The Painters of The Congo River – Part I

Mbang [m-buh n-g] died in the early 2000s.

He used to visit us at our family house in Garoua, a little desertic and colorful town of North Cameroon (Africa) where I grew up. I remember his dark skin, snowy hair. His skinny appearance -as if the Sahel winds would blow his short body away first before his straw hat. He had a bright, charming smile.

Garoua – Cameroon

My mom and him used to talk for hours about art. I remember the laughing and the jokes they shared in Lingala. After each visit, a new painting would pop on our walls. Mbang’s paintings were vivid, full of vibrant colors.

Unfortunately, he fell ill and the visits and masterpieces became rare.

Mbang died of complications from AIDS.

Poto-Poto is an old neighborhood in Brazzaville (Congo). This is where a French Mathematician and amateur painter Pierre Lods established his school in 1951: The Poto Poto school of arts.

The school encourages originality and African art and has become one of the most important artistic center in Central Africa region. Artists and nature lovers love to frequent the School because of the quality of work done there.

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Mathematics is not my cup of tea, but if it wasn’t for it I’d have never met Mbang and his amazing work.

Last week, I was working at my favorite bar’s patio surrounded by these astonishing paintings. All of sudden they reminded me of my childhood and my dear Mbang. Emotions took over me, I was paralyzed like a deer stuck in headlights.

I wrote Francis’ number down and called him the next day, inviting him for a beer. Once I met him I had one question:

“Tell me your story?”

He smiled

“It’s a long story.” He said.

“I have all the time in the world for long stories.”

“I’m from Congo Brazzaville. When I was younger, in the 60s, I was a huge comics reader.”

“ ZemblaIl Grande Blek, Akim, Rahan… I literally devoured all the comics I could.”

“Blek fought against the British because they wanted to colonize…”,

[I started laughing]

“I hope you are not British” ?!?!

“No, no, no!”

“Good…because British wanted to colonize the Americas and Blek obviously didn’t like it.”

“This is how I started to draw. I know your generation is scared of the dirt but, back in the days, we used to draw on the ground with our hands and sticks .”

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“At school, I was always sitting on the last bench so that the teacher couldn’t spot me doodling. There, I met two guys who were reproducing cinema billboards in their free time -way better than me- and one guy who hated their guts. He was also the son of a rich man.”

“Do you want to be as good as them?” He asked me. “I know you can do better, I could buy you watercolors to get you started.”

“According to me, they were really good. So on Thursdays, I went to their place to watch them paint. The next day at school, I didn’t tell it to my slanderous friend. I’m not crazy, I wanted to keep my watercolor box.”

“In high school, I was in a band. I played guitar. A local artist noticed us and offered to paint our cover. I told him that I was also an artist and I could do it by myself”

“No you can’t, come to my studio, you’ll see.” He said.

“Once there, I realized that he was right…his work was incredible. I was baffled, traumatized.”

“What you doing is childish painting, I will teach you the craft!” He added, pouring more salt on the wound.

“But I already know how to draw!”

“No, you don’t! I’ll be your teacher and you will pay me.”

“Okay then, but first I will ask my father for money”

“Francis… are you out of your mind” Daddy yelled.?!

“Painting is for white people. Africans don’t buy art. What I want you to do is to study and go to school, get your degrees.”

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“What my father didn’t know is that I visually memorized everything this artist showed me: his moves and style. How to build and stretch a canvas etc.”

“From 10th to 12th grade I was buying my school books with drawing money. I drew trains, people and villages exactly like I saw them the first time in that studio.”

“Amazing,” I replied

“Did you saw ‘the artist’ after that?”

“Hell yeah!” Francis added.

With a smirk on his face, he took a sip of his cold beer

“We became enemies…”

To be continued.

We learn a lot from strangers. I’m Lionel Thomas, creative director, artist painter, illustrator, musician, and blogger. Tell me your story!

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What It takes To Shoot Street Photography?

A composition is the soul of great photography. It’s the same rule for paintings.

