Alexander Alexious Nguwo

Family Strengthening Programmes Coordinator in Malawi
photo: © 2018 Stefan Lechner Photography

Leading a team with diverse knowledge. A story about a leadership initiative in Malawi

It is not long ago that I got surprising news. Let me tell you the story about how this all came about and what the role is that I plan in this story.

A new initiative
SOS children's Villages Malawi is implementing strategic initiatives (SI) to achieve the SOS Children's Villages global strategy 2030. During the mid-term planning meeting, members of the national management team decided to take on board one new SI in 2019, which was "Simplify SOS - create a simpler, digital and agile organisation".

Honour and trust
Soon afterwards, the senior management team (SMT) had an emergency meeting to discuss the way forward and choose the lead person for the new initiative. That very same day I was called to present myself at a venue where senior management were holding a side meeting. I still remember the moment when I responded to that call by one of the senior managers. The SMT suggested that I lead the initiative and asked me if I was ready to take up this challenge. To my surprise, I realised that all the other team members were from the national office and of a higher position. I was the only one who was from the programme. I felt proud to be entrusted with this task, but still felt anxious as to whether I could meet their expectations. What made me feel strong was that I knew the SMT supports those with additional tasks within our organisation. I was aware that the task I was asked to do was a challenge, but I was convinced I could take it on together with my team and the support from the senior managers.

How I started it….
After the announcement and the briefing on what the assigned implementation was all about, I called my team for the first meeting. I wanted to make sure the team realised that I needed their support to fulfil the task. I knew that being a good leader is crucial for success and I wanted to be a good leader, one that shows his commitment. I wanted to communicate clearly about what needs to be done. I also wanted to make sure that we all have a good understanding of each other's strengths and expertise. All this had to be communicated to my team. We had a big agenda to work through. I started by giving them all the information needed. After that, we went through a detailed process of agreeing on responsibilities. I was guided by my belief that leadership is much more likely to be successful with clear and agreed differentiation.

During the ongoing discussions, I noticed that the team members have varied backgrounds, experiences and thinking styles. I felt that this diversity, if not well understood, could pull my team apart. However, if properly leveraged, it could lead to higher levels of performance. I really wanted to make sure that in my team we would build on each other's strengths and support each other. This initial meeting was a crucial one and, at the end of the day, we all felt exhausted. However, in this interactive process, team members had an opportunity to share their viewpoints, anxieties and experiences. I wanted to make sure that, as team leader, I did not tell my team how to do the task; but rather tell them what needs to be done and enter into a joint discussion. I was surprised about the results that came out of this.

During the meeting, I found myself torn between different roles. I had to exercise leadership and to keep people working together, but I also noticed that many helpful ideas were emerging from the team discussions, but no one was taking notes. The ideas were in danger of being lost or forgotten. I suggested that someone take on the role of recording the main points of the team discussion in order not to lose the brilliant ideas that emerged during the meeting. I knew that high-performing teams create and operate on a few crucial ground rules. A thought crossed my mind: "What can we do now in order to truly embody these principles? As a team, should we not reflect the inputs of all the team members through a transparent process?" I initiated a discussion on the ground rules that reflected the unique character and dynamics of our team, helping to ensure higher levels of effectiveness.

Only with my team can I succeed
My team noticed that I count on them. Leaders do not lead alone but with others. I got encouragement from the senior managers who gave me confidence, but I was aware that success in leadership begins with commitment. When I was given the responsibility to lead a team with a major influence, I had the opportunity to see leadership in its most intense and powerful form.

During the meeting with my team, it was very challenging to come up with the draft strategic objective so that the team might focus before the 2019 annual planning process. Members did not know what to do since the strategic initiative was completely new. However, I realised that effective participation and involvement within the team can be a powerful tool for success. I suggested that each member of the team should draft one strategic objective. Then all the objectives were written together on a flip chart. I asked members to select key word(s) from each objective and then merge the words into one strategic objective that group members can take on board during the 2019 planning for the member association. It worked, and I felt that I am the type of leader who optimises the talent of the group members. I knew how to identify, build and engage talent to get results. I identified the skills required, drew talent to the organisation, engaged the people, communicated extensively and ensured that group members gave their best efforts to maximise outputs. I expended enormous personal energy and gave great attention to whatever matters to the team. I inspired loyalty and goodwill in others because I myself act with integrity and trust. I believed that, as a team leader, I must excel at personal proficiency. Without the foundation of trust and credibility, I could not ask others to follow me.

Individuals may have different styles (introvert/extrovert, intuitive/sensing, etc.) but, as an individual leader, I must be seen to have personal proficiency in order to engage followers who are ready to start the implementation of strategic initiative number 6 in 2019.

Alexander Alexious Nguwo

is family strengthening programme coordinator for the Blantyre programme, SOS Children’s Villages Malawi.

Alex joined SOS Children’s Villages in 2003. He wants to inspire people to write their own story instead of following the story written for them. Bringing people out of the passenger seat and into the driver’s seat is his aim. Alex sees family as an integral part of every human. His family relationships played an outstanding role in preparing him for life in the community. As a parent, he loves his children unconditionally. He knows that his children will not remember him for the material things but for the love he gave them. In his leisure time, he tries to balance a range of activities. He spends time with his friends or swims in the beautiful water of Lake Malawi. Walking is a great way to clear his head. His home country Malawi is landlocked, with a population of around 17.1 million people, and covers an area of 1180 km2. Malawi’s economy relies mostly on agriculture and has nice tourist attractions. The country’s capital is Lilongwe, but the biggest city, Blantyre, where he lives is a commercial hub with a population of around 1 million people.

Video Harvesting Workshop 2018