small foundation with a big impact

Wim Smit's work as coach

How do you develop the professional skills of the management and staff of a Dutch-Tanzanian charity organisation? What should you not do? That was one thing that was clear from the start: we did not want to impose western theories and ideas as the one and only form of truth. The objective was to create a synergy combining East African insights, knowledge and culture with those of the Western World. I took on the role of facilitator, now and then offering some theory or insight. To my surprise, there is a Swahili word for this: mwezeshaji.

In January 2011 we organised our first seminar, which lasted just over a week. The school and the new home were complete, staff had just been hired and the new students were about to arrive. The themes dealt with included making education more appealing and more creative, and abolishing corporal punishment. Using energizers to lift lessons out of those moments when tedium sets in proved infectious. From that moment on the creativity and pleasure you so often see in Africa was also applied to the classroom. The mindset changed from boring, uninspired, top-down teaching to a learning-is-fun mentality.

Following a few rounds of discussions, corporal punishment was abolished. The following year the group wanted to discuss and develop alternative ways in which to discipline children whose behaviour is difficult, and to correct them in a professional manner that is in keeping with the school’s principles.

The local management has asked for follow-up sessions year on year. Our January meetings moved on to a higher level, and became more aspirational. After two years I provided only management support. The themes became more complex, touching on skills, goal-oriented work, situational management, change management and management development.

I am continually amazed by the staff’s eagerness to learn and the speed at which the material is internalized and implemented. With the passing years, the differences between us have become more enjoyable and easier to discuss. “This management technique might be of use to you” or “I would handle it in this way, but would that work here?” Some western insights were an eye opener, others were out of the question, while others were adopted but with a specific Tanzanian twist.

I developed my own fascination with the African way of decision making and management. People really listen, and they listen better than some western managers who are too focused on themselves and their own message. There is respect for colleagues and if possible every voice is heard. It takes a long time (by western standards) to reach a decision, but once that has happened, the decision has wide support. Solutions are well thought out and have been looked at and weighed from every point of view. In many parts of Africa this is called ubuntu. A shepherd walks behind the flock and facilitates it, but the flock is moving in the desired direction. These are fascinating processes. I have often shared my experiences with clients in my Dutch consultancy. It is also interesting to note the increased interest here in the west for alternative, more facilitative forms of leadership and management.

Wim Smit 2014

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