I have to confess: drawing daily is exhausting and sometimes my eyes just need a simple walk outside. Out of my comfort zone.
I’m a shy photographer. For God’s sake, I’m not a photographer at all! I’d rather shoot landscape or butterflies playing in the grass. This is why street photography is always a tedious exercise.

This is my problem: In the streets, as hard as you try, you never go unnoticed.

But isn’t fear just an illusion? When you find your real purpose. That puts you there at this very moment. You let go of your barriers and are only driven by the love of imagery and the story you want to tell. Ask yourself: why I definitely know that I will love that photo?

I like this shot. Because it’s just Africa. The market and its strong, vibrant colors; the noisy, warm, busy streets.

For the record, I had to wait until the salad vendor walked down the street, she involuntarily balanced the shot by filling one of the six frames formed by the bare shop’s posts. Giving me a blank stare in the process.

I felt guilty.

What’d happen if she looked the other way? Like the guy in the red cap. I’d have felt better but the pic would be different.

At the end, it’s a cool composition, a photo that I’d like to paint one day because I’m sure of one thing: hot, vibrant colors are killing me every time, and I know that Africa is so colorful.

How To Specialize When The Demand Is Everywhere?

I was having this great discussion with an african friend of mine, and it was based around this book from Alan Dib called ‘The 1-Page Marketing Plan’. I started with a simple question and it went like this:

Me: ‘You know what? I don’t understand, since I started this agency 3 years ago, I’ve touched every field: health, construction, education, food, coaching, even wedding! I could barely reject these projects by saying ‘hey i’m a specialist in that _____ field’…what if I wanted more specialisation in my business?’

Friend: ‘I think that, when you are in the communication business, you shouldn’t specialise! Especially when the market is very open like this: in Cameroon (and that’s the case for most african countries), the government IS the biggest client, and there are very few private businesses. The government which got every needs you can imagine. They just need to free up some cash in their budget for the corruption part. That’s it. Oh, the government is also the slowest buyer/payer. Why should they specialise?’

‘Let’s put it this way, if you have a heart disease will you go see a doctor or heart surgeon?’

‘You go check the doctor first, who’ll lead you to the surgeon…but if there are no doctors you’ll never know about your heart condition.’

‘You got a point, but you know the first signs of a heart problem, so no need for doctors basically when you got the specialist’s number.’

‘In most cases, you die before you get to see the specialist…generalists don’t exist, you should be one of them.’

I think this is the problem we have in African emerging countries, you’ll meet business owners who are running multiple businesses in one, who want/need multiple solutions to solve their problems. The consumers are not really at the heart of their strategy, money is…by any means. How not to be a jack of all trades to survive in such an unstable business environment?

Image copyrights Winston Scully

How I Started A Graphic Design Business In Cameroon

LionelThis is a guest post I wrote a few months ago, I’m the Owner & Designer at KILIFORI a communication agency in Cameroon. I think it really increases our learning curve and everyone involved can take something positive away from it. What we need in order to build successful Africa Businesses are inspiration, guidance, and instructions! It’s starting with a short interview that was conducted by Dr. Harnet Bokrezion for Africa Business JumpStart followed by my blog post. 

Lionel, thanks for submitting a guest post, please tell us when did you arrive in Cameroon?

I left France and arrived in Cameroon in June 2012. This was actually my second attempt to come back to Cameroon. The first was in 2009, but I think I wasn’t ready yet at the time and it was a challenge to leave my comfortable life in Europe behind. I even had the opportunity to live in the US where I was back in 1999. But something was always calling me back to Cameroon. I have been here almost two years now.

Why did you decide to leave Europe and start a business in Africa?

I like to say that I love competition, but if there is no competition like in Cameroon it is an incredible opportunity and I simply wanted to use that. My business is in the area of ‘graphic design’ this is something that is fairly new to the continent at large. You don’t need to convince a Westerner about the values design will bring to his or her business. But in Africa it is a completely different case. How do you convince an African business that struggles with  internet access, electricity cuts, and management issues to focus on design and branding? That’s the challenge. Yet I wanted to bring design into those areas and businesses, because they need it the most.

How was the process of setting up your business in Cameroon once you arrived there?

