A story is told that in the first few days of reporting for duties at Capital Hill, Vice-President Saulos Chilima watched with surprise as his senior technocrats, including the principal secretary; waited in line at the main entrance to welcome him into the building.
After observing this for some days, Chilima asked them what they were doing at the entrance every morning instead of being in their offices.
“Well, sir,” one of them explained sheepishly, “it is tradition here that when the Vice- President comes to the office, the management team descends from their offices to welcome him.”
Chilima, so goes the story, could not hide his bemusement and said: “How long do you think you will be waiting for me at the entrance given that for the next five years, as long as I am in the Capital and in good health, I intend to be working from my office every day?”
In answer, the senior folks who run the Office of the Vice-President suddenly found something interesting to look at on the floor. They could not meet the Veep’s probing eyes.
But Chilima ploughed on. “I am surprised that people who are as educated as you are, maybe more educated than I am and with important jobs to do can be spending time standing at the entrance of this building waiting to escort me to my office—which by now I know where it is located—instead of heading to your offices. From now on, please this must stop. All of us have jobs to do.”
Apparently, this pep talk was a cultural shock to the technocrats given that in the past, vice-presidents were only “visiting” and “touring” their own offices at Capital Hill and, who knows, maybe even pocketing out-of-duty station allowances while at it.
Rarely did they work from there. In fact, I am told that Chilima is usually in his office by 7:30am and mostly knocks off beyond the 5pm official closing time.
When civil servants at the Veep’s office noticed that the boss was knocking off late, they, too , started leaving for home late. But, apparently, Chilima told them that they did not need to “work” late for his sake.
He told them that if they were convinced that they had finished their day’s work, there was no need to stick around just because the Vice-President was still in the building.
Three things come out clearly from this reconstructed conversation. First, Chilima grasps that organisational culture is created—and destroyed—by leaders in line with the vision of what they want their organisations to become.
Thus, Chilima is doing a great job of defining a new culture and aligning it to the new reality of the new civil service the Peter Mutharika administration says is introducing at Capital Hill and its satellite offices nationwide.
Second, it is also impressively evident that Chilima understands that organisational culture is socially constructed; that it is built and changed through conversations.
Note that in justifying their welcoming orgies, the technocrats were basically saying “this is how we do things around here”. In other words, this is our culture.
The Vice-President here used conversations to challenge Capital Hill’s deeply settled cultural norms and beliefs.
The third point, which is also notable, is that Chilima—based on the conversation—appears to understand how delicate it is to change culture; hence, he is also careful in how he changes the culture without destroying the intrinsic motivation of the civil servants.
I mean, telling these top talents that they are morons simply because they are perpetuating a retrogressive culture is not exactly motivational. Instead, on one hand Chilima impresses upon them that the deep-seated culture is wrong, but on the other hand, he shows that it does not necessarily mean that they are incompetent.
The point here is that organisational culture is crucial to the success of change management initiatives and that the criticality of leading by example without being obnoxious about it cannot be underestimated.
As we speak, the Peter Mutharika administration—under Chilima’s stewardship—is implementing government-wide changes to make the civil service more adaptable and agile enough to improve public service delivery.
To achieve the objectives of the public service reforms currently under construction, therefore, there is need to have a culture in government that is an enabler of the changes not a barrier.
And, as I said earlier, culture must be enforced by leaders for it to be accepted (buy-in) and sustained. This is why Chilima must be commended for being the model of the desired cultural shift.
It is instructive that some people claimed that Chilima would tire of going to work at his office every day; that he would soon be sucked in and consumed by a well-entrenched Capital Hill culture of business as usual attitude, but, so far, the Vice- President appears to have proved his detractors wrong with his sheer determination to bring a business approach to the management of the civil service.
However, while the top leadership drive that Chilima has demonstrated coherently and cohesively is an important aspect of cultural transformation, it is not enough on its own to bring the cultural shift in government that can deliver the modernised public service we all want.
Chilima’s path of being a catalyst to the organisational change and development is a good and important start, but it needs the support of a comprehensive and well- crafted culture change programme that, among other things, creates an amenable environment for the ongoing reforms and has new as well as effective mechanisms for transmitting the new values and beliefs that Chilima has started to project.
Only then can we really reform the civil service!