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.

Life by Design

I had the privilege to share a panel with New Yorker Staff Cartoonist Liza Donnelly and Social Entrepreneur Superstar Susan McPherson on October 8th at the Granoff Center's Martinos Auditorium, Brown University, discussing our professional paths.  This was the first Creative Mind Lecture of the 2014-2015 series.  Many thanks to Ian Gonsher for using his iPhone as a video camera and to Nicha Ratana who made the video as 'followable' as possible and has made the Creative Mind Lecture series a reality. 

Where's Your Purple Crayon?

In thinking about next week's Creative Mind Lecture, designing our careers and paths and companies, I remember a classic archetype ~ Harold and the Purple Crayon! So, Where is your purple crayon? And what are you doing with it? 

© Crockett, Johnson “Harold and the Purple Crayon.” 1955 HarperCollins 

Why Wednesday October 8th Could Change Your Thinking

What if you gathered with creative minds from all disciplines and talked about how you got to where you were and how you were going forward? Join me, New Yorker Staff Cartoonist Liza Donnelly and Social Entrepreneur Superstar Susan McPherson on October 8th at 6:00pm in the Granoff Center's Englander Studio at Brown University for a discussion of what kinds of paths, careers, serendipity Creative Minds create!  

Designed by Nicha Ratana

I'm Standing Up, Not Leaning!

I don’t lean in, lean out, lean sideways, lean back…I stand up straight.  As a kid, my parents kept telling me to stand up straight and strong.  It created an aura of confidence, self-assurance, and supposedly, it was better for your back.  In fact, we now know that standing strong can actually change your mood and confidence.

Perhaps because I’m short (5’ 1” on my driver’s license), I’ve always stood straight, because I had to.  And I became tall – not in the physical sense, but intellectually, emotionally and professionally.  Throughout my career, I never felt discriminated against because of my gender.  Even after I had children, I never felt the need to do anything but stand up straight.

That’s why I have trouble with Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In. What I find missing in much of the Lean In discussion is the joy of parenthood.  I didn’t “hear” any joy of being a mom, wife or even executive.  Children are not tactics or tasks to check off a to-do-list.  I’ve found being a mom an incredible privilege, responsibility, and indescribable joy.  Admittedly, I’ve had a charmed career path that I worked hard at, very hard, and built the credibility to ask, and get, what I wanted.  Having children and enjoying them, relishing in and with them, has been key to my success. 

I waited to have children.  Most of my friends and colleagues thought it was because of my fancy career.  They were wrong.  I waited til I became closer to being a mom I’d want, especially since my mother was, yes really, the perfect mother for me.  I didn’t want to inflict myself on a child when I wouldn’t even want myself as a mom.  Having children has taught me so much about myself, about motivating the behavior you want to see, about managing and freeing people and the illusion (delusion?) of control.  Being a mom has matured me into a better human being. My children didn’t hold me back, they propelled me forward…and made me redefine and want different things out of my career.  They have helped me define success and impact.

My stay-at-home mom unwittingly taught me about being a ‘career woman’.  She taught me the value of diverse thinking, of integrating art, music, science, and literature to look at the world differently (#STEAM 50 years ago), to create and recombine ideas.  She taught me how to criticize without being critical, without even realizing I’d been criticized, and therefore motivated to change.  She taught me how to prioritize what really and truly mattered.  She taught me that relationships matter more than stuff.  She taught me how to ‘present’ myself in public.  She taught me to stand straight.

Sheryl’s path, my path, your path, isn’t prescriptive.  And, as Stew Friedman points out, we all need options – to be professionals, parents, spouses, siblings, children.   We need to stop using words like Leaning In, Leaning Out and just be ourselves.  This may be idealistic, but if we don’t put it out there, we won’t aim for it.   Our world (and I firmly believe the fabulous Millennials will force this) needs to encourage and enable diversity of work styles, not just thoughts, gender, race, creed.  There are times that our work requires us to be front and center, but if it’s always the case, we end up being less than productive for our work and our families.

