A conversation with Sunny Bindra – Management Consultant, writer and teacher in Nairobi

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LM:

My Brother, congratulations on the release of your new book, The Bigger Deal, and I’m so happy to have this conversation with you.

SB:

It’s always a pleasure, Lincoln.

LM:

What motivated you to write this book, what is its central message? 

SB:

It’s an antidote to the smallness we let our lives descend into – the “small deals” that preoccupy us. Deals that are just about us, our personal gain, our own enhancement. The key point is this: bigger deals are there for the taking, for all of us, no matter how humble our station in life. All of us can use our work to create a life of meaning.

LM:

What are your personal values and beliefs and how have these shaped the Sunny Bindra we know today? 

SB:

I have always believed in high standards, in doing things well or not at all. That made me a strategy consultant in my earlier life; and later, a leadership educator and advisor. I also believe that a life with no outward result is a wasted life. We all have it in ourselves to leave a mark, to cause uplift, to be of use.

LM:

As an advisor to Leaders and organisations, what are the key emerging trends that will change the corporate, business and consumer landscapes? 

SB:

There are two very powerful, paradoxical forces. One is the remarkably disruptive effect of technology on business models and longstanding ways of working. The other is the need to work better with humans. If we are to make the most of the gifts technology is giving us – of allowing humans to do the work of humans, of removing so many frictions in the customer experience – we must have to finally start employing human BEINGS, not human resources. A large part of my new book is about that – how to run our organizations and nations as though humans actually matter.

LM:

Do you sense that the majority of leaders and organisations have the ability to embrace the change required to succeed in the new world? If not, what are the constraints? 

SB:

Mostly – no! The biggest constraint is being wedded to a past that’s already gone. Many of the things that brought success in the past are no longer available to us – but we haven’t figured that out yet. We can revolutionize the user experience in most industries, for example – but we can’t do that if we remain stuck in old-world thinking.

LM:

You have been critical of organisations that aim “to be digital” or to “go digital “, what is your essential concern with these approaches, labels or slogans ? 

SB:

Simply this: “digital” is no longer a thing – it’s THE thing. Digital technologies are now the centre of business – they are not something done by a few kids in the corner. A bank, for example, is nothing if it’s not digital now. It has to be geared up to deliver quick, effortless service that’s simply an invisible part of its customers’ lives. So, calling things “digital” is self-defeating. It’s no longer a new thing. It just…is.

LM:

What type of organizational culture, design and structure would make companies to adapt better to a changed world? 

SB:

Culture is actually the huge challenge. Businesses have to let go of bureaucratic, hierarchical structures and styles and actually learn to dance the new moves – by devolving decision-making and learning to be agile in the face of an ever-changing customer. We have to stop feeling entitled or smug; we have to stop killing new ideas; those attitudes will kill us in turn.

LM:

What impact does all this change have on how leaders should lead in these changed circumstances? 

SB:

I talk often about “The Disrupted Leader” these days. We require a breed of leader who is tech-savvy, centred on customer experience, free thinking – but one who also actually personifies the classical elements of leadership: feeling empathy, igniting inspiration, building collective spirit. The future of leadership is to become more human, even as we embrace more and more technology.

LM:

You have written extensively about customer experience, what advice can you give my readers, young and aspirant leaders about customer experience in the businesses they own or lead? 

SB:

That it is no longer optional to be fixated on customers – it is absolutely vital. Remember, it is not technology that disrupts you – it is your customers. Technology allows them to have ever smoother, ever quicker, ever more personalized experiences. If you are the one giving them those things, you’re just fine. If not, then…well. They will drop you with the flick of a finger across a screen if you are still slow, and have not invested in user interfaces and user experiences. A great business leader has to watch and understand the evolution of customer experience with laser-sharp attention. That’s the battleground.

Part 2 

LM:

You have argued before that Kenya, East Africa and Africa will be hit by a tidal wave of young people that will change us forever – what do you think is the impact of such demographic change for business, for governments, and for society as a whole? 

SB:

Half of our people are under-age. That fact itself is enormously disruptive. But combine it with the advent of affordable mobile computing, and you have the mother of all disruptions awaiting you. We will all – all – have customers and employees who are very young, who are socialized by and acculturated to technology, who are connected 24/7, who want everything quicker and cheaper. How are you going to deal with that? And for society and for governments, an even bigger challenge awaits: what are we going to do with all these young people? We won’t have the basic jobs – of working on farms or production lines, of carrying or cleaning things, of driving vehicles, of receiving or recording money – for them for much longer. So, what’s the plan? This is a ticking time bomb, and we don’t seem to be blessed by governments who can hear it ticking…

LM:

We see a surge of dynamic Fintechs changing the financial sector, can banks and Fintechs partner, if so how should such partnerships work? 

SB

The best way would be in partnership or collaboration with existing firms. Both need each other. Big banks have incumbency and data and relationships; FinTech’s have the snazzy tech and the agility and lack of baggage. Both should be working hand in hand. But…too many FinTech’s dream of unseating the old boys; too many old boys are still smug and complacent and dismissive. There would be great merit in win-win partnerships. Customers would certainly benefit the most!

LM:

What impact do you see the era of robotics, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, cloud computing and big data on the digital divide, income inequality, levels of employment and social cohesion across Africa? 

SB:

We have to be very, very careful. All those technologies are gifts – but they could also turn into nightmares. They have the capacity to take away all the “beasts of burden” jobs that humans have been forced to endure for millennia, but for that to be a gift we have to have something else for our people to do. Technology will throw up many new jobs – it always has – but we must have the skillsets in our people to do those jobs. Education will be the key – but we are very behind so far in giving the right skills to the mass of our people. There is a great danger of a digital divide – of a new class of billionaires who give all the work to robots and software, and leave a large number of people with no options for work. I try to encourage business leaders and policymakers to really, really think about this one and start planning for a future in which the old forms of education, training, employment and careers no longer exist. We don’t have long.

LM:

Prof Clay Christiansen challenges us to reflect on “How will you measure your life?” As you think about yours, how do you think of the legacy you want to leave behind?

SB:

That I tried to make people think differently, and reach into themselves to be better at at what they do and better for the world around them. I do a lot of things – I write, teach, speak, advise, beat drums etc – but the heart of it is always the same: go for bigger deals. Don’t play small. Don’t play just for yourself.

LM:

People look at successful perfect people’s lives as having been linear – the reality is more complex, characterized by lows and downs and failure and setbacks. Can you take us back to a low point in either your personal or professional life – what made your pull though that? 

SB:

Mine has been anything but linear! Pretty much nothing I planned for when I was 21 came to pass. I have ended at least two possible careers; I have been stone broke at least twice; I have lost people close to me. What I found in navigating all those things was this: an education, an employer, a career, a person, a belief is not the point of your life. Your essence is not even you – it is your GIFT to the world. Keep giving the gift, no matter what. I have written before: what matters is not whether you saw life coming (no one ever does), but whether you can deal with it when it knocks you down. 

LM:

There is never enough time for me and you to cover such important matters, I am sure we will do this again. Thank you so much for a thought provoking conversation, I’m sure we will do this again. 

SB:

And thank you Lincoln for all the “bigger deals” you have going! 

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