Lessons Learned from a Team Leader| Natasha Porter

“So what exactly will you be doing in Africa and what precisely does a team leader do?” These are questions that I have been asked many times before, during and after my placement.  It’s also a question that I asked myself a lot before I boarded my flight to Lusaka, Zambia to be a team leader with Challenges Worldwide.

I knew I wanted to volunteer abroad whilst building leadership skills that would be useful to my learning and development as a consultant.  After some intensive googling I came across Challenges Worldwide and thought it was a perfect match.  Challenges Worldwide is a pioneering social enterprise that offers volunteers the opportunity to work with small to medium sized enterprises on 12 weeks placements.  It was everything I was looking for in a volunteer placement; building upon my consultancy experience to lead a team to deliver sustainable changes.  As I excitedly submitted my application little did I know the adventure I had just signed up to?

Being a team leader is both incredibly challenging and rewarding.  One of the main challenges I faced was adapting my management and training style to the different personalities, experiences and cultures.  This was especially true for delivering the weekly Chartered Management Institute (CMI) learning sessions.  These sessions were an excellent opportunity for volunteers and team leaders to be trained to an internationally recognised standard on core consultancy skills.  However, as a facilitator it was often challenging to cover the basic business fundamentals whilst keeping those with business experience still engaged.  I learned to link the theory and tools with how I have used these in my job as a consultant.  I also ensured that CMI classes were interactive through group discussions, activities and exercises that combined useful practical learning with vocational training

As much as we had many challenges, we also had many successes.  One of my proudest moments was watching the Mid Point Review (MPR) presentations. At the MPR presentations the teams present on their work to date in their enterprises, including their challenges, successes and findings.  To add to the pressure they were presenting to a panel of industry experts including the Department for International Development (DFID) who would ask questions and provide feedback.  As much has the team had prepared and practiced in advance everyone was nervous as presenting to a room of 50 isn’t an easy job, especially to a panel of experts! However there was no need for all the nerves as it was an excellent day and as a team leader it was an amazing opportunity to reflect on the progress and growth of the volunteers.  To see how much they had learned and achieved over such a small period of time was incredibly rewarding.

Through my experience as a team leader I have enhanced and developed many skills that are hugely transferable to my job as a management consultant.  Prior to this placement I would have called myself a good manager, but not a leader.  However, the role as a team leader is essentially a free, intensive, three month leadership training course.  It has taught me so much about leadership and the importance of developing and inspiring.

This experience has also being incredibly rewarding from a cross cultural experience. By living in a host family and having a Zambian counterpart it was an amazing opportunity to be fully immersed in the local cultural and ways of life.  This has helped teach me the importance of cross cultural differences and truly highlighted the needs to be adaptable, flexible and understanding.  Yes, every country has different cultural norms and approaches which can be daunting as well as frustrating – but these differences should be embraced and celebrated. This is an incredibly important skill in today’s interconnected global world.

I equally learned the importance of admitting when you don’t know the answer.  As a team leader you generally do get bombarded with questions from bus routes, exchange rates, supply chain theory to even the chances of rain today (and I am most definitely not a weather woman!).  To be a good team leader you don’t need to know everything – realistically we are still volunteers and we are learning as we go the same as the team. If you don’t know the answer – that is fine – you just need to work through the problems logically and ask for help when you need it.  In a group of 42 there are always going to be other people that can help and support you and that you can learn from.

I still can’t quite believe that my three month placement is over.  It has been one of the most challenging, frustrating, enlightening and rewarding things I have ever done.  When I applied I thought it would be a great opportunity to gain real life leadership experience and enhance my CV whilst experiencing a different culture.  Little did I realise how much I would truly learn and that it would spark new career interests. I plan to continue within consultancy, with much more of a focus on training and learning and development. In working with Challenges Worldwide, I’ve learned that leading and managing volunteers is hard work, but rewarding. I would recommend this programme to anyone wanting to explore their leadership potential while discovering the beauty and diversity of Africa.

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