Developing Change Competence for the African Environment

By Franca Ovadje

Leading change in Africa is fraught with a number of difficulties. To be successful in this context a deep understanding of the socio-cultural environment is indispensable. This article discusses what managers can do to lead successful change in the African context.

Africa has become a bright prospect for investments. GDP growth was 5% in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) from 2010 to 2014. The World Bank estimates that the region will continue to grow at a slightly higher rate in 2015 and 2016. According to the Bank, capital flows to SSA countries was about 5.3% of African GDP in 2013 (the developing country average was 3.9%). General Electric is investing $2billion in Africa over the next five years. Other MNCs are buying or partnering with local African companies. If these organisations are looking for great returns from their investment, they must consider initiating change in these African organisations.

One reason why change initiatives fail is the lack of attention to the people side of change. This includes sensitivity to the socio-cultural environment and how it affects people.

Leading change is however, a difficult task. Research suggests that most change efforts fail. Change leadership in Africa is fraught with difficulties many of which arise from the context. A deep understanding of the environment is therefore necessary for successful change in organisations in Africa.

The African context is uncertain. There are frequent changes in government policies; there are logistic challenges, etc. As one manager put it, you cannot ‘consider it done’; you have to get it done and this involves overcoming a significant number of hurdles. However, there are great rewards for those who are successful. What does a manager need to implement change successfully in Africa? My research suggests that two things are indispensable for successful change in Africa: a change plan and great attention to people.

To lead change successfully, managers need a comprehensive and integrated model to guide them through change; a model that highlights the important strategic design and implementation choice opportunities they have to make. In a changing and complex environment prescriptions may not be very useful as variables are in flux.

mapIn my book, Change Leadership in Developing Countries, I present a decision-making model for leading organisational change. It helps managers think through the key decisions to be made in planning and executing change. These decisions include: choice of a vision for the change, the selection of change targets, measures of success, leadership style; choice of the pace of change, support systems and structures and strategies for winning commitment to the change. Finally, the model includes evaluation and refinement of the change plan; it allows for learning during implementation and helps managers capture this learning and refine the change plan if necessary. If the choices are consistent and congruent with the environment, the probability of success of the change is increased.

The second change, competence managers need to lead successful change in Africa, is great attention to people. This comes from a deep understanding of the African socio-economic context. One reason why change initiatives fail is the lack of attention to the people side of change. This includes sensitivity to the socio-cultural environment and how it affects people.

An important characteristic of the African cultural environment is the high regard (respect, even reverence) Africans have for elders and those in positions of power. African employees are not likely to challenge the views of their bosses even if they think these views are wrong. The person in a position of authority is deemed to be knowledgeable, even wise. His viewpoint is therefore respected (even by those with better alternatives). It is not easy to get managers to give their candid opinion. Even the top management team may not tell the CEO the truth. Without an understanding of the environment, an expatriate CEO can get excited about the enthusiasm with which his presentation of the change initiative was received by employees.

High power distance is a challenge for the planning and implementation of change. Those who are driving change in Africa should be aware that if employees applaud the change plan, it does not mean they agree with it and will contribute to its implementation. Members of the top management team may not express a contrary opinion but they may not commit either. The change strategist may find that he cannot rely on the collective wisdom of employees to get things done and realise the change vision.

To engage the team, change strategists have to go out of their way to encourage openness and candour in the organisation. To do this effectively, they will have to de-emphasise hierarchy.

To engage the team, change strategists have to go out of their way to encourage openness and candour in the organisation. To do this effectively, they will have to de-emphasise hierarchy. For example, they could eliminate some of the ‘signals’ of hierarchy such as reserved parking spaces, different dining rooms for managers and staff, etc. In GT Bank Plc. an account officer may contradict anyone including the Group Managing Director if he has a different opinion. He can also blow the whistle on a boss if he believes that the boss has contravened the bank’s regulations. A lot of effort is put into reinforcing the culture of openness, of truth telling. This has enabled the Bank enjoy the initiative and entrepreneurial drive of its employees.

