Be a giver, not a taker – ten leadership lessons from the past ten years

I have been enormously fortunate over the past decade to have had a series of leadership roles that speak to the transformative power of a good education. As a result of exceptional teamwork, I have built and led an education foundation that focused on teachers as the principal agents of change, I have made the case at UN platforms, the World Bank, G20 and to several Governments about the Sustainable Development Goals, I co-founded a business that provides vocational skills programs to tackle the youth unemployment crisis, and came to realise the need to embrace innovation and technology and have invested in start-ups that have huge potential in transforming our schools. I’ve not only set a vision and created strategies but I’ve built organisations that have delivered outsized results from ground up.

As I chart out the next phase of my career, given the range of experiences and various successes and failures, I thought it would be useful to reflect on the lessons I learnt in the past ten years, some of which are shared below: 

1. THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR FOCUS AND EFFORT. Simplifying my personal commitments to prioritise family and work was a game-changer. As tempting as it was to get involved with other initiatives, I decided that doubling down on teacher status was what we would do and we spent a considerable amount of time and our resources in pursuing our goal. Hard choices had to be made and at the risk of offending others, I had to learn to say ‘no’ a lot more than I wanted to.

2. ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR WEAKNESSES AND BUILD STRONG TEAMS. Building teams is the toughest thing I have done. I am incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to hire smart and talented people who put their best feet forward each and every day. Realising what my weaknesses were (and there were many), the team was able to plug my gaps. A good example is what we achieved with the Global Education & Skills Forum, which became one of the most pre-eminent annual convenings in the global education calendar. The team really stepped up to deliver an exceptional event every year.

I can never thank my former and current colleagues enough for their contributions. Ten years ago, I was new to education, international development and also to philanthropy. The strides that were made were as a result of teamwork.

3. TREAT PEOPLE AS ADULTS. Treat others how you’d like to be treated. As far as is possible, be as transparent as you’d expect them to be with you. Management speak would encourage you to be ‘authentic’ and lead with your ‘values’, for once these gurus are correct! It takes work to be able to do so but by trying, you’ll find the harder conversations become easier to have. I’m not suggesting you don’t use other approaches, but…

4. LISTENING, A LEADERS SUPERPOWER. It is true that as you get older, you tend to listen more. That combined with the benefit of experience and hindsight can be the difference in achieving your potential. I’d encourage you to talk less, listen more. At the outset of my tenure at the Varkey Foundation, I remember consulting key organisations as to what they thought our priorities should be given we were just starting up, and by listing all areas they were interested in, I realised no one really spoke about the importance of teachers, which, as a direct result, became the focus of our existence and resulted in starting a movement that gave front-line teachers a voice in the most important debates concerning the future of education.

5. LEARN FROM EVERYONE. Talk to everyone. It really is as simple as that. You don’t have to agree with everyone (and they may even treat you as an adversary), but I found exposing myself to new ideas, new environments, new people contributed significantly to how I thought about my work and life. Many of these conversations and lightbulb moments have resulted in actual growth opportunities. There are so many such friends and acquaintances who I owe a huge thanks to and for fear of missing people out I won’t start a list, but please know that without diverse views and perspectives to consider, the decisions we make are poorer.

6. WITHOUT COMMUNICATION, NO SUCCESS. Contributing towards and shaping a vision is important, but I can’t over-emphasise the need to put greater effort in communicating and translating that same ideal to all your stakeholder groups. I learnt that we have to use every tool at our disposal to bridge and explain what is often perceived as unimportant or too complicated for others. By doing so, we are more likely to have alignment with others and their support for our activities when we need it most. I explain the success of the Global Teacher Prize in these terms. In the past five years, we exerted much effort in using this initiative to drive home the importance of teachers. We used every tool at our disposal to capture the imaginations of as many people as we could and today, we see not just the billion dollars of media coverage we received but an irreversible movement to place teachers at the heart of sustainable development.

7. NOTHING IS DONE ALONE. You can’t achieve much on your own. Building coalitions of interest, partnerships with purpose and demonstrating a commitment to a bigger goal is critical but often fraught with organisational politics, is challenging and very time-consuming. Bringing people together and building community are superpowers that leaders need to develop. Our commitment to exert pressure on the G20 in Argentina with a diverse range of civil society organisations last year, is an example, which resulted in a formal declaration issued by the Presidency that reflected many of the concerns raised, including on teachers and the future of skills. We couldn’t have achieved this by ourselves.

Throughout my career, I have held the belief that multi stakeholder approaches strengthen decision making and result in better outcomes.

8. DON’T FEAR ASKING FOR HELP. You’ll be surprised as to the willingness of people in your network and beyond to help you. For me, there’s been quite a few times that I’ve become clearer in my thinking by picking up the phone and asking for specific advice. Leadership can be very lonely if you let it be so. Many of those I called became mentors to me and continue in that capacity even today.

9. CONNECT THE DOTS. I just finished a book called ‘Rebel Ideas’ by Matthew Syed who speaks about the criticality of networking to the development of an innovation culture. I know people roll their eyes at the very thought of networking but it’s the force multiplier that allows you to connect the dots for others. That’s what leaders have to do (much more of).

10. BE MORE AMBITIOUS. If you shoot for the stars you may fall short, but this shouldn’t deter you from trying. It’s one of the things I most admire about entrepreneurial cultures – unless you put yourself in the frame, how will you know what you can achieve? I love this quote: “You miss a 100% of the shots you don’t take”. This can apply in most domains and is a really important leadership lesson. Be more ambitious for yourself, your colleagues, your stakeholders, and your organisation.

I’m incredibly proud of my time at the Varkey Foundation and associated organisations but after ten years, it’s time for a new set of challenges, which I relish to take. I’m in the process of evaluating some great opportunities and will share more once I’ve decided what to pursue.

Every day of the last ten years, I’ve been astonished and humbled by the commitment and imagination of teachers in every corner of the world. Because of them, we all rise. They, my friends, epitomise the most important lesson (and one that is self explanatory, I hope) which I have purposely left to the end:

11. BE A GIVER, NOT A TAKER. You are in-service of others as a leader.

I’d love to hear what the most profound management and life lessons you’ve learnt in the past decade are. Please do leave a comment below.

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