Top Guy


I’ve always found it weird to be dealing with organisations that are highly hierarchical. When ideas or proposals are judged more on the status within the organisation of the person proposing them, than on their own merit, something’s got to be fundamentally wrong. I guess it’s near impossible to do away with hierarchy altogether, but in any knowledge-based organisation I think it would make sense to de-emphasise hierarchical differences.

There’s tons of research around these things, but Im going to go with a quote from Stanford Professor Robert Sutton  commenting on why Google probably is a worthy No1 on Fortune’s best place to work list:

Google does not unduly emphasize status differences among people at different levels or within in the same level.  If you watch how people interact there — receptionists and executives, young engineers and senior executives, and people from less prestigious versus more prestigious parts of the company — the more powerful people treat the less powerful people with an unusually large amount of respect, even deference, and the less powerful people don’t cower or kiss-up nearly as much as I see in most places.   Yes, Googlers are sometimes guilty of being arrogant when it comes to outsiders (although I see signs of modesty creeping in), but I have to give Larry and Serge credit for creating such norms mutual respect from the start and building an organization that appears to have sustained them.

Still, despite all advantages of taking it easy with hierarchy, finding organisations that operate in an opposite way of Google is not difficult. Starting in Sweden one doesn’t need to go very far south to find places where highly hierarchical organisations seems to be the norm – I’d put Germany and France in this camp, as well as the Ivory Coast.

The boss is abroad, sorry, we can’t do anything to help you

One thing I’ve encountered many times in West Africa in both the public and private sector – and found equally frustrating each time – is that you got an organisation where only the top guy can take initiatives and decisions.  Anybody else in the organisation isn’t authorised to take decisions on even the smallest details so things can get done. So you have to get in contact with the top guy who is often very busy and hard to reach, and sometimes expects you to wait for hours to get an audience.

Here is a story I found in the Ivorian newspaper “Le Democrate” yesterday about importing cars that appears to be a straight forward example of the top guy phenomenon:

Le 2GE (Groupement de gestion des entreprises) chargées de confectionner les plaques d’immatriculation et de tatouer les vitres des véhicules automobiles manque de tôles. C’est l’amer constat que les importateurs dénoncent au guichet unique, depuis hier. Pour les usagers cette déconvenue entraîne un blocage du système de fonctionnement du guichet unique. Pis, les importateurs et transitaires dénoncent l’absence d’interlocuteurs capable d’apporter les solutions à leurs problèmes. Et pour cause, le directeur général de cette structure, Niamoutié Kouao est absent de la Côte d’Ivoire depuis un mois. Toute chose qui fait dire aux importateurs que l’Etat gagnerait à mieux définir la convention de concession qui le lie au 2GE, et par ricochet toutes les structures sous la direction de Niamoutié Kouao. Nos tentatives pour avoir la version de la direction sont restées sans suite. Cependant, nos colonnes restent ouvertes pour mieux éclairer l’opinion sur autre affaire.

Quick and shortened translation with the help of Google translate:

[2GE, the firm that makes the license plates for Ivorian cars has run out of sheet metal. Since yesterday, importers note bitterly that the whole import process has grind to a halt.  Worse, importers and freight forwarders denounce the lack of partners capable of providing solutions to their problems. And for good reason, as the General Manager of 2GE, Niamoutié Kouao has been absent from the Ivory Coast for the last month. Our attempts to get the version of the management were not responded to.]

I wonder how deeply entrenched the top guy phenomenon is. Could it possibly start changing if you have succesful companies operating more like Google making a mark on the Ivorian market? How does for example MTN’s corporate culture look like?

Like a Slow River

Then of course to be successful business-wise in a different culture than your own, you got to adapt.  You could see the top guy phenomenon as a competitive advantage of foreign firms that are aware of it, relative to those that act as if things are the same as on their home market.

