Thunderbird and American Express Leadership Academy: Plumbing Solutions for Developing Countries

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February 23, 2017

Editor’s Note: From May 8 to 13, 2016, Thunderbird and American Express organized their American Express Leadership Academy at the main campus of Thunderbird’s Glendale, Arizona. The 30 program participants from 10 different nonprofit / non-governmental organizations represented 6 different countries: Kenya, Malawi, Palestine, People’s Republic of China, Uganda and the United States. Forty percent of attendees were from outside the United States

Thunderbird’s annual program, launched in 2009 through a partnership with American Express, has now served more than 200 managers from nearly 70 organizations. Its goal is to help emerging leaders become more effective leaders for further impact on the goals and missions of the NGO.

2016 American Express Leadership Academy attendees at Thunderbird
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“One of the philanthropic goals of American Express is to focus on developing leaders in the social sector,” said Thunderbird Professor Mary Teagarden, academic director of the academy. “These participants are on their way to senior leadership positions. “

This is the second in a series of articles highlighting how three organizations from the 2016 academy experienced its value and impact. Read the first part here.

Individual participants are not the only ones who benefit from the Leadership Academy. Indeed, the companies they work for and the managers they work with also see the benefits of participation.

Citizens of developed countries often do not give thought to their indoor plumbing until it stops working. But imagine living in a country where even a basic toilet is considered a luxury and the norm is a plastic bag that is thrown aside when finished.

Sanergie, based in Nairobi, Kenya, intends to change that by helping entrepreneurs install sanitary toilets in remote areas with no facilities. Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilet initiative provides a turnkey solution for the business owner, from toilet manufacturing and installation to sales and marketing support to drive demand. In addition to contractors, Sanergy sells to multiple home owners, creating an upselling opportunity to potential residents and schools.

These small-scale, high-quality concrete permanent toilet structures provide business owners and residents with sanitation on a pay-as-you-go basis. Pay-as-you-go is common in Kenya, although most of the facilities available are open pit or common pit toilets in less developed areas of the country. Around 40,000 people currently access Sanergy’s network of more than 900 toilets.

As a growing non-profit organization, Sanergy knew it needed to increase its capacity to train and support new managers and had made this an organizational priority. Thus, when a previous participant appointed Sanergy to the American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird, the company jumped at the chance.

Lindsay Stradley, one of the co-founders of Sanergy, said selecting participants was no easy task.

“[It was] hard to choose because you want everyone to have this type of opportunity, ”she said. Ultimately, the founders of Sanergy appointed managers Sarah Atieno, Eric Muchira and Dennis Koome to participate in the academy. “They each hold leadership positions, but are young and without much experience or formal leadership training. They had enormous potential, and we wanted to help realize that potential. “

At the academy, Atieno, Muchira and Koome worked on creating a training and support plan for new managers, a priority for Sanergy.

“We wanted to push them to be inclusive leaders, to be open to their team members and to inspire those same team members,” Stradley said.

Since returning from the academy, each has taken on new roles in supporting managers by organizing monthly discussion breakfasts, planning quarterly off-site strategic days and helping to define leadership within the organization. The result has been better morale and better camaraderie among managers.

“Part of what Sarah, Eric and Dennis enjoyed [about the academy experience] was the meaning of cohorting and connecting with other inspiring young leaders. In many ways, their experience has helped us replicate this in our diverse workforce, ”said Stradley. “During one of the last breakfasts, we focused on a specific tool [managers] can use with employees … in this case, career conversations … and how and why those conversations are important to their teams. “

So, was the experience and benefit worth participating?

“One hundred percent, without a doubt,” she said. “The American Express Leadership Academy has changed their lives in their relationships with colleagues and direct reports. For example, many of Eric’s team have only a high school diploma and are manual workers. Prior to Eric’s participation in the Leadership Academy, many of his team were intimidated to give their opinion. But after applying what he’s learned, Eric now seeks feedback in a way his team sees he’s genuinely listening and is committed to their feedback.

Due to their success with the academy, Stradley reports that they have already recommended the academy to another nonprofit.

“It’s hard to overestimate the value of what they’ve been exposed to and how they’ve been inspired by the cohort they’ve worked with. Much of the work they did [since returning] and the way they approached it and the success they’ve had can be linked to what they’ve learned, ”she said. “And we’re all better at it.”

Learn more about the American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird


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