In Cameroon registration takes some time – about a month and half. The government does not really assist your business at any stage and neither do the banks. Huge companies are the only ones that get some attention, but not the SMEs. We are all start up owners really, most of the people I know anyway.

What are your lessons or tips for those who want to start a business in Cameroon or other African countries?

It is good to get some contacts and maybe even customers before you register, that will keep you going in the beginning. Opportunities are vast but everything in this country takes time.  People are not ready for what you have to offer so you need to stop selling to them and start teaching instead. The real key to success is perseverance. I’d be glad to be in touch with Diaspora or foreign business owners who would want to settle down here – they can contact me.

 

How I Started A Graphic Design Business in Cameroon

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There are so many good vibes I know about Africa. Its warmth, its generosity, its landscape, its people, and its art. African’s art is so vibrant and beautiful. But the reality is that much of this huge talent and potential often goes down the drain and that saddens me.

I’ll always remember the day when I visited my uncle’s house. We were sitting in the living room, watching some local advertisement on TV – it was a cosmetics ad, the visuals were ugly and badly executed, like they were made in the 70’s – and then my uncle mused. “I really admire Africans who are building things. I mean…real things,” he said. “There’s a great deal of creativity involved in manufacturing. I don’t know about your work, son, but there’s one thing that I’m sure of: It’s not the same. You do all that design stuff for businesses, but marketing is not creativity… and there are so many people who kind of do the same thing. I talk to them every day!”

His words left me aghast, it wasn’t the first time –and certainly may not be the last– that I’ve heard something similar since I landed in Cameroon, two years ago. But why am I still having a hard time to deal with it?

Fortunately, -I guess- I can explain it!  Let’s go back to where we were:  what did they tell you about Africa?  It’s a rich and beautiful continent, right? Great tourist destination! Most people will tell you great stories about South Africa, Morocco, Ghana, or Kenya. But you’ll never hear much about other African countries. Here’s a fact: tourism is a major development factor.  It can change mentalities, drive business, make the market in those countries more competitive and hence they will craft better products as a result. Those are the lucky ones, but what about the other countries? They clearly don’t have this kind of exposure.

Slowly but surely, their business owners became only driven by profits. Bear with me, that’s the most dangerous part: anything is good to make money and even mediocre products can make your business tons of money. “Creativity? Innovation? Competitiveness? Customer care? What for? We want profits, we need to survive! We’ll pump more and more products out there, make some import/export and staple food businesses” They say. “That will be great.”

I am not thinking that this is the “African way of thinking”, this is an issue all over the world, but the feeling runs deeper where poverty, lack of education, diseases, lack of energy and technology are involved.

Will the profits last forever? It’s easy to forget that good first impressions cement the path to good communication. Every step and every contact a company makes is a precious occasion to win new customers. I am just stating the obvious there but, unfortunately, things are not going this way. Because we live in a greedy society.

My business strategy for Africa: Teaching not Selling

So I start the way forward with my business in Cameroon by teaching. I am in it for the long-run, and this is what I ask my potential customers:

What is a company’s greatest asset to:

  • Gain exaaa2posure
  • Bring professional credibility
  • Tell a great story
  • Define a clear vision
  • Differentiate itself from the competition
  • Drive great marketing and management results
  • Make people believe
  • Make a long lasting impact

Take a wild guess?

It’s its logo !

Let me tell you what most businesses do. They ask interns to do it, or they buy cheap services. Why they do it? Because it simply does not as important as the business plan or the financial strategy in their schedule. So many in Africa get trapped into clichés.

Clichés are easy symbols we associate with things, people, cultures or countries. In Africa, eight or nine businesses out of ten will get an African continent as a logo. Make it worse, they use a country flag; and even worse than that, the planet earth.

[note by Africa Business JumpStart admin: Logo with African continent? Ok, we are found guilty of that]

So how can you increase your image and professionalism in front of investors or bankers when your competition already pitched to them with the same kind of identity?


