By Emmanuel Dolo
As a young college graduate in the 1980s, I was employed at the Roberts International Airport, where I trained to become an Air Traffic Controller. I took a position as an Aeronautical Information Officer, basically doing flight planning. My supervisor at the time was Mr. Henry Valhum. He was exceptionally knowledgeable of his field and a strong disciplinarian. His immediate boss was the Director of the Air Traffic Control Department, Mr. Edward Wreh. Combined, these two men built a work culture in the department characterized by strong work ethic, stringent dress code, timely attendance, a willingness to learn, eagerness to be coached and an enthusiasm to acquire good communication skills.
Importantly, when Mr. Valhum took a disciplinary action, his decision was never usurped by Mr. Wreh or Mr. Collins, the Managing Director of the Airport. They balanced discipline with coaching, teaching and training. They also looked out for our well-being. As such, we enjoyed working at RIA. The skills and values that I learned from these consummate professionals set the stage for my career later on in life.
They compelled us to study vast array of technical materials. They tested us regularly and built a competitive culture and strong work ethic. We were reminded repeatedly that in aeronautical business, your mistakes were measured in lives and millions of dollars. Both men read our work and corrected our misunderstanding of the technical materials. They did not stop there; they also corrected grammatical errors. At the time, we accepted their coaching and even rigid discipline begrudgingly at first, but as time went on these values were normalized in our own professional lives. Waking up early to get to work on time as well as continuous preparation and self-development are now norms in my own life. These values now serve as the anchors of my professional development.
In the last year, my current role has placed me regularly in touch with lots of young people. Many have shown an unwillingness to be coached and supervised. The “know it all” attitude or overestimation of their knowledge and skills has become pervasive. They do not want to start from the bottom. A college degree is a license to assume high level roles even when their skills and experience are zero. Sadly, some have been placed in positions of significant trust before gaining the expertise and maturity to assume those roles. In the end, some become colossally arrogant. They stave off any attempt to receive professional guidance. Dejectedly, we live in an age where political patronage sometimes takes precedence over merit, and so these young men and women would seek refuge in the bosom of their patrons in search for protection. Or, they would resort to subversive tactics to undermine the integrity of professionals with whom they interact.
Missing in today’s society is the work culture that provides the right values, training, and skills so that our young people can deliver the very highest quality of service to the Liberian people. We need dedicated front-line public servants to further improve their abilities to enable them to train the next generation of Liberian professionals. The public sector will buckle under pressure if our supervisors are not enabled and empowered to lead. As a result of good supervision and coaching, my colleagues and I who worked for these two men went on to build successful professional careers of our own abroad and at home. One is currently serving as the Head of Research at an International Climatology Firm in the U.S.; another returned home and is serving as a Senior Executive with an International Seafaring firm. The other is now a Senior Air Traffic Controller at the O’Hare International Airport near Chicago.
I should underscore that the conclusions, which I draw in this article are not based on reams of statistics or finely crunched data, which is the tradition of academia, where my career is rooted. Rather, it is based on personal observations, which may even be biased. But I believe that we need some practical approaches to fixing our government so that it becomes effective and efficient. Essentially, to have a more nimble, more efficient, and more cohesive team of professionals working for government that would be able to focus on important challenges rather than the day-to-day minutiae that are dragging us down, we will need to spend our time on something more energizing: training and supporting our supervisors to discharge their duties more efficiently and effectively. Therefore, if we ignore the critical role that supervisors play as reference point for career development, we risk “workplace hypertension.” The symptoms may go unnoticed, but the effects on productivity can be deadly.
But let me first define workforce productivity. The definition of workforce productivity is in some cases subjective. Workforce productivity has two main components: technical and economic, because at its crux, we must be able to measure productivity. Productivity is commonly defined as a quantitative or mathematical relationship between quantity and quality of goods produced and the quantity of resources used to produce them. In a public sector sense, which is the locus of workforce activity in Liberia, it is difficult to define productivity utilizing the definition above.
The definition is more a fit for industry, maybe the retail sales sector. When it comes to the public sector, it is not easy to measure productivity using the same standards. But since good governance is about safeguarding public funds, labor only productivity measure is what applies to the public sector. Typically, this involves calculating the national wage bill: numbers employed, hours of work, sick leave, number of holidays, and other forms of down time.
