Traditionally, humanitarian and development aid programmes were mainly funded and delivered by ‘rich’ countries in the global north to ‘poor’ countries in the global south. A large NGO that operates in more than 90 countries is actively trying to shift this pattern. They aim to become an international interdependent network, with powerful country offices. Much of this change is driven by the country directors, whose role becomes increasingly important. These are people who all lead country teams of around 300 people, often in extremely challenging conflict areas. They are the faces of the NGO towards national governments.
Because of their responsibilities and their role as change agents, the organization wanted to support these regional and country directors and strengthen them in their leadership role with a targeted programme. HR specifically requested to co-design and co-facilitate it together, as well as for it to be ‘different’ from what people were used to. All this took place in the midst of a radical organisational change process.
We designed the programme based on the idea of a leadership journey. No models or lectures on what leadership should be, but rather a personal exploration for every participant. Starting with questions like: “Who are you? What is your aspiration as a leader?” against the backdrop of the greater organizational challenged and ambitions. Then we moved on to turning this vision into concrete leadership practices. Working ‘from the inside out’ and from small to big, by asking leaders to experiment with their own everyday leadership practices first, and then move on to how they could influence the culture and practices in the wider organisation.
Over 40 leaders participated, in three regional groups: Latin America, Asia and Africa. Being a country director is challenging and can be lonely. In our face-to-face meetings, we deliberately created a safe and inspiring space to exchange and learn from each other. And we created time to pause and reflect in their otherwise incredibly busy lives. To share their ideas and experiences and to listen to each other’s stories, as leaders and as humans. These high-quality conversations made them reconnect to their personal drive: what sort of difference do I want to make in the world? We also offered input by sharing theories on organisational change such as Appreciative Inquiry, participatory leadership and complexity theory.
In between meetings, leaders experimented with thinking and acting differently on a daily basis. This looked different for everyone. Some participants decided to take more time to express empathy, others wanted to be more curious about other people’s perspectives. And so on. Later they scaled up these experiments up. For instance, one leader who worked in humanitarian aid and had personally experimented with taking more space to reflect in between missions, introduced a ‘time-out’ between missions for her entire team.
The effects were noticeable from the first meeting on. One leader shared: “This was a moment to reconnect to my own source, as well as to have renewed ideas and energy to continue to fight poverty and make a difference in the world.” The leadership journey helped the directors to strengthen their self-insight and offered them new ideas to use in their daily practice.
Learning together as a community of peers created new and deepened relationships and as such strengthened the joint leadership. The impact and importance of this became especially evident when the organisation went through a big crisis just before the final meeting. We used the meeting to make meaning of this crisis together; to inquire and explore, rather than immediately judge. Where people came in with feelings ranging from concern to alienation, they left with a renewed sense of connection and ownership, and ideas for the way forward. A true expression of leadership.