I have a passion for exploring the world’s corners – those places far away from a Wall St, Main St, or any another conventional boulevard with an inherent familiarity. These corners have often been the places and times where I’ve learned the most about the world and myself. For the last two and a half years, I have satiated this string of my DNA with my unconventional job – as Executive Director of a small NGO addressing maternal and child survival in slums of Mali, West Africa, where health outcomes are among the lowest in the world. Most people familiar with the nonprofit space understand that a wide array of tools are necessary to be successful and to make sense out of the need that will forever outstrip capacity. My own time is divided between the United States and Mali, and dissected further in the myriad responsibilities of an organizational leader.
Despite this unconventional “corner” office, the lessons I’ve learned (or in some cases, those imposed by necessity) have been profound, and many seem applicable in professional settings far beyond my own. More and more offices exist at the corner, situated in the messy confluences of cultures and technologies and in the borderlands of traditional disciplines. As a millennial leader myself, I see the ways our generation’s coming of age in the workforce has primed us to lead from these spaces, to support a more inclusive and empathetic framework, and, ultimately, to embrace failure as an inevitable process towards achievement.
More and more offices exist at the corner, situated in the messy confluences of cultures and technologies and in the borderlands of traditional disciplines.
1. The Danger of Assumptions
So often dissonance, disappointment, or disaster is a result of poor communications. In this job, it’s necessary to navigate differences in language, in culture, and in distance. It is easy for messages to be lost or distorted with such obvious traps. The recipient of a message, for completely legitimate reasons, understands it in a wholly different context than its original intention. If I can, I save important conversations for when there is no computer screen separating me from others. Despite technology’s accomplishments, there is no substitution for physically being in the same space.
Assumptions, conscious or not, frequently contribute to poor communications, and I’ve tried to make that conscious admission to myself in my interactions – often, I have no idea what another person is thinking. I have to ask, and I have to make time for the answers, and both steps are equally important. The difference between interest and position (thank you, Getting to Yes) is often clouded, but if you ask enough and listen more, the way forward can also become clear.
The difference between interest and position is often clouded, but if you ask enough and listen more, the way forward can also become clear.
I can’t outcompete anyone, or nearly anyone, when it comes to employee compensation. It’s a troublesome and common trend in nonprofits but particularly in a small organization with the attitude of a startup. Simply, some say, we can’t afford the capacities needed to build a strong organization. What I’ve found, however, is traditional views of compensation don’t reflect how people behave in this organization. Other factors, like performing meaningful work, having a wider degree of autonomy, and receiving recognition (both internal and external) seem to be far more powerful drivers. The ability to offer an environment replete with these conditions have nullified, or at least mitigated, what would commonly be seen as an Achilles heel. Sure, we have to pay something, and I hope to develop compensation as we grow to more equitable levels, but relying on more meaningful forms of motivation have boded well for this organization. Interns are granted real responsibilities (with real results), staff are afforded extra time for professional development, and a mission-driven attitude is almost permeable when staff members reach a critical mass, focused on a shared pursuit. Employee of the Month, annual Family Days, the distribution of meat to our field workers at the end of Ramadan, and our recently completed FedEx Days are all effective ways we have built this culture of compensation beyond bottom line.
A mission-driven attitude is almost permeable when staff members reach a critical mass, focused on a shared pursuit.
3. This is Me
Professional roles in Mali are rigid. Structure and formality are commonalities in the professional context, and if I were graded based on this rubric, I’d fail. Just ask my staff. Rather, during my extended stays in our field office, the traditional divide between work and life blurs. For me, this is a positive development. Bosses in any culture hold a degree of power and can encourage interactions that are often artificial at best or soul-sucking at worst (One NYT Sunday Review article just cited the fact that in a typical day, spending time with one’s boss is the #1 unhappiest activity one can perform). Allowing my staff to see a more personal side of me has allowed more meaningful relationships to develop, and in turn, led to a more intimate and productive office. They can laugh, and appreciate, when I stammer through local languages. They come to know me better when I share personal experience, or spend time with them in an informal setting. And in turn, they can be more of themselves, and bring more of themselves, to our shared cause.
Almost every time I have assigned someone a task, rather than taking it on myself, the net effect – short-term, long-term, or both – is decidedly positive. I considered including this in #2 but the value of this experience has been so central, it is easily deserved of its own space. As my grandfather, my own mentor in management, would remind me, “delegate, but don’t abdicate.” Far from the delegation of tedious task or monotonous busywork, this means both giving team members control and independence, and constantly trimming the edges of a plate that, almost by definition of the role, will constantly overflow. Identifying the right person for the right job at the right time is not always obvious and itself merits deliberate thought. This process, one I am absolutely still growing into, feels more like the conducting of an orchestra than the insistence and delivery of static obligation. Following this line of thought, effective distribution of accountability and responsibility leads to better musicians, increased practice, more time in the spotlight, and most important, harmony.
Effective distribution of accountability and responsibility leads to better musicians, increased practice, more time in the spotlight, and most important, harmony.
5. The F-word
Addressing child survival is no small undertaking, and we’re not the only actor in this space. Dozens of organizations exist in Mali alone (or as the field office of some larger, global organization). If progress were easy, this challenge, and the many like it, would undoubtedly have been solved. But behind a simply stated problem are often hidden, complex influencers that necessitate non-simplistic solutions. Which carries risk. In the nonprofit sector, results are often necessary within a calendar year. In a business setting, it is quarterly earnings that often inform value and success. Real progress however, is more messy and less linear. We have to innovate, test, fail, and try again, in order to ensure a true impact on such a societal problem. Yes, evaluation is important and progress is ideal, but failure is an important part of the process, and too often swept under. In traditional contexts failures are the opposite of successes, when rather they must serve as tools towards one’s goals, course-correcting as effectively as possible. The challenges of today require a redefinition of failure, and young leaders are poised to carry that torch. Having lived in a short time in the context of incredible forces of progress and regression, we realize both the consequences and the opportunities. Both are great. To find success, we have to fail.
In traditional contexts failures are the opposite of successes, when rather they must serve as tools towards one’s goals, course-correcting as effectively as possible.
Like others in my generation, we are still only beginning, still warming up the muscles (or still developing them altogether) for what we all hope is a transformational journey. But this role, at its core, is the business of people, and for that reason, this corner office – or, more truly, the office in this “corner” – has been the ideal setting to develop my approach as a constantly-failing, team-conducting, idealistic and pragmatic millennial leader.
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