Let me bring you a real case study: AGS

1/ The Brief

I will drive you through the logo design journey of the company Africa Global Strategy (AGS). AGS is a resin maker and supplier for the building industry. Their offices are in Cameroon and they are really great at what they do. In some parts of Africa, the humidity is so strong that the house walls start cracking and the paint forms crusts that can be removed with your thumb. ABS has a solution for that: its original resin solution can keep building foundations sealed to any form of moisture.

Problem: AGS did not have a logo.

2/ Ideas & Brainstorming

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Resin is about chemistry, molecules, a perfect balance, symmetry, a harmonious blend of small elements. These are examples, just keywords.
I write everything that cross my mind on a board. Mind mapping ideas helps me to be more focused and specific about the actual issues raised during the client’s brief.

3/ The Pen is Mightier…

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I always start my projects on a paper, it gives you freedom. You can erase, get a feeling of what is right or wrong, and make quicker decisions.
And it allows you to explore multiple ideas faster. Sketching injects a human touch to a concept.

4/ The Software

Once the sketching phase is finished, we can –finally- open our favorite software. Import our sketch and start having real fun. I use Adobe Illustrator. I find it to be very efficient. Corel Draw, can also do the job. The key is to master the tool, and stay in the vector world. Again, these are just tools. The software does not guarantee a successful logo.

“Molecules have perfect blueprints, shapes, balance and foundations”

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“Building a house is also about chemistry and foundations”

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“Then come the choice of typography.  It can take hours, days to find the perfect one…”

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“Until everything is fully assembled.”

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5/ The Rendering & Presentation

Crafting a logo is one thing. Leaving the clients all alone from this point on is a really a big mistake. I think this is particularly the case in Africa where professional logos and branding are just taking off. So I really take care of delivering a presentation to my clients that tells their identity story, and the multiple directions they can take to give a better dimension to their products or services.
The best logos are those that leave room for some imagination. Clients can use them in multiple ways: animation, t-shirt design, print materials, anything goes.

“Great logos should stand the test of time….and colors”

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“Give the client some vision”

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Final Thoughts

I think that design is at the intersection of art and technology, and both are forms of communication. As human beings we need to express ourselves, point at what is wrong and make a change; make our lives better. Designers and artists feel that sense of urgency. Through the different and unique ways they look at the world, they are problem solvers.
Telling ourselves that creativity is only living in palpable things, -and only concrete products can make money- is denying the right to every company in Africa to be different without having to pitch their products or services at meetings each time.

My uncle is 60, he is old school. But hey, prospects say “No” too!  He could still be your next big customer.

How will you make him buy your products or services?

If it is  all about the price then you will become a commodity; he will buy from you once but don’t expect him to come back again.

What if he needed more?

Your logo gives away more than you think. It defines who you are, why you started your business, your vision all those things that make you different.

African customers are very brand aware, and this is why your company needs a logo. They would say: ‘We want to belong to a brand and be proud of it. We want to tell people around us that you are the best.  “Yeah, yeah that logo with the blue bird flying, that’s them!” We’ll say. We will always bad mouth products or services we don’t know, and run to your competition with the brand. Because we don’t know you, but we know them.’

Are we in the end not all a little like that?

So how will you make us love your African brand?

Thanks

I want to thank Ms Harnet Bokrezion for being such a beautiful soul, having beautiful projects for Africa, and giving me the opportunity to speak on her blog. I think that change will come one pixel at a time. And we are very lucky to witness it. I really love what I do –helping businesses get the most out of themselves through great design-, and I really love this continent. Maybe that’s what keeps me going. It can get really tough at times and you may face many disappointments along the way. Don’t worry, keep trying! Because as they say once you can drive in Africa, you can drive anywhere.

Lionel Thomas- Owner & Designer at KILIFORI

Technology & The Terrible Learning Curve

Image source:  www.androidpit.com
Image source: http://www.androidpit.com

I’m in the market for a new phone. I know… I swore I’d never buy an iPhone 6 plus… but today I want to talk about an industry that floods us with apps. Android has invaded Africa like crazy because it’s open, user friendly, easy to customize, and it’s an OS that runs on most dual-sim phones. What about iOS? Too complicated, it’s made for rich people, you can’t share your songs with your friends and you can’t use it as an usb key, without bumping into iTunes. I get this feedback a lot. On the other side, let’s check the numbers.

