One thing organizations can agree on across the globe is that passionate, committed, and innovative leaders are needed to create impact. Unfortunately, these characteristics are hard to come by in candidates hailing from communities in less accessible areas. It is often the case that local talent are not awarded the opportunity to get adequate training, and the rural aspects of these locations pose a challenge for leaders who are used to the resources provided by cities. As a result, organizations outside of larger cities may struggle to find mission-driven leaders. If these challenges sound familiar to you, then turn your attention to rural Pakistan and the work of a committed woman at Zindagi Trust to find your solution.
Anam Palla, a self-described educationist, change catalyst, recently converted environment preservation enthusiast, and student of spirituality and mindfulness, is the Head of Programs and Strategic Development at Zindagi Trust. She also happens to assume the role of acting School Director due to the inability to find a permanent leader for the position. Juggling both roles proved to be quite overwhelming and deterred Anam’s confidence.
However, through the strength of Anam’s perseverance and the tools harnessed through Amani Institute’s Leadership for Growth (L4G) program, Anam developed a Fellowship Program to attract passionate and innovative directors for the school. This would allow students to learn from qualified leaders from around the world each semester; and directors to gain more experience being creative leaders in a rural environment.
Continue reading to hear firsthand about Anam’s journey of innovation, self-discovery, and perspective on regional challenges.
I’d love it if you could start by taking us back and telling us more about what your organization does and what your role is?
Zindagi Trust focuses on school reform in Pakistan. We’ve transformed two government schools in Karachi into model institutions through interventions in infrastructure upgrades, governance, administration, teacher professional development, academic innovation and tracking, and a rich menu of co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
The other primary objective of our organization is advocacy. Based on our experience with these schools, we work with the government to bring about change on a larger, systemic level. For example, changing how teachers are evaluated. Government teachers are actually evaluated like any other government servant even though we know the role of a teacher is very, very specific. So if they are not evaluated on what language they speak, what grade they have, or how they plan their lessons, you can get a huge variation in the quality of teacher. Being evaluated on typing speed is not relevant when the school you are teaching at lacks basic technology like a computer.
My primary role is working as the Head of Programs and Strategic Development at our trust, but I also am currently acting as a School Director. Since the last director’s departure, we haven’t been able to find someone qualified or passionate enough, so I assumed the position until we could find someone. This was the challenge that I set out to solve through my business innovation project that I worked on through Amani Institute’s Leadership for Growth (L4G) program.
Let’s talk more about the business innovation project.
We work with a school located in a very remote area in Pakistan, which has the second-lowest human development indicator and no private secondary school. Our goal is to set it up as a community resource where the students can get a broader worldview.
In order to achieve this, we need leaders who can embrace the community, inspire its people, and build capacity. While most of the candidates are very impressive on paper, they’ve often only worked in a very structured system with access to sufficient resources. To come here and work in an environment like this, these education leaders need to not only have a certain knowledge and skill set, but the right mindset. This is where I defined the problem for my project: how do I attract the right people for the role as School Director?
My solution came in the form of a Fellowship Program where educators from around the world could apply to fill the role of School Director for a shorter, defined term. This would allow the school to benefit from qualified and passionate leaders while the candidates would have the opportunity to gain experience in a more rural community with the freedom to be creative.
What modules from the L4G program do you think specifically helped you in innovating the Fellowship Program?
My brain naturally wants to take a problem, break it down, and point to the root causes. Therefore, I can get pretty overwhelmed trying to come up with solutions for the sheer amount of systemic level problems I see in the region. Especially when these challenges are very adaptive in nature. When there are all these big things that you want to work on, where do you start? How do you navigate a path forward?
The idea of turning the director position into a Fellowship Program was not a familiar course of action to our school, but through L4G’s process of discovery and problem definition, I simply asked myself, “Why do we want this role? Why a permanent position?”
“The Amani Institute’s program pushes you to move from idea to solution to application in a very short span; and I learned that testing and prototyping doesn’t have to be spread over long periods of time. You can test out different things along the way.”
This was very new for me because I’m usually the kind of person who likes to look at a certain idea and go into all the details, the pros and cons, etc. and there is a lot of personal resistance to take action. The module on innovation pushed me to apply the skills so quickly that I was forced to take immediate action and I realized I can actually do some very simple things to move the project forward and pilot the program.
