Building people, not projects (12/5/17)

I noticed a little while ago that I’ve been struggling to answer the get-to-know-you question ‘so, what do you do?’.

I used to respond with a paragraph-long description:  “well, I come alongside leaders working in resource-limited contexts, building capacity and capability through coaching, mentoring, and training.  If they have a vision or idea, I help build the capability within them and their organization to deliver it.”

But lately–perhaps in an effort to keep the conversation short (I am a man, after all)–I’ve been responding “I’m an engineer.”  Or “I deliver projects.”  Or “I do leadership training.”  Or my recent favorite “I’m the medical director’s wife.”

Honestly, it’s just a lot easier to say, “See that hospital?  I helped to build that” than it is to say, “See that hospital?  Over four years I helped to build, mentor, and train the engineering team in their successful delivery of $3.5M worth of new hospital facilities.”

Since recognizing this change in my responses to ‘what do you do?’-type questions, I’ve had some clarity in how to describe my work accurately, but also with a bit more brevity:  My vocation is building people, not projects.  I’m indebted to a construction manager in Uganda who made this observation while driving me to the Entebbe airport in Uganda a few weeks ago.

Here’s the “big hairy realization” I’ve discovered over the last few years of working in East Africa:  When my focus is on the people I work with, on building them and their capacity, the project also ends up getting delivered, the system improved, the work done, along the way.  But if my focus is on the project/system/work, It’s easy to neglect the person in favor of the outcome, the deliverable, the metric.

Foundations for a new elevated 100 cubic meter water storage tank at RVA

Easy to write about:  The ‘fast work’ of building the foundations for a new elevated 100 cubic meter water storage tank on the Rift Valley Academy Water Project

To be sure, some of my work includes physical foundations – steel-reinforced concrete, measurable, excavated, set out, poured according to procedure.  It’s immediately gratifying, easy to take a picture of and write about. But I spend most of my time strengthening invisible foundations:  helping people and organisations develop the skills and systems that deepen and broaden their effectiveness.  This is a longer, slower work, more difficult for me to write about.

It’s the long conversations before and after the weekly construction progress meetings.  It’s the prayer in a workshop where we pause for a few moments of silence to center ourselves in the gift of being contingent beings in God’s creation, not human bulldozers who make things happen.

Harder to write about: mentoring these young future Kenyan engineering leaders

More difficult to write about: the ‘slow work’ of mentoring

It’s reading books together–on management, leadership, spiritual formation, some of the ancient Christian writers–and getting together to debate and discuss them.  It’s learning by doing and failing; recognizing that western leadership approaches aren’t intrinsically valuable and universally applicable across cultures.

It’s learning from those I work with…recognizing that they have at least as much to teach me as I do to teach them.  It’s listening…listening some more, asking questions, learning to ask better questions, and listening again.

It’s being available.  Spending time….more time…and more time…over meals, chai, coffee, on the phone, not seeing such time as wasted energy with little to ‘show’ for it, but recognizing that this time is holy.  It’s being willing for that deadline to slip slightly or that meeting to run late because I am taking more time to answer questions, ask questions, listen, and encourage.

My work is to build people, not projects.  As someone who is wired to be goal-oriented and driven, writing down and saying it often reminds me that this is my goal–people, not projects.  Because I have discovered that when I focus on the people, I get both.

Here’s a few invisible foundations I’ve been privileged to help strengthen recently 🙂

The African Mission Healthcare Foundation (AMHF) was started about a decade ago by Dr Jon Fielder, an American medical missionary in Kenya and Malawi, supported by Mark Gerson, a New York businessman.  Their goal:  support medical missionaries and mission hospitals, in recognition that mission hospitals provide 1/3 of all medical care in sub-Saharan Africa, punching significantly “above their weight” with far less resources than the private and government hospitals that provide the rest.

AMHF’s impact and reach has grown so quickly that they decided to dedicate significant effort in the past year to strengthening their own management team and systems – I have been helping with that, including facilitating planning workshops and conversations and assisting in the development of the award framework for the 2017 Gerson L’Chaim Prize–the largest-ever prize for clinical care.

Jon Fielder with 2IC Ken

Jon and Ken, COO

It is difficult to overstate the impact and importance of AMHF’s work through their on-the-ground partners, and AMHF’s leadership team is accordingly committed to working through some tremendously important questions:  What does it mean to help a mission hospital be ‘sustainable’?  How do we ensure we are using donor money wisely, efficiently and transparently? How many people need to work full time at this?  In what roles? Should they be volunteers or do we pay them?  What kind of people and roles do we need to strengthen our leadership and governance as our impact grows?

Enthusiastic risk management teaching!

Enthusiastic risk management discussions!

Engineering Ministries International  is an organisation with one of the best visions I’ve ever come across:  “To see people restored by God and the world restored through design.”  I dare you to try to read that out loud without your back straightening just a little  🙂   I’ve been working with their East Africa office in Uganda to develop some project management and coaching training for their multicultural engineering and architecture team.

A few weeks ago I travelled to Uganda to lead a two day workshop for their team of twenty, helping them think through how to build frameworks and a standardized methodology for good project delivery.  This workshop training built on sessions I’ve led for medical doctors and nurses working in resource-limited contexts in Greece and Thailand–high-impact professionals who often have good ideas and clear visions, but need help in delivering it.

teaching the eMi team in Uganda

teaching the eMi team in Uganda

I’m not the only person with a heart to strengthen the foundations of medical mission work. Paul Armerding is an ex-CEO of a mission hospital in Bahrain with decades of experience whose organisation Medical Compass is doing exactly that – equipping medical leaders to strengthen governance, financial management and strategic planning.  Since I met Paul in April, we have been starting to look at areas where our skills and experience align and complement one another.  There’s also my first wife* Mardi who hopes, in currently studying for an MBA, to gain more understanding alongside her experience of equipping mission hospitals in strong, sustainable, transparent leadership and governance.

Many others are committed to this “behind the scenes” critical work without which good medical care cannot be sustained, no matter how many enthusiastic surgeons come with scalpels at the ready.

With Paul Amerding

With Paul Armerding

It’s hard to blog about the sometimes sepia-toned world of leadership and management strengthening – but we are grateful to those on our partnership team who are with us behind the scenes, having an impact tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow!


*NB:  she is also my only, and current, wife 🙂

Author: steeres

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  1. Well, I see there are some other people doing things, so I guess it’s OK for you to go away for a whole year, but I will miss you and I bet Africa will miss you even more!

    Love and prayers, Phyllis

  2. indeed there are, many other people doing many good things 🙂 We are part of a team here!

  3. Such a good reminder to us all that we’re to build up people not projects. Even in my mundane world, I needed this. 🙂

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