Empowering ideas

December 14, 2018

“Empower” was the theme of an independent TED event at the UN, Geneva on the 6 December 2018. Eleven powerful speakers spoke to some 700 people in a span of three hours, sharing their personal stories of struggle, resilience and success.

It was good to see copies of the “Charter of the United Nations” on all tables, a powerful reminder as to why the UN is the most appropriate venue for Ted talks on human rights and empowerment. A great way to begin. Congratulations organizers!

Ted talks are about ideas that are worth spreading. The ideas that stayed with me are the following:

Solutions to persistent problems very often lie outside: “We created a sanitary pad with a purpose and reached over 100,000 women in Tanzania. Now girls don’t have to skip schools when they have their periods, shared Jennifer Shigoli from Tanzania recounting the experience of her enterprise, which she described as “manufacturing for social good.” It addressed the core problem due to which girls were skipping schools; gave them a low-cost sanitary pad, led to the growth of a social enterprise; and created employment for rural women.

Raise your voice against oppression: There are human rights violations, discrimination, conflicts all around us. According to UN refugee agency, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. We can’t be silent spectators. Kate Gilmore, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, made an emotional appeal asking all to stand up and raise their voice against injustice, hatred, and oppression. “I am not a hero but I can’t be silent,” said Kate reminding that we all could do something. Agreeing fully to the idea, my little addition is that the voice against oppression and injustice should be equally loud no matter where it happens and who the perpetrator is. It saddens me to see unending sufferings in Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan and Syria, and makes me wonder if we are doing enough?

Education of refugees is as important as water, food and security: “My desire to become a diplomat shattered due to war in my country Syria, I lost everything I had,” said Maya Ghazal, a 19-year-old Syrian refugee. Children of refugees are struggling to get education, which should be seen as important as other humanitarian needs. Only 1% refugees go to university. “It is important to secure university seats for refugees,” stressed Maya who is aspiring to be a pilot now.

Young researchers Elise Luhr Dietrichson and Fatima Sator had a profound message for all who want to make the world a better place, “First people don’t take you seriously. But if you persist, things start happening.”

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Seeing “value” in our work

November 30, 2018

I was recently asked to deliver a session on “Communication and attitudes at work” for interns working in my office. In order to assess their needs better, I sent them a short questionnaire before the session.
Answers to my first question — where do you see yourself five years from now — were as follows:
1. Not sure!
2. Not in a precarious work situation;
3. In a position that I appreciate and feel challenged to do more
4. See value in what I do.

The responses provided a good beginning for the session.
Not being sure of your goal cannot be an option. Every road will take you somewhere if you don’t know where to go. In fact, being in a precarious work situation is often a result of not having a clear goal in mind.

The third and fourth points are critical. People need to appreciate what they do, feel challenged to do more; and see value in what they do.

How can we see “value” in our work?

See the bigger goal: At times our work looks trivial, mundane, or meaningless. But actually it is never so. Step back and think. There is always a larger purpose. When we keep the larger picture in mind, we value our work, no matter how small it may appear.

Accept challenges: Challenges at work help us grow. They may be different: tight deadlines, unsupportive colleagues, a rude boss, multi-tasking, not achieving the desired results etc.
The success lies in handling them, not giving up. Remember the old saying – a calm sea never makes a good sailor!
And, when the going gets tough, take a break. Take a walk. Enjoy the nature. You will come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and raring to go again.

Do what you like: In one of my earlier posts — find relevance in your work — I had shared the story of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike. Knight was failing as a salesman, not because he was not good at selling, he was not selling the product he was interested in. The moment he got to sell shoes, he excelled. So, we should look for the work that we like to do.
Pursuing a goal that we believe in gets the best out of us.


Experience the problem you need to solve

October 30, 2018

The Chairman, TATA Steel, Jamshedpur, India was holding a weekly meeting with his staff. One worker complained about the poor quality and maintenance of toilets for workers. In contrast, the toilets meant for the executives were of top quality having the highest standards of hygiene and cleanliness.

