6. Lessons in Empowering Staff and Breaking Down Managerial Barriers
Recently as one of our team building activities we decided to build a kitchen garden in front of the office. Although I subconsciously knew it was not a good idea for the garden to overlap our water pipe, the realization only fully sunk in when we struck the pipe and it began to leak water. The team quickly shut off the water and began looking for the necessary tools to fix the leak. However it was our Finance Manager, who I had forgotten had a background as an electrician, who saved the day with a bit of rubber tube and metal brace he happened to have in his motorbike kit. He then proceeded to tell me other stories of how he had used computer wire to fix the headlights on our car once and a few other “MacGyver” type scenarios.
What struck me the most about this situation was how I have been working with this person for three years, and this is the first time I fully realized he had this other ability, completely apart from his day to day work. It is a great reminder to me of exactly what Susan Marx, Country Rep of The Asia Foundation here in Timor-Leste, focuses on when she does her own “learning events” with her staff.
As Susan puts it, “It’s important to recognize there are many parts [outside of work] that make up a person I happen to manage for a period of time.”
Susan has influenced my own leadership since arriving to Timor, because I noticed that her way of leading is different in that she values staff learning for more than just professional development. She sees learning as a way to break down not only the hierarchy of Timorese society but also that which comes within an organization, separating the lower management from the upper. In this way Susan hopes to recognize the whole person in each of her staff, not just what you see in the workplace.
Many times national staff where we work have gone through traumatic experiences, or because of societal norms do not feel empowered to bring their full talents to the workplace. Through exposure to new things, whether it be photography, facilitation skills, yoga or the new Timor Land Law, Susan has used these events to allow all staff to be at the same level in terms of skills, or sometimes those in lower management to demonstrate leadership in a way they would not be able to otherwise. Staff can participate in yoga or cultural events hosted by The Asia Foundation, or can experience new things through learning events.
Singing during a staff meeting, for example, has allowed the Country Representative to stand as an equal shoulder to shoulder with the cleaner, which changes perceptions in the eyes of peers and empowers staff in terms of self-confidence.
Another example of the impact of empowerment through learning is when staff are able to change their lives or the lives of their families based on their new understanding. Susan holds learning events every two Thursdays for an hour and a half in the office. One staff learning event was a presentation on early childhood development. During the presentation one man asked “what is the single most important thing you would tell parents of young children?” to which the response was “read to your children.” The man was so moved by this, that he began asking Susan for her books on Early Childhood Development, as well as borrowing books he could read to his kids. He also began discussing these topics with Susan in his free time, thus changing their relationship in terms of what his employer had to offer outside of his day to day job.
Through learning English skills another The Asia Foundation employee transformed into an amazing Survey Manager, a talent that was only revealed after she felt comfortable conversing in the new language.
The topics of Thursday learning events cover emotional, physical and psychological well-being, and perpetuate a culture of learning. For those who need validation on how these can impact your work environment besides the above, such events have allowed Susan to create a more innovative workplace through inspiring a culture of looking at things from new perspectives. Learning events are mandatory and are attended by Susan when possible in order to reinforce their importance.
So how to organize such learning events in your office? You do not need a big budget, normally Susan and her Senior Managers plan the 22 annual events in advance coinciding with different events in the year, such as the approval of the Timorese Government budget. The presenters are usually treated to lunch or barter time for a presentation in turn from The Asia Foundation in one of their specialty areas, and are almost always local. Allowing staff within The Asia Foundation to present as well empowers those people through peer recognition and practice with facilitation.
A few of the other types of sessions that Susan includes in the learning events include training on Code of Conduct, review of fraud and protection policies, land law training, presentation of the government budget, and so on. Also they ask staff through an electronic survey what they want to learn, for example nutrition or savings and finance. The Senior Management then helps the HR Manager decide the final list for the year.
Susan has also been a leader in terms of cultural events within the Dili community. Cultural events highlighting Timorese talent also bring the broader community together, and break down barriers between cleaners and drivers and Nobel Prize Winner Ramos Horta, who attended an event recently. These types of events held at the The Asia Foundation office allow staff greater exposure to new experiences, in some cases allowing them to showcase their own talents (as with the recent Christmas party with the The Asia Foundation choir). This has also put The Asia Foundation as a leader in supporting Timorese culture and art, and has brought the attention of several donors and government officials.
Susan’s advice for rising leaders is to read programming reports and know a little of everything. She also recommends learning how to delegate well- to which I am going to put a link for one of my favorite episodes on how to delegate below.
The bottom line? Sometimes you need to allow opportunities to recognize other pieces of a person that don’t show up in day to day work. The learning events mentioned here and elaborated in the podcast are a great way to do this, as well as breaking down the barriers between managerial levels to allow for a more united team.
What did you learn from this episode?