Listening with greater empathy to facilitate change

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A vision of effective change management is driving VAD’s desire to strengthen organizational learning systems

On 5th July 2016, EASUN held a conversation with two (2) leaders of VAD (Voluntary Action for Development) who had completed FOLD training three months earlier. VAD is an NGO based in Kampala, Uganda, working to improve the livelihoods of vulnerable communities through various project activities. The two leaders trained have demonstrated energetic desire to share their own learning with others in their organization; particulary with the purpose of influencing organizational culture change in VAD.

The follow-up visit by EASUN enabled a wide ranging discussion of how FOLD training had transformed leadership practices of the trained individuals, as well as the specific changes in their own knowledge and values that enabled them to introduce new ways of doing things in VAD.

Benedict is the Executive Director of VAD, while Leonard is the Programmes Manager, who is also leading VAD activities in Amuria District of Uganda. They both attended cycle “U” of EASUN’s FOLD (Facilitating Organizational Learning and Development) training, held in Kampala between August 2015 and April 2016.

FOLD influences on leadership and organizational practices

VAD members have strengthened information sharing, particularly through newly introduced reflective learning platforms. VAD staff members have also become more aware of their roles in the team context and are increasingly carrying out their tasks with enhanced team spirit.

A more advanced intervention by the two trained leaders has been their mentorship of colleagues to understand the organization as a complex system. This has increased their awareness of how their actions within their different functions impact other levels of the organization.

Mentoring others has become a critical leadership practice by both Benedict and Leonard. Specific improvements brought about by the new mentoring approach include: 1) More active listening by staff; 2) Improved ability to work with contributions of others; 3) Increased consciousness by individuals in VAD about how their own actions impact the team and the whole organization.

The two leaders also highlighted what they feel they have done particularly well in working with their new learning from FOLD training. Leonard shared how he had particularly embraced application of the action learning model, a particularly power tool for facilitating learning in others. He was able to introduce the tool to other staff members, who now use it in programme activity implementation. He has also applied the reflective processes in this tool to himself on an ongoing basis. “As a leader”, he observed, “my own learning practice has been enhanced in relation to the new awareness about our organization as a complex system. I continuously apply action-learning to assess how my interventions in any part of the organization will impact other parts of the system.”

The two leaders have also introduced the concept of shared leadership among the staff. In this regard, the organization has designated a specific individual to perfom a leading role in convening learning meetings. Specific tasks in this role include managing the schedule for meetings and ensuring that different members of the VAD team are organizing and delivering their contributions in ways that facilitate the learning of others.

What enabled the grounding of new practices in VAD

Through mentorship, Benedict transferred key leadership skills learnt from FOLD, particularly listening skills, to some senior staff in VAD. He also role-modelled the same new skills in his interactions with staff members. This has influenced their positive responsiveness and improved relationships.

Leonard, on the other hand, regularly applies action-learning on his FOLD experience in order to assess how he is working with his new learning within the organization.

One particular challenge experienced and shared by the two trained VAD leaders is how to make learning a reality in the organizational situation and project activities. They noted that there has been much talk about learning in VAD in the past, but without actively establishing learning systems. VAD’s new awareness about the need for consciously managed organizational learning is now pointing to the need for more concrete actions on its desire to become more effective in managing change.

Working with the “self”: a leadership quality that has made change happen in VAD

Benedict and Leonard each characterized major shifts they have become aware of in themselves that influenced specific changes in VAD’s organizational culture and practices. Following below is how they explained it in their own words:

Benedict: “Consciously managing my own change has influenced change in others in ways that generate ownership of their own learning and development. I have become conscious of the fact that people need to see that I, as leader, have changed—for instance, that I am listening to them better than before. My main focus on change has been around my ability to listen actively and mentor others to develope their capacity for empathic listening.”

Leonard: “Before I think of pursuing what I want to do in the organization, I now first assess what is the possible impact on the whole organization. My increased ability to see the organization holistically has motivated me to mentor others to assess everything they do in terms of advancing the overall mission of VAD. This is strengthening our team learning and collective ability to manage VAD’s organizational identity. We have managed to establish different platforms for conscious reflection, including: 1) weekly meetings, 2) morning devotions; 3) one-on-one mentorship of staff.”

Some hindrances to application of new learning from FOLD

Extremely busy schedules related to meeting reporting deadlines have not allowed VAD to sustain engagement in the different learning platforms developed. Such extreme busy-ness has particularly engulfed VAD in managing the formal organization and donor related compliance issues. Constant activity implementation without sufficient time to learn together and grow through practice improvement has placed limits on the ability of VAD to effectively manage its institutional growth through the various phases of organizational development.