CPA Joe Sang: The leader with a heart for people

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Before word about his comeback as acting MD at Kenya Pipeline Company had been confirmed, employees had mobbed Joe Sang as he walked the few flights of stairs at KenPipe Plaza for a meeting
with the board in January.

Emotional employees threw themselves at him literally, with bear hugs, high fives, took pictures (quickly shared on social media) and some even, shed tears.

It was the sort of reception reserved for rock stars and footballing stars.

The Joe Sang Act II was about to start…

Mr Sang opted not to renew his contract in October 2018. Two months later in December, he was arrested and arraigned in court over alleged corruption and abuse of office relating to the Kisumu Oil Jetty.

“It is good to be back to do the job that I love most… I request for your support to get KPC back where it was,” he said in a spellbinding speech to staff in late January.

In the last 10 months, he has demonstrated that the gains of 2016-2018 were not mere flukes.

Mr Sang’s key strengths are his people skills and a good grasp of his craft. Staff find him, accessible, reliable, empathetic and forthright.

“It also helps,” says a KPC employee “that Joe has clear goals and communicates them well“.

“Do the right thing,” his clarion call at a recent retreat for managers reverberates across the company.

He delegates but is quick to take charge should there be slackening.

He is also astute in stakeholder management among industry players. The sector has remained upbeat since he came back even as the country’s economic prospects have remained gloomy. At least 50 CEOs from the industry attended the recent launch of the KPC@50 celebrations in September.

“It all boils down to how a CEO treats employees and stakeholders. If you are fair and listen to them, you will gain their trust. Trust is needed to drive results,” said an industry insider.

“Mr Sang achieved remarkable turnaround in the company’s operations,”

said a memo announcing his confirmation as MD from Kenya Pipeline Company chair, Mrs Faith Boinett on behalf of the board.

“Flowrate (of petroleum products) from Mombasa to Nairobi of 1.3 million litres per hour from 950,000 litres per hour,” she added.

This is the sort of ringing endorsement any MD craves from the board much less one who resigned on his own volition and then got arrested and charged over alleged corruption and was later discharged for lack of evidence.

Mrs Boinett added that “Mr. Sang’s brief, but highly effective tenure” (2016-2018) saw profitability rise to hit a record Profit Before Tax of KES12.4 billion (KES8.6 billion after tax) in 2018 the highest profit in the 50-year history of KPC.

In the 2021/22 Financial Year, KPC posted a Profit Before Tax of 6.1 billion. In the just concluded 2022/23 Financial Year, it posted Sh7.5 billion a performance buoyed by a strong half of the year upon Mr Sang’s return.

He is currently reading former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s new book Leadership- Six Studies in World Strategy.

He points to two quotes which he believes reinforce his style of leadership at KPC.

“Leaders,” writes Mr Kissinger, “think and act and at the intersection of two axes, the first between the past and the future; the second between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead.”

“The vital attributes of a leader… are courage and character- courage to choose a direction among complex and difficult options… courage summons virtue in the moment of decision; character reinforces
fidelity to values over an extended period“.

Mr Sang’s on-off-on tenure at KPC is a lesson in perspective; without perspective, it is easy to get lost in the circumstances of the moment.

Mr Sang implores his employees to take what he terms “calculated risks”. The willingness of employees to take all the little risks that add up to good execution because they are imaginative and therefore, flexible.

No doubt, leaving his job at the prime of his career must have shattered his spirits and yet despite that, he has chosen the high road of forgiveness and reconciliation.

He chooses to speak less about the case that got him into trouble and the circumstances, opting instead to look at the sunnier side of life.

Ironically, Mr Sang was on hand to oversee the commissioning and commercial uptake of the KOJ upon his return in January. An estimated 40 million litres have been shipped into Uganda across Lake Victoria.

That (delivering results) gives him great satisfaction more than looking back to what has been.

What makes Mr Sang tick?
Mr Sang is the new breed of sociallyconscious- emollient and inclusivecorporate managers who believe in getting everyone on board and are willing to lean backwards to offer a supporting hand to a

It is this style that has ensured that he has the best always working for him. A manager after all, is as good as the team they are leading.

He eschews cultism (common in most thriving, blue-chip entities) and the culture of the know-it-all Big Boss. Instead, he prefers a consultative, more deliberative leadership style.

More emphasis is increasingly being placed on “social skills,” said The Economist in its management column Bartleby.

To thrive, bosses must possess the ability to “coordinate and communicate with multiple people.

Stephen Hansen, a professor and researcher at Imperial College London, the column notes, attributes this to “the rise of knowledge workers.”

“Chief Executives must mollify politicians, respond to activists and dampen social media firestorms. It helps if the boss comes across as a relatable member of society, not a volcano-dwelling villain,”
Bartleby concludes

Mr Sang is hard-boiled but not hard charging. For one, he doesn’t believe in barking orders to get the job done.

“All hands on the deck makes it easy to deliver results… how you get everyone to buy your vision is the harder task… I have been lucky to have convinced my charges of my vision,” Mr Sang says.

To do that, one must establish a connection with their staff.

His strong connection with staff could be due to the fact that he was promoted to MD from within KPC- where he previously served as CFO.

Joe appreciates that he can only succeed when he has the best in his team; the same strategy as that applied at video streaming company Netflix. In No Rules Rules, Reed Hastings and Erin Meyer
list “building talent density” as a critical success factor in any corporate.

Mr Kissinger puts it succinctly: “Leaders can be magnified – or diminished – by the qualities of those around them.”

Mr. Sang a Certified Public Accountant, an Economics and a Master of Business Administration (MBA) graduate from the University of Nairobi has worked in senior positions at KEMRI, UNGA Group and EABL.

Even as he settles down at KPC, he must conjure up a sustainable business model in the face of concerted efforts to decarbonise energy sources, and at a time when the country’s main focus is job creation through sustainable employment in manufacturing and value addition.

He is upbeat that KPC will weather the storm through diversification into LPG (KPC is building the biggest LPG storage facility in East and Central Africa) and the laying of a Single Mode Fibre optic cable that runs from Kipevu Oil Terminal to Kisumu form a core part of KPC’s Corporate Strategic Plan- Vision 2025.

KPC’s Morendat Institute of Oil and Gas and its ISO certified laboratories are some of the business lines Joe (as employees fondly refer to him) is growing to prepare the company for the future.

Joe is contemplative about the future. The present will be spent “inspiring employees to give their best as he strives to beat his own record profits.”

“It is not easy, but with the support of everyone including the board, staff, energy stakeholders including the Executive, it is not a long shot.”

“We have the people, the tools and the right spirit to realise those big, ambitious goals.” He said in a Letter from MD after the retreat.

“I commit to do my best as the Team Captain and look forward to celebrating more achievements at the end of FY 23/24,” he concluded.

Mr Sang plays golf in his spare time “because it helps him rejuvenate and reconnect with his true self.” It is also in the course where he hobnobs with industry stakeholders.

Besides that, he also takes time to cheer up the company’s high achieving volley ball team. He was on hand to cheer them in Tunis at the Women’s African Clubs Championships early this year.


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