The Generation Xers are the transition between moms who stayed home and moms who worked.  Most of our role models are our moms who mainly stayed home, if we were privileged to be in that socio-economic position.  We are presented with a plethora of options that we still struggle to justify and judge.  I hope that our Gen-Y ‘kids’ – both women and men – will have an easier time defining their roles for themselves and their own relationships.  Our world, our work, our communities and our homes need them to.  We need to stop requiring ourselves and others to lean in or lean up – and instead, encourage and support standing up straight.  And it starts with us – with each of us.

A version of this was originally published in Switch and Shift as "Standing Up Against Leaning In"

What’s Your Leadership Narrative?

In the midst of getting back from Bangkok, heading to Las Vegas and officially launching her new book,  Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, Dorie Clark took the time to guest post! As I mentioned in my review, this is a Must Read book for anyone at any stage in their career.  Please pay it forward and buy a copy for yourself and one to give away! 


As a leader, it’s painfully easy to be misinterpreted. Some people aren’t paying that close attention to you; they’ll take a few impressions and haphazardly fill in the blanks. Others may overanalyze or try to “read tea leaves” that may not even exist. If you want your message to get out intact – whether it’s about who you are as a leader, or the vision you have for your company – you need take a step too few executives bother to do: create your leadership narrative.

As I recount in my new book from Harvard Business Review Press, Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future, when Toby Johnson graduated from West Point, her first job out of college was the furthest thing possible from entry-level paper-pushing: she became an Apache helicopter pilot, the only woman in a class of 30 trainees. Her performance – over seven years in the Army, including a tour in Iraq - won raves. She was lauded by her supervisors and was even featured in an Army advertising campaign. But when she decided to leave the military to attend business school, she faced one big disadvantage compared to her classmates, many of whom entered with corporate experience: “The only big organization I’d ever worked for was the United States Army.”

So how do you compete for job offers with talented peers who have clear, compelling stories to tell about their time in the corporate world? After all, flying a helicopter may not seem directly relevant to corporate success. Toby knew the lessons were transferable, but she’d have to connect the dots for potential employers. Her mission was to create a narrative that both made sense and captivated them. “I used my military experience as an advantage,” she says.

She had to craft a story that made sense to skeptical hiring managers, stressing the management experience she’d gained in the military (at 24 years old, she was in charge of eight $30 million Apache helicopters, plus the 30 people who managed them) and the rapid learning made possible by her early leadership experience. Many of her peers, trying management out for the first time, wouldn’t yet have found their unique style – and could make some costly mistakes in the interim.

In other words, Toby took charge of her story and ensured that what was clear to her (she’s building on her management and leadership experience and taking it to a new arena) was also understandable to others (who might otherwise question what a helicopter pilot could bring to a corporation). Her strategy worked; today, she’s a fast-rising executive at a multinational consumer goods company.

Similarly, all executives need to think through fundamental narrative questions, for themselves and their companies: where did we start, where are we going, and how are the lessons we learned making a difference in that journey?

You don’t have to have a leadership narrative; plenty of executives and companies get by without one. But what they’re missing is the sense of meaning a narrative can bring. It shows how our past, present, and future connect – an arc that makes sense of everything we’ve experienced before. And perhaps the most inspiring and comforting message a leader can give is that our past hasn’t been for naught; the lessons we’ve learned can help us find the way forward.

Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of the newly released Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant and speaker who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the World Bank. She is also an Adjunct Professor of Business Administration at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.

How To Stay Relevant & Have Impact

We are in an age of immense disruption: industries, societal codes, politics, demographics, you name it.  If we are going to handle this continually changing the world, we have to adapt ourselves.  All we can really control is how we react, and more importantly, pro-act to our world.  While we should hold our principles and values dear, we need to reinvent the how, where, and why we live those out.  Grateful to call her a friend, Dorie Clark’s new book, “Reinventing You” is an indispensible guide to just that – reinventing ourselves, continually, to adapt to and thrive in the 21st century.  Many of you may familiar with Dorie’s view on the subject through her Forbes and Harvard Business Review blog posts.

