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When Jonathan Halloran, the late Mamady Doumbouya (1940-2018) and I started American Homebuilders of West Africa in 2014, we knew we were taking the road less traveled. Few things about our work since then have been easy – and none have been dull. We chose the Republic of Guinea for our first proof-of-concept project, a roughly half-hectare lot on which we ended up building 13 homes. As we were shopping around the business concept in the early days with investors active in Africa, we often heard the conventional wisdom that if we wanted to build a successful operation in sub-Saharan Africa, we needed to relocate ourselves and our families to the region.

A few years and a few million dollars in sales later, we are comfortable saying that the conventional wisdom on that front is dead wrong, at least for our business. There are number of reasons it did not make sense for any of the three of us to permanently relocate to Guinea in 2014 – from the Ebola epidemic that emerged that year, to the fact that all of our early sales and investment were coming from this side of the Atlantic ocean (as most of them still do today). But the fundamental reason we wanted to do as much as possible remotely is that from the beginning we wanted to build an organization in Guinea that could grow into a self-sustaining operation that would free us to go on and build new branches in other countries in the region. We knew that we could not build such an organization if we were constantly looking over local staff’s shoulders and micromanaging them.

In the past couple of years we have found a few tricks to be useful in recruiting, training, retaining and generating results with a high-performing team in West Africa. Most of these are not specific to the region, but some are particularly relevant in the West African context given the demographics and infrastructure challenges.

Communication

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman tells a story about coming back from a dinner he and his wife of many years had attended with some friends. As they were getting ready for bed, he heard his wife say something about their host that rattled him: “He is sexy. He doesn’t undress the maid himself.” Kahneman was taken aback, and immediately demanded to know what in the world would cause her to say something like that. As it turns out, that is not what she said at all; her words were “he doesn’t underestimate himself.” What is interesting, of course, is not the mis-hearing on Kahneman’s part, but rather the fact that despite his intimate knowledge of his wife after many years of marriage, his first thought was to question her motivation for saying something he knew to be uncharacteristic – rather than to question his own hearing and understanding.

If a man at the top of the field of behavioral economics can misunderstand his wife in this way, how much more do we misunderstand each other in the office? And how much more is that potential for misunderstanding compounded when we are both speaking in a second language (in our case, French) over a VOIP connection that is not always of the highest quality? As it turns out, when you really think about it, it’s a miracle that HQ and field office personnel ever properly understand each other at all, whether they are face-to-face or on the phone.

What we have begun to do to mitigate miscommunication is strip down our discourse to the essentials at the outset of a conversation, and leave the details to work out as we move forward. By focusing time and energy early on making sure that we are aligned on big-picture goals and principles, we create a collaborative framework that then opens up the possibility of moving toward the end goal together, but with each party taking the steps that are appropriate for their context. What does NOT work, in our experience, is starting with the specifics of what we want the local country staff to do (tactics) without first aligning on the higher-level goal (strategy). This approach usually ends with the tactics not being accomplished in the way we would have hoped, personnel on both sides frustrated about the misunderstanding, and a big gap between us on understanding the larger strategic goals.

Values Alignment

One cannot constantly motivate a team remotely – one must rather build a team whose motivation comes from within. Thanks to a Knowledge@Wharton article by Adam Grant and Jitendra Singh, our executive team was turned onto Daniel Pink‘s work highlighting autonomy, mastery and purpose as key elements supporting intrinsic motivation among workers. Given our goal of building – in each country where we work – a local team that can run its business efficiently and profitably without constant micromanagement from above, finding ways to encourage intrinsic motivation in our local staff is critical. Another element highlighted by Grant and Singh is connection: “a sense of community, belongingness and being valued by others.” In building out a menu of core values we expect team members to adhere to we also borrow from Mark Cuban, who makes a point of focusing on the value of team members who reduce stress, rather than increasing it, for their boss and others around them.

One way we have begun to build a shared understanding of autonomy, mastery, purpose, connection and stress reduction as key expectations of all team members is to incorporate an annual survey tool that has staff anonymously rate team members on the degree to which they demonstrate each of those values in the workplace. These surveys function as a feedback tool for team members separate from the performance evaluations they receive from their direct supervisor; they are rather both a way to remind staff of these “big picture” values that we are striving for, and a means for each person to understand whether their team members see them as excelling in those areas or not.

