Thoughts from an agricultural development gal in Ghana

On Leadership

It’s been several months since I’ve written here. There have been ups and downs and rough patches, but I haven’t felt compelled to share these with the wider world. Just suffice to say it’s been a bit crazy around here since November.

Loyal readers will remember that I was writing last year about my EWB team’s strategy development process. A lot has changed since I last wrote, but I’m not going to try to summarize all of it today – I’m sure it will keep changing at a rapid pace. Instead, I want to write about my personal reflections on this process.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on our strategy lately, and on my role in developing it. I’m now a Team Leader for the Agricultural Extension (AgEx) team in EWB. With this leadership role comes a lot of responsibility, and I’ve been learning a lot about what kind of responsibility I thrive with and where I think I fall short. For example, I love the administrative responsibilities of managing a team. I also love the opportunity to invest in the personal and professional growth of every member of my team. Those aspects of my job are thrilling! I am also thrilled by thinking about the “big picture” of the sector we’re working in and how we’re making change in that sector. But that is also where I struggle the most.

I was told when I took this role that one of my challenges would be developing a strong vision and leading people toward it. That prediction has proven to be very true. I am someone who has always excelled more at poking holes in ideas than in building them up myself. I always chalked it up to a lack of creativity, but there’s more to it than that. My naturally critical mind can think of a million different ways for a project to fail. That makes it pretty damn hard to design a solution that I truly believe in, and even harder to sell it to a whole team of people who are here to commit years of their lives to realizing that vision.

Our team has landed on a ~20-year vision of an agricultural extension sector that is innovative, coordinated and customer-service oriented. We’ve imagined a competitive market where extension service providers come from the public, private and civil society sectors to meet the needs of different segments of customers (farmers) to promote socially and environmentally sustainable agriculture. We see quality being added to these extension services at many points, from training and education, to a strong management structure, to well-developed field tools and approaches, to a strong enabling policy environment. And this vision has me PUMPED UP!!

But how do we get there? That’s where it gets a bit more messy. To dig into that question, our team has been designing a Theory of Change (see some great posts on Theory of Change by Duncan Green from Oxfam). We started by identifying 8 key changes that need to happen in order for our vision to be realized, then worked backward to understand the steps needed to realize these changes. We are still working on that part, but the hope is that the Theory of Change will define where our team needs to work in order to realize our vision in 20 years.

So we have a strong vision, we have a Theory of Change, now we need to get started. And this is where I get stuck. How do we, the five members of EWB’s AgEx team, create the change we want to see in the extension sector? There are seeeeeerious challenges ahead. Most of the major changes in the agric sector are created by those with money, power, political influence, or (more often) a mix of all three. We have none of those things. So how do we change the system?

We need to build a solution. Not just a theory, not just our assumptions and hypotheses, but an actual work-plan for how to move forward. Where should I post the new staff I’ll be getting in June and September? Who can they work with? Will their placements be based on learning, or experimenting, or scaling, or influencing? What about the staff on the ground right now? Who are the most influential partners we should be working with? How do we get others to start thinking about extension in the same way we’re thinking about it? Questions swirling in my mind… and very few answers.

Now, back to my struggles as a (non-)visionary leader. What does this mean for my ability to lead my team toward our exciting-yet-difficult-to-attain future? (Stick with me, I’ll land soon.)

I remember someone asking me a few years ago about my Principle of Leadership. At the time, I stammered and mumbled and generally had no idea. But the question has stuck with me and now I know my answer: my strength as a leader is defined by my ability to leverage the strengths of my team. This is really the principle I rely on in all situations. I have some strengths, but I also have lots of weaknesses, and it is only be relying on my team that I am able to bring the best out of us as a whole.

I look to Robin for bringing unbridled passion for the public sector and making sure we always connect our work to poor farmers. I rely on Miriam to bring insights and approaches from her background in development studies. I lean on Siera for a connection to current field realities from being embedded with extension staff and farmers. I depend on Don for his selfless work ethic and insane networking skills to find new partners for our team.

I am grateful for all of these people, and all those I have worked with in the past in EWB. There is so much talent around me, it’s overwhelming! I feel privileged to be in a position to harness all this potential and move us toward an impactful change in the agricultural extension sector. I may not be leading the way with my vision, but I have no doubt that we’ll get there. How could I, when I have an amazing team-ful of talents at my fingertips?


