Michael Joseph might have stepped down as chief executive officer of the most profitable company in East Africa — but it is hard to tag him as an “ex-….”

For a company founded in 1997, the enormous success Safaricom has achieved both in Kenya and on the continent (where it is currently the 71st most profitable company) means Joseph’s 10 years at its reins could perhaps dominate Kenyan telecom for as long as another decade.

Aside being the leading mobile network operator in Kenya, Nairobi-headquartered Safaricom employs over 1500 people mainly stationed in the capital city and other big cities, such as MombasaKisumu, Nakuru and Eldoret where it manages retail outlets.

As at January 2010, its subscriber base was approximately 12 million.

In defense of criticism of his perceived aggressive disposition to driving the company’s ambitions, Joseph once said, “You must have read articles in the press insinuating that I am a driver and an aggressive person. But to tell you the truth, my character is very much suited to building things.”

Well, if anyone ever thought aggression was negative, perhaps Joseph’s has succeeded in proving the person wrong. Aggression, as he has proven, can only be judged by how it is channeled and what it is channeled into.

From an interview that must have lasted no more than five minutes, Josephs succeeded in showing that he was a CEO who led by example and responsibility. On two different issues, he admitted to have been at “fault” even when the interviewer had complete ignorance of who deserved blame.

“In 2001, there was a network congestion due to high demand. It was my fault …,” he first said.

Asked how the company would get on with his relinquishing of his office, considering that he was futuristic while in the Safaricom frame as it seemed nearly impossible to divest the company of his face, he said, “I understand that and I think it is my fault, because I chose I would be the spokesperson and face of the company. It becomes hard to change that. I know it will take some time even for the new CEO. But I am not leaving Safaricom immediately. I will still remain a member of the Board but I won’t be visible. Eventually, the company will rise above that and be Safaricom without Michael Joseph.”

Finally, after running the company for 10 years, he voluntarily opted to give way. It could even have happened earlier, but the search for his replacement gulped a massive two years.

“I have been running this company for 10 years,” he said, “It has reached a certain stage of maturity; it’s doing well and the direction is clearly set. I have been working for many years and I am beyond retirement. I just thought it is the right time to hand over to somebody else for the prosperity of the company,” he said. “Though I have been planning for this for long, the right time hadn’t come because I needed an appropriate successor in place. That is very important and it took a long time.”

And although he joined in advising his successor, Robert Collymore, on how best to run the company, Joseph restricted himself only to a fringe role in the process that culminated in Collymore’s emergence.

“We did the right thing,” he said. “The Board formed a committee to which I was only an adviser. This worked out well.”

So, it has been pretty easy discovering the rules by which Joseph ran a successful Safaricom. Any aspiring CEO would certainly do well to study the ten-year reign of Michael Joseph at the helm of Safaricom, which lasted from 2000 to 2010. And yes, sit-tight rulers of African countries should take a cue from Joseph!

Elsewhere on Ventures

Triangle arrow