On Tuesday 7th May 2019, the Oxford Water Network (which brings together water researchers throughout Oxford University) hosted Dr Monika Weber-Fahr, CEO of the Global Water Partnership, shared 25 years of experience in a seminar addressing the question “What makes an effective leader in the development sector?” Below is a summary of the outcomes of the seminar. For all the latest, sign up for the Oxford Water Network newsletter.
Three trade-offs to deal with
1. Be yourself vs. Fake it till you make it
The first advice career counsellors give you is often simply “to be yourself”. However, other more seasoned professionals will tell you to “fake it till you make it”. Are these two pieces of advice not contradictory?
The two in fact are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The key to effective leadership is to recognise that people are most likely to follow your advice and connect with you when they get to know you on a personal level – this is the “being yourself”. However, acting in this manner does not mean sharing every little single problem in your personal life.
Whereas you cannot fake knowledge, what remains vital is to know how to appear strong. Even the most even the most introverted people have to overcome this obstacle. So, even if this does not constitute “being yourself” you still have to “fake it till you make it”
2. Sticking to your guns vs. improving/innovating
The second trade-off shared, was to consider whether “sticking to your guns” is a better strategy than strategy than focusing on improving and innovating. The speaker recommended that “sticking to your guns” could be effective in situations where you already have the best solution. As a leader who is expected to appear strong and confident, you need to consider whether your leadership style invites your team to participate and contribute or whether the flow of communication is one-way.
There will always be people on your team that, despite having a more junior position or less overall work experience, will know more than you on a particular topic. Knowing how to recognise these people, and being comfortable with welcoming their input, is crucial to becoming an effective leader. The quality will demonstrate maturity and a well-rounded ability to judge your team and the resources at your disposal.
3. The story of the flowers and the bees
The advice given to the attendees, many of whom were on a PhD track and considered themselves ‘specialists’, was that in order to become an effective leader, you must develop an ability to wear many hats and be able to take a step back from “sticking to your guns”, so that you can evaluate and recognise the talents and resources at hand for effective delegation and management.
Having specialist knowledge is a great quality, but to become an effective leader, you have to interact with all the flowers and learn how to motivate them for optimal performance.
Twelve universal truths for developing effective leadership (+ 1 bonus)
1. Make yourself heard
If you are not able to vocalise your ideas, you will go unrecognised and fade into the background. Even if you need to “fake it” in becoming an effective leader you have to learn how to speak confidently about your ideas.
2. It’s all about the team
There is no “I” in ‘team’ – being an effective means leader means never to act in self-interest. It is the team’s achievement that matter. The tide can quickly turn on you if you do not establish trust.
3. Family matters
Invest in your family and personal relationships outside of the workplace. All of these people influence your ability to lead and it’s important that these relationships are tended to.
4. Mourning happens
Every change is a reason of mourning for someone and as a leader you must recognise that.
5. Choose whom your work for more than what you do
Your ability to lead is influenced by how well you get along with your colleagues/supervisor/boss, etc. One test to conduct early on, ideally during a job interview, is to ask your potential future line-manager about their view on a particular issue dear to you (avoid controversial issues) – you can also ask them about their values.
6. Be a team player
This popular advice entails more than simply presenting a welcoming attitude, having an open-door policy and being friendly with your team mates. A team player volunteers to do the dirty work from. Take out the coffee cups after a meeting or volunteer to do a monotonous data-entry task. Whereas some will argue against this piece of advice, claiming that such actions will expose you as a colleague that can be taken advantage of. According to the presenter, small good deeds here and there, will in fact make you stand out and be remembered by others in a positive light (see no. 11).
7. Leadership is what you do, when not told to
Similar to point no. 6, taking initiative and being pro-active when it is not expected of you, even the smallest of generous actions, will make you remembered.
8. Adapt to the office culture
You have to either be able to adapt to the working culture comfortably or leave. You cannot successfully fight an established work culture and you can’t change it.
9. The ‘why’ before the ‘what’ – always
Know your values and those of your colleagues. Do they align with your values or are they conflicting? The presenter shared that it was only late in her 25-year career that an interviewer asked about her values. Establish that the value-base of the organisation or company aligns with yours before evaluating whether you would like the role you would be doing.
10. Be the person your grandmother wanted you to be
At the end of a lifetime you will want to be remembered for the good things you have done to others and not the bad.
11. Be a champion for others
Karma is real – both in your personal life and in the workplace. The more positive relationships you can create in- and outside of your workplace, the higher the chances are that down the line, you will be remembered and in return you increase your chances of winning a bid for a project, consultancy or gain hire with a firm, that you may have helped many years ago.
12. Invest in networking
Networking isn’t necessarily everyone’s favourite activity, but it is crucial. To make networking more enjoyable the recommendation is to focus your energy on networking with people that you like; it can be about making friends in your sector. Ask yourself, whether you would like to go for a drink with that person. Would you invite them to partake in your favourite activity or hobby? You do not need to actually ask them to indulge you in said activity, but the exercise serves a similar purpose of evaluating whether your values align with theirs.
A final piece of personal advice shared was to not be cynical. As a young professional, it is easy to become cynical, but this attitude will not get you far. Reaching a point of cynicism in fact is a sign of lost bearings and what is needed is a re-evaluation of one’s current standpoints and examination of how it has come to this point.
Three crucial resources (+ 1 bonus surprise)
The seminar outcomes recommended resources by the following authors:
Dr. Mamphela Ramphele – the autobiography and other publications by the former World Bank Managing Director and South African Activist is the best starting point for understanding what it takes to be an effective leader in the international development sector.
George Kohlrieser’s – “Hostage at the Table” – Using their careers experiences, the former hostage negotiator presents an analysis of how to create bonds with, and gain the trust of, even the most horrible of people in the world.
Sheryl Kara Sandberg – The Chief Operating Officer of Facebook has published several books on leadership and development with a focus on helping women obtain key leadership positions both in the public and private sector.
Bonus recommended reading: Any book about child rearing. If you are able to hack into the psychology of young children and understand how it works, then you are well on your way to becoming an effective leader. The final and ultimate test is whether you have the ability to convince a 4-year old to leave the candy store without a purchase and not have them kicking and screaming.
Please note: The insights shared in this past reflect the author’s interpretation of the seminar outcomes. Thanks to OWN Coordinator Kathryn Parr for inputs and comments