The value of loyalty: What the story of a simple attendant at a fuel station can help us learn about building successful organisations
THE LAST WORD | ANDREW M. MWENDA | On Tuesday January 8, 2019 I passed a Total service station in Luzira to load Mobile Money. Because there was no V-Power Petrol on all Shell stations in Kampala and I had a few minutes to spare, I decided to ask a fuel attendant at this Total station, a one Vincent Komakech, whether their fuel is fit for my car.
Komakech then proceeded to give me an elaborate explanation on how their petrol, Excellium, is better than V-Power. He said it cleans the engine more effectively than V-Power and yet is cheaper and more fuel-efficient i.e. gives user more kilometres per litre.
How do you know this, I asked him. He did not give any scientific explanation. Instead he answered that many of his customers who were previously using Shell’s V-Power and tried Total’s Excellium often tell him the Total product is superior and never use V-Power again.
I was not convinced. The little scientific explanations I had previously read online about the quality of different fuels made me doubt Komakech’s explanation. In spite of his confident delivery, he based only on the behaviour of his customers. But Komakech insisted I try Excellium; promising I will never look back.
I yielded and filled my tank – not because he convinced me but because of the energy and conviction in his effort of trying to persuade me to change from Shell and become a client of Total. I felt his effort should be rewarded. I paid for the fuel and gave him a commission for his good services.
I called Total headquarters and gave them his name and fuel station and suggested they recognise his good work; a request they accepted. I will follow up to see whether they actually met that promise. I took a picture with him and visited him the next day. I did all this because I was inspired by Komakech attitude and work ethic.
Komakech reminded me of a book I read titled “Identity Economics: How Our Identities Shape Our Work, Wages And Wellbeing” written by George Akerlof, a Nobel laureate in economics, together with Rachel Kranton. They argue that what defines a successful person, organisation, country or company is not incentive pay or professional skills. It is identity.
Akerlof argues that when a person makes a leap in identity and identifies themselves as a great plumber, teacher, journalist, lawyer, surgeon or engineer, they will seek to see great plumbing, teaching, journalism, lawyering, surgery or engineering respectively in his/her work. Such a person will want to see their great selves reflected in the results of their work.
Successful countries and organisations make their citizens and employees identify with the values and vision of the country and/or organisation.
A person may be highly paid but have little commitment to the goals of the organisation. Such a person will not do a great job.
Equally, a person may be highly skilled as a lawyer or doctor but does not share the vision of the organisation. Such a person will not apply his skills to the best of their ability to meet the goals and vision of the organisation.
This lesson is best illustrated by Rwanda. By all measures, Kenya especially, but also Uganda have much better human capital than Rwanda. By human capital here I am referring specifically to professional skills and experience – in both the private and public sector. Yet in terms of performance, less competent public officials in Rwanda out perform their colleagues in Kenya and Uganda. Why? Identity!
President Paul Kagame personally and his political party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front, generally, have articulated a vision of the Rwanda they want and have mobilised the population politically around a shared vision of national reconstruction backed by dignity (agaciro) in being a Munyarwanda.
Hence everywhere you go in that country public officials carry themselves with pride and purpose, and dedicate themselves to their work to realise the goals and objectives of the state. They identify themselves as “I am a Munyarwanda, I have dignity and I am rebuilding my country”.
They may earn less money and possess less skill yet work more with greater dedication. It is their identifying with the vision of the country that works and is producing better economic growth and welfare benefits.
The book by Akerlof and Kranton became an important turning point especially for its insight for a person like me who used to believe in professional competence as the foundation of success. I was always keen to criticise leaders who emphasise loyalty over competence. In an ideal world it is best to have people who are both loyal and competent. But if you had to choose between competence and loyalty, the latter wins.
Indeed reading Akerlof and Kranton reminded me of what Norman Schwarzkopf, a former American military commander of Operation Desert Storm, said in his autobiography: `It doesn’t take a hero’ that leadership requires competence and character. But if you are to have only one of these, it’s better to have character, not competence. Equally, in his book, `Winning’, the former CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch, said that leadership requires strategy and values. He added that if one is to have only one of these two, it is better to have values than strategy.
Komakech teaches us that you do not have to be the CEO or the manager or even supervisor to promote the interests of your organisation even when it is not your duty. The success of the company you work for, or the country you live in, is equally your success. You cannot prosper in a failing country or company. Having the right attitude individually and collectively is good for you and your organisation.
Across the world, nations try to inculcate nationalism and patriotism in their citizens in order to make themselves successful. After the failure of communism, China turned to nationalism to rally its people around a shared goal or national economic transformation. If Africa is failing, it is partly, if not largely, because we have less nationalism and patriotism i.e. we have little loyalty to our nations and their aspirations. Indeed, it is because we elites lack a shared or common agreement on basic national goals.
It is my hope that Total will reward Komakech in a public way to serve as an example for many other attendants at their numerous fuel stations. But most critically, it should be a lesson to our national and corporate leaders – that when you have citizens, partisans and employees who exhibit such loyalty, they need to be rewarded and used as an example to others.