Wednesday, February 24, 2010



By Jerry Okungu
February 23, 2010

A few years ago, one Kenyan, Mr. Albert Ekirapa was at the helm of what is today known as Nation Media Group. In that era, most corporate companies including public owned commercial entities used to be managed by Executive Chairmen who also doubled up as Chief Executive Officers.

Mr. Ekirapa’s peers at the time were Mr. B A Gechaga of BAT Kenya, Joe Wanjui of East Africa Industries, Philip Okundi of Kenya Ports Authority, John Simba of ICDC AND John Michuki of Kenya Commercial Bank among many others.

I’ll talk about Albert Ekirapa’s performance and style of management at the then Nation Newspapers Limited because I worked with him in his last five years as the company’s chief executive.

When I joined the Nation in early 1991, there was no Nation Center. The paper was housed in a bakery outfit on Tom Mboya Street then known as Nation House. In the Nation House was the paper’s Managing Director, Finance Manager, Group Managing Editor and the Group Marketing Manager among other departmental heads.

As the chief Executive with his skeleton but powerful staff, Ekirapa had his office at Rehema House on Standard Street. It was from there that he had with him an Executive Director in charge of Human Resource, a Finance Director, a Finance Manager, their secretaries and personal assistants.

From the Nation Center, the only person who had direct daily consultations with Rehema House was the Nation Managing Director, himself a white Englishman called Peter Chadwick. In turn, all other senior managers at the Nation House reported to Peter Chadwick. They had no business being in direct contact with Rehema House unless invited by Ekirapa’s personal assistant to attend an official function.
Incidentally, Albert Ekirapa perfected the art of getting in touch with all senior staff at informal dinners in his house whenever other overseas directors came calling.

While in his house, staff members were free to bring along their wives, husbands, boyfriends and girl friends depending on their marital status. And the Chairman had this ability to tell stories and crack jokes that made everybody feel at ease the whole evening. In his house, Albert personally served every guest with a drink of one’s choice. With his equally pleasant wife Margaret, we always left his home late into the night very satisfied with our selves.

The other style that Albert perfected was to attend all functions sponsored by the Nation Newspaper. It could be a golf tournament, a marketers’ night at the Carnivore or a high level conference.

I remember those nights when we took him to the Carnivore for a marketers’ or public relations night. When all dinner and speeches were over, Albert and Margaret would open the floor and dance until the early hours of the morning. That energy was rare even among the younger members of our group.

However, this ability to socialize with his juniors did not compromise his strict discipline at work. On a Monday morning the Ekirapa that we saw in later years strolling into Nation Center at 8am was a different person all together. He was a stickler with time, deadlines, reports, their accuracies and relevance. The man brooked no mediocrity at work. When he thought you didn’t perform, he told you to your face but gave you another chance to make good.

Albert Ekirapa believed in one management principle; that a boss should never undermine his juniors or colleagues. He believed in fairplay and the doctrine of respect for authority, order and chain of command. He believed very strongly that if the culture of backbiting and backstabbing were allowed to take root in a company, the entire management structure would break down with dire consequences for the company’s performance.

A case in point was when a new managing director was appointed in mid 1990s and within weeks, had locked horns with the then internal auditor over personal expenses. Although the auditor was right in questioning the personal expenses of his new boss, when they appeared before the Chairman, he listened to both of them and made a ruling in favour of the new MD. The reason was simple; he wanted to send a clear message to all employees that the boss might be wrong but he was still the boss!
The internal auditor ended up being transferred to another department as the procurement manager.

Right now as a country, Kenya needs a corporate manager with the management skills of Ekirapas and Gechagas of yester years. Just as it was impossible to entertain gossips, backbiting and insubordination in the corporate world when order and discipline were the catch phrases in management, Kenya badly needs that era gone by.
During Kenyatta’s and Moi’s time, all government officials at whatever level knew their place in the system. Respect for authority was more pronounced in Kenyatta’s time than in Moi’s days.

Whereas Kenyatta’s strength was in zero tolerance on gossip and cheap talk even among his cabinet ministers, Moi watered that down by using proxies to fight his perceived enemies in the same regime he led. Such were the machinations that brought down Charles Njonjo, Josephat Karanja, Paul Ngei and several senior politicians during his 24 year reign.

Whereas Kenyatta was a strong and charismatic president that endeared people to his personality, Moi relied more on fear and machinations as his preferred tools for managing the state. And there are many managers in the corporate and public life that to this day would rather disdain socializing and use threats against their juniors to instill fear in order to earn their respect.

Right from 2003 when Kibaki era began, there has been a major departure from the styles of Kenyatta and Moi eras. Kibaki’s hands- off style and desire to delegate responsibilities with lots of power to different cabinet ministers has been his biggest weakness.

It is this seven year period that has seen more freedom of speech and independence of mind of many cabinet ministers like never before. However, much as the democratic space has quadrupled under Kibaki, this free for all management style has brought with it a dysfunctional and quarrelsome government where every politician and senior civil servant has felt like his or her own king.

In this orchestra of the absurd, the choir master has been conspicuously missing hence the concert hasn’t been that harmonious and soothing to our ears.

The truth of the matter is; this country needs order and discipline in its ranks. Ministers must recognize the Prime Minister and his two deputies as their seniors. Deputy Prime Ministers must appreciate that their Prime Minister is the first among equals. Similarly the Prime Minister must recognize that the President is a level ahead of him by virtue of being the Head of State.

If these basic common sense management principles were observed, there would be no room for public servants to defy authorities that appointed them to their offices in the first place. There would be no room for politicians to call political rallies mainly to malign their seniors in age and in government.

In eras gone by, whether in public service or private sector, such mannerless characters would have earned instant dismissal from their positions.