A few steps backward into our political history tell the story of the pervasive effects on the quality of local talent and workforce productivity that the war had on the nation. The dictatorial systems of the past sustained economic and income inequality, embedded discriminatory practices into the labor market and labor use, discriminated severely in education and skills development, and thus polarized social relations. Democratization has not managed to overcome these hurdles nor transformed the workforce sufficiently. Although democratization has contributed to an incipient cadre of foreign investments, it has yet not resulted in huge waves of job creation and employment growth. Enhancements of the economy will require solving the workforce productivity problem.
We ought therefore to recognize that workforce development and productivity is the key differentiating factor for achieving the aspiration that Liberia will become a middle income country in 2030. Certainly, Liberia still needs to reduce the size of government, address corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement, invest in technology adoption to improve business processes, improve the quality of education, healthcare, build roads and bring electricity. We also need to concentrate on improving governance practices, organizational structures, procurement and purchasing regulations, and other big issues, but similarly, we should not ignore matters like improving customer service and supervisors’ skills.
All too often, we have had a single-minded focus on an amorphous term like capacity development, which fails in many respects to explain what is really wrong and how to find sustainable solutions to the low productivity problem. With this in mind, I have written this article and perhaps others to follow to examine how we can enhance productivity while simultaneously making the workplace attractive and increasing workers’ motivation. This is borne out of personal experience working both in the public and private sectors in Liberia.
Anyone who has received a service in Liberia will say it is merely transactional and lacks what some will call the “wow factor.” Perhaps, the weakest link in our workforce productivity woes is the shortage of skilled and empowered supervisors. Indeed, the most important and sustainable differences to overcoming our workforce productivity problem is boosting supervisors’ skills, influence, and power.
We have a labor intensive society. Managing staff roster patterns and/or good supervision would serve as checks to ensure that inputs and outputs are matched more effectively. Hence, the key ingredient in ensuring workforce productivity in this situation is supervision. Competent supervisors are critical to improving Liberia’s workforce productivity problem, although it is not the exclusive solution. If we provide supervisors efficient training and properly equip them with the right skills to hold their staff accountable, it will improve workforce productivity.
If we give our supervisors and managers training in how to do practical on the floor coaching with associated manager’s training to help them fully understand their role as the one responsible to facilitate workforce productivity, we will certainly make a dent in the problem. The literature of workforce productivity is replete with evidence that the biggest impact on the workforce is the supervisor. The supervisor manages the day-to-day operations of the workforce and removes obstacles, while assessing overall workforce productivity. We must therefore teach them efficient planning, communication, community engagement, and problem solving skills so as to enable the level of high performance we desire from our workforce. If we equip our supervisors with such tools, we must also empower them to discipline their staff without usurpation (power grab) from managers and ministers or other powerful people.
As we work to improve supervisor’s competence and use their feedback of the workforce to improve the workplace, performance will be optimized across the public sector. Sadly, our supervisors are not given sufficient training and regard. We have a status-oriented society where the power resides with the managers and ministers and not with those who oversee the day-to-day activities within the workplace. No person within the workplace is situated appropriately to give the workforce a shared purpose and direction than the supervisor.
How do we speed up how work is done or service is delivered? How do we boost overall performance of the workforce? How do we get public servants positively engaged with their jobs? How do we tie remuneration to performance? How do we create a reward system that motivates and engages staff? How do we simplify our management structures to make them agile? How do we create organizational models that are geared up for fast decision making? The answer somehow rests with the quality of supervision. Put another way, maybe effective supervision trumps everything.
The state spends considerable resources on wage bills. Indeed, it is clear by now that merely reducing the number of staff; “right sizing” has yet not increased workforce productivity. The better path might just be to enhance the abilities of our supervisors to create more value, efficiency, and productivity, meaning that – in the short-term, we will need to equip our supervisors to coach their staff and hold them accountable. In societies where policies, strategies, and tactics are not employed to improve workforce productivity and efficiency over a sustained period, the result is often a dormant and underdeveloped society characterized by poor quality of life. It is workforce productivity that underlies increased jobs and goods and services.
A productive workforce will result in higher incomes and be the backbone to creating a sustainable middle class. A productive workforce will begin a virtuous cycle of wealth creation and investments in infrastructure and social amenities like health, education, social welfare, and social development, leading to sustained peace and stability. If Liberia is to surmount its many social development woes and to attempt to become a notable participant in the competitive global economy, workforce productivity and efficiency will need to form a fundamental part of its reform strategy. Mere catchwords like becoming or aspiring to being a middle income society will not suffice. Aspirations must be matched by well-thought through strategies and activities.