I was attracted by being able to make a difference in an organisation that I feel creates fundamental positive changes. But my professional curiosity also drew me: How will it be possible to hold workshops in one of the world’s poorest and most patriarchal societies? How will it work to work with themes such as openness, vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, consensus around assignments, roles and game rules, introspection and boundary setting?

The journey began when the fantastic General Secretary of Yennenga, Stina Berge, called last summer and asked if I could accompany her to their village of Nakamtenga in Burkina Faso to train all staff in self-leadership and group development. The management team, in particular, needed management team development.

Everyone needed to be trained: the management team, staff and managers who worked in schools, health center, kitchen, workshops and a farm.

We had discussed it before, but now the need was more urgent. The management team on site had gone through significant challenges, and there was a great need to bring the entire organisation together so that everyone could take greater responsibility and gain increased trust and openness with each other. They needed to get the conditions for even better collaborations.

Part of me wanted to contribute, so I promised to come back with suggestions of possible dates while knowing there were no gaps in the calendar for the next few months.

I was attracted both by being able to make a difference in an organisation that I feel creates real positive changes, as well as the professional curiosity in how it will be possible to hold workshops in one of the world’s poorest and most patriarchal societies on themes such as openness, vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, consensus regarding assignments, roles and rules of the game, introspection and boundary setting, etc. I was also curious how it would be possible to depend on an interpreter since no one in the village can speak English (only a few).

Shortly after Stina’s call, I received a message from one of my biggest clients who announced that the week’s leadership training I was supposed to conduct in the US in September needed to be postponed. It was the same week that Stina stated would be ideal for leadership training in Nakamtenga, and I saw it as a sign to go, but before I gave Stina definitive notice, I still wanted to do a risk analysis.

The risk analysis

The information collection mainly consisted of open sources, statistics, etc., and conversations with friends who travelled in the country. The available sources were not positive reading. In addition to being one of the world’s poorest countries, Burkina Faso is also one of the countries in the world that has the highest risk of terrorist attacks, kidnapping, being infected by malaria, dangerous traffic and lack of medical care. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the embassies of other Western countries advise against all travel outside the capital, where one should travel only if necessary. France stopped flying to the country at the beginning of August, and there was a particular risk that war would break out.

Fortunately, my friends gave me a more nuanced picture of the situation and an overview of the areas I should avoid.

I think that most conscious risks are preventable, so after going through them and finding different ways to prevent them, I decided to confirm the trip to Stina.

The journey

Once in Nakamtenga, we received a very warm welcome from many villagers. It was noticeable that Stina and Lennart (senior adviser and Stina’s father) were eagerly awaited, but I was also welcomed with great warmth.

A congregation had rented the school’s premises, and for most of the first days, there was praise in the area, which created a pleasant feeling of security. It felt surreal that jihadists were causing trouble only an hour away. In the village, I discovered that everyone greets politely and shakes hands when you pass, which means that even short movements can take quite a long time. I am struck by the fact that it feels like no one is in a hurry.

Visit to the King

In the middle of my stay in Burkina Faso, I go along on a visit to the king. After a longer wait and a ceremony with various bows, I meet their king, who sits on an actual royal throne and decides various vital issues; it feels surreal. He looks like a real king, seems intelligent and thanks me for contributing to the development of Nakamtenga, which will create a long-term positive impact on the village. An effect connected to the fact that they have now gained knowledge that will help them. He also asked me to be patient. After listening to the king, I am touched by his clarity and think he is right; I am impressed by his sharpness.

Management group development and workshop in group development and self-leadership

The work with the management team on site began on the first day. The idea was that the management team would receive management team development during two intensive days and then help as assistants when the rest of the staff were trained in two rounds over two days. A round with those who work as teachers and in healthcare, and thus have a good level of education, and a round with those who mainly work in practical professions and where the majority have not gone to school and are illiterate and some only speak local languages.

The setup worked exceptionally well; the management team showed both commitment and courage when they carried out exercises that many management teams in the Western world find incredibly challenging, such as feedback exercises, talking to themselves on the deathbed, sharing challenges, analysing the future, forward-looking strategies, consensus about where they are on the way and much more.

What impressed me the most was the warmth they showed each other. It was noticeable that they went through tremendous challenges that welded them together and made their ambition forward even more vital. Stina functioned excellently as an interpreter; it helped that she attended my leadership training and was familiar with most of the models and exercises.

During the following training sessions for the rest of the staff, the management team acted as assistants, so even though the groups were 40 people, there was a great sense of security in the group thanks to their role. They supported the other participants and gave me valuable input.

We had meetings before and after the training where we agreed on how the exercises landed in the group, and the assistants’ commitment was fantastic. I especially remember how they wanted to remind me of different exercises and models that they wanted everyone to hear: the PGU model that has lived with me since my time in the police task force (constantly evaluating what is most important to prioritise, the task, the group or the person ), the feedback ladder, the importance of looking inward and taking responsibility for one’s own life, etc.

The staff groups often carried out the exercises cautiously, which quickly turned into outstanding commitment and, in many exercises, also very hearty laughter.

I am touched when I gain insight into various private challenges and how they can benefit from insights from the exercises in those challenges as well. New challenges for me were, for example, the risk of being accused of being a witch and being expelled from the village.

All staff at Yennenga had to complete the training.

My feeling is that the participants gained a profound openness and trust in each other, that everyone understands their mission and their responsibility even more clearly, that they have gained a language and an understanding of the group’s development that will help them in the future, that they have gained new tools and skills in communication, feedback and feedforward.

I firmly believe the management team will manage the insights from the days fantastically. They have both the commitment and the courage.

I was repeatedly most touched by the occasions when the participants shared their reflections from the days around: strongest feelings, general lessons, lessons about themselves and lessons about the group; I got a receipt that they absorbed something from the days.


Lessons learned

  • The importance of working with issues of openness, vulnerability, feedback, self-awareness, and consensus around assignments, roles and rules of the game is universal.
  • It works great to conduct workshops with an interpreter.
  • There were a lot of cultural aspects that made me unsure of which exercises would work, e.g. that men in Burkina Faso are not allowed to show emotion, especially not to cry, that you are not allowed to look older people in the face, that you are not allowed to speak against older people, etc. Despite that, it worked excellently to carry out exercises where they had to look each other in the face, contradict each other, cry, etc. However, it was advantageous to mention it at the beginning and create both mental preparation and game rules around it.
  • Many exercises can be carried out perfectly, even with illiterates.
  • It’s hot, drink lots of water.