Investing in leadership should be an unwavering priority for all Customs administrationsBy Kateshumbwa Dicksons, Commissioner of Uganda Customs and Chairperson of the WCO Council
Leadership development programmes are crucial to the lasting success of every organization. To support its Members in this field, the WCO has developed a Leadership and Management Development Programme. In this article, the Commissioner of Uganda Customs shares his experience with the programme, and explains why investing in leadership development should be an unwavering priority for all Customs administrations.
In 2011, while serving as the Assistant Commissioner in charge of Customs Audit, I was privileged to attend the WCO Fellowship Programme, held at the Headquarters of the WCO, alongside colleagues from other Customs administrations. During our six-week stay, we participated in a Leadership and Management Development (LMD) workshop, undertook a research study on a Customs topic of choice, and visited a Customs administration for a practical field study.
Being in a leadership position in my home administration at the time, I was quite excited by the components of the LMD workshop and, most importantly, the approach to leadership and management adopted by the WCO as well as its delivery mechanism. As such, I took a lot of interest in the issue, knowing that knowledge gained on this subject would be invaluable in the workplace.
Actioning knowledge gained back home
When I returned to Uganda, I recall the first action I took was to rally my team in order to go through the “visioning” process that I had been introduced to. Together, we began to eagerly develop the division’s vision and mission. Visioning entails setting out a picture of the future in a participatory manner, the objective being to come up with breakthrough ideas by way of a team interacting in an open environment.
I also endeavoured to implement the project that I had developed during my research study at the WCO. Not only did I implement this project, I also started an in-house programme for my staff to encourage an internal discussion about leadership, using WCO material and the experience that I had gained. This programme involved early morning sessions from 7:00 am to 8:30 am daily.
My staff were quite impressed, and took a lot of interest throughout the three-month duration of the in-house programme. After that, I introduced early morning e-learning sessions, using the WCO CLiKC platform. Thanks to these two initiatives, the Customs audit team grew into a very professional and highly motivated team, reflected in the high performance results that ensued.
Later on, I enrolled in the WCO LMD Expert Accreditation Programme, successfully going through the stages. As a result, I was able to facilitate high-level strategic workshops for the Customs administrations of Eswatini and Namibia. At the same time, my administration benefitted from three LMD workshops in which about 60 senior and middle management leaders from across the Uganda Revenue Authority (URA) participated.
Positive impact of the LMD programme
Personally, I strongly believe that the LMD Programme largely contributed to my success in leadership at the URA and at the international level. I took a keen interest in ensuring that the concepts I had learnt were put into practice. Indeed, the visioning process I undertook with my team enabled us to refocus the whole division and, because it was a team effort, we all owned the vision, which ensured that we lived up to what we had developed.
In 2015, I was appointed the URA’s Commissioner of Customs. I believe that the leadership qualities I had demonstrated as Assistant Commissioner and which were enhanced by my participation in the LMD Programme played a big role in the appointing authorities entrusting me with this new role, one that I knew would be challenging, but which I gladly took up.
I have also taken on various leadership roles at the regional and international level, always ensuring that I exercise the same level of consistency as a leader. Being the current Chairperson of the WCO Council, everyone looks up to me to exercise leadership in the house while steering the discussions for the greater betterment of Customs globally. This I have pledged to do without any reservations.
The lives of URA staff who benefitted from the LMD workshops have also been positively impacted. We have seen most of them take on more senior positions within the Authority, teaching their teams, sometimes by pure example, what they had learned. Moreover, the LMD Programme has also brought in some level of consistency in leadership practice.
Indeed, because of the critical mass of leaders and upcoming leaders that went through it, there is a level of harmonization and a common understanding of some key aspects of leadership among managers. This has strengthened the URA and helped us to manage succession planning better. I know, without doubt, that even when I leave the Authority, a new crop of capable leaders is ready to take on the responsibility while maintaining the same culture.
Thanks to strong leadership, Uganda Customs has successfully implemented about 13 reforms in the last four years. These reforms have been driven internally and fully embraced. We have now embarked on enhancing leadership capacity at the lower management ranks, targeting supervisors and station heads with the objective of building a critical mass of young leaders to take on future higher leadership roles.
Recommendations for consideration
Customs worldwide, in my opinion, largely focuses on building the capacity of staff in technical matters – e.g., valuation, classification and rules of origin, among others – while giving much less attention to building leadership capacity. Against this background, we have also seen, over the years, that many Customs administrations continue to invest in technologies and reforms to better themselves. However, to sustain the reforms and aspirations, leadership is critical. Like we say at the URA, everything starts and falls on leadership.
Moreover, research has shown that an organization may enhance the capacity of its staff, build systems, and implement good reforms, but still end up losing staff not because of the organization itself, but rather because of its leaders. Staff may feel that they are not valued, because managers aren’t exercising proper leadership. At the end of the day, this becomes a risk to the organization, because it is unable to retain good staff.
I am, therefore, fully convinced that the emphasis we, Customs administrations, place on technical capacity building, should also be placed on leadership. The WCO LMD Programme provides us with an opportunity to strengthen our skills in this domain and build consistency in practice across our administrations. Some Customs administrations may nominate only lower-level managers and not senior managers to participate in the LMD Programme on the assumption that the latter know it all and don’t need any leadership upskilling. This may be a misconception.
In the above regard, I strongly advocate and recommend that every Director General of Customs should actively encourage senior managers to attend the LMD Programme. Investing in leadership development is the only sure way to sustain Customs administrations in the future, and this is the best legacy a Director General can leave to his or her organization. What would we leave if our organizations crumble, because the managers that follow us cannot lead them into the future?
I also believe that the WCO should strengthen the LMD Programme further, to ensure that it is able to meet WCO Members’ current and future expectations. In addition, there is a need to expand the pool of experts in this domain. We may also consider the introduction of a shorter two-day version of the workshop to attract more Directors General and senior managers, which will potentially result in a strong uptake of leadership concepts and practices at the highest level.