By having respondents choose only the three team members who are the best examples of each core value we keep the survey simple and easy to use, but still are able to gather results that show different relative strengths and opportunities for growth. We then assign each team member to a group based on the results (Group 1 = highest scoring; Group 4 = lowest scoring). Each team member is able to see which group they landed in for each core value, as well as the group for their overall average; only senior management sees the detailed rankings. In our survey for 2018 only one person showed up in Group 1 for all five categories; likewise only one person showed up in Group 4 for all categories. While ending up in Group 4 in a given year may not be cause for separation, seeing someone stay in Group 4 year after year should signal to management that there is a need for intervention of some sort.

Knowing When To Say Goodbye

Building a local team that can run autonomously has not been a trivial exercise. Our local subsidiary in Guinea has 11 people on salary, not including interns and subcontractors. There are another 10 people that were on salary at one point during the past five years, but are no longer. In other words, about half of our hires have worked out in the long run – so far. We consider ourselves quite good at vetting potential hires, and certainly have gotten better at it – but we’ve also had to work hard at delivering the message that hiring is the easy part; the real work of management happens when you realize that a team member is not performing, and have to either train and motivate them to get the desired performance, or separate so that you and the rest of the team can focus on GSD. Because hiring is always a decision made with imperfect information, it is understandable that mistakes will be made; firing, on the other hand, happens after one has gathered ample, detailed information. Failing to act on good information of this sort is not patience or generosity, it is negligent mismanagement.

Results

Like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, we will never be satisfied. And we want our local team to never be satisfied. The Franciscan spiritual leader Richard Rohr paraphrases Saint Gregory of Nyssa thus: “sin happens when we refuse to keep growing.” A version of this idea has become our mantra across the American Homebuilders of West Africa organization: “Every day is training day.” So we are not satisfied – but we do try to stop every now and then to recognize meaningful progress. I recently had the opportunity to do just that.

During the second week of November I traveled to Conakry with Ameet Dhillon, Managing Director of US-Africa Housing Finance, the company we partner with to be able to offer financing to home buyers in the West African diaspora. After a busy week of meetings with the US Embassy, appearing on a live television broadcast at RTG, overnighting at our second development site and negotiating financing arrangements with local banks, we were able to get most of the local team together for a dinner at the Hotel Noom. As part of the dinner I asked everyone to briefly introduce themselves with name, job function, and a comment about something that is different at our company compared to other places they have worked.

As we went around the table hearing responses, and as the aspiring anglophones on the team translated for Ameet, I could see that our work developing this team is generating real results. People spoke about how meaningful work is when you are given real responsibility and the independence to get the job done on your terms. They talked about the value of being provided with the tools and technology that allow you to be efficient and effective in your work. They expressed appreciation for the energizing nature of being part of a young team* and noted how nice it is to be in a place where your colleagues are interested in helping you be your best. These were not canned responses – I had not prepared the team for the introduction question before the dinner – but almost everyone around the table had something to say that indicated to me and Ameet that a team is forming there that not only performs tactically but also grasps what is beyond the horizon for our company – and how to get there.

Do we still have work to do? Absolutely. Will the team dinner table have some different faces around it a year from now? Most likely. But we are moving in the right direction, and we are as close to understanding each other about our common goals as is reasonable to expect in our multinational, multilingual, multiethnic, multigenerational, multi-gender team. As I was heading to the airport to come back to the US, I mentioned to our Country Director Wessou Kourouma that just as Guinea was first in independence from France in 1958, our team there is on track to be first in independence from headquarters office day-to-day oversight. We look forward to the day when our Guinea team is the engine whose progress drives expansion into neighboring countries and whose knowledge base provides the foundation for training up new high-performing teams throughout the region.

Building houses is great, but building teams like this one may be even better. Sub-Saharan Africa has been exploited for centuries for mineral resources, timber resources, wildlife resources … but the continent’s most valuable resource has always been its people, whose virtually untapped capacity is only beginning to be understood by outside investors.  We feel fortunate to be there.

Robert Hornsby, November 2019

* The oldest member of our Guinea team is 35 years old. While we do not screen for age in recruiting, we do find that in our specific context in West Africa, we can make more progress on the “hearts and minds” changes we aim to make when we work with team members who are flexible and not firmly set in their ways. By looking for open-minded, flexible “athletes” rather than trying to find the “best” or most experienced engineer or accountant, we have built a team that happens to be quite young. While I have known for some time that this works well for our global training and mindset shift objectives, it was on this recent trip that I realized how well it works for the local team members themselves. The culture in West Africa can be hierarchical, particularly with respect to gender and deference to elders, so an office environment that is young and diverse in gender and ethnicity can feel refreshing and unconstrained in a way that allows local team members to know that they can stretch their wings and excel without needing to tiptoe around someone in the office whose principal qualification is longevity.