Fred Gituku, 39, is the chief human resources officer at Telkom Kenya. He was named one of the ‘Top 40 Under 40’ men, a recognition of the top business players in Kenya, by the Business Daily newspaper in December 2012. Apart from being a top achiever and a trailblazer in the corporate world, he has also played badminton for the country nationally and internationally. He tells EDNA GICOVI what makes him tick. 

 “This is the easiest interview you’ll ever do,” says George Mlaghui, an old friend and senior media liaison officer at Telkom Kenya, as he assures Fred Gituku, the chief human resources officer of the same company, whom I’m here to interview. In my estimation, Fred doesn’t seem to need much assurance.

“George is very happy because he was interviewed by my department for the job he holds today and now he gets to sit and observe me answer questions, which I’m sure must be quite delightful,” quips Fred.

We both laugh heartily at Fred’s remarks, though he doesn’t crack a smile. He is seemingly unaware of his humorous nature as he continues to make more amusing statements that keep us laughing while he carries on, oblivious of our reaction. “I won’t lie. I’ll enjoy this,” says George who helped me organise the interview that took place at the Telkom Kenya offices. After more jokes, Fred settles down and we get started with the interview. What an amazing journey he has had!

Fred grew up partly in Kirinyaga District in Central Kenya and partly in Nairobi and is the youngest of four siblings. His parents who were both primary school teachers, though retired now, required three things from their children – attend school, perform well and behave well. “The implicit belief was that we would become something meaningful in the society if we did those three things,” he says.

Though his parents did not nudge him to make a career in teaching or any other vocation, Fred almost ended up following in their footsteps. After completing high school, he joined Kenyatta University to study for a bachelor’s degree in education. He was posted to teach in a school in Makueni district after graduation but did not take up the job.

An ardent badminton player throughout high school and college, Fred wanted to continue taking part in the sport and also hoped to join the national team. He could only join the national team if he stayed in Nairobi where the team trained. He declined the teaching posting in Kathonzweni Secondary School in Makueni, as this would have minimized his chances of joining the badminton national team. He opted to stay in Nairobi and look for another job.

Excelling in badminton…

Through sheer determination and pursuit of excellence, Fred went on to have an enjoyable and successful amateur sporting career in badminton, representing Kenya in the sport for nearly 20 years. “I had an ambition of becoming number one in the country and hoped to be top five in Africa and eventually top 100 in the world,” he says adding that he was aware he needed to become a professional player to achieve his ambition.

“I would have to play badminton, not after I earn my living, but to earn my living. In Kenya that opportunity is not really there and so I had to work to pay the bills and play badminton for the love of the sport and in honour of my country, ” he says.

Fred went on to achieve his goal of playing badminton for his country. He was named the best badminton player in the country in 1997 and has represented Kenya, both as a player and coach in major badminton events in the country and outside. These include the World University Badminton Championships in Strasbourg, France in 1996; the World Badminton Coaches Academy in Cape Town, South Africa in 2000; the Africa Badminton Championship in Casa Blanca, Morocco in 2002, Mauritius in 2006 and Kampala, Uganda in 2010.

He also represented the country in the All Africa Games in Abuja, Nigeria in 2003; and the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England in 2002, Melbourne, Australia in 2006, and New Delhi, India in 2010. He also served as the secretary general of the Kenya Badminton Association for about 12 years since 1998, a position in which he mentored and coached youngsters aspiring to play badminton.

“I have travelled more for the sport than work or leisure,” he says, adding that travelling makes one appreciate diversity. Fred retired from playing badminton in 2010. “I had actually retired in 2006 after coming back from Melbourne but nine months later I agreed to play at the memorial tournament of a late friend who had been the chairman of the Coast Badminton Association. I won the tournament and found myself playing yet again. The game can be very addictive,” he says.

But by 2010 he knew he couldn’t play competitively again. “The game is costly and you need to dedicate a lot of time to it. I’m not able to do that now and besides age has also caught up with me,” he quips.

Career in human resource management…

Fred says that it took him about three years after graduation to figure out what he wanted to do after declining a career in teaching. His first job in 1997 was in the costing department of Hamilton, Harrison and Mathews, a law firm based in Nairobi. After different interactions and experiences he was drawn to a career in human resource management and decided to get the qualifications.

Since there was no institution at the time offering a Masters programme in human resources management, he applied to universities outside the country and was eventually admitted to the University of the West of England in Bristol, UK. He graduated in 2003. He returned to Kenya in 2004 and got a job at the Giraffe Centre in Langata. “You wonder what I was doing there?” he asks after noticing the amused look on my face.

