Heart Work: 4 Lessons I’ve Learnt From My Ten Years At A Social Enterprise

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24-11-2018

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OCTOBER 2008: I was a reluctant participant at a graduates’ camp where I was spending too much of my time questioning why I had chosen to sign up and feeling distinctly out of place. It was a camp designed to help fresh graduates transition into the working world and I hated it.

 

To be fair, the content of the camp was great, I just didn’t fancy socialising very much and disliked too much small talk. As such, I rather enjoyed the sessions. Because during sessions, I get to listen and not have to interact very much.

The main speaker for the camp was a charismatic man, he spoke a mile a minute and was clearly very passionate about whatever he was sharing on.
He talked about young people playing a part in nation building and he talked about rising up to challenges, about not being afraid of failure, and about how life was either a daring adventure, or nothing at all.

It was inspiring and soul-moving and I had to find out more. I approached him during dinner time, and he invited me to sit with him, his wife, and young son who was just about a month-old at that time.

He talked more about what he and a few others had started, and about the dream for a better, brighter Malaysia. Intrigued, I reached out to him again post-camp and we set up a time to meet with others from his team.

I arrived at their office and promptly found myself in an interview with his co-founder-cum-human resource and finance leader – I was in no way prepared for that!

Thankfully, she found humour in the situation and we had a good laugh. She then took the time to explain what they do in detail and I was introduced to the rest of the team.

Coincidentally, they were preparing for a youth camp and I was roped in as one of the volunteers. I did not know then, that this would be Day One of a decade-long journey with Leaderonomics.

Reflecting back…

The past 10 years have been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs.

I am aware that it is rare for someone to stay with the same organisation for such a long time, but I am grateful for the opportunity to weather the seasons and cycles; to share in the good times and to strive in the not so good times.

As I reflect upon the one-third of my lifetime that I have journeyed with Leaderonomics, these are the lessons that I cherish the most:

1) Relationships are important, but so are results

There is no doubt that things happen more effectively and efficiently when good relationships abound.

It may take an extra five minutes to walk across the office to request something face-to-face versus sending an email, but the result is that the request is usually attended to in less time as well.

The flip side of this is that the five-minute walk could easily turn into a 30-minute social call, and having just a few of these so-called ‘five-minute walks’ could potentially kill productivity for the day.

So, while I can go home feeling good about the work day, in essence, not very much was accomplished at all. I have learnt (and continue to learn) that at the foundation of deep and trusting relationships is the bedrock of accountability and authenticity.

We need to learn to not only celebrate strengths, but to also confront weaknesses. Having good relationships is not an excuse for exploitation or slacking off.

In fact, strong relationships need to feed off mutual respect and input towards shared goals. When we win, we win together, because we have equally invested our best into the success.

Sadly, we often tend to be cautious so as not to hurt the relationships we have. I definitely have avoided difficult conversations or even glossed over mistakes because it was an easy way out.

I didn’t want the mess of dealing with a potential fallout and I was also afraid of speaking out because I am not perfect myself. The consequence of this is usually preventable – and at times, costly – mistakes.

Yes, we must not sacrifice relationships for results, but at the same time, we also need to be accountable towards the results we have agreed upon. As Joseph Tan, our culture guru once said, “Don’t lower the standards, just increase the care.”

 

2) Making mistakes is inevitable, being a mistake is not

A while back, I witnessed a train wreck as it was happening, since I was in the co-driver’s seat. We were handling a client programme and were attempting to make logistic arrangements remotely.

It was increasingly clear that the client was getting frustrated and exhausting their options to accommodate us.

Of course, this ended with the client’s big boss calling up my big boss. Up to that point in my career, I had never had my boss so upset with me – it was my biggest blunder and we needed to fix things.

Together with my team, we worked out a plan to make things right, putting in the extra effort (which meant extra costs and extra time) to ensure that things went well.

The effort paid off and the team pulled off a stunning programme. In hindsight, we were aware of other factors that played a role in the escalation of the situation.

Regardless, it needed us to acknowledge our mistake and eat humble pie without pushing the blame and passing the buck. As such, we continue to work with this client today and are grateful for the opportunity they have entrusted to us.

I’m certain that I will still make mistakes in the future; what I hope for is the grace from those around me to allow me to grow through these shortfalls, and for enough self-awareness to know when I’m the problem.

3) To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose

I spent most of my time in Leaderonomics organising and running youth leadership camps and programmes, and it’s always a privilege to be a part of a young person’s life journey.

We are gifted with the opportunity to be role models and cheerleaders for these youths, many of whom may be struggling with personal challenges at home and at school.

It’s difficult, sometimes, to suspend our own values and judgement and to allow them to learn some lessons on their own.

I remember a conversation I had with a facilitator during camp, and he was lamenting about how he felt like knocking some sense into some of these youths.

We eventually came to the conclusion that even if he did have the best advice in the world for them, but they were not ready to hear it, then it would be wasted advice anyway.

Timing, is everything.

In a similar way, I’ve had to bid many farewells to great colleagues and friends. While the majority have left on happy terms, it would be dishonest to claim that everyone was always satisfied with how things were.

I myself have had moments when I questioned my choice to stay and have wondered if moving on would be a better option.

In a teh-tarik session with our co-founder, she reflected on the challenges of turnover and realised that every person who has been with us, has been with us for a season and a reason.

The difficult ones have taught us to be better and the great ones have helped us become better. We need to make peace, and not hold grudges, nor be resentful or bitter.

4) Things that are of value, often come at a price

In that same teh-tarik session, my co-founder also admitted that it was hard to see people angry and leaving for various reasons. It was hard to hear accusations and painful to acknowledge that we may have fallen short of expectations.

She reminded me that when Leaderonomics started, they knew it was going to be long term, that it would take 15-20 years to really see the fruit of what was sowed in faith. They knew it would not be easy, but it would be worth it.

I have seen the struggle that both my founders have gone through.

The difficult decision to choose between continuing or throwing in the towel. When things don’t go as planned, it’s tempting to take that as a sign that it’s not working out and it’s time to close shop.

I know they’ve stayed up countless nights figuring out how they can ensure that the staff get the bonuses they deserve. They push us to work hard, and they themselves work even harder.

We, as employees, complain and criticise, while they shed tears of sorrow and heartache. We can up and go, but they’ve committed to a cause.

Tying it all together

Through them, I’ve learnt that doing what you love is hard work.

There’s no shortcut and you have to be willing to plough the ground together, to toil in the good times and the bad times. To grow through setbacks and to stay fervent to the course.

It’s been 10 years now. Are we closer to achieving what we set out to do? In many ways, yes, but the road ahead remains full of adventure.

So, would you partner with us for the next 10 years?

 

Prefer an e-mag reading experience? This article is also available in our 24th November, 2018 digital issue. Access our digital issues here.

 

Audrey is currently the head of Leaderonomics Youth and envisions a Malaysia where all children and youth are given the opportunity to grow, learn, and lead. Leaderonomics Youth designs and delivers fun and engaging camps, workshops, school clubs, and conventions for youths between the ages of 8 to 18.

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