Al Kags

#ApostADay: Taking up the Challenge and leading ladies.


At work, I have some ladies who I often refer to as “my ladies”. In the early days of the Open Institute’s life, we were very male and undiverse. As we grew, we made a decision to strengthen our gender diversity by prefering to employ qualified, smart women in every new hire. Not affirmative action per sé, but where we found a woman who was as good or better than male counterparts, then we would prefer her over him for the hire. Okay, I guess it is sort of like affirmative action.

When we did start hiring, we were happy to realise that we didn’t really have to work hard to find high quality women hires for the positions that became available. In all entities associated with me – especially where I have some control, I have a peculiar set of principles that I build teams against:

  1. Every team member must be real. I don’t believe that there is a demarkation between a person in their personal life and in their professional life. People who live their lives negatively at home – if they live recklessly, tend to be reckless at work. Also, things that happen in our personal lives do have an impact on the quality of work that we deliver. I don’t believe that you can grow as an individual in some aspects of your life and not others. Therefore, because as a leader I commit myself to the growth of my people, they have to be real enough to be reasonably open about what they are going through and where they are. For me, your level of skill is moot if you are not real.
  2. Everyone in the team must gel with everyone else. I have had the misfortune of working in organisations in which people just did not gel at a personal level. I don’t mean that they have to love each other and be close personally but there must be a reasonable level of respect, caring and camaraderie among people who work together. Afterall, I argue, these are the people we spend more than 40 hours of out waking week with (literally more than most of us spend with our kids and spouses). I worked in an organisation where a team member did not come to work for 3 days, while she was in hospital with her daughter and her closest colleagues had no idea! Even when they found out, I would have expected a mad rush to go see her and be caring of her. Nothing. In my experience, all teams that don’t gel, waste a great deal of time with negative office politics and competition, there is a lot of posturing and as a result, considerably less productivity.
  3. Everyone must be excellent at their own skill but have capabilities to do additional things. I don’t generally work with big teams. I like small teams that do big things. If (1) and (2) above are satisfied, then skill can be considered. I love people who bring a specific skill onto the table that they are excellent in but also, who have passions and knowledge in other skills that they bring to the team (even hobbies count).

At the Open Institute, where I have executive authority, I have a super team that more than meets my requirements. I was happy to have added four amazing women to the team of ten – a data scientist who enjoys mathematical riddles, a community liaison who is passionate and skilled on the environment, a research and policy associate, who can make fashion out of anything and an accountant who is passionate about all things glam.

I have got to know these young, beautiful ladies over the past year and they have added a great deal to our professional output. They are real and in keeping with our spirit – they are open. As I got to know them, I got to recognise this thing that I have learnt from the likes of Sheryl Sandberg – that brilliance aside, my ladies often struggled with confidence and leadership – two important ingredients for a high output. They would know what should be done but would be tentative with asserting their views (especially in the face of any opposition). I observed that in the case where a male team member has these challenges, he would be encouraged to “man up” and express himself confidently “like a man”. Women would often be ignored and their ideas would be run over.

I decided that I would pay special attention to the ladies and “call the leader” out of them. I did what I could to show them how to be confident, to create space for them to exercise their voice on an issue (sometimes to insist upon their input), to understand the things that erode their confidence and to help them work through them where I could.

I finally organised for them to start an eight week leadership mentorship programme called Adira, that is ran by an excellent leader, Loice Mboo, who I have watched over the years claw her way up the corporate ladder, from a shelf stocker in a supermarket, to a branch manager, to a senior executive in a bank and a head of department in a large government corporation.

In the course of that time, I saw them blossom and shine with confidence. And it has had remarkable impact on our organisation.

By the way, gentlemen, beauty was merely a happy coincidence for us and not part of our new HR strategy ????????????.

Recently, the ladies got onto a #ApostAday challenge in which they committed themselves to blogging everyday (at least 500 words) on any issue at all that they cared to share. They saw this as an avenue to improve their writing and to develop their communication prowess. It reminded me that in my early professional life, there was a time I would write one thousand every day as practice in writing and organising my ideas. It was also a lot of fun and did a lot to build my profile.

So: this is me, joining the ladies’ challenge, #aPostAday. Lets see how it goes.

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