I make my interns and mentees wash cars – here’s why.
(Featured image, courtesy Kwalimwar)
As a leader in my organisation – well, as a leader in general, I am passionate about mentorship and passing on what I know to others in generations that follow mine. I think it is tragic that so many people, older than me, retire or pass away, with information and experience that I would have found find useful, leaving me and others in my generation to struggle and discover life by groping around. How much time would we have saved if we had people to teach us.
What makes it more tragic is that there is a generation that has grown up and that is now coming into the job market that was failed by the people in my generation and older. They went to schools, where they were forced to cram rather than understand then they went to college, in which there is a rotten system afoot. I hang out recently with a volunteer (21 years old), who is a student at the University of Nairobi and she shocked me when she told me how she survives at the University – by doing school work for people who will pay her.
Let’s call her Belinda, for purposes of this conversation, shall we?
Belinda told me that if I were to enrol for a university degree, I could graduate without having stepped into a class more than a handful of times – so long as I have money. There is a rule that students must attend at least 70% of the classes in person. For just Kshs. 200 every time, Belinda would sign me in to the relevant class that I should be attending. For about Kshs. 800, she and her smart friends would do my assignment for me. When the Continuous Assessment Test (CAT) time comes, Kshs 2000 would have someone impersonate me and do my test. They would make sure they pass by hook or crook because they have integrity in their hustle.
“If you failed,” said Belinda, “word would get around that I fail clients and so I would not get people coming to me.”
Eventually, I would have to do the exams. Josephine (also not her real name), an intern who went to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University told me that there is a system for this too. Lecturers at her university tended to have other jobs and did not show up for classes every time. So what they would do is leak a copy of the exam to the students (in the most brazen way – in class!) and advise them to prepare accordingly. The students did not mind because, well, they didn’t have to do the work and they would still pass!
It doesn’t matter if you did well or not in the exam, I was told. “Money talks always,” both students told me laughing, “You just go and see the lecturer aside with a few tens of thousands per unit (market rate is about Kshs. 20,000 per unit) and you would still pass!”
These young ladies – both in their early 20s – found my incredulity at these stories amusing. It was as if to them, I am an alien who just landed in Kenya and who “doesn’t know how the world works.”
The result of this seemingly hopeless system is apparent to anyone who has employed these young men and women. I have seen graduates of the school of law who could not write passable paragraphs in English. I have seen sociology majors who had no clue about basic pieces of society – for example, they had no idea of the difference in roles between the executive and parliament. Many of the professionals that I have worked with struggle with basic communications – they struggle to understand issues directly related to their professions.
It has come to be that a standard part of my work is teaching and enabling people to discover their actual capacities and teach basics how to write well for business, how to behave, tools for negotiations etc. Interestingly, university graduates are the hardest to teach because they operate on a false belief that they know. A couple of the people that I have taught who never had the misfortune to attend a university today are in position to run some of my businesses very competently. In fact, one would not know by their behaviour that they are not graduates.
So I mentor as part of my work. And mentorship for me starts with every intern having to wash a car. Every time I say this, I am met with disbelief. But thats where my process starts. You see, it takes 4 hours to wash a car – no, not that swishing that you are accustomed to doing with your car wash guy. It takes 4 hours to wash a car properly.
You have to wipe down the inside of the car generally and remove any trash from it. Then you vacuum the car thoroughly to make sure than even speck of dust has been sucked out of the carpet (even in the crevices under the seat and dashboard). You then wash the exterior of the car, soap it down and rinse it. You then scrub the tires. This is where most people stop.
When you have wiped the car down and it is now gleaming, you need a smaller, softer fabric with which you go through all seams in the exterior, where there are grooves, where there are bolts holding parts of the body together, the rubber protector in the windows and so on. Any dirt should be identified and wiped. You then go back inside. Now you are armed with a toothpick and wet wipes. You will have to go through every seam and groove on the dashboard, on the doors, the air holes and so on. This takes time.
“Oh my God! were you serious?”
The standard response from the mentees is naturally one of surprise. They usually do not think I am serious. Because it is a take it or leave it rule of mine, they either do it or they cannot participate in the mentorship programme. The ones that do, have the most interesting feedback as they go. Wangari Kimani even called it the “Internship from hell” and Sharon was astounded. As an equal opportunity mentor, they have gone through the process the same as every male mentee has.
I have a simple goal: from this exercise, they learn to be reflective and conscientious. They learn to pay attention to detail – again and again until it becomes part of their lives. That way, when I start teaching them how to do other things around the office, I don’t have to deal with a superfluous work ethic – people who cut corners and don’t do the best they can.
We start teaching, then, people who are oriented to excellence with the most basic of chores.