From the hyper-local to the global, we can build ‘community’ when we try.

Six LESSONS on how to build COMMUNITY

Maybe it’s taken the shock of Covid-19 for us to realise the importance of human relationships, but what’s changed from such trying times in the past, is that we are able to connect with kith and kin, thanks to advances made with ubiquitous tech platforms that beam us into the homes and new workspaces of our colleagues, friends and family on a daily basis like no time before.

As someone who has always believed in the transformative power of bringing people together, increasingly, I’ve been asked as to how I build communities and networks, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on what’s worked and, importantly, what’s not worked as well as I imagined it would. But before I do, I thought I’d quote what Google suggested what a ‘community’ was, so that we anchor ourselves with the same meaning:

A community is a social unit (a group of living things) with commonality such as norms, religion, values, customs, or identity. Communities may share a sense of place situated in a given geographical area (e.g. a country, village, town, or neighbourhood) or in virtual space through communication platforms.

1. Your motives matter, make them known. Your values and reasons for creating a community need to shine through, be very transparent about these, as it’ll set the tone and the terms of engagement, both of which are critical for success.

Most people won’t have an issue with joining a community if they know what it’s core purpose is. They need to understand not only why they’re being thought of, but also how they stand to benefit, so the more upfront you are about such matters, the greater the chances of them joining and being active.

I created a community of leaders in philanthropy as a way of bringing together peers from across the world together, so we can learn from each other. As a decision maker, I often found myself in situations where I couldn’t share my thoughts with colleagues, so this group served as a forum not only to share various challenges I faced, but also one where I learnt a lot, which made me a better leader. This community continues to thrive thanks to a WhatsApp group that I set up, and is a great example of being transparent about your motives. Had I set it up with an ulterior motive, I’m pretty sure that the effort would have failed.

2. Find common ground. You need to start somewhere, so finding common ground is important to frame what folks can expect from your community. What I’ve seen happen, more so during the pandemic, is that they provide a support network for people who, often, are extremely isolated in one way or another. 

The support system such networks provide include ongoing positive reinforcement as well as constructive feedback. Where there’s common ground, it makes it easier to seek help and input and if the goal is to build strong communities, then this becomes critical to think through.

I’ve also seen people get busier and busier working from home, so the fact that such members of your community can’t attend meetings or formal sessions forces us to put in place some form of online support, where members can go at their own pace. This personalised professional development is key to great communities that are built around learning, especially.

3. Be clear what the rules are, and repeat them often. You’ll avoid so much heart-ache if you’re explicit about what’s acceptable and in the case of bad behaviour what the consequences will be for those who cross the line. 

Despite what many think of Facebook, I recently set up a few community groups for specific purposes, and what I really liked what it did was force administrators to consider what the rules for their groups are. They even provide prompts and language that you can use to create your personalised set of rules. Whether one looks at these when they join such a community is one thing, but as an organiser, I know that I have these as a way of ejecting those who misbehave. 

Having clear admission criteria for your community, as well as exit rules, is critical. As the definition above says, there have to be some commonalities in a community, and should that change, there should be an understanding of what happens next for members. 

4. Build a community with a low ‘jerk’ factor. Whilst they are a huge strength, building diverse communities is really tough. 

Often the difference in cultural norms, language, sport and religious beliefs result in differences of opinion and can trigger bad behaviour. Where I’ve seen these matters resolved effectively, have been when there’s been prompt and decisive action. 

Where there’s been a ‘fudged’ compromise, you can see the issues that arise erode the value of the network and community building becomes much tougher.

The way to build really beneficial communities is to vet those you want to enrol and take your time to get to know them. Positive references from others in the community are also valuable.

Ultimately, most networks will have ‘jerks’, your role is to minimise the number in your community. Be clear what one looks like.

5. Community management is a job. The bind we often find ourselves in is that we inadvertently create communities which deliver exceptional results, experiences, learnings but we fail to recognise that their sustenance and growth require additional investment of time, money and thought. We often bolt on the role of ‘community manager’ to a junior person in marketing or another department, who along with their own workload has to also drive engagement for this new set of people.

I understand this challenge all too well and have seen it fail every time.

Ideally, if you believe in the power of community, make it someone’s job – their focus. 

Finding someone who can perform the role is no easy matter. I would say that those who can relate to others, have great social-emotional skills, demonstrate empathy, and are adept at the use of appropriate tech tools would excel in such a role.

Many years ago, I was fortunate to have been invited to join the Forum of Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum, and the thing they do well, in relation to other such networks, is to emphasise the importance of network building by having staff who are ‘community managers’ lead their engagement with members of their organisation. This one very simple change in job title, can make the essential difference to the experience of those in the community.

6. Size matters. On Facebook, I created a group that now has, almost, 30,000 members who are interested in education, and, similarly, on my YouTube channel there’s 10,000, and on LinkedIn, there’s another 3,000 of us. I see these, not as communities but as groups of individuals with a loose affiliation that bring everyone together.

Community building requires time, money and energy. The larger your community, the more you have to commit resources to it. Whilst, tech tools make convening large groups, as above, easier,  it’s another thing altogether to moderate conversation and build shared understanding, which are all critical to building community. I would suggest the ideal size for a network is much smaller than you’d think. 

For me the true magic of communities is that they’re personal. 

Whilst I can speak about the many up-sides of building professional communities of teachers and leaders in the education sector, I’ve kept my thinking broad for this piece given the relevance of what’s said above to so many different areas of work.

Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down. Chaos has rained down on us. Many of the cherished beliefs we held have been cast aside as a result of what we’re all going through. The one really great thing that’s happened to many of us is that we’ve also connected with those around us to a far greater extent than we had before. The stand-out success for me has been the creation of a WhatsApp group for my neighbourhood, which has been a joy to see become a community.

This much is clear to me, from the hyper-local to the global, we can build ‘community’ when we try.

So, why not start today?

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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