Most people, myself included, instinctively associate leadership with senior management roles. But leadership is not restricted to those with management responsibilities. Like senior managers, my role as a facilitator in the communications and knowledge management team at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) is essentially one of inspiring and guiding scientists and other colleagues towards a desired outcome. But I did not think seriously about the fact that I could be a leader until I participated in a facilitation skills workshop organized by African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) in March 2016.
At the workshop, which was organized by the Institute for People Innovation and Change in Organizations (PICO)–Eastern Africa, we heard how there are many overlapping forms of leadership. Some are formal with designated responsibilities while others emerge more informally as we interact with our peers. As facilitators, we help create engaging and collaborative environments for people to discuss and share their ideas freely; we help them improve thinking to achieve the objectives of their meetings and harness diverse thinking among group members to come up with rich decisions as well as learning.
The workshop was designed to impart facilitation and teaching skills to the participants, enabling us to make life easier and training more productive. It sought to enable us to successfully organize training sessions and meetings, helping to enhance our skills of observation, analysis, conflict management and consensus building, handling conflict and time management.
The PICO-Eastern Africa facilitators employed a number of different learning and iterative approaches: plenary sessions, break-out groups and role plays. It was a learning workshop, so the topics were dynamically and flexibly co-created to reflect the needs of participants throughout. Topics were not pre-defined in a typical modular teaching framework. We, the participants, were divided into groups reflecting the different scenarios we would have to deal with, i.e. when managing workshops and facilitative training sessions. In workshops, the facilitator deals with managing group dynamics, rather than creating knowledge, s/he helps other to do so. Whereas in managing facilitative training sessions, the trainer is actively involved in generating knowledge.
We learned a lot of different techniques, including facilitative listening and questioning skills, recognizing and effectively managing divergence points—‘groan zones’—in meetings/processes, and other ‘difficult’ dynamics, as well as how to help participants negotiate sustainable agreements. This knowledge will certainly help us keep content, process and structure on track during workshops and meeting.
Despite being such a diverse group of participants from Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, we all agreed that we had learned a lot. But for me, the most important lesson was that by putting the new facilitation skills into practice, I too can be a leader.