A whirlwind few months
It’s been a whirlwind few months settling into my job and life in Amsterdam – to be honest, I don’t feel like I’ve been IN Amsterdam to settle very much as my new line of work as a travelling trainer involves spending so much time overseas!
Ethiopia, Jordan, Pakistan and Myanmar – all countries where MSF has projects doing incredible work and all brand-new, fascinating and challenging contexts for me to step into briefly over the last five months.
As part of its internal staff development MSF has an impressive range of in-house training courses on offer – some specialised and technical for specific roles; some medical and public health; and some focused on improving staff management capacity and skills as people progress in their careers with us.
Strength and confidence
The Field Management Course is one of those, and is run several times a year in MSF project countries where they see a need for their staff to develop stronger management skills in their work. These can be international or local staff members – generally there's a mix of the two. I did the course myself six months into my first mission in South Sudan and can honestly say it gave me so much strength and confidence with the 36-odd staff I was managing at the time, that I now heartily recommend it to anyone floundering a bit in team leadership in their projects.
Although I will be expected to train and facilitate on a whole range of the trainings that MSF offers, in order to ease me in gently my manager scheduled me in for only Field Management Courses in my first few months to really ground me in the course content and build my confidence as a trainer. Although the course itself is only a week long, each trip involves meticulous planning: advance communicating with the HR coordinator in-country for schedule planning, venue and materials, tickets, visas, travel permits – you name it, it has to be organised!
Often there are some unexpected considerations to factor in . . . are elections, strikes or referendums planned? Do we need to schedule an extra-long lunch break on a Friday to allow Muslim staff to go the mosque? Is it a conservative culture - should we re-imagine group exercises so that the genders don't mix if physical contact is required? Have we planned back-up methodologies in case the generator cuts out taking our PowerPoint with it? Will it be OK to book a non-halal restaurant for the final evening meal if we check that there are good fish options? And we're often in various planning stages for three or four countries scheduled for consecutive months. I might be organised enough to run a field hospital, but nonetheless, it has been a steep learning curve!
A riotous amount of fun is had in the learning process
Once a group is together though and the training begins, that is when the magic happens for me. The course is designed to be hugely participatory – time spent lecturing is minimised and time doing exercises, role plays, brainstorms and group work dominates. Staff come together, for some their first time to their country’s capital, and for many of them their first time meeting people from other projects. Often they are initially reserved and often respectful of us HQ trainers to the point of near muteness, which isn’t the dynamic we want AT ALL! But within a few hours and a few ice-breaking exercises, walls come down, serious faces begin to relax, stories and experiences start being shared, and more often than not a riotous amount of fun is had in the learning process.
The level of engagement and commitment to learn has been truly mind-blowing. In Ethiopia participants were asking for more time to be spent on almost every module; in Pakistan debates frequently got so animated that multiple topics were scribbled up lopsidedly on the group 'Parking Lot' to be taken down for discussion another day (time allowing!). In Myanmar participants were at their tables bright-eyed and alert a full 20 minutes before the first module was due to start each day, while I was still frantically arranging handouts and flip-charts and praying my morning coffee kicked in soon. In Jordan the training was somewhat unfortunately scheduled over Eid, and still 18 Muslim staff chose to attend, forgoing a few days of family festivities (for many people reading, imagine missing your family Christmas . . .)
Every country I’ve been to so far has been new to me – and to read, interpret and work successfully with the different cultural groups has been a been a fascinating, humbling and in one case humiliating experience.
Fascinating, humbling . . . embarrassing
Sitting in a training can be pretty draining for the participants after a few days, so as a remedy against drowsiness I have a few energiser-type exercises up my sleeve for when the energy levels seem particularly low. They're designed to get people moving, engaged and hopefully laughing again and back up to good attention levels. The afternoon of day four of the course in Jordan was a prime example of when this seemed needed. People were slumped in their seats following lunch and it looked more like most of them wanted a nap rather more than the planned three hour session on 'Cross-Cultural Communications' that I was scheduled to lead.
So!! I got them all up and launched into a brief energiser that had worked brilliantly when I'd tried it recently in Ethiopia. A trio of nonsense words – Zip, Zap and Zop - are shouted by the trainer (me) and the participants have to respond with pre-arranged synchronised arm movements. (It’s more fun than it sounds here I promise.) What usually happens is some misinterpretation, some fluffed movements and a lot of laughter. What actually happened in this instance was a rather restrained following of the instructions and a few muted giggles. Odd, I mused. Well this is a rather mature and dignified group, perhaps I should save that energiser for a younger and less self-conscious crowd.
Whatever the participation, the desired outcome of the exercise had been achieved – they were all certainly wide awake and attentive now. So I cracked on with the session. It was brilliant, with great discussions on the subtleties of cultural nuances, traditions, MSF's own culture, and debates on how best as a supervisor to address the tensions and difficulties that can arise when working in diverse teams.
As the day closed and the participants began to file out of the room there was a brief pile-up at the door and intense debate in Arabic between some of them. An older gentleman detached himself from the group – a sombre and rather earnest Jordanian doctor and made his way towards where Katie (my co-trainer) and I were packing away our laptops and papers for the day.
We paused what we were doing and turned towards him, expecting perhaps a question that was left unanswered during the session, or an enquiry about the next day's schedule. I smiled encouragingly; he bowed very slightly and after a somewhat pregnant silence hesitantly spoke.
“The exercise that you used at the beginning, yes, umm . . . the word zip, um, in Arabic, it err, um . . . it is, um . . . a, how you say? Slang word? Yes, slang word for um . . . you know, men’s genitals . . . yes, um, so . . . ” and with this trailed off into an awkward silence.
So. I had essentially spent two full minutes shouting “PENIS!” (or worse) at a room largely full of devout and observant Muslims and wondered why they weren’t having fun . . . And then to make matters even worse, I had gone on to lecture them for three hours on the importance of cross-cultural sensitivity in MSF staff management.
I felt a furnace-like heat rise into my cheeks as I looked over at Katie. Her brick-red face and frozen, horrified expression I can only assume mirrored my own. She clapped both hands over her mouth while I stammered out sincere and profuse apologies. Actually, I can only hope and assume I did. Truth be told, I have something of a memory blackout from that point. It was as if part of my brain actually short-circuited and shut down from the heat of sheer mortification.
What I do remember is the astounding graciousness of the staff themselves when I apologised to them en masse at the opening of the next day: their warmth; gentle understanding laughter; and utter, utter lack of any sense of insult taken as I spoke to them. The week continued happily unmarred by any similar faux pas and we had a fabulous last-night dinner and certificate-giving celebration.
I had never been to the Middle East before. It was magical being in Jordan. Katie and I even had time to visit Petra on our day off, the memory of which is only a small part of the country's draw and charm to me now. More, I remember the staff's energy, determination and sheer commitment to caring for the Syrian refugees and victims of bombings in the camps and hospitals that MSF is supporting. I loved it, and hope in my new career to be able to go back many, many, many more times to train and coach the incredible staff to continue their incredible work to the very best of my ability. But I am never, EVER going to use that particular energiser again!