Some managers use skip-level meetings to get to know the staff and close the distance. These meetings are reminiscent of the village meetings which employees are familiar with. The meetings bring employees close to the manager (the immediate supervisor is usually absent from these meetings). The manager encourages an open discussion of issues. With time, employees may develop confidence in the manager and be more forthcoming, even candid.

Change leaders must also appreciate that employees have a lot of baggage; they are under a lot of pressure from their extended families. Although Africa has been growing at 5% per annum for five years, many Africans continue to live below the poverty line. Unemployment remains high and large segments of the population are yet to feel the benefits of economic growth. Social welfare programmes are rare in the continent. Thus, Africans who are poor and/or unemployed continue to rely on the extended family or clan for support. This assistance is often in the form of paying school fees for children, paying medical bills, providing food allowance to relatives, etc. Those who have a job and a good source of income are under immense pressure from extended family members for financial assistance. It is not surprising therefore, that employees (and managers) seek first and foremost stability of employment and predictable income streams. This has implications for change leadership in Africa.

Change initiatives that threaten stability of employment are likely to be resisted, even by top management. Sometimes senior management and even the change champions cannot bear to see people lose their jobs knowing how many families will be affected by such a decision. Take the example of a multinational that decided to shut down its production facility in Nigeria and import products from another subsidiary in Africa. The head of human resources (who was the change driver) for the Nigerian subsidiary was traumatised by the experience; seeing so many families without a livelihood was too much to bear.

Another characteristic of the African culture is high external locus of control. In general, Africans believe that external forces (usually supernatural forces) determine the future. Performance is not necessarily due to hard work. If it was ordained, it will be in spite of one’s effort or lack of effort. This belief and the lethargy that may result from it contribute to the failure of change initiatives. Unless and until employees are convinced that their actions make a difference, that they can determine the future, they will pay lip service to the change.

To implement change, leaders will have to challenge this belief system and show that they (the employees) can and must make a difference. Leaders can do this effectively, through storytelling, reminding employees of companies they are familiar with that have gone under. Visits to ailing companies are also helpful. In addition, performance targets and performance based rewards communicate clearly to employees that delivering on commitments is important. Some African organisations have built a high performance culture in their organisations and changed the
belief system.

Performance targets and performance based rewards communicate clearly to employees that delivering on commitments is important.

In-group collectivism is characteristic of the African socio-cultural context. The African will work hard to achieve the goals of the in-group (clan) to which he has a sense of belonging. If employees are not engaged with the organisation, it is no wonder that they underperform. Employees who do not feel that the organisation is theirs talk about the CEO’s vision or ideas not ‘our’ vision. The big challenge for change leaders is to get the employees engaged and to consider the change their thing. One source of alienation is the frequency with which expatriates are replaced. Expatriates come in with a short term mentality (they will be in the subsidiary for about three years) and they try to get results within this time frame. Employees may not see a commitment to the long run success of the subsidiary. This may affect their commitment to change.

In conclusion, to lead successful change in Africa, managers need a good change plan and a deep understanding of the socio-cultural context. An enthusiastic reception of the change plan may just be play acting. Managers must learn to discern when employees mean ‘no’ when they say ‘yes’ and when they really mean ‘yes’. It is also important to appreciate the fact that employees in Africa go to work with a lot of baggage; change may cause them a lot of anxiety. A humane leadership style is likely to engender more commitment to the realisation of the change.

Feature Image: Self-help leader speaks to fellow farmers in the village of Kathaka Kaome in Embu district, about new QPM (quality protein maize) varieties, how to grow them, and their nutritional benefits. Kenya, Africa

Image Courtesy of International Maize & Wheat Improvement Center

About the Author

Franca OvadjeFranca Ovadje is the founder and Director of the Centre for Research in Leadership & Ethics at the Lagos Business School. She teaches leadership and change management to senior executives. Franca is an active consultant to industry. Her most recent publication by Routledge, Change Leadership in Developing Countries, includes several African case studies.


The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.