5 Lessons from an Office on the Edge

Kris Ansin is the executive director of Mali Health Organizing Project - an amazing company increasing access to primary maternal and child healthcare in Mali.  This past year, Mali repelled an Islamic coup and had it's first case of Ebola, hopefully contained.  To say Kris lives in a complex and complicated world is an understatement. This is his story of what he's learned living and working at the edge.

I have a passion for exploring the world’s corners – those places far away from a Wall St, Main St, or any another familiar boulevard. These corners have been the places and times where I’ve learned the most about the world and myself. For the last three years, I have satiated this string of my DNA with an unconventional job – as Executive Director of a small NGO addressing maternal and child survival in slums of Mali, West Africa, where health outcomes are among the lowest in the world. Despite this unconventional “corner” office, the lessons I’ve learned (or in some cases, those imposed by necessity) have been profound, and many seem applicable in myriad professional settings.

More and more offices exist at the corner, situated in the messy confluences of cultures and technologies and in the borderlands of traditional disciplines.  As a millennial leader, I see the ways our generation’s coming of age in the workforce has prepared us to lead from these spaces, to support a more inclusive and empathetic framework, and to embrace failure as an inevitable process towards achievement.


Every time I have assigned someone a task, rather than taking it on myself, the net effect – short-term, long-term, or both – is decidedly positive. As my grandfather, my own mentor in management, would remind me, “delegate, but don’t abdicate.” Far from the desertion of tedious tasks or monotonous busywork, this means giving team members control and independence, and constantly cleaning the edges of my own plate that, almost by definition of the role, will constantly overflow. Identifying the right person for the right job at the right time is not always obvious and itself merits deliberate thought.  This process feels more like the conducting of an orchestra than the delivery of orders or obligation. Effective distribution of accountability and responsibility, then, leads to better musicians, increased practice, more time in the spotlight, and most important, harmony.

The Danger of Assumptions

So often dissonance, disappointment, or disaster is a result of poor communications. In this job, it’s necessary to navigate differences in language, culture, and distance. It is easy for messages to be lost or distorted with such obvious traps. The recipient of a message, for completely legitimate reasons, understands in a wholly difference context than its original intention.

Assumptions, conscious or not, frequently contribute to poor communications, and I’ve tried to make that admission to myself in my interactions – often, I have no idea what another person is thinking. I have to ask, and I have to make time for the answers, and both steps are equally important. The difference between interest and position (thank you, Getting to Yes) is often clouded, but if you ask enough and listen more, the way forward can also become clear.  Last, if possible, I save important conversations for when there is no computer screen separating me from others. Despite technology’s accomplishments, there is no substitute for physically being in the same space.


I can’t outcompete anyone, or nearly anyone, when it comes to employee compensation. It’s a troublesome and common trend in nonprofits but particularly in a small organization with a startup attitude. What I’ve found, however, is traditional views of compensation don’t reflect how people behave in – or towards – this organization. Other factors, like meaningful work, a wide degree of autonomy, and strategic recognition (both internal and external) seem to be more powerful drivers.  The ability to offer an environment replete with these conditions have nullified, or at least mitigated, what would commonly be seen as an Achilles heel. We have to pay something, and expect compensation levels to reach more equitable levels as we grow, but more meaningful forms of motivation have boded well for this organization. Interns are given real responsibilities (with real results), staff are trusted and given their own budgets to plan and manage, and a mission-driven attitude is permeable when staff members collaborate, focusing on a shared pursuit. Employee of the Month, annual Family Days, professional development stipends, the distribution of meat to field staff at the end of Ramadan, and FedEx Days are all ways we have built this culture of compensation beyond bottom line.

All of me

Professional roles in Mali are rigid. Structure and formality are common in the professional context, and if I were graded based on this rubric, I’d fail. Just ask my staff. Rather, during my extended stays in our field office, the traditional divide between work and life blurs. For me, this is a positive development. Bosses in any culture hold a degree of power and can encourage interactions that are artificial or soul-sucking (One NYT Sunday Review article just cited the fact that in a typical day, spending time with one’s boss is the #1 unhappiest activity one can perform).  Allowing my staff see a more personal side of me has led to a more intimate and productive office.  They can laugh, and appreciate, when I stammer through local languages, and helping me to navigate unfamiliar moors provides space for them to lead. They come to know me better when I share personal experience, or spend time with them in an informal setting. And in turn, they can be more of themselves, and bring more of themselves, to our shared cause.

The F-word

Addressing child survival is no small undertaking. If progress were easy, this challenge, and the many like it, would undoubtedly have been solved. But behind a simple problem are often complex influencers that necessitate sophisticated solutions. Which carries greater risk. In the nonprofit sector, results are often necessary within a calendar year, and in a business setting, quarterly earnings often inform value and success. Real progress however, is more messy and less linear. We have to innovate, test, fail, and try again, in order to ensure a true impact on such a societal problem.  Yes, evaluation is important and progress is our goal, but failure is an important part of the process, and too often swept under the rug. In traditional contexts, failure is the opposite of success; instead, failure must serve as a tool that helps achieve a goal, a course-correction that must be recognized and understood, not reduced and forgotten. The challenges of today require a redefinition of failure, and young leaders are poised to carry that torch. Having lived in a short time in the context of incredible forces of progress and regression, we realize both the consequences and the opportunities. Both are great. To find success, we have to fail.