Dorie’s book is a practical, applicable, actionable guide on how we can reinvent our role in the world, and hence our impact.  One of the powerful aspects of the book is Dorie’s ability to go from very specific, tactical details on how to network and reach out to others (e.g., when to call, how to find out nicknames, etc.) to more the more strategic issues around why we need to reinvent ourselves in the first place.  Dorie gives us very actionable advice on how to identify our starting point, why we are starting from there and then discovering possible destinations.  She continues with a ‘how to’ plan that is so easy to follow and execute on our own. 

Since reinventing ourselves can be daunting, Dorie uses a ‘lean startup’ approach to help us experiment and prototype (as she says, “test drive”) our path and develop the skills we might need.  As someone who loves mentoring, and being mentored, her chapter dedicated to finding and learning from a mentor hit home.  Reinventing You shows us how to find our value, communicate our value and continue enhancing our value to others.

Dorie’s book is a much-needed guide among the noise of books on career development, personal development and ‘how to’.  This is a book of truth and practical advice, based on Dorie’s experiences and those of others she shares in the book.  It is a book leaders and managers should share with their people and encourage and support them in pursuing.  It is a book students in college should read as they think about what they may want to do.  It is a book even those of us fully satisfied and complete in our current positions should read. It is a book you will read, mark, re-read and want to loan out to others, so buy a few copies to give away – because paying it forward is part of the book!  

Create Career Sustainability One “Tweak” At a Time

I am blessed & honored to have Cali Yost guest blog.  The New York Times calls her “one of the smartest, sophisticated thinkers” and Mashable lists her as 1 of the Top 14 Career Experts on Twitter.  Personally, Cali has helped me achieve work+life fit! Not an easy task and an ongoing process.  I urge you to read her post and buy her book.  It will make a big difference in your life.

A couple of years ago, Sharon’s financial research team moved to another bank.  It was a difficult and stressful period.  Everyone logged long hours and frequent business trips across multiple time zones.

They did it because what mattered most, at the time, was that their team stayed together and made the transition a success.  But now, as Sharon explained when I met with her recently, “The leadership team is literally falling apart and we are only in our mid 40’s.”

“My two direct reports, who have been with me for over ten years, are having the most trouble.  One has migraine headaches that are so severe that, once or twice a week, he’s either late or doesn’t come in at all.  The other is in the midst of a messy and distracting divorce.”

She continued, “I am trying to be patient. I don’t want to let either of them go.  I’ve already lost too many valuable people. We have been through a lot together and they help me run the business.  I’ve tried to give them the work flexibility they need to deal with their issues.  I am hopeful, but I need a life too.”

“I can’t help but wonder what we could have done differently.  At the time, it seemed as if we had no choice but to give everything we had to work.  Looking back, the pace was unsustainable.  We are all paying the price now.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the alternative would have been. ”  Then she stopped and looked at me, “Was there an alternative?”

Sadly, Sharon and her team are not alone.  Leaders in today’s competitive, 24/7, global economy easily fall into an “all work, all the time” trap.  It may seem to make perfect sense at the time.  But, ultimately, it undermines the very career longevity and success they are trying to achieve, personally and for their team. 

The “all work, all the time” behavior of leaders sets the tone for the rest of the workplace.  It makes it difficult for others to confidently take the lead and manage their responsibilities on and off the job.

I explained to Sharon that small shifts in how the team approaches work and life will help them recover from and avoid the trap in the future. 

In my new book, TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Every Day (Center Street/Hachette) I share how to build a solid foundation of everyday well-being and order in the face constantly competing demands.  The steps include:

Take deliberate action in the areas that sustain your health, personal relationships, career networks, job skills and life maintenance, or they won’t happen.  Fifteen years ago, before mobile phones and the Internet, you could put in a 10-hour workday, go home and focus uninterrupted on other parts of your life.  No more.  You need to put up the boundaries.  My research shows that most of us still haven’t quite grasped this fact. 

