Recently, I was sitting in a small compound in the heart of southern Kenya.
A short distance to my left was this hut. Mama Kakuta was serving hot, sweet milky tea and I started wondering why the hut had fallen into disrepair – and what they did when the time came to build a new one.

Everyday life in Merrueshi is full. Mama Kakuta gets up at 6.00 with the dawn and starts the daily routine by reuniting the baby goats (which are kept separately overnight) with the correct mothers. There is then milking, cooking and getting the children ready for school. After they’ve gone, the day is spent taking the goats and cattle to pasture, collecting water and checking on other members of the community as well as seeing to her duties as a community midwife.

Later in the day, the livestock have to be gathered once more, checked over and returned to the safety of the compound for the night before food is cooked for the children when they get back from school – and for the warriors who have been carrying out duties familiar to livestock farmers the world over.

How, in a day like this, could Mama Kakuta possibly find time to build a new hut?

Different world, similar challenges

A couple of months ago, back home in a cold and wet England, I was sitting with a client, Alex, in his office. He told me that the organisation was barely keeping it’s head above water in the face of aggressive competition, falling prices, rising costs and strident demands from the parent organisation for more cash and faster growth.

He was clear about what he needed to get done to change their fortunes but couldn’t see how he could find the time. He was working evenings and weekends, as were many of his team, so finding time to talk about these challenges – let alone address them – seemed impossible. He put on a brave face but it was clear that he was frustrated and stuck.

With a little help from my friends

Back in the compound I discovered that, surprisingly for such an apparently simple structure, it takes several months to build a new Maasai hut. The main supports have to be found, cut, prepared and installed. Finer branches are collected, cleaned and painstakingly woven like a huge basket, before large quantities of mud are mixed with elephant dung (which provides the fibres required to hold it together) and applied by hand to make the final structure weatherproof.

I asked how they found the time to do this when their daily lives were so full of activities essential to simply survive.     The answer was surprisingly simple. When a woman needs to build a new hut (house building is the responsibility of the ladies in the Maasai culture) they simply tell all the other women in the community (pictured here) and everyone pitches in for as long as it takes to complete the project.

Everyone joins in happily because, as well as the enjoyment they all get from achieving something and being together, they each know that the same support will be available when they need a new hut.

Rebuilding an organisation

Alex knew that he couldn’t change the organisation alone – but he also knew that he simply had too much on his plate to do the work required to build a case, work through the complexities of a plan and coalesce the many stakeholders required to get it moving. What could he do?

Perhaps this sounds like you and your team?

What can he (or you) do?

I suggested to Alex that he took a leaf out of the Maasai house building manual. We identified the four people whose support he’d need to get his ideas off the ground and agreed how and when he’s ask for their help. The initial conversations were brief but all four quickly got on board and progress snowballed. Today, they are working as a team and have created a clear plan for starting to address some of the underlying prtoblems in the organisation and shift it’s performance dramatically.

Who would you need to ask for help? There are probably only a few people whose support you’d need initially. Seek them oput, briefly describe what you want to achieve and tell them that you need their help to do it. Ask if they are willing to contribute.

My experience is that 90% of people asked this question are flattered to be asked and will want to help.

There are many reasons why we all avoid taking this simple action. Perhaps we think it shows weakness or that the relationship isn’t strong enough to make this sort of request. Often, there is a reluctance to ask because leaders know that others are also so busy and they don’t want to impose.

This is the very worst reason not to ask. If someone had a request like that for us we’d always want them to give us the chance to choose and to help. Why would we deny that to those around us?

As well as making progress with your issue, this simple act will give others permission to do the same. Asking for help yourself will, therefore, move you towards a world in which anyone in your team needing help will just ask – secure in the knowledge that people will always pitch in. And that is a recipe for both better performance and a more enjoable working experience.

Hey, it’s (nearly) Christmas! What have you got to lose? And, more importantly, what have you got to gain?

My request for help

The Maasai Association is a registered charity set up to preserve the Maasai culture. It’s aim is to help the Maasai people of Southern Kenya to adapt to the massive climatic, social, economic and other challenges which threaten to destroy their ancient way of life.

I’m part of a worldwide band of supporters who have helped the Association. Together we have built a primary and secondary school, a clinic, maternity unit, water pipeline, visitor camp, cultural centre, microfinance project and the beginnings of a vocational college – to name but a few of the achievements.

Hundreds of children have been educated, lives saved, businesses started and livelihoods protected. They are taking contraol of their own destiny and adapting the culture on their terms to the changing world around them. I have dedicated the profits of the business to helping with the huge amount of work that’s yet to be done.

I need your help to help them. There are many ways of doing this. One end of the spectrum would be to give a few pounds to buy a bicycle that will enable a child to get to and from school – or provide a cow to restart the herd for a family who lost everything in the recent drought. The other end of the scale might involve helping me and the Maasai Association design, fund and create a business school to help the newly educated population understand commerce and set up their own businesses –enabling them to build their own local economy.

There are ways to help to suit every pocket and type of interest so, if you’re interested, please just get in touch and we’ll have a chat.

Read more

Please visit our website to read more about The Six Conversations Leadership Team programme or download our article, the Seven Illusions of Leadership which shows what it looks like in practice – based around a real case study.

Better still, give us a call on 0845 519 7871 to explore your issues further or to arrange a free Strategy Session.

Chris Henderson