Why Jamaicans have to migrate to become productive
Why is that we all know Jamaicans who migrated, and almost overnight, became productive?
Their accomplishments surprise us when they land on other shores.
Shortly after leaving Jamaica in 1984 to attend university in the United States, I encountered my first success story.
Robert, a fellow Wolmerian, had left after third form and I ran into him again on campus after hearing about his achievements from many other Jamaicans.
He told me quite candidly that if he had stayed at home in Jamaica, there was no way that he could have accomplished what he did.
He did not blame the school's facilities, the teaching, or his peers. Instead, the mere fact that his family had sacrificed to live in a different country meant that he now had to transform himself from being a bit of a joker into a serious student.
I also had a similar epiphany after arriving at an important campus appointment five minutes late, only to have it cancelled.
I was shocked, and I couldn't believe that they would not give me a 'bligh'.
At the heart of these simple stories lie some core truths that explain why our country's productivity is the lowest in the Caribbean.
CULTURE OF BLIGHS
We have a bad habit, you and I. We accept low standards from ourselves and each other in a thousand small ways, while complaining when major problems crop up that are a direct result of years of accumulated blighs.
It seems that something similar happened in Haiti. Building codes were routinely ignored by both government agencies and construction companies. The result was the January 12 earthquake disaster, and more than 200,000 deaths.
While this example is a graphic one that involved loss of life, our recent floods had the same result, from perhaps the same reasons.
Recently, I noticed a headline in one of our major newspapers: "Jamaca (sic) lose one-day semi-final". Apparently, the writer and the paper itself could not manage to spell the name of our country correctly.
What I learned from living in the US is that the consequences of such an error would be major, and the organisation would never step over the demonstration of such a low standard.
We, on the other hand, would probably be divided on what the next steps should be. Some would defend, excuse, explain, or ignore it.
This gives us a clue as to why Robert could be a mediocre student here in Jamaica, but such a star in the US.
American companies, schools, and institutions demand high standards, and deal swiftly with mediocrity as if it were a dangerous disease.
We, on the other hand, have mediocrity oozing out of every corner of our daily lives, and it is increasingly hard to find systematic examples of excellence, especially in areas that are quiet, or behind the scenes.
Obviously, we now have a reliable way to produce world-class athletes and musicians.
It's no accident that both of these areas feature an exaggerated focus on the individual at either the finish line, or on stage, and both favour showy displays of personal skills.
We are at our weakest when a team or group of Jamaicans need to work together to produce excellence on a sustained basis.
We appear to be at a loss as to how to build enduring institutions.
This is where our corporations and schools have not set the bar high enough. Given the fact that Jamaicans abroad are able to reset their goals so quickly, it indicates that we have all the talent we need, but are lacking the environment that consistently calls for top quality via quiet investments.
There are two places that our companies, should start.
The first 'expectations of high standards':
Employees who leave school to join local companies are often disappointed that what seemed to be so 'big' on the outside, turns out to be so ordinary on the inside.
They start off nervously, but when they realise that the standard is so low that even outright incompetence is protected, they relax, knowing that they don't need to excel; just be a bit better than the worst employees.
Little is asked of them, so little is given.
I worked alongside teams at McKinsey & Company, and had the discomfort of 3 a.m.. nights on several occasions.
I suffered; but for them, this wasn't strange. Instead, they knew it to be a part of the job.
There is nothing stopping any local company from creating a similar reputation for itself, reinforcing it in interviews and creating the kind of orientation for new staff that set the tone from the very beginning.
I had a similar experience as an 11-year-old first former at Wolmer's, when the headmaster referred to us as "gentlemen."
Setting initial expectations and a reputation for high standards is critical to achievement.
The second, 'frequent, quality feedback'. Arguably, it is easier to perform at a consistently high level at school than at work, because there is so much feedback in the form of grades and reports.
In companies across the Caribbean, even those that give regular feedback are weak at making it clear and actionable, and waste a lot of time and emotional energy.
Employees are left in the dark, without a common-sense avenue to improve their performance.
There might be many reasons why this is so, ranging from a management style inherited from the British to our history of giving harsh feedback via the slave whip.
Whatever the reason, the only way to develop better skills is by practising better techniques, until new habits overcome cultural conditioning by the force of sheer repetition.
With higher standards and frequent, quality feedback we can have institutions that achieve high standards.
Francis Wade is a consultant on productivity and time management. www.newhabitsja.info