Shamim K. Matovu on Building Work Culture

In the 42 days of lockdown, Robert Kabushenga (RK) is taking off time to run a daily mentorship program called #40DayMentor hosted on his Twitter spaces. In this episode he host Shamim K Matovu (SM) to talk on Building work culture.

RK: Let’s start with knowing who you are. Who is Shamim? People want to know this person talking too us today, why is he is this place?

SM: I was born in Mulago Hospital. All the schools I went to no longer exist.  New Bubajjo primary school in Kawempe. Then Mbogo High School. Then City View High School.

RK: What is it with you and schools vanishing?

SM: It’s got nothing to do with me. People just want to venture out into other businesses.

RK: You said you are interested in brands and culture, what could it be about your primary school that could have got you interested in these subjects?

SM: I was loved by teachers. I was involved in everything. I was one of those kids who sit at the front to answer everything.  I think many of them nurtured the person in me. My parents too were so involved in my schooling.

RK: When you joined Mbogo, what did you find there that shaped you? What were your experiences?

SM: It was tough actually because it was girls’ school. Coming from a family of boys, it was tough. I am the only girl at home.

RK: What made it hard to connect at the single girls’ school?

SM: That was the time when the notion of caning students means getting the best out of them. There was a lot of fear because it was a very good school but also known for caning students. I had that fear. It help me back on my experimentation. I was always scared about caning me.

It looked like acceptable behaviour for teachers to cane students. It held me back. I remember the first time I got my periods, I was in S1 during a Biology class led by a male teacher. Among all the students, I was the only one who had never got periods. I was crying and when I said why, the entire class laughed at me. The sense of humiliation and all, I just hated it.

RK: In terms of behaviour and culture, are these the things that shaped your thinking?

SM: At that moment, I did not know really. Now that I look back, the way I work or relate with people is in relation with me remembering the experiences I had in my life.

RK: Where did you go after Mbogo?

SM: I joined City View High School.

RK: Where is that?

SM: It is on Gayaza Road. It was a mixed school and I was very happy.

RK: How were you finding your academics?

SM: I have always been a bookworm ever since I started school.

RK: How did you become a bookworm?

SM: When I was growing up, I was surrounded with boys. My brothers were always watching football on the TV. I hardly had a chance of watching TV. My dad used to come home with newspapers so I would get them and read. I started reading everything I lay my hands on.

RK: When you get to City View, what were you studying?

SM: Literature, History, Economics and Divinity.

RK: In terms of the difference in culture between Mbogo and City View, what stood out for you?

SM: I found a way to relate with my teachers. That helped so much to focus on myself. City View did not have a lot of drama. You had an option. I could click much more with the boys than the girls.

RK: Where did you go thereafter?

SM: I went to Makerere University.

RK: What did you do there?

SM: Anthropology.

RK: What is that?

SM: When I joined I also didn’t know. The university just gave me the course. But I met this amazing gentleman Dr Kamara.

RK: At what point did you decide that anthropology was the thing for you?

SM: First of all, I was not aware what this was all about. I wanted to be in the media space. It was the professor who spoke to me and I stayed. He told me anthropologists can work anywhere. That was liberating. I went with it.

RK: How was Makerere and how did you leave?

SM: It was amazing. I do not remember having so much fun. I was very focused on studies. All I wanted was to be like Condoleezza Rice. Every day I woke, that was my aspiration.

RK: What did you do next?

SM: I was retained in the department of anthropology for a couple of months then I moved into banking in DFCU bank.

RK: What were you doing at DFCU?

SM: I was in sales. I did customer service. And then left for the UK

RK: To do what there?

SM: To get married. But I also had to do my masters.

RK: Where was that?

SM: I had love for media before. I thought I would do anthropology in media. I had applied to the London School of Economic to do anthropology and development. I was convinced by the head of department to take up anthropology.  I had asked for International relations. I do not regret taking on that program.

RK: And happened after that?

SM: I was already working. I was not looking for a job. All my work life had been in a cooperate environment and I never thought of being an entrepreneur. LSE challenged my thinking. We used to have lunchtime conversations where they invited different people to speak to us. He was a business anthropologist. I was swept away. That is what I wanted to do. That is where the media anthropology dies and the business anthropology aspect is born.

RK: So did you set up a business?

SM: I continued with the work I was doing. I had a full time job.

RK: When did you move to Pennsylvania?

SM: That was before lockdown. I had started on my PhD.

RK: When did you start Discover as a business?

SM: That was during the lockdown. I looked at this opportunity we had to stay at home and do all these amazing things. When covid hit, a lot of my friends lost jobs. People were struggling. It occurred to me that this could happen to me as well. Rather than focus on being employed, I thought these were my skill and I needed to have something out.