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Android is an 800 pound gorilla, boasting about 78% of market share, with Google as a major sponsor.
I opened Youtube the other day and there was this ad showing a girl laughing, the wind blowing in her hair and outfit; her friend – shooting the video- asked “Ok Google what’s the wind speed in San Francisco right now?” the response was immediate. It made me smile but also saddened me: how many people know that they can throw any kind of questions at their smartphone in a snap? When I show the weather app results around me all I get is ‘Oh! this is for ‘white people’!’.

The other day, I entered the telecommunication shop, and I wanted to subscribe to a new internet deal. They had me signing a contract but the printer ran out of paper, my iPad was running -lucky me-. I scanned the contract, sent it to an app called SignEasy, wrote my signature down, inserted it to the document and sent it back to the clerk via e-mail. Amazing. Unfortunately, I know they will not start integrating it to their workflow. It’s a shame that the only format we trust in business is the almighty paper. Another story, my uncle wants to check his heart rate, but the machine he uses regularly don’t work, it’s round midnight…no batteries. Does he know that there’s an app waiting on the Google Play store to be downloaded? He could just place his finger on his smartphone’s camera sensor and get a pretty accurate result.

I think people who are well versed in tech, have the responsibility to share their knowledge with others.Teach them. Share the apps they love and spread the word around. There’s a new generation of people who just want to take selfies, text, chat, and surf the internet. That’s dangerous. Africa’s the latest to jump in the tech bandwagon, without even knowing how it’s actually working, and the ticket is so expensive. Raising awareness in schools, seminars, talk and tv shows could be a solution. Tech has changed our lives and the way we learn. It must be accessible to everyone. As there’s no change without resistance, people should start asking “Ok, this is a great device, but what it can do for me?” instead of “This device is so beautiful, is there a gold version I could buy to just show off?”.

How creative are you when it’s about using your smartphone? Which apps you use the most? Let us know in the comment section below

 

10 Simple Ways To Be(come) A Great Boss

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Gladys didn’t get paid today. Five months anniversary of ‘non-payment’. She’s really having a hard time because she: can’t afford to pay her kid’s school tuition, avoids her landlord. She knows that she’ll have no lights soon. She’s late for work -again- because she had to deal with the school’s principal first.

I’m not saying that it has always been like this: the job interview was great. Smiles everywhere, new premises, warm and cheerful executives; the pay was good with possible increases. Today, her taxis expenses are unbearable. Coming to work has become a punishment. The projects are dull and monotonous, meetings and briefings keep coming but they are not relevant. There’s no magic anymore. She will sell her belongings to make ends meet. Asking for help to her colleagues? They got exactly the same issues…

‘Do they know how I live? Them, in their big cars and shiny suits? ‘ she asked herself. Yesterday ‘they’ asked her to manage the new equipment delivery, back to her desk she did a Google search and realized that only one of these items cost four times her salary, it brought her down in tears. Gladys is a graphic designer.

Do bosses know how bad they’re hurting their workers when they act like this? Why they keep doing it? How to keep your workers’ loyalty when the competition comes knocking with better salaries? Do they have great bosses? Not necessarily. How to become a great boss then?

