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By Laura Gossman
Editor’s Note: Many of the Praxis organizations that have been profiled in recent months are either based internationally with nationals and westerners leading the enterprise or have headquarters in the US, with national leadership abroad, or some combination of both. To continue with our international partnership series, I interviewed Asha Mweru, Kenya Country Coordinator of Sinapis. For more information on the organization’s start-up story, read here. To consider some of the research that has been done on partnerships like these read here. Below, Asha reflects on both the strengths and challenges she has had throughout her experience with American partners.
Asha Mweru has barely reached her one-year anniversary working for Sinapis, but her increasing leadership role and hand in the organization’s growth would make you think she has been there for years. Asha joined Sinapis in March 2013 as a part-time Public Relations officer who came in three times a week. Her main role was to create a communications strategy, create marketing and PR material and handle day-to-day social media strategy. In June 2013, Sinapis changed its outreach strategy, and moved into working with entrepreneurs in churches. Asha was then offered a full time role as a PR and Partnerships lead.
Asha worked under this role for about the next seven months when Sinapis did their first pilot program with churches, and she was able to partner with three mainstream churches in Nairobi. This moved their entrepreneurship base from fifteen to 120, and she played a role in successfully ensuring that their training program went as planned. Everyone in the team had different roles in making sure that the training was successful throughout the sixteen week entrepreneurship training program in the churches.
In December 2013, she was offered a new role of Kenya Country Coordinator as they scale their reach from Nairobi to other churches in Kenya, and begin to enter the global market. Since December, she has been in training for the managerial position.
As Asha reflected on some of the strengths she has experienced with the American leaders of Sinapis, it became clear that some of these very strengths are also coincidentally the same areas that need some improvement. It is important to note that Sinapis was co-founded by two Americans, Courtney Roundtree-Mills and Matt Stolhandske, and one Kenyan, Karibu Nyaggah. All three were Harvard graduate students together. Courtney currently resides in Kenya.
Strengths in the partnership:
- Learning and Growth Opportunities – by working one-on-one with the Executive Director, the learning opportunities have exceeded Asha’s expectations. Her willingness to learn has helped facilitate this, and she is struck by how much there is to know. From working on everything par excellence, to learning how to do complex matrix spreadsheets, Asha is thrilled to grow her skill set and expertise.
- Autonomy– In some areas, once she has been trained to do something, she is then given full autonomy in handling any particular tasks that require the newly acquired skill.
- Culture exchange – “As much I learn from the Executive Director, she also learns a lot about the country, and what would work here and [what] wouldn’t when we want to deploy a new strategy. She therefore listens to me, and takes my advice when it comes to such matters,” shared Asha. Overall, she feels the general organizational culture is great, and the attitudes of those she is surrounded by open and positive.
- Using mistakes positively – The culture at Sinapis is to harness mistakes as opportunities to grow.
- Increased responsibilities – Sinapis consistently assigns Asha new tasks to challenge, stretch and develop her.
- Open door policy – The organization has open channels of communication where they can talk about issues, including the leadership, and this is taken positively.
Challenges in the partnership:
- Supervision in smaller tasks – while there are areas where she is given autonomy, she experiences “over-supervision” in other parts of her job. While it may be easy to conclude some of this may be due, in part, to on-the-job training in her increasing leadership roles, it is imperative for Americans to wrestle with how sometimes training might be received, regardless of our good intentions and reasons.
- Efforts she displays on the job she feels sometimes have been undermined.
As Asha considers the future of Sinapis, she is learning to work with the team as a capable equal with the training she has gone through and as she continues to learn. “With the culture Sinapis has created and continues to improve, it’s hard not love working for Sinapis,” shared Asha. However, when the American leaders feel they cannot trust the employee with a task in their docket, Asha desires that they would “train them in a way that they will never have doubts in their capabilities, and then give them the freedom and space to work at it.”
American leaders will intrinsically find themselves in a tight spot simply by being the founders of an organization in a non-western context. One must train and empower, but also be co-learners even if there are areas the Americans have more expertise. One must provide an autonomous environment for African leaders, given that there has been enough trust and skill sets brought to the table. But in that autonomy, American leaders must allow for mistakes and mitigate risks in such a way that is not perceived as micromanaging. This is quite the tall order, especially when one considers the assumed cultural differences and nuances that make these leadership activities even more difficult. These delicate balances are often rarely achieved just in a western, homogeneous environment.
Based on the strengths and challenges that Asha has experienced, it appears as if Sinapis is walking through this delicate balance daily – sometimes with success and sometimes without. They do, however, seem as if they have fostered an environment to learn from one another so that feelings and perceptions can be shared. May the Asha you encounter in your work and life not only be given the leadership roles to grow into, but intentional space for dialogue about the tensions this growth can create.
Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.
Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.
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