Catherine Muteti (not her real name) walked past me hurriedly last week at the entrance to the KICC Amphitheatre. I had not seen her in eleven years and I hesitated before I called out her name. She whipped her head up in surprise, snapping out of the work related thoughts that had her preoccupied as she walked briskly. “Carol Musyoka!” she responded eagerly and we embraced as long lost colleagues meeting after over a decade. Catherine was the receptionist at Citibank, where I worked many moons ago. She was part of the external resources that the bank was using from a large security company that provided a staff outsourcing service. She came to work daily wearing the security company’s starched, neat uniform and performed her task with a very professional politeness and dedication. To be honest, I had not had the chance to meet with her again once I left Citibank, where I had been a relationship manager handling public sector corporates.
“What are you doing now?” I asked eagerly. “I am a relationship manager for ABC Company,” she responded quickly, her chest puffed out slightly with pride. I knew the source of her pride. Moving from receptionist to relationship manager was no mean feat by any definition. I was at the KICC attending the annual general meeting for British American Tobacco Ltd (BAT), whose security services were provided by the company that Catherine worked for. Catherine was now the relationship manager, which meant that she was in charge of handling all the security products and services that her employer provided to BAT. This explained her presence at BAT’s annual general meeting where a strong security presence was being effected. She walked me through her personal career journey over the last ten years since I had last seen her. She had grown from a mere receptionist at a bank, watching relationship managers come and go and quietly aspiring to that role, to being a full fledged manager herself. “How did you do it?” I asked. “I just worked hard, Carol. And someone saw the potential in me internally,” she replied.
Catherine’s story reminded me of my hair stylist Tom (not his real name) at Salon X. And yes to you naysayers, I do have some hair on my used-to-be-bald crown these days. I have been going to Salon X for the last ten years and watched it change ownership hands several times during this period. The founder of Salon X back in the day was Selena a tall, beautiful Kenyan lady who had a proclivity for gambling and the good life in that order. Married to a Dutch fellow, the salon was, in my view, financed by Selena’s husband to keep her busy during the day. She, however, spent a lot of time at a casino in Westlands with a friend who had similar predisposition to burning money at the roulette tables. Together they spun through the revenues of the salon to such an extent that the business had to be put up for sale as it was facing bankruptcy. But I digress. Somewhere in between the gambling, Tom was hired as a sweeper and general cleaner at the salon. But he exhibited a curiosity about hair styling which Selena took notice of. When Revlon – the hair product giant – came by offering training to salon stylists, Selena immediately offered to sponsor Tom on the course. So Tom alternated between sweeper and general cleaner during the day and hair styling student during the evenings and weekends. He finished his course and was immediately promoted to the role of a hair stylist at Salon X.
Now you must recall that many of the clients at the salon had seen Tom sweeping up hair cuttings and general dirt off the floor, and when asked to allow him to do their hair would naturally give a resounding NO. But he slowly started to gain the confidence of the clientele with a little help from Selena’s charm and cajoling. I visited the salon one day and my usual barber was absent. The receptionist pointed to Tom and said that he could cut my hair. I remembered him as the sweeper, and of course I hesitated. I then figured what could possibly go wrong with getting a haircut when the usual instructions were “nyoa yote!” (Shave it all off!) That was seven years ago. Tom is now the official hair stylist for both my daughter and I as well as several other male and female clients. He became a very snazzy dresser, got married, got kids and is essentially living the Kenyan middle class dream. By the time the new owner took over Salon X, Tom was part of the hair styling crew and the new owner was none the wiser about his history.
What is the purpose of these two soliloquies? It is neither to titillate nor to entertain. Catherine and Tom were both the beneficiaries of the “someone-who-can-believe-in-me-syndrome.” The common factor between Catherine and Tom is that they are both fairly soft-spoken individuals, not aggressive in their approach, nor are they the individuals that will forever be burnt in your memory when you encounter them. They both can very easily be swallowed up and forgotten in the social chaos of an organization. But someone engaged them, got interested in what they were doing and discovered a hidden capacity to do more than they were currently doing at the first instance. There are Catherines and Toms everywhere we turn in our workspaces. They can be difficult to spot, especially when we are so consumed by the madness that controls our daily lives. They will very likely respond to any polite questions that we ask about them, but will be shy and hesitant to reveal their own keen interest in what we are doing ourselves and how they aspire to become just like one of us.
They need someone who can believe in them. The question is: is that person you?