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Thunderbird and the American Express Leadership Academy

What do an organization providing assistance to farmers to move out of poverty, another organization focusing on improving building and home construction on an island prone to natural disasters, and another, a well-known global leader working to end poverty all have in common?

They all participated in the 2017 American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird School of Global Management.

The Academy at Thunderbird's curriculum focuses on preparing high-potential emerging leaders by:

  • Building the personal, business and leadership skills needed to run a successful nonprofit organization.
  • Delivering learning tailored to fit cultural nuances and different nonprofit niche needs, with the following core elements being consistent.
  • Blending personal leadership skills with business skills.
  • Taking an assessment-based approach to education.

Every year, the American Express Leadership Academy takes emerging leaders from non-profit/non-governmental organizations and helps them become more effective leaders, allowing them not only to have an increased impact on their organization, but also to teach others how to be more effective leaders.

Feeding the People

Charles Ashimwe is a People Lead for the One Acre Fund, an organization that works to help small farmers in Africa emerge from poverty by providing agricultural inputs (grain, seed, etc.), technical assistance and training.

Ashimwe, who works across a wide swath of departments within the One Acre Fund, from human resources to the corporate operations team to the infrastructure team, said the Thunderbird experience has been invaluable.

“I never would have imagined that I would learn so much within such a short period of time,” he said. “The instructors are amazing.”

Creating Solutions

Each team has a project they work on, with the idea of creating solutions to take back to the organization. For Ashimwe’s team, it was on increasing the value proposition for One Acre Fund’s employees and to increase the organizations’ branding and image.

“In the past, we’ve focused almost solely on serving more farmers. But with the branding and global mindset sessions we’ve had, my group believes it’s time to increase the support for One Acre Fund’s team,” he said.  “This will allow us to scale our ability to serve even more farmers in a much better fashion.”

Helping End Poverty

Another organization focused on ending global poverty is CARE USA. Emily Janoch and Lawanda Graham are from two different functions in CARE, but both have the same goal: digital transformation for the organization.

CARE works to fight poverty in over 90 countries. As a global organization, you would be correct in guessing they have a significant digital footprint to work with. And Janoch, Deputy Director of Research, Innovation, Evaluation and Learning for CARE’s Food Space initiatives, said the biggest challenge is trying to coordinate it all.

“Our challenge this week is how to take the 63 different digital platforms within CARE USA and make the technology easier to use and faster to access,” Janoch said. “We want to create a system where team members don’t have to think about it, but can just do their jobs.”

Graham, a Business Relationship Manager for CARE’s IT group, concurs.

“Our biggest challenge is digital transformation. We’d like to change the reputation of technology within CARE and get the staff around the world on board and excited about what technology can offer when it works and works well.”

Leadership Takeaways

One of her takeaways from the sessions, however, goes beyond technology.

“The Leadership Academy has reinforced the notion that leadership is both a privilege and a choice. Further, getting to network with colleagues from other non-profit organizations around the world has been invaluable, especially when you realize they’re facing the same sets of challenges you are. We’ve learned that our shared experiences can help each other.”

Janoch’s takeaway was also unique.

“I am intrigued by the notion of how to hold an idea’s intention, since we as leaders are often asked to do things that seem contradictory,” she said. “For example, we have to be decisive and compassionate, nice and action oriented. How do you hold those together in a way that feels authentic to you and your team, and so that you don’t stray too far in any direction that could risk your organization’s mission?”

Stronger Homes Make Safer Lives

And when your organization’s raison d'être is minimizing risk, being successful saves lives.

Gaspard Pierristal from Build Change, which helps design, build, rebuild or retrofit homes in earthquake-prone regions, was another participant in the American Express Leadership Academy. Pierristal is a Deputy Technical Manager in the organization’s Port Au Prince, Haiti, operations.

“Our services are needed because, tragically, we’ve seen people die from poorly designed homes. Further, people rebuild in the exact same danger zones as before…and governments allow it,” he said. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

His project surrounded how to best communicate Build Change’s mission and successfully offer assistance.

“If we can give them technical assistance and help them rebuild stronger homes, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We want to give them and the local governments the ability to understand how to implement these types of [safety] changes into standard building practice. Doing so will save lives.”

Three organizations, all dedicated to saving lives, either through food assistance or having a secure structure. It doesn’t get more noble than that.

From May 7-12, 2017, Thunderbird and American Express hosted their annual American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird’s Glendale, Arizona main campus. The 26 program participants from 10 different non-profit/non-governmental organizations represented 11 different countries: Bangladesh, Ghana, Haiti, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Palestinian Territories, Philippines, Uganda and the United States. Thunderbird’s annual program, launched in 2009 through a partnership with American Express, has now served over 265 managers from nearly 90 organizations. Its goal is to help emerging leaders become more effective leaders for further impact on the NGO’s goals and missions. Thunderbird Professor Mary Teagarden, Ph.D. is the Academy’s Academic Director.

If you know of a non-profit organization which could benefit from the American Express Leadership Academy, contact Ms. Debisu Hyde, Key Account Director, at debisu.hyde@thunderbird.asu.edu.