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How visionary Bob Collymore inspired great leadership

by Carley Bowman

The passing of the boss of a mobile phone operator would normally pass without much notice beyond family and colleagues. Bob, as he was universally known, was different.

Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore

Bob Collymore was a visionary. As CEO he turned Safaricom into a global inspiration for how to get affordable connectivity and mobile banking to everyone, especially the poor, by way of M-PESA.

He had a vision for a new kind of leadership. He was determined to inspire fellow leaders in east Africa and internationally to learn and share through his global networks.

In particular, Bob was a leading inspirational figure in the growing B Team network of global CEOs who realise they must lead in a different way.

We had the privilege to observe him at work at Safaricom and with fellow CEOs. Behind closed doors we watched him inspire fellow top executives and his young Safaricom staff alike.

C-Suite leaders the world over must learn from what Bob said and encouraged, plus the enlightened, emboldened, imaginative way in which he hoped others would learn.

They should be both jealous and admiring of what he did and how he did it.

Bob always wanted to explain and encourage. His huge success and achievement did not kill humility. They confirmed his wisdom, risk taking and even admission of failure when necessary.

We describe the difficult choices that Bob took in our book Thinking the Unthinkable.

We detail how he overcame a sudden existential threat to Safaricom’s survival.

He was labelled “a thief” for a misconceived data bundle plan that alienated millions of consumers. His swift realisation of Safaricom’s error, then his assertive about turn is an object lesson to every CEO, Chairman and board member.

At one of many meetings, he inspired Thinking the Unthinkable co-authors Nik Gowing and Chris Langdon over breakfast at a conference in the Alps. He modestly outlined why especially NextGen Kenyans wanted to work for him. In Nairobi we saw how they almost revered how he lead them.

This is how Bob described to us his vision of why leadership can succeed:

“It comes from the top. You know, you can never underestimate the influence of leaders. At a very trivial level, once upon a time everyone wore black socks, because that’s the colour socks that people wear. And one day I decided to wear some coloured socks. And no-one else wore coloured socks in Kenya. I was the only one. Then one day, we were launching something or other and I was in the front row, and people spotted that I had blue and red socks.

“Ever since then I wore coloured socks. And now I sit in the same room, we call it Bob’s Lounge, in my floor, and I look round and you see that people, sometimes they do what you say, but mostly they do what they see. And so, I look around my team, two or three rows down. Most of them now wear, apart from the lawyers of course, multi-coloured socks..

“And for me that’s an example, a trivial example but nonetheless a relevant example, that it doesn’t matter what you’re saying, they’ll just do what they see.”

Like millions of others we mourn Bob’s passing. He will no longer be here to share with fellow top executives in east Africa and the world how his visionary, sometimes humble and non-textbook methods of leadership managed to inspire customers, fellow employees and investors alike.

It brought success.

Download the full chapter on Safaricom from our book Thinking the Unthinkable below.

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Blazin' Safaricom: Fighting Back After Being Labelled a ‘Thief’ Pdf

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