Be accountable
We are looking for leaders to unite us around a vision, that’s you. When problems occur we want you to take the lead. If you don’t take the entire responsibility of your employees’ failures or difficulties, you will fail miserably to instill admiration and respect in your troops. You will be only good at giving orders. Problem is that the orders never walk. Do what you say and say what you do, nothing is worse than a chatterbox.
Swim with your team
The work is done, you came down there and validated the client’s project, and you went back in your office. Absent boss. You have no idea how your team will hate you for that, for not having saved everybody’s time when you could just pull a chair up and sit next to each of your team members. Get in the ‘arena’, build constant feedback. Give room for suggestions, push for improvements and if they don’t fly, take a pen and go to the whiteboard or go back to your office’s desk and come out with a rocking PowerPoint presentation.
Honesty is stronger than pride
So many meetings are beginning with new goals conversations, or those the team missed and had to catch up. The first thing to make sure of, in a room, is to ask ” Who, here, has a problem ? “. When troubles arise, it is important to speak frankly. If the financial situation is dire, tell them you will restrain the budget; tell them they will not get paid this month; SAY IT! After that, you will work on solutions as a team. Pride, taboos, hierarchy: they have no place in a team brief. The goal is to urge every players to speak their mind. Issues must be squared and resolved before even getting new clients.
Do not take hostages
It is better to reward someone in full or not at all than in thirds. I’ve often seen managers pay their team third the salary by mentioning problems of treasuries or unpaid bills. Do you really think they will thank you for that? Don’t you think they have electric bills to pay too? May be you thought that they would not be in for the money. Everybody’s in for the money when it’s not invested properly. These investments are what make people stick together.
Invest in your team
This is the truth: you have recruited people who have worked hard for their degrees and are now entering into a routine that’s boring. You, as a leader, must constantly stimulate their knowledge by offering them in-house training. Technology is everywhere and it’s easy to get lost between how to write a good social media post and crunching numbers in Excel.
Invest in your company
I think any company that does not have a quiet room with nice couches and cushions on the floor, simply should not do business. If you expect people to spend their midnight oil, collapsing in chairs waiting for the cleaning service to wake them up: you’ve missed a huge point. Make people love their work space. The interior design and spaces were carefully studied and articulated in companies like Pixar or Google, why not be inspired by them? It is true that some have family obligations, but others are willing to invest serious time in your great projects. Do not turn off their passion when it will only cost you a couch or offering catering services to them.
Limit your exposure
A day in a troubled company. Employees are expecting a raise, as they were promised, and that glorious day didn’t come. They are now stunned to see, coming out of a brand new Aston Martin, their CEO in a golf attire. Be discreet, when you know the rebellion is coming take a bike.
Avoid badmouthing
Lack of information and communication between individuals is the worst evil. If you speak ill of an employee to another behind his/her back, you will do the same on your clients/partners; you will do the same on your competition; your workers will do the same on you! The meeting rooms are made to resolve conflicts.

Be patient
Oh… my biggest flaw. I know that I’ve never been patient; I also know that I am a dog lover and mine taught me a lot about it. It is very hard to master. I remember the day when my Labrador barked endlessly in his cage, I decided to take him out and proceeded to a thorough inspection and cleaning. When you do things well, you expect quick outcomes right? Wrong! He refused to get back in. With patience, I tried several tactics but the one that really worked was linking the action to the word – I pointed the cage out and took an authoritative voice -. If I had listened to my inner voice, I would have taken this alligator’s reincarnation -my Golden Ret’ never chews…- with both hands and forced him in there. But was I aware of his real issues? Was there a snake in that cage? I didn’t know. Clients will not pay you in time -it always drives me numb-, workers will not ‘get it’ right away, people in business will owe you money. Patience is one of your greatest asset.
Forget about the money
I like to think about money as a wild horse instead of a unicorn. If it fascinates you, it will be hard to distance yourself from a greedy competition. Money can make you avaricious to the point where you’ll automatically not pay your team and use vain tricks to keep them around you. Then you’ll establish a downward spiral and cause troubles in your company. I don’t like to minimize the power of money but great relationships are stronger.
In conclusion, finding the right leadership balance is very hard. Sometimes you have to be tyrannical to get things moving in the right direction, but even the tyrants have a great heart. Dictatorship is so yesterday and people’s -especially young bloods- reaction to it is so bad. Nowadays, you have to ‘go with the flow’ without drifting away from your vision and your goals. I think that running a business is like being the eldest of a family: you are expected and forced to be in charge against your will. Entrepreneurs bring hope into the lives of their customers, but most of all: their employees. The power to make their lives better , realize their dreams, allowing them to send their children to school and have a roof over their head. This power is huge and comes with great responsibilities. If you fail, lead by your own vanity, they will blame you for it and forget everything you’ve done for them in the past. But if they watch your baby steps and get involved in the process, things will be different. Stakes are high, be a great boss by practicing these fundamentals.

Your turn. Do your employees like you? How do you keep the magic going?