RK: How did you convert that into a business and what does it do?

SM: When I thought about it, I started discover specifically for cultural design. I thought all these challenges are as a result of the cultures that we are not cautious about that we are building in our workplaces.

RK: How do you help people build cultures in their workplaces?

SM: I was paying attention to work processes that are too long and frustrating. Group behaviours in organisations that have branches for example. Every branch can be a sub group that will represent a particular kind of culture. And so when we do observe that.

Paying attention to all these changes is a moment of experimentation.

RK: What frustrations were your friends facing n concrete terms? Why are people unhappy in these workplaces?

SM: In my work place, I got tolead on change within the organisation, I got into a place hwere I was working with oonly white people and I was the only black. The youngest in my team and I was telling people we were changing the way we worked. It was hard, Robert. There are moments I went home and cried and returned the following day.

RK: Why were you crying?

SM: Telling people that you are changing the way they have been working is tough.

RK: Were people resistant? What made it tough?

SM: People are always resistant to change. We all want to stay in our comfort zone. But also change does not guarantee the destination. You do not know what is going to happen. It is an experimentation.

Initially, there was not a cautious culture of designing the culture of the organisation. Everyone did thing the way they wanted to do them. No one questioned why.  I came from a private sector where a customer is king. Then you get into the public sector where people do not care whether or not.

RK: So this change you were trying to implement was running against established ways of doing things.

SM: Also the bigger aspect that was changing was the target operating model of the business it was initially. It was as public service moving into privatising their business.

RK: How does a workplace design a culture for both its managers and people? How does a workplace deliberately do this?

SM: To start with, the leaders should have a will to do that. Because organisations are led. They should have a will to do that. I will bring in the value of anthropology. We study people through culture. The aspect of you designing your culture means you care about what you want to experience or the values that you want for your work place. So, we cannot design culture based on a subsection. For example when a business leader wants a cultural change program, they will suggest it for the marketing tem and two weeks everyone is back to normal. What we do a holistic approach. We look at your organisation as a whole. We identify the differences and connect the various variables. 

As someone within the organisation, you may not see the things that toxic to your culture because they become a norm for you.

RK: Would an anthropologist help to see that?

SM: Yes. We come in as explorer. We do not take anything for granted. We ask why people behave the way they do. Our engagement is based on the unknown.

RK: What about the people who do human resource? I see you are throwing in Anthropologists

SM: I will not comment on that. What I will say is that how we engage with organisations is different in the sense of our methodology. We listen to stories of what people are saying about your organisation. It is what you would call small talk.

Interestingly, small talk has the biggest juice. It helps you to understand the dynamics in the business and the way people operate.

RK: When you discover the different cultures and conflicts driven by behaviour, what would advise a team leader to do?

SM: I have been running a series on social media about the mistakes that managers do. First of all, to think that you are at hoe mothering your kinds, that’s one of the biggest mistakes. One time my friend was late at work and their manager asked them, “What time do you think this is?” Her response, “What time do you want it to be?”

When you are a manager, sometimes it is just a hierarchy and you are learning on the job. You need help.

RK: These mistakes impact on the workers, I need to ask; if you are advising new employees, someone young who is just entering the workplace on how to go about the shock they may find in the workplace?

SM: I would say to them you need to be open to learning. Observe what conversations to be part of and which ones not be. Be humble. Be teachable and coachable.

RK: Where do you draw the line between being humble and being submissive?

SM: Have your core values. Know who you are.

RK: What does it mean to be humble in a cultural context?

SM: Being humble allows you to know when to say and when not to say because culture is also language.  The difference between being humble and being submissive is for you to understand the language used in your space and also understand how to deal with different people.

Comrade Otoa: Considering the new culture and workplace, how are you thinking about culture in a workplace considering all that is happening?

SM: If you do not pay attention, you are going to lose because whereas before we had everyone in a physical space. Now if your culture is not well established you will have people turning up for meetings without their cameras turned on for example. Something as small as that. Organisations need to pay attention. When people are working from home, they have autonomy to do whatever they please. When you build your culture cautiously, you are communicating your values and purposes for what you want.  We also look at the emotional aspect of your culture which is the biggest issue for your business. When you design your culture cautiously as a team you ensure it is part of the business.

RK: Organisations as we knew them were people congregated in ne space have been severely disrupted and we may not go back to that kind of workplace. What kind of culture is emerging?

SM: Life will never be the same. Different organisations have different cultures.  So your culture will be driven by what is important for your organisation.

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