Effective leadership in times of change – the value of strengths with Nyawera Kibuka

Podversation transcript:

Hi, my name’s Dr Paul Brewerton, the strengths guy, Doctor of Organisational Psychology and founder and Chair of Strengthscope. I’m very excited today to have on the show Nyawera Kibuka.

Nyawera is the founder CEO and Director of Cedar Africa Group, a boutique advisory and training firm specialising in talent, leadership and change management. Cedar Africa has just celebrated 10 years of supporting individuals and organisations thrive through change in East Africa. They have a strong desire to see positive change and growth in leaders and organisations in the complex and volatile environments they operate in.

Prior to founding Cedar, Nyawera was a People & Change Consultant in two global professional consulting firms where she led and implemented various transformation projects. Welcome Nyawera.

I’m delighted that you’ve decided to take the time to talk with me today Nyawera about leadership in times of change – and to have a conversation about what leaders need to do more of, less of, to learn, to focus on during change…for the good of their people and for the good of their organisations. And the role of strengths in this.

Let me start by asking to describe your journey from birth to now, in particular how you have arrived where you are today and how do your strengths and passions play into this?

I was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya where I completed my early school years then moved to the UK for my A levels and part of my post-secondary education but later transitioned to Canada where I completed my higher education before returning to Kenya.

I had a strong interest in people and behaviour which led me to pursue a career in HR and was lucky to secure employment in a global consulting firm so the earlier part of my career was designing and implementing transformation projects for clients in different sectors. The environments I worked in where very competitive and had a high orientation towards performance and results, which I enjoyed and really energised me so in that time the entrepreneurial bug was ignited so I eventually left and founded my own company 10 years ago and I have enjoyed the opportunity to create an entity from the ground up, think through how to serve our market and respond to our ever-changing and evolving client needs.

How do you feel leaders can be more effective in times of change?  What do you feel they should do more of and less of? What changes would you like to see in the leadership community?

It’s important to first recognise how challenging the marketplace is.

Change is happening at break-neck speed and leaders are balancing several competing demands and pressures stemming from a difficult macroeconomic environment, the threat of a global recession, the effects of the Ukraine-Russia war and the impact of global supply chains, the great resignation, climate change the list is endless. They are under pressure to navigate this difficult business terrain, innovate, out-change competition, be agile and remain competitive.

Leaders are under immense stress and pressure and as result, we see leaders resorting to control, micro-management and using fear as a weapon to drive performance and unfortunately creating an environment that stifles creativity and innovation. The language and ‘tone of voice’ is more negative, focusing on ‘what’s going wrong and internal weaknesses’ which inevitably reduces engagement and morale.  Under such a climate people don’t bring their best selves to work yet a leader’s job is to deliver results through people.

During these difficult times, leaders would benefit more from shifting the ‘tone’ in the organisation to one that is more positive that elicit hope, focusing on what opportunities the change presents to the organisation, being more solution-oriented and open and curious to possibilities, empowering teams whilst still driving performance and holding individuals and teams accountable for results.

Leaders want to be seen and have their presence felt by their people. People want to understand the vision of success and understand how their work contributes to the bigger picture; finding meaning and purpose in their work and feel inspired and motivated by that. Provide direction and purpose.

At times like this leadership journey can be incredibly lonely and leaders might benefit from coaching and finding that space to safely voice their concerns and work through the reality of the challenges today’s business environment presents.

What leadership habits and behaviours do you feel undermine effectiveness during times of change?

Leaders are responsible and accountable for delivering results and so will naturally gravitate to what comes naturally: execution, performance and, holding people accountable for results. Because of the pressure to deliver, the focus on the ‘bottom-line’ is sometimes at the expense of people and leaders miss the value of engaging their people and rallying them behind an inspiring and compelling picture of success.

As shared earlier, because of pressure leaders will sometimes go into ‘over-drive’ on certain behaviours – control, fear, micromanaging, ‘the stick’ that hurt the organisations culture and the internal ‘tone’ of the organisation hindering performance.

From a personal point of view, how do you feel leaders can stay resilient, can build resilience, during times of change?

Firstly, it would be important to define resilience. I look at it as the ability to bounce back from difficulties or setbacks or extended periods of pressure hopefully stronger, wiser and able. There is one school of thought that asserts that resilience in some individuals is an innate characteristic and therefore comes quite naturally whilst in others in needs to be cultivated.

For leaders who fall in the latter category i.e not naturally resilient, in times of difficulty and setbacks it important to tap into or lean into other strengths e.g. optimism, or relationships. There is research that shows that a strong network of relationships helps foster resilience so it helps to connect with others for perspective, to help us see a path forward or offer some humour – we need to laugh more! This all however, takes a lot of self-awareness to recognise when one is not naturally resilient and draw on other strengths to help get through times of difficulty.

 How can leaders inspire better performance and achieve better results through their leadership habits?

It is important that leaders are intentional about cultivating environments that help their people to bring their best selves; developing environments that are open, respectful and inclusive, and recognise and celebrate the unique contributions and strengths of each team members.

Leaders have limitations and don’t know everything (it’s quite humbling to recognise and acknowledge that) so remaining open and curious, not reverting to comfort zones or the past ‘ how we used to do things’. Leading today requires stepping out of our natural comfort zones, remaining curious and creating space and inviting different voices. Providing consultative and supportive leadership.

What do you see as the role of psychological safety? Do you feel this is relevant to change?

Psychological safety is an environment where people will not be humiliated or punished or victimised for sharing a concern, or challenging the status quo, and asking bold questions.

Given the pace of change and rates of disruption the need for creative and innovative ideas and creative problem solving is paramount, but the environment must be conducive enough to allow for innovative solutions to be unlocked, and for teams to be empowered to solve problems. Without psychological safety creative solutions remain unspoken, teams fail to work to their fullest potential, and don’t problem solve. Keeping ahead of the wave of change is to be innovative. Innovative requires psychological safety.

Leaders are key and foster safe environments by the leadership behaviours they model. Their behaviours and mindset will either squash innovative thinking or encourage it. This takes intentionality and self-awareness.

What is your view of authentic leadership? What do you see as the benefits and the risks?

Authentic leadership is about bringing the best, unique version of myself to work. Not acting one way in private and a different way in public. Authentic leadership requires self-awareness and having an internal compass that guides daily actions. It’s not trying to fulfil someone else’s definition of what a good leader should be but embracing one’s strengths and showing up for my people in a way that is unique, genuine, and consistent with who I am as an individual.  The benefit of this is trust. I believe people are drawn to authenticity; being authentic is like a magnet that creates commitment and engagement. Being authentic also invites others to engage in work in an authentic way.

Being authentic however is not an excuse for irresponsible and reckless leadership behaviour. Authentic leadership comes with responsibility.

 Thank you Nyawera, what a fantastic conversation. Before you go, I have a couple more questions for you.

First, what one piece of advice would you give your younger self if you met younger you today?

Don’t live your life for the applause of the gallery.

If people want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way?

You can visit our website www.cedarafricagroup.com LinkedIn page: Cedar Africa Group or drop me an email on nyawera@cedarafricagroup.com

Any resources – books, podcasts, videos, anything – that you’d recommend people look at?

I am currently reading The Leadership Pipeline by Ram Charan, Steve Drotter and Jim Noel on building leadership pipelines and Mindset by Carol Dweck