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Remote control

Remote control

How to lead change from a distance

Increasingly, young people are travelling to work or study in new countries. But how do you manage a change-making project or voluntary organisation from the other side of the planet? Three Queen’s Young Leaders share their tips on project management from afar.

Kavindya Thennakoon

Kavindya is a 2015 Queen’s Young Leader who co-founded Without Borders in 2014 to support education in Sri Lanka and address lack of opportunity. Kavindya has been living abroad since 2015.

Kavindya Thennakoon

Kavindya Thennakoon. Image credit: Anudith Dharmasena Photography

Planning is key

“I think the first thing is to plan in phases.

“The Without Borders yearly plan should be based on my travel schedule. That sounds silly but at the end of the day, that’s what it should be or it won’t work. So I projected ahead and thought what are the phases and how many times can I go back? Every time I went back, I knew when I would be going back again  a three-month or six-month period.

“And then I got in the team, all the projects and the donors, and made sure that everything was set for that period of three to six months.

Work with people who are smarter

“Always work with people who are smarter than you – who are more experienced, more mature and better than you in every sense of the way.

“For the first portion of Without Borders, I was always training people, I was always telling them what to do. And I wasn’t growing as a person and nor was the organisation.

“Now most of my core team is older than me and has had much more experience than I’ve had – people who’ve worked for the United Nations (UN) before, for example.

“Even if you’re running a project in your own country, always surround yourself with people who are better, smarter and more experienced than you are.

Children running across a playground

Children at a Without Borders workshop. Image credit: Without Borders

Learn to click restart

“There are going to be so many problems.

“If you are in the United States (US) and your project is running in Sri Lanka – and all the three trainers that you had for a training on Friday, have bailed out – there’s nothing you can do. It’s beyond your control.

“You need to realise that there are certain things you can do and certain things you can’t. When there are things you can’t do you say, “Okay! I screwed up! I’m going to talk to the people involved! I’m going to apologise! And I’m going to make sure I have a system in place in case that happens again.”

“So really every time you falter, click restart and get back.”

Kartik Sawhney

Kartik is the Co-founder of Next Billion in Canada, and the Founder of Project STEMAccess and its successor, I-STEM in India. He has been studying and working in the United States since 2013.

Kartik Sawhney

Kartik Sawhney

Be clear about why you’re doing it

“The biggest thing is making sure that you have a clear understanding of why you’re doing it, asking:

  • am I doing what I’m supposed to do?
  • am I doing what I want to do?
  • am I doing the thing that will have the most impact?
  • and am I really doing something for my community?

“I think the most important thing is having that clarity – knowing you’re super passionate.

“As long as you have that vision, as long as you have that passion, it sounds cliché, but I think that is really what keeps you going. There’s excitement, when you yourself are excited.

The team is super important

“We do a lot of this advocacy stuff in India – it’s my team that basically does that. All the outreach, all that kind of stuff.

“So make sure you have a team that wants to work with you on all of these projects and that they’re as passionate as you are, they’re as excited as you are.

The team behind NextBillion

The Next Billion team. Image credit: Next Billion

Put passion and team together

“The biggest thing again is you having the clarity, the passion, and a very clear understanding of:

  • what you’re doing
  • why you’re doing it
  • how it’s going to happen
  • and what your role is going to be.

“And have your expectations for the team very clear as well, in terms of what you can do and what they’ll have to do.”

Gunjan Mhapankar

Gunjan is studying medicine at Western University, Ontario, Canada where she is active with the Global Minds Fellowship Program. Global Minds brings teams from different countries together so that they can collaborate to alleviate different mental health problems in both their respective countries.

In 2017, Gunjan visited Machakos, Kenya, where she co-founded a family education and empowerment programme with Maryanne Muniu – an Addiction Counsellor and Sociologist at Mathari Hospital, Nairobi.

Gunjan next to a Global Minds poster

Gunjan Mhapankar

Let go of the reins

“It is challenging  especially for someone who likes to be in control and know where things are headed. And really likes to plan every move, and wants to have a big picture, and has post-it notes everywhere – all of that.

“It was difficult to not be in the thick of things, not be the one in the room talking to the family members and women. It was incredibly difficult to get over that, to accept that.

“It was humbling, a very very humbling experience, to let go of the bit of control that we seem to have in a very north American culture that we work in. You know the whole emailing, checking your emails constantly or meeting times starting at a particular time and going to a particular time. The kind of expectations that we have.

“I’ve been really reflecting about the cultural perspectives and cultural assumptions that I was bringing in. I’ve let go of the reins a bit, stepped back and now I add more value to the larger picture and where we’re headed.

Gunjan and Maryanne

Gunjan and Maryanne

Trust is important

“Having that level of trust in the other person has been so important. Sometimes I talk to Maryanne more than I talk to my mother. We are constantly on the phone.

“In the end it's about having enough faith in the people on the ground that they’re going to get it done by the time it needs to be done.

“It’s just been a master class in how to work with people.”

Gunjan Mhapankar

“In the end it's about having enough faith in the people on the ground that they’re going to get it done.”

Gunjan Mhapankar

Kartik Sawhney

“The biggest thing is making sure that you have a clear understanding of why you’re doing it.”

Kartik Sawhney

Kavindya Thennakoon

“You need to realise that there are certain things you can do and certain things you can’t.”

Kavindya Thennakoon