Two weeks ago I was invited by Kampala Ssese Islands Rotary Club to be a key note speaker at their weekly meeting. I have lots of respect for the work of Rotary in Uganda and I can never say no to this august community. The following is a paraphrase of my address and a microcosmic reflection of my own journey from employment (and a steady salary) to my current ninja (no income, no job, no assets) status.
The first hurdle we face is the contradiction between the menu we are fed in schools versus the reality required to succeed in business. In school we are taught to manage as opposed to being leaders. There is a difference between being a manager and being a leader. We are taught to analyze critically (leading to paralysis and risk aversion), to recall (memorize), to conform and to follow. Does it surprise you that we are all required to be in a uniform? At the end of this education process we are awarded certificates that symbolize success. We hang these on our walls with pride and claim ourselves to be accountants, lawyers, doctors and engineers. That is what society expects from us. That is what success looks like in the eyes of our society.
To be a business person (which is scorned), one needs to be original. One needs to be a risk taker, a bold creative and have the ability to question the status quo. One has to expect and live with failure. The truth is that in business there is no overnight success. One needs tenacity and resilience to make it. One needs an incredible level of self-denial or forbearance in order to succeed. Not many ‘educated’ people can go through that.
Employment provides reliable income whether we ‘shirk’ or not and covers up for our ineptitude because corporations have policies, procedures and rules. Follow them and you are safe. Business on the other hand takes no prisoners. In employment, the longer you last, the higher the probability you will rise to the top. Indeed there is usually no discernible relationship between you capabilities and promotion. As an employee, living in this ‘corporate’ environment, you are more likely to be disconnected from Ugandan life’s realities.
In employment, life is structured. This is called the “the psychology of the herd”. You strive to keep up with the ‘Karuhangas’ because you have shared beliefs and are focused on status. You accumulate ‘assets’ that are effectively dead weight. You move from having a lavish wedding to buying a posh SUV, building a big mansion(s) in the town and village and having a small pot of savings with the NSSF. You probably own a farm (which consumes part of your income from employment) but is not a business in the true sense of the word, and have to maintain a lifestyle that affords your family comfort.
Assume then that you who has been enjoying this fantasy life have to cross into the world of business. You will be shocked to find that life out here is harsh and unforgiving. When you are no longer a “corporate” honcho, your old ‘friend’ network will dissipate so fast! You will find they no longer pick your phone because ‘corporate’ friends are the most fickle fellows you will probably ever find. Your new set of friends are probably as hard up as you! You are not properly adjusted to working in the private sector because you are used to air conditioning and air travel. But in the private sector we don’t have per diem and air travel is not for benchmarking. Here trust here is a rare commodity. Businesses operate in a very inefficient market with significant rent seeking characteristics. The reality is that the majority of small businesses do not live beyond their fifth birthday. And you sir or madam will probably end up as one of the statistics most of us do become. It’s the rub of the green.
Samuel Sejjaaka is Country Team Leader at Abacus Business School. Twitter @samuelsejjaaka