The Chairman found this was unacceptable. Workers should have access to clean toilets. He asked his top executive how much time they would take to set it right. The executive asked for a month’s time.

The Chairman said “I would rather do it in a day. Send me a carpenter.” The next day, when the carpenter came, he simply ordered the sign boards to be swapped. The sign board on the workers’ toilet displayed “Executives” and the Executives’ toilet displayed “Workers”. The Chairman then instructed this sign to be changed every fortnight. The quality of both the toilets came at par within three days.

This incident was shared as an example of leadership by a friend, which indeed it is. But it also shows people need to have a feel of the problem they need to solve. Workers’ toilets would not have improved so quickly if the executives would not have had to use them.

One-third of the global populations still does not have access to a clean and hygienic toilet. Close to 900 million people across the globe continue to practice open defecation. The sustainable Development Goal 6 aims to achieve access to water and sanitation for all by 2030.

Achieving this goal requires a change of mind set to approach solutions. Leaders and managers need to get out of their comfort zones and experience what people around them go through. Then only they will find quicker solutions.

My father was a police officer. I remember he would often go unannounced and eat in the canteen meant for police constables. He ate where all constables used to sit and eat rather than being served in the officer’s dining room. This ensured that the food caterers consistently gave attention to the quality of the food, cleanliness of the canteen, its washrooms and crockery. And, this was also good for the morale of the hard-working police constables.


Should he sleep like this? We need to wake up!

September 29, 2018

Shyam (name changed) is a migrant worker in Mumbai, India.
He works as a daily wage earner, lifting goods from shops and dropping them to nearby places carrying the load on his head in his wicker basket. When he gets tired, or in between the load lifting and dropping trips, he takes a nap in his wicker basket but only till his phone rings and he gets the next call. Maximum weight he can carry is no criterion. He takes as much as he can handle. With the load, he walks up to 5-6 kilometres and sometimes also climbs the stairs in buildings that have no elevator.

I met him in my recent trip to Mumbai and he was kind enough to speak to me about his life. He earns around Rs 1000 (approximately USD 14) a day. At the young age of 28 years, he has started having pain in his neck. He misses his family and the comfort of home. Why did he migrate then? In his home town in Bihar ( another Indian state), he was not able to earn even Rs. 100 a day. He would then be counted among the 800 million who live in extreme poverty globally earning less than 1.9 dollars a day.

Poverty and lack of opportunities at home make people like Shyam migrate to other places. They may earn a bit more but face several challenges and hardships. This proves that increasing income is not enough. Working conditions, occupational safety and health, education and other social services are critical to ensure that people have a good quality of life.

Shyam was in my mind as I conducted the session “leaving no one behind” in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in an international training progrmame this week in Turin, Italy.

We discussed why certain groups – women and girls, migrants, youth, persons with disability, persons living with HIV, indigenous and tribal persons – are being left behind. They are often amongst the extreme poor; they face discrimination on several grounds; and as a result they also have low access to education, health and decent jobs.

The sustainable development agenda envisages that the development goals should be met for all nations/people and for all segments of society. Each country is supposed to identify the groups that are being left behind. I hope people like Shyam will be taken note of as countries implement their plans and make an attempt to reach out to those who are the furthest behind.


How to feed the hungry with dignity

August 31, 2018

Any programme that feeds the hungry is welcome but few challenges always remain: respecting the dignity of hungry people; reducing the waiting time for people before they are served, avoiding wastage, and above all, making the effort sustainable.

In this context, Kozhikode, Kerala, a south Indian state, has developed a good model.

Fully funded by the people of Kozhikode, the initiative – OPERATION SULAIMANI – aims to ensure that no one in the city goes hungry.

People can collect a free meal coupon from any of the distribution centres and walk into any restaurant in the city, where a meal is served without asking any questions with full respect for the dignity of persons. The volunteer team has placed donation boxes across the city, into which anyone can donate. This money is used to reimburse the meal coupons that are collected at the restaurants.