BIO:  Kris Ansin is the Executive Director of the Mali Health Organizing Project, increasing access to quality primary care in peri-urban communities, the world's fastest growing populace. Through health saving and financing initiatives, strengthened systems between communities and clinics, and quality improvement programs at local health centers, Mali Health is developing a sustainable and participatory model of healthcare delivery in resource-strained environments. Kris grew up in Massachusetts, holds a Masters of Public Health in International Health and Development from Tulane University in New Orleans, and has worked with a number of large and small organizations in Africa and South Asia. As Executive Director, he is responsible for crafting Mali Health’s strategic vision, communications, programs, financing, and fundraising. He divides his time between the US and Bamako, Mali.

A version of this was originally published in Switch and Shift.

Respect, Power & Knowledge

In watching the debate, if it can be called that, last night, 3 things hit me – Respect (or lack thereof), Power (or illusion of) and Knowledge (or lack thereof).

Respect & Civility:  Throughout the presidential, vice presidential and even the Ohio senate race debates, the candidates have shown little to no respect for each other, for the moderator and for the audience.  They talk over each other, ignore time limits, and answer the question they wish had been asked instead of the one that was asked.  Where has common decent civility gone? The abject rudeness and disregard for another’s opinion and time is horrendous.  If we want this behavior to change, it has to change with us first.  So…

What are we like in our own organization? How do we really treat each other, not how do we think we treat each other?  At your next conversation or meeting, observe your behavior and those with whom you interacting.  Try asking yourself:

  • Am I really listening to what the others have to say or am I preparing my response as they talk (the ‘pre-emptive’ strike)?
  • Did I show up on time (e.g., a few minutes early) and what does that say about how I view the others’ time, hence worthiness and importance?
  • What tone of voice am I using? Do I undermine what I say by how I say it?
  • If my kids behaved like me, what would I do?

Power:  Obama and Romney talk about what they are going to do, without many specifics, as if it were all in their control.  They are going to reduce the deficit, change the budget, cut taxes, increase taxes, send aid, change trade treaties, etc. etc.  Last night, my 15 & 12 year old children asked me how the candidates can say all that when they don’t have the power to do it – when it’s really congress’s power to set the budget, legislate, ratify treaties etc.   While the president can influence these decisions, in essence, he is  ‘powerless’ given the constitution (which demonstrates the power of influence).   This is why our votes for the House and Senate are so critical.  Many of us have confused the roles and responsibilities of the executive, legislative and judicial branches – and so have those in those branches!  So…

In your organization, take a look and see if you’ve given those with the responsibility the actual power and authority to be responsible.   Have you empowered teams to actually accomplish their objectives? Do you hold people accountable for things they cannot control or direct? When you give someone the “power” without the tools and teams to make it real, frustration and anxiety increase which decreases morale, productivity and of course passion.  Would you want to be in that position?

Knowledge:  It’s virtually impossible to sift the fact from fiction between the candidates and facts can be in the eye of the beholder - context matters.  Few U.S. citizens do as much due diligence into the candidates they vote for as they do into the new TV, smartphone or car they will buy.  Part of this has to do with lack of interest, lack of understanding of the ramifications, and lack of education – and I don’t mean K-12 or college.  I mean lack of true education of what it means to be a citizen of the U.S.A. and our responsibility to maintain our freedom.  Thomas Jefferson wisely stated, “An educated citizenry is a vital request for our survival as a free people.”  We risk losing our freedom by abdicating our role to the politicians to decide for us.  So…

In your organization, do you provide, educate, train, and teach your people the knowledge they need to really do their job? To understand and embrace the mission and purpose? To identify with your customers’ issues and challenges that you are trying to solve? Do you view them as “career-long learners” who want and need continuing education on matters directly and indirectly relevant to their responsibilities, now and in the future?  Do you have an educated ‘citizenry’ of employees who can do their jobs and delight your customers excellently?

Let me challenge you this election season to not only go vote – our duty and our incredible right - but to look at your organization and assess how you are doing in supporting and encouraging it’s Respect, Power and Knowledge.  Be grateful for our rare and incredible freedom – and give that to your people as well.

Mentoring - A Gift

I’ve been privileged to have had great mentors in my time at Bell Labs, AT&T and out on my own. These people have shaped my life--not only giving me guidance, but also showing me what it means to mentor.

In 2009, I started participating in Brown University's Women's Launchpad Program (WLP), pairing women alumni in business with senior students for career, grad school and other post-grad planning. My mentees have been mechanical engineering majors.

Our love of Brown gave us an immediate common ground and we quickly found others. Both young women have a passion for designing--which is really a passion for solving problems, for improving, for creating.

What did mentoring entail? Guidance on choices, pros/cons, looking at options, proper ‘business' protocol. But the most important thing I felt was to teach these women to learn to network. That is, how to find people, to reach out, to get exposure to as many ideas, types of people and interests as possible.

While the young women keep thanking me, I am the one who is richly blessed. It is an honor to know them, to be a small part of their future real, to see what wonderful things this next generation can--and will--do.

They are more mature, thoughtful and passionate than I was when I was their age! It is easy to become optimistic the future of our nation and world when you see what these ‘kids’ are capable of and committed to doing. While the WLP program is “for” the students, the greatest benefit is to us alumni, allowing us to help this great generation as they innovate the future for all of us.

So, go find someone to mentor:  in your company, your division, your alma mater, wherever...the rewards are priceless and enduring!