30 participants, 14 nationalities, 7 projects, 12 volunteers and a global youth seminar hosted in Kuala Lumpur. Take the context out, replace the numerics, or change the location – the modus operandi is most likely similar for any training programs.
From the 30th November to 3rd December 2016, I was in-charge of making sure that the World Federation of United Nations (WFUNA) Youth Seminar is successfully hosted in Kuala Lumpur; its first in South-East Asia after previously graced by Jaipur, New York, Oslo and Buenos Aires. The rotational set-up is meant for a better distribution of training opportunities for the youths of WFUNA’s member countries.
The idea was to engage youth representatives who are members of their United Nations’ national associations. Participants are leveraged on their common interests and they are expected to brainstorm and implement their projects –however and wherever they prefer– based on the Sustainable Development Goal #16 for peace and security.
Our mission was to transcend youth idealism into activism, upgrade opinion leaders into community movers and to spark possibilities for cross-border collaborations towards a common cause.
Comparatively speaking, hosting 30 people may sound petty but the logistical, leadership and financial bearing remains a challenge to a youthful group of volunteers from United Nations Association Malaysia (UNAM) (visit www.unamyouth.com).
Personally, the process of leading this cause was also an interesting juncture of experience as I was in the midst of completing my admission to the Malaysian Bar in a legal firm at that time.
Juggling between the two was not easy.
While I had to lead a young team to implement our ideas for the youth seminar, I was also often in the receiving ends of my inexperience and legal naivety by my lawyer colleagues in a 9-month journey where long hours were spent on most weekdays.
Being both the leader and follower at the same time had given me an opportunity to diverge the two experiences and to self-reflect on what has been a roller-coaster experience of emotions and self-development.
Here are the three lessons learned that I can share:
1. Shape your team early
Be it in a legal firm or in running a youth organization, it is important for a leader to first define the talent and capacity of the team. I didn’t want to micro-manage and I needed the team to be on cruise control as I had little time to spare then.
I learned from this experience that the expectations of the leader must correspond to the capability and the pre-agreed commitments among the team members.
Taking in my observation of working in a law firm, I decided that the working dynamic of the hosting team was best served with a cocktail of talent, experience and scope of contribution. This was after taking into account the similarity of the nature of the demands to my day job; which has strict deadlines.
In terms of experience, I had cherry-picked my trusted Lieutenants from the people that I have worked with in the past mainly because I knew how their work ethics are like. I also value their inclination in poking holes to my ideas, especially if that’d help to solve the puzzle better.
More importantly, I was able to delegate some of the core responsibilities to them – which has allowed me to focus on more urgent matters such as fundraising and in designing the training module.
For a team averaging 20 years of age, it was fascinating to observe how capable some of my team members are in producing the “magic” when needed to; mainly in the areas of web designing, creative graphics, as well as in video and audio editing.
As the team leader, I’d usually have a rough idea on what needed to be done – except that I didn’t have the technical expertise to do all of them. Hence, it was only logical for me to get some help. Over a span of a month, I had sourced the talents from an open pool of applications before interviewing them to identify their suitability to the merit of the team.
Throughout this process, I realised how eerily similar the set-up was to a law firm’s employment structure.
For example, while in my initial stage of legal traineeship, there were whispers of keeping ‘strategic’ individuals in the firm as a ‘business strategy’. Slowly, I began to notice how important to have what I call –‘the pivot’ – to generate opportunities for the firm.
Akin to how a couple of individuals can potentially bring more businesses to the firm than what talented and experienced employees could, I had also valued the specific contributions of team members that were taken in to do just that—creating opportunities.
2. Working with difficult people is unavoidable and is part of the necessary process
If you had not realised already, most of the established non-profit organisations, humanitarian bodies and youth organisations are managed by paid staffs and professionals. While the youth seminar itself was an outreach program to members of national UN associations, it was not coordinated on the ground by WFUNA’s paid employees, but by volunteers of UNAM who committed themselves to this cause out of passion and sheer grit.
Contrary to popular belief, organisational volunteerism does not magically materialise from empathy alone. This value has to be tapped from effective crowdsourcing of ideas, maestro-ed by focused leadership, and may possibly involve financial support for the activism to be sparked.
This was where the difficult part comes in; someone needs to get their hands dirty to get things moving.
In this case, our team members had to work extra hard to meet various individuals to secure funding, logistical support and relevant expertise.
Often times, the process was made difficult by bureaucracy and procedures—especially in a country like Malaysia where power-distance has always been a hindrance to productivity.
I can still recall the days when I had to spend half a day for a two-minute conversation to get a mere “yes”. Sometimes, we had to wait for weeks before a pre-approved plan is signed on paper for official purposes. This was especially difficult when meetings were planned without taking into consideration of the volunteers’ time and availability. While I had to squeeze my time between lunch breaks, several others had to skip classes at their respective learning institutions.
Meanwhile in a law firm, it’s notorious how demanding dealing with lawyers can be.
Coming out fresh from law school, I could only grow a thick skin while learning my ropes from the more experienced peers—whom probably went through the same process to be at the level where they are today. I was not in the position to escape the reality when my set of skills are limited to what I have learned from only thick legal textbooks and the four corners of my classrooms.
While working with difficult people is a challenge by itself, I realised that it was more challenging to recover our mental strengths to be stronger each time.
3. Communication is key to avoiding conflicts
Whilst in the process of designing the training module of the youth seminar, both myself and Pablo Angulo, a New York-based focal person of WFUNA, had different perspectives in our approach to train the participants. Despite the geographical and time-zone differences, we tried to communicate as frequently as we could via numerous conference calls on Skype.
Although admittedly there were hiccups along the way, the impact was minimised as there was already a general understanding between WFUNA and UNAM, even as Pablo had to be replaced by another WFUNA trainer, Erly Munoz, due to last-minute unavoidable circumstances.
Erly had delivered her duty impeccably as our flow of thoughts had already been streamlined by detailed planning between Pablo and I, despite having never met each other throughout.
In a more demanding legal setting, at times instructions were misinterpreted due to my lack of experience and limited legal know-hows. The no-nonsense approach by our clients can at times heat up the dynamic of the team when it was only a matter of time before mental stress can override our usual characters.
I felt that this can be avoided by encouraging both vertical and horizontal communication everyday—no matter how limited our time was.
A more engaging team definitely helps in numbing the psychological impact of dealing with difficult situations. Relating this to my first point, it is also important for a leader (or employer) to manage his/her expectations and to react accordingly, rather than excessively.
If anything, it would have been better to have the sense of honour to our responsibilities rather than feeling forced to fulfil them out of fear.
Having been exposed to both approaches, it has been our practice in UNAM to listen to everyone’s opinions and ideas before deciding on the best approach to move forward.
I am glad that the youth seminar was successfully organised.
But it was a bigger success to have seen my youthful peers adopting the practice of communicating effectively in getting the best out of our potentials while working together.
*The writer sits on the Youth Advisory Council of WFUNA (http://www.wfuna.org/youth-advisory-council)