So again, the important tool here is prototyping. In the past few months, I think I have used this word the most with my team especially in light of COVID19 and needing to make some larger investment decisions. At first it seemed like prototyping was not really an option, but now I see it as more of a mindset.
How do these students truly benefit from having an engaged and passionate leader that your innovation plans to recruit?
In this area, the female literacy rate is 2.5% compared to 11% for males. Both are incredibly low, but that big a disparity between girls and boys is drastic and disheartening. We have 500 girls attending our school and they often come from households where having an opportunity to study is huge. They are very, very ready to learn and have lots of dreams and aspirations. They think very deeply about the problems within their community and how they want to solve them one day. And also how they want their lives to be different. They also are very aware of the opportunities they don’t receive compared to boys. Now, it’s about getting the opportunity, the knowledge, the skills, the exposure, and the experience that allows them to really make their dreams come true.
I think that is where the role of the director and the leader at the school comes in. We don’t want a leader who only cares about students getting good marks in their class, then going back to their life and getting married. We want a leader who has a vision for these girls that includes how they can make their lives more meaningful and more enriched daily. And a leader who can make changes to their lives in the short term and in the long term.
Do you think other organizations within the region are also having trouble finding the right leadership?
Unfortunately, I think the type of leadership that is required in this sector is lacking across the region. COVID19 has been a particularly challenging time for all; job opportunities have shrunk and it’s difficult for people to switch roles.
Many private school teachers lost their jobs during COVID19 and many organizations had salary reductions, so I can’t really comment about recent retention rates accurately; but I think as a region, we can’t rely on purely technical roles. You have to have employees who will do more than just logistically and administratively manage your organization.
“I think that with where the world is heading, there is a need for ground-up leadership and collective decision-making and collaboration at the grassroots level – the people who are actually doing the implementing. My experience has just reinforced that having vision and passion in your leadership for what is needed in these developing regions and being able to translate that into action is critical.”
COVID19 has obviously affected models of education around the world – what has been the number one priority for Zindagi Trust and your students?
We have spent a lot of the past two years putting mental health first and ensuring the well-being of our students is balanced with academic performance. We tried to be cognizant of the lack of support our students might have received when studying from home, so we didn’t want to pressure them when the schools opened back up. Instead, we focused on how we could get these kids reengaged and excited to be in the classroom.
On the other hand, our students have already lost so much time learning. There’s a huge achievement gap and students in grade 8 and grade 9 are expected to take the state exam, so teachers providing that exam are also concerned with the assessment.
As students come back to the classroom and are required to reach certain competency levels, it creates a lot more opportunities to incorporate that balanced framework. Getting everyone on the same page to implement that framework requires adaptive leadership and that can be challenging.
How has your leadership style changed since the program?
I learned to set a lot more realistic goals for myself. L4G came at the crux of a lot of change for me: moving into a new role, changes at the macro level of our organization, COVID19, and more.
I was feeling extremely under-accomplished. And I’m somebody who’s used to accomplishing things and knowing what I have and can achieve. So, SMART goal-setting helped me contain that sense of being overwhelmed where I could work on bits and pieces of projects. Over time, I was able to see what was in my control, where I could push myself, and where I needed to pause and acknowledge my capacity.
“I used to think leadership was just about pushing boundaries and having more responsibility. Working directly under our CEO and closely with our founder, I’ve had a lot of say in the direction our organization is taking, but that has also led to a lot more work. I identified 10 things the organization needs and at some point I had to choose what I would and would not focus on, and acknowledge what I could and couldn’t do. It feels like a personal failure when I say I can’t do this or if I have to say no to something. This training and this process has allowed me to come to an understanding of how different factors in an organization work together to make something happen and at what point I can decide what to do and not do. I think this has changed my relationship with myself and my work and how accomplished I feel.”
What would you want future participants to know about L4G?
“I would say that this program really sees you and meets you wherever you are in your journey and helps you build the skills or the mindset that you need.”
When I thought of a leadership program, I hadn’t really expected that I would learn how to set goals properly. Actually, now that I think of it, we didn’t even learn how to set them formally in any one of the modules, but it was through the feedback we received and the discussions we had, that it became a really useful tool.
The program covers several things from personal growth to working with people, to specific skills and tools that could be applied to a project within your organization. To put it simply, L4G provides you with a combination of technical and soft skills that are required to perform effectively as a leader. This combination and the balance between both, I think is what makes the program really stand out.