17 responses

  1. Thanks as always for posting something that gets me outside of my world and reminds me of all the other work to be done around the world.
    As for your theory that you’ve always been good at poking holes in other theories, I think that applies to all of us. To build something takes vision and courage. I appreciate your acknowledgement of your limitations at it reminds us of the difficulty of these tasks. But, like you say at the end, you are not alone.
    This post is a good reminder that we can’t sit and wait for the perfect solution, because most often, it never arrives. Sometimes, we need to start walking, walk with people who see the same path and accept when the path veers, appreciate when someone points out an alternate route, but never stop walking.

    April 25, 2012 at 12:46 am

    • So true, Scott. As always, thanks for adding your insightful comments to my blog. It’s always a pleasure!

      April 26, 2012 at 9:48 am

  2. Amanda Harris

    Heh Erin.
    This is fascinating to read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I think your vision is full of compassion, possibility and opportunity! I look forward to hearing more about your work in Ghana in the future. I remember being given a ‘course director’ role at Outward Bound and feeling I wasn’t ready; there was no way I had enough experience and leadership abilities to manage the courses and instuctors. I later realized that that is how we get those skills. People believe in us and we stretch and groan and fill those shoes.
    Sounds like you have a fabulous team by your side. All the best to you:) Amanda

    April 25, 2012 at 1:35 am

    • Hi Amanda,
      Thanks for sharing your story. Indeed, our team has been working on being more intentional about “investing in people”, and one of our main principles is that it’s only by getting thrown in the deep end that we can learn and grow and develop our skills to lead, make change, whatever. I appreciate hearing that from you as well!
      Thanks so much for reading. Hope you’re doing well!

      April 26, 2012 at 9:48 am

  3. People are of many talents, but often those talents are not utilised to their fullest potential without the hand of a leader to galvanise them and keep them moving on the right direction. This role is just as important as any, and it is good to hear you recognize, appreciate, and utilise the skills of your team. That is an oft overlooked leadership quality! Good luck Erin! Hope to see you out there soon

    April 25, 2012 at 2:28 am

    • Hey Jeff,
      Thanks, as always, for reading. I always appreciate your kind and insightful comments. When are you gonna come visit (or work) here??

      April 26, 2012 at 9:46 am

  4. Siera Vercillo

    We are also grateful for your strengths in administration and developing people. If it was not for your development strengths, our strengths as individual team members would not be realized or best utilized, resulting in a strong team people will be excited to join.

    I love this post, it is honest and open and outlines the difficult decisions we have to make soon. But like you told me, the opportunity to shape the Team for the next 5+ years!
    That is exciting.

    Much Love,

    April 25, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    • Hi Siera,
      Thanks for the kind words. Even though it’s tough, I think it’s exciting too! Can’t wait to move forward together πŸ™‚

      April 26, 2012 at 9:46 am

  5. What a great post after a (lengthy) hiatus πŸ™‚
    Indeed you’re great at tearing ideas down by being critical, which helps build a much better idea. Loved the post and your openness! I was really excited to read about the team dynamics. I have good feelings about the AgEx dis ting!!

    Much love,

    April 26, 2012 at 12:03 am

    • Thanks Elmira, glad you’re still reading even after my hiatus! πŸ˜›
      Indeed things are going on well… can’t wait to have you come back to join us in a couple years! (no, really!!)

      April 26, 2012 at 9:45 am

  6. Well, back in 2008 when you were my director for the Canadian Engineering Competition you were a terrific leader Anty. Great to read that you’re inspired and thinking all this through. Looking forward to your next post in 20 years when all your goals have been realized.

    April 27, 2012 at 6:39 pm

  7. this post is such an inspiring read Erin!
    I really appreciate the openness, honesty, & recognizing the potential and amazing things that each person on the AgEx has to offer.

    Personally I think having that critical eye and realizing the potential around you are two super important things in being a visionary (at least my personal definition).


    April 28, 2012 at 1:26 am

    • Thanks for the kind feedback Meaghan, and for reading! πŸ™‚

      April 28, 2012 at 9:04 am

  8. Hannah

    A really great blog post Erin, made for fascinating reading! Honesty and openness were there, but without the raw emotions I often had in my blog posts last year. I think us critical minded ‘nit-pickers’ are essential in every project to ensure it is a true success. Keep the posts coming, made for a great Saturday morning read. Hope you’re enjoying your weekend day of work, sorry oh!

    – Hannah

    April 28, 2012 at 1:15 pm

    • Haha wonderful, thanks for reading Hannah! In fact, I didn’t know you had a blog… send me the link!

      April 28, 2012 at 1:25 pm

  9. Robin Farnworth

    When I think about how I have changed and grown as a person, it was because I had a leader who believed in me. With this approach, you are in the business of transforming people, and I have no doubt that you are amazing at it.

    June 11, 2012 at 9:04 pm

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