“Well, I was looking after 28 employees and about seven giraffes,” he says, still straight-faced but I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. “It was an absolute delight working there. Every morning I would take a walk in the sanctuary, enjoying the vegetation, the chirping birds and fresh air – it’s incomparable to any other experience,” he adds.

His stint at the Giraffe Centre lasted two and a half months and he moved to Mobil Oil Kenya Limited as a human resource (HR) advisor. “This was my first position in HR and the company must have taken a great risk to employ someone without any experience. I’m glad I did not let them down,” he says. His roles included organisational development, monitoring and improvement of HR policies, programmes and procedures and ensuring that these were effectively communicated to employees. He was also charged with the responsibility of providing training and development advice to employees, as well as recruitment and assimilation of new hires and workforce planning.

After two years on the job he moved to the Triton Group of Companies as head of HR. Coming from a large corporation, the experience at Triton, which was a new and relatively small company, was different. He successfully set up HR infrastructure from scratch to a fully-fledged department and also facilitated the redefinition of the company’s vision and embedding of values. He quit Triton in 2009 following the onset of adverse governance issues.

He moved to the Strategic Leadership Centre, a management training and business advisory provider, as a senior HR consultant. As the lead trainer, he conducted leadership courses for senior managers in different organisations such as the World Food Programme-Somalia. He was also involved in drawing out strategic plans for various organisations including CFC Life and CORAT Africa, as well as providing HR advisory services to other organisations.

He was headhunted from this job to his present job. “When the headhunter called to say there was an opening in the telecommunications industry, I didn’t feel I had enough experience in this sector but decided to try it anyway. I applied for the job and after several interviews was recruited to the position of head of resourcing and deputy chief HR officer at Telkom Kenya in May 2009,” he explains.

After one year Fred ascended to the position of chief human resources officer after the departure of the incumbent. “My experience here has been good so far. The opportunity to change something and wrestle with a new challenge presents itself everyday. There are various challenges and some days are hard but the truth is that if I had to do it all over again, I would still work here,” he says.

Fred has recorded many achievements during his time at Telkom Kenya. These include the improvement of social climate through effective management of employment relations in difficult business and economic contexts, and the establishment of cordial relations with the union, which represents 70 percent of the company’s workforce. He also introduced a talent search strategy based on collaboration with key universities, which has helped the company build talent from within. In the past year alone Telkom Kenya has employed more than 60 interns who have been identified as talent for the future.

In 2011 he was selected to be part of a global team of 24 individuals tasked with the development of the ‘HR Excellence Programme’ an Orange training programme for HR directors’ worldwide.

“In the past, those who did not fit in any particular department in an organisations were told to go and try their hand in HR. This did not give the profession a very respectable name. Things have since changed. It’s a lot more professional now and it’s getting better though there’s still a lot more to be done to professionalise the trade in this country,” says Fred. Unmistakably zealous about HR, he boldly says, “If you paid me enough to last me the rest of my life, I would still be in HR.”

Fred is also passionate about mentoring young people into careers and he is a regular speaker at various forums on career development. “There’s a big disconnect between learning institutions and industry. There is not enough dialogue going on between the two and this is something I would like to be involved in. There should be more consistency between what is taught at the university and what is required at the workplace,” he says.

The family front…

Fred has been married to Phoebe for nine years and they have two children, Randall, six, and Gail, two. “Family life is good. It requires one’s time, no doubt but it is interesting to see your children grow,” he says.

He notes that children are precious and teach one a great deal. He is fascinated by their simple and uncomplicated way of looking at things. He immensely enjoys taking a short walk with his children in the evenings. “Even when I work late, they will still want to put on their shoes and go for that walk when I get home,” he says, adding that the time spent with his children is the best part of his day.

Fred says that marriage has taught him many things. “You learn so much, not just about the other person but also about yourself. You see your flaws more clearly and begin to evaluate your strengths a little more objectively. You begin to see yourself as you are and not as you’d like to be perceived. You find out that you are a work in progress, and the fact that this life is not about perfection but excellence,” he says.

He goes on to say that marriage is also an opportunity to grow. “You realise that the other person is different and they have a right to be different, and there is something you can learn from them. Their feedback can help you grow. Marriage is a series of lessons. It’s like going back to school and it is worthwhile because there is an important part of maturity it brings to you,” he says as we conclude the interview.

Published on April 2014