Updated: Aug 14, 2020
Photo credit: Gideon Langat
It was August 2017, my first day in a new job leading several country offices across Sub-Saharan Africa. I had the morning with my predecessor, an old hand in the industry and five years in charge of the region under his belt. There would then be an all-staff meeting where I would up stand in front of the Kenyan country office and make my inaugural speech.
"Hi, I’ve never worked in the travel industry before, been a Regional Manager, or worked in the private sector since 2004, but don’t worry, I am absolutely the right person to lead you." No, that wouldn’t do.
My employers were most worried about me, a young(ish) white British woman, managing old(er) black Kenyan men and women of significant travel expertise and experience. THAT hadn’t even crossed my mind. Now my palms were really sweating.
I had plenty of experience leading diverse teams – in terms of age, experience and background – across Africa and beyond. What made it work was acknowledging our differences and uniting around a common purpose, bringing our varied complementary skills and experience to the table. Without ego, without chips on our shoulders, without fear.
So, I addressed the elephant in the room while highlighting what I would bring to the table. "No, I haven’t worked in tourism since I was teenager. But I share this company’s travel philosophy so closely, that I have travelled on its group tours in 8 of the last 10 years. I’m so passionate about the brand and what it stands for, that I am one of our most loyal customers."
"I know what makes our tours exceptional (you guys) and I am passionate about ensuring we are always pulling together and pushing past our best to make them extraordinary."
"I’ve led cross-functional teams of experts across Africa and beyond despite not having a clue how to do their jobs, and it hasn’t mattered because they have. I need you to support me by stepping up, to do your jobs to the best of your ability, as I can’t. I need you to make time to brief me into your world. My first job is to listen and learn fast. Bring me your challenges, I may not be able to fix them all, but that’s not my job. I will support you to fix them. I trust you as the experts in your fields. Trust me to hold our uniting vision for excellence, an enabling environment for innovation and growth and to have your backs so you can play full out."
Then I finished the speech in embarrassingly broken Swahili – to demonstrate I was willing to get stuck in and try while showing my vulnerabilities.
The response was phenomenal – I have never worked with a team of such passionate, loyal, hardworking and happy individuals, united as family. Together we used travel as a real sustainable force for good in the region.
I was able to do this as I was empowered, my manager endowed on me full trust, flexibility, and had my back when I needed it the most.
What was happening when you last felt empowered? How can you replicate that with your team this week?
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