Openly encourage work+life “fit,” not balance.  Say the words “work-life balance” and leaders immediately laugh, roll their eyes and throw up their hands like they’ve heard the most ridiculous joke.  In their minds, a 50-50 split between work and life is never going to happen.  So why bother. 

But work+life “fit” is not only possible.  It is a must.  It’s about finding the fit between your work and life based on your current realities on and off the job.  If there’s a lot of work right now, fine.  In that context, what could you do to get some sleep, eat healthfully, move your body, connect with your loved ones or whatever you need to do to be fresh and your best?  That’s your fit.

Follow the simple, weekly TWEAK IT practice.  It helps you harness the power small, deliberate actions, or “tweaks,” that makes a big difference.  Look at your work and personal “to do s” for the week. What’s missing? What do you want more of, and less of? What do you want to continue? Write the small actions in the areas that matter to you right now on your calendar and priority list.  Get to bed early one night.  Have dinner with your partner and don’t check your phone. Attend a class to learn a new skill, or plan a long weekend away.  It doesn’t take much, but over time, these moments add up.

Communicate with, collaborate with and cover for each other so that what matters at work and in life gets done, flexibly and creatively.  For example, after the team returns from a business trip, take turns working from home one day.  Instead of commuting that day, pay your bills.  Walk your dog.  Catch your breath.  This coordination is especially important in businesses with global clients.  Create a time zone coverage schedule so everyone gets periodic breaks from late night calls and emails. 

Don’t seek perfection.  If you achieve 70% of the small actions that matter to you, it’s better than 0%.  You may miss lunch with a friend because of an important work call, but the point is that you made a conscious choice.  You deliberately, and intentionally chose whether or not you will take that call or miss that lunch.  Rather than having it not happen by default. 

If Sharon and her team follow these steps, they won’t fall into the “all work, all the time” trap again and would still get the job done.  In our highly mobile, always on, 24-7 society, business success must include career sustainability.  We create it together one small, deliberate, imperfect “tweak” at a time. 

What small actions matter the most in your everyday work+life fit?

To take the lead and start managing your everyday work+life fit, read TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day. Track your “tweaks of the week” on your mobile device with the “My Tweaks” tracker on the www.tweakittogether.com site.  

The Art of the Dumb Question

When I was a child, my parents always answered a question with an answer that led to another question. So early on, I learned to just keep asking questions.

It drove my teachers nuts (don’t get me started on education!) and drives my husband nuts (like that’s the only reason!).  Just to bug my husband further, I’ve taught our kids to do the same thing!  Despite this annoying habit, it’s served me pretty well in my career, learning a lot (much of which I can’t remember) along the way.

This leads me to propose that the transformation of the 20th century into the 21st be the Age of Answers to the Age of Questions.

While answers are important, it’s more important to know what questions to ask to get to the answers. The lack of questioning is part of what got us into the mess of the last three (or more) years. We learn by asking and using that knowledge to ask a different question.

Which is why I offer you the Art of the Dumb Question.

I’ve been told one of my “gifts” is the ability to ask very dumb questions! I’m honored, seriously, and owe my parents a debt of gratitude. Dumb questions are very important, especially for innovation.

Why? (no pun intended) Because dumb questions challenge the status quo.

  • Dumb questions test basic, tacit assumptions.
  • Dumb questions make us stop and think about fundamental truths.
  • Dumb questions get to the core.
  • Dumb questions can make the AND vs either/or possible.

Last week, I was with a client for their annual global businesses’ growth strategies to ask dumb questions. They are wise in recognizing that they are too close, too knowledgeable, too ingrained in their industries and environments to be able to step back and ask dumb questions. Even when I was starting my own carve-outs and businesses, I always asked someone to come alongside and ask me the dumb questions.

As your organization pursues the innovation journey, who do you have to ask you the dumb questions? Who is your Dumb Questioner (DQ)?  And, as you think about it, to who can you be a DQ? Who can you serve and help by asking dumb questions?  Don’t worry, it’s not hard to do, and it’s very rewarding!