Life as a Management Partner: Three lessons from the first 100 days

Life as a Management Partner: Three lessons from the first 100 days

Dylan Edwards is AMP Health’s Management Partner for Community Health in Zambia. Here, Dylan reflects on three lessons from his first 100 days in country.

“Oh, a management partner? So what exactly is it that you do?”

I’ve just introduced myself to the director of a large health NGO, and she is squinting at my business card. I’ve been in Zambia for just over three months, and I’ve been asked some variation of this question at least a dozen times.

I explain that I am embedded in the Ministry of Health but, no, I am not a technical advisor. I am not a health expert. My job is to help the community health team to manage their work better.

The director nods enthusiastically. Like many people who have worked in partnership with the public sector in low-resource countries, she knows that there is an immense need for better management and leadership skills in government ministries. This is especially true for health ministries, where senior managers are often medical doctors or other health professionals with many years of technical programme experience but have little formal management experience or training.

However, the managerial challenges they deal with on a daily basis are enormous. When I arrived in Zambia, the Community Health Unit had only two full-time employees. This was the national team responsible for coordinating tens of thousands of health workers and volunteers to run all community health activities in a country with a population of 17.8 million people.

“That must keep you pretty busy,” says the director. “Where do you start?”

Having just passed the 100-day mark a management partner in Zambia, it’s a question I have been thinking about a lot. How, as management partners, do we begin to make changes that can start to shift the dial on the way community health programmes are managed? Here I would like to share three lessons from the first 100 days.

1. Find a way to spend one-on-one time with each team member

When your job is to give advice, your only currency is trust (since nobody in their right mind would take advice from somebody they didn’t trust). And so, earning the trust of your team is your first priority.

I have found that the most important way of building trust is to spend one-on-one time with each member of the team. It gives them the opportunity to speak more openly than they would in a group setting, and I find that if you can find a way to relate on a personal level, people are far more likely to be open with you about the challenges that they are trying to work through at work.

Finding the time for these one-on-one meetings can be more difficult than it sounds. Things often came up at the last minute, especially for the more senior people on the team. It’s not unheard of for the head of the community health unit to be pulled into an all-day meeting with the minister at the last minute, or to suddenly find that half the team is going to be out of the office attending various workshops, meetings or support visits in rural parts of the country.  

I have found that I have to take the opportunities to meet whenever they come up. For instance, I discovered that the head of the community health unit’s home is on my way home from work. Since then, we have spent about 30 minutes together in Lusaka traffic about three or four times every week. It has given us an opportunity to reflect on the day’s work, talk through any specific problems that the team is working on, and get to know each other a bit better.

2. Keep it simple

I knew almost immediately that the team I was working with needed a project management tool. There was too much paperwork and too many process stages where things could fall through the cracks. It scared me that the team was carrying around so much information in their heads (What if they took another job? What if they forgot?).

I compared a few cloud-based tools and chose the one I thought would work best. I signed everybody up. I scheduled some time to train the team up and show them some of the features that I thought would make their lives easier.

I was a little concerned that their response was so muted, but I figured that once they saw how much better my way was, they would come around.

And then… nothing. Nobody loaded a project. Nobody assigned a task, or used the chat feature, or set up a project team.

Over time I started to see why. The Ministry’s internet connection was unreliable, so the team often used their phones as personal hotspots. They were understandably reluctant to spend their own precious data on a project management tool. A few team members did not feel comfortable using an online tool; they were just happier with pen-and-paper lists. And some felt like it was yet another thing to fill in – adding to their paperwork burden rather than relieving it.

One day during a team meeting, exasperated that we still weren’t using a project management system, I started mapping out processes on the office whiteboard. Once the team had this visual representation in front of them, something clicked. They immediately saw the value in it and have been diligently filling it in and using it to assign and track tasks. Each morning in the office now begins with a quick status update with the team crowding around the whiteboard to report on their progress. And the team is constantly making improvements – the latest version (call it whiteboard 2.0) has a colour-coded system for allocating tasks and a new section for external meetings and who needs to attend them.

The best solution is the one that the team will actually use, and in this case our whiteboard-based project management tool beat any cloud-based system hands down.

3. If you don’t know, ask

My team knows far more about the Zambian health system than I do. And they are far more experienced at dealing with the idiosyncrasies of government bureaucracy. There have been times when team meetings have become a tangle of jargon and acronyms that I don’t yet understand.

When something comes up that I don’t understand, whether it is a technical term or the way that different institutions are supposed to interact, it really helps to stop and ask your colleagues to explain. I have found that it helps to build the team’s confidence allow them to play the coaching role and explain how things are done around here. It is also great for building trust to show yourself to be vulnerable and that just because you are here as an advisor, doesn’t mean that you know better than the team. (A corollary: the worst course of action in this situation is to pretend to know something that you don’t. If the team realises that you have been nodding along without understanding what they are talking about, it immediately undermines your credibility).

My team has been patient enough to teach me about things like the correct process for getting approval for a procurement process; the importance of proper bag-packing technique for community health assistants when doing home visits; the role of traditional leaders in Zambian society; and who the important players in community health are at district, provincial and national level.

While a major part of my role is to act as a teacher or coach for the team, there are often moments where I need them to teach me. I know that 100 days into this role, my learning journey is only just beginning.