At the initiative of the district collector, the Kerala State Hotel and Restaurants Association has engaged over 125 city restaurants to become a part of this innovative scheme being successfully implemented for over two years now.

Operation Sulaimani is doing so well because it is a voluntary effort with the participation of community, leadership of the district collector and the fact that the capabilities of existing systems are being utilized. No big kitchens are built, there is no food wastage; and funding comes from the community itself with no dependence on big donors. People are served food with full respect for their dignity in city restaurants, where everyone else goes to eat.

While some people may feel that this facility may be misused. Some non- deserving people may also take the free food coupons and eat at a restaurant. But should we be worried about it? It should not be seen as wastage. It is just a spin-off effect of a big initiative that aims to ensure no one should go hungry. I am sure that after eating a few times, people will start donating if they can. We must trust people. Everyone wants to be part of a good cause.


One bag for you, one for others

July 19, 2018

If you go shopping on Saturdays in June and November in Switzerland, chances are that you will be welcomed by a volunteer at the entrance of the supermarket who will offer you a small bag with a gentle request: As you shop for yourself, please buy something for charity, put it in this bag and give us. You can buy things for poor and leave the bag with the volunteer as you go out.

The effort is organized by a non-governmental organization called Samedi Du Partage (Saturday of sharing). Since 1993, the organization has been organizing collection of non-perishable food and hygiene products in different supermarkets, with the participation of volunteers.

I participated in one such drive on the 2 June 2018. Over 900 volunteers collected items at over 70 stores across the city. Tons of products were collected. Volunteers would now spend weeks in sorting them out before distributing them to the poor people through over 50 charitable organizations.

It was heartening to see the willingness of people to donate. They did not ask questions. They trust the work of ‘Samedi du partage’. They have been doing it for years. During the rush hour, as we could not offer the bag to each person entering the shop, some patiently waited for their turn and asked for the bag. A young student came in and handed me a few things. What he had bought for himself was just a water bottle. When I asked he simply said, “I came to buy water for myself. Saw you guys here and thought of joining this effort.” An old woman made three trips, and each time she donated something, saying she finds it difficult to hold much weight at a time.

I decided to write about ‘Samedi du partage’ as it presents a very good model. It makes it convenient for people to help the poor while doing their daily chores. It is also an excellent example of mobilizing volunteers and reaching the needy in partnership with a large number of charitable organizations. I wish such a model is replicated in different places as well.

I am sure most people will be willing to help if a reputable organization approaches them and makes it easier for them to support a good cause. Even if no volunteer approaches us when we go shopping or eating out, we may consider keeping aside a small amount with the intention of helping others.


Three qualities of a leader

June 29, 2018

Some soldiers were trying to move a heavy log of wood without success. Their leader was standing simply watching as his men struggled. A rider passed by and asked him why he was not helping. He said, “I am the corporal. I give orders.” The rider went up and helped the soldiers lift the wood. With his help, the task was accomplished.

The rider was George Washington, the Commander-in-chief. He quietly mounted his horse, went to the corporal and said, “The next time your men need help, send for the commander-in-chief.”

The story brings us to three key characteristics of great leaders.

Leaders take actions: They don’t wait. They don’t just talk or order. The join their team whenever they feel the need. Imagine the morale of the team when its leader joins the team members and works with them to achieve something.

Leaders optimize resources: Leaders make the most of the resources – time, finances and human beings – that they have at their disposal. They keep an eye on all the three. Leaders are excellent managers in this sense. A leader has to be a good manager though the reverse is not necessarily true.

Leaders Inspire: This is the most important quality of leaders. They inspire people/teams with their vision, commitment and actions. Leaders trust their team members/followers. Their communication is inspirational too. They don’t just discuss ‘what’ is to be done, they discuss ‘why’ it is to be done and what ‘impact’ it would bring in. People give out their best when they know that their individual effort is linked to a bigger goal.

Ken Blanchard sums it well, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”