bank staff had regular run-ins with the anti-fraud unit of the police.

So as you run your business watch for the examples that you set, the things you penalize and the things you consistently reward because they are the ingredients that form your organizational culture. And also permit me to add, that if you are a parent learn to smile more because it sets the tone for your family.


  1. I will take heed to that parental advice... but I wonder what face Jonathan wears out of his bedroom each morning. lol!

  2. Hmn.... I left this page on for 4 weeks bcos I was busy and I didn't want to miss the message. Thank God I read this, very inspiring. The entrepreneurial tips are outstanding, not to mention the parentsl advice. God bless you richly.