“The slow pace of doing business in a country like Nigeria is often a source of much frustration for South Africans. I will tell you one little thing about doing business in Nigeria: time is like a slow river. If you can grasp this mindset and learn to manage it, you will do well in Africa.”

–  Nissi Ekpott, Nigerian entrepreneur based in South Africa, from the altogether interesting article Business culture in SA different than in rest of continent, says entrepreneur in How We Made It in Africa

Guess this Ekpott guy is right, there are frustrations but you got to live with them – almost embrace them – and it’s worth it as the opportunities are far greater than the frustrations.

Along the same line:

“This is the place to be . . . with all its challenges. Let’s go and work hard. I know there are hurdles and [conditions in Africa] are not every day the way we would like it to be, but look through that [and] see the opportunities because they are ample.”

– Johan van Deventer, MD, Freshmark (South Africa)

7 thoughts on “Top Guy

  1. How entrenched is the top guy phenomenon in Cote d’Ivoire? I think you know the answer already! Cote d’Ivoire is modelled on the French system largely devised by Napoleon, after the Revolution. Centralisation, and decision making taken at the higher levels, rather than delegated to lower levels is the norm. Cote d’Ivoire Civil Service (l’Administration) is often far from “civil” and at times an be quite hostile. However, the Cote d’Ivoire government has promised to change all this. Cote d’Ivoire will soon have a “One Stop Shop” for businesses, intenrational or national, to legally create a business in Cote d’Ivoire in a maximum of 48 hours. This is very good news.

    It is my experience in Cote d’Ivoire that once someone has become the MD (DG) or Head of Service (chef de Cabinet), he/she makes sure that the immediate subordinates are not competent to make decisions, thus re-inforcing the “Top Guy” (and Top Girl, although they are rare in Cote d’Ivoire) phenomenon!!

    Fortunately, this is changing, and as more of the younger generation of managers leave Cote d’Ivoire to work in other more enlightened nations where it comes to management techiques and styles, and who subsequently return to Cote d’Ivoire, and put these newly acquired techniques into action, business life is going to get better.

    And it is up to us to show the way, (note I did not say “lead”). And I hope that the initiatives to be taken by the various International Chambers of Commerce & Industry will be useful. And on this note, I have the pleasure to tell you that a new bilateral Ivoiro-Britannique Chambre of Commerce & Industrie is about to open, with myself at the helm in the beginning. I already have funding, and governmental support, and a dozen or so companies who have signed up! For more information, send a request to:

    1. >Cote d’Ivoire will soon have a “One Stop > Shop” for businesses, international or national, to legally create a business in >Cote d’Ivoire in a maximum of 48 hours. This is very good news.

      Interesting. Sounds like the World Bank’s Doing Business report has an impact here, as the time to start a business is one of the criteria. Do you know where to find more information about this?

      >I have the pleasure to tell you that a new bilateral >Ivoiro-Britannique Chambre of Commerce & >Industrie is about to open, with myself at the helm in the beginning.

      Great stuff! Best of luck!

      1. Jan, you are right! Empowerment is not a word in the French dictionary … it implies threat to the hierarchy. I’ve always challenged my subordinates here with the question, when they’ve brought me a problem, by asking them: “If I wasn’t here, but I had told you beforehand to ask the question … what would Mr Craig do? And you have an answert, then do it!” It works!!

  2. For someone observing from afar – England – one of the most striking features of the African scene is the way respect for elders (we have that here too a bit) translates into the Top Guy syndrome. I was aware of it politically – old leaders like Mugabe not standing down etc – but it’s really interesting that it’s prevalent in business too.

    I completely agree with you that this must be changed from below as well as above. When people in business start to devolve and trust each other and their colleagues, then things will start to change. Speaking personally, the most exciting part of being an MD is the ability to develop and devolve to a great team.


  3. It’s definitely prevalent in the private sector as well. But as Craig says, things are changing especially with young Ivorians who have lived abroad coming back.

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