Kenya’s leading turnaround expert shares his hard-earned advice with other leaders.
When Julius Kipng'etich was first appointed as the director and CEO of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in December 2004, one of his employees told him, “You don’t know issues of wildlife. I’m only giving you ninety days.”
It’s true that Kipng’etich wasn’t an expert on wildlife, but he knew more than enough about managing people and organizations through difficult times. He had previously been the director of student welfare at the University of Nairobi during a tumultuous season, leading negotiations with protesting students and spearheading critical university reforms.
In 2004, KWS was reeling from a recruitment scandal and was financially insolvent, among other challenges. “I went to the organization knowing that it was hot. There were very many complex issues,” Kipng’etich told Kenyans Come Home in a recent interview. He diagnosed lack of strong management as the root of the organization’s challenges. “The problem had nothing to do with animals, and everything to do with people.”
As many Kenyans know, Kipng’etich’s tenure at KWS went far beyond ninety days, to eight years. During that time, he oversaw a remarkable transformation of the beloved public entity: rooting out corruption, growing revenue by seven times, and turning Kenya’s national parks into must-visit destinations for locals and foreign tourists alike.
During his tenure at KWS, then as an executive at Equity Group Holdings and Uchumi, and now as the regional CEO of KCH client Jubilee Insurance, Kipng’etich has earned a reputation as a turnaround expert who can successfully guide organizations and their people through profound challenges.
He believes effective change management always starts with a clear vision of where the organization needs to go. This includes the sequencing of issues to tackle, as well as the pacing. “Always begin with quick wins that are simple and low cost,” he explained. “Don’t bring in difficult changes faster. Anything of a paradigm nature, don’t bring it early. It paralyzes the organization.”
At KWS, for example, Kipng’etich knew he had to eradicate corruption first. Next, he addressed the parks, enhancing facilities and conservation efforts. Only then did he turn to improving organizational processes and procedures within KWS.
After focusing on popular actions as simple as maintaining clean toilets in the national parks, Kipng’etich had built up enough political and social capital to enact greater changes.
But he could only do this because he got “a critical mass” of KWS employees on board with his vision. “A leader must articulate the vision, even with the greatest opposition, of where we are going. If you can’t articulate it, you may as well stop and do nothing,” he explained. “People follow because of what a leader articulates.”
Building what Kipng’etich calls “a coalition of the willing” requires time and care. “Always begin with who you trust first,” he advises. “Create incentives for them to stay with you. Encourage them to stay the course.” Over time, the circle will expand as team members see the passion, dedication, courage, and integrity of their leader.
In fact, Kipng’etich sees integrity as an indispensible quality in a leader. “The greatest power you have in very difficult circumstances is your integrity,” he shared with KCH. “Integrity drives authority.”
Once a clear vision and supportive team are established, Kipng’etich encourages leaders to focus on the economic engine of the organization. How is revenue being generated? What cuts can be made? What expenditures should be prioritized? “Keep the economic engine moving and strong,” he counseled.
Unfortunately, even leaders with a superb vision and unquestionable integrity will encounter opposition to change. Kipng’etich believes that identifying the cause of someone’s resistance is essential. If their opposition is based on something operational, “that’s easy to deal with,” he explained. The conversation can focus on the best way to do something within the organization.
But if their opposition is more philosophical, Kipng’etich said, “Don’t challenge them too early. They’re coming from a belief background.” He encourages leaders to be patient, providing more and more information that gradually increases the individual’s knowledge and slowly shifts his or her paradigm.
“Human beings are not like a switch,” he reflected. “Humans have a mindset, and that requires time to change.” In his experience, it can take as long as two or three years to shift someone’s perspective.
Above all, changing organizations requires time. Most change theory experts agree that successful organizational change takes five to seven years. Everything in the organization, from the leadership to the budget and strategic plan, needs to be prepared for a long period of transition.
For Julius Kipng’etich, the incredibly hard work of turning around an organization is worth it for the potential impact. “How many lives have you touched in a positive way? Some of it is planting a seed for a bigger thing tomorrow,” he shared with KCH.“I would like to see my legacy as having touched people’s lives in a positive way, in a sustainable way.”