Throughout my schooling, extracurricular activities, and internships, I gained a set of skills that made me assume working at GreenChar would be easy. I am organized, a good communicator, responsible, detail-oriented, and a good writer. Therefore, when I first joined GreenChar, I confidently thought that my resume-worthy skills would allow me to help build a startup without much effort.
This was true for the first month. We were still waiting for our seed funding to arrive from Echoing Green, and so there was not too much to do. I used my organization skills to sort GreenChar documents and files on DropBox and GoogleDrive, my eye for detail to redesign the GreenChar website and to create pitch decks, and my writing skills to rewrite the business plan. I was producing good work with efficiency and relative ease, which convinced me that running a business could not possibly be that hard.
Then our funding came. Suddenly, big decisions over finance, operations, and strategy had to be made. Suddenly, more people got involved. Disagreements over the direction of GreenChar popped up regularly, miscommunications happened on a weekly basis, and the organized systems that I believed were in place suddenly disappeared. I was quickly in for a rude awakening from my startup fairyland where everything was simple, easy, and perfect.
More troublesome than that- my resume-worthy skills could do nothing to help the situation. No matter how organized or articulate I believed myself to be, I couldn't prevent chaos, miscommunications, and arguments from happening. I couldn't even prevent myself from arguing with the team.
I didn't understand what was happening, and I couldn't figure out what to do to get us out of the situation. We were not supposed to be fighting; we were supposed to get along. Everything was supposed to be perfect. I complained, got angry, and resented everyone. I felt cheated out of an opportunity for me to become successful without much effort. And after I threw myself the biggest pity party on the block, I finally consulted mentors, began reading books, and Googled. I was determined to figure out the problem.
One of the greatest things about traveling is the random conversations that happen with people that you barely know. Even greater is the fact that these random conversations end up teaching you something that you would have perhaps never learned on your own. This was the case a few weeks ago when I met someone for coffee to talk about college. We ended up briefly talking about his time working for Google, and he noted that the most successful and respected people at Google were not the ones with the best "technical" (or in my case, "resume building") skills, but the ones with the "soft" skills. Soft skills such as the ability to motivate, influence, and unite a team. When he said this, a part of my mind exploded, because it completely illuminated the problem that I was having with GreenChar.
I had relied too much on my technical skills to make us a successful business and team. I had thought that these great technical skills were enough to handle and solve any conflicts thrown my way. I didn't realize the importance of people skills in overcoming challenges and in becoming successful. Not people skills in the sense of listening and getting along with everyone when things are fine, which was something I believed I had. People skills in the sense of what you do when people are not getting along and things are not fine. That's when motivating, influencing, and uniting a team come into play. That's when your technical skills don't really matter, and your soft skills are your only solution.
One of my mentors had also previously pointed out the art of influencing and its importance as a skill to have. The brief comment at the coffee shop completely reiterated and confirmed this importance, and I began to realize how, instead of being influential amongst the team, I only had focused on being right and getting my way.
In the past, I've spent an embarrassingly large amount of time arguing for what I believed was the right answer and, in the process, rejecting the other person's opinion. I did this because I wrongly believed that my education and experiences in the U.S meant that I had more (technical) skills, that I was more mature, and that I was in a better position to make decisions for GreenChar than was anyone else on the team, including the founders. Sure, the rest of the team had 19+ years of experience with the environment and with the people served by GreenChar, and yes, they came from Kenya's elite high school that chose the top 200 students out of 400,000 applicants, but I came from the West.
Therefore, I used to push myself onto the team and demand that everyone went with what I said. What I've finally learned is that 1) this is just wrong, 2) all this does is put us all on the defensive and leave no room for teamwork, and 3) I was the only one who cared if I was right--everyone else cared about whether they were right. Instead of truly influencing opinions and convincing others, I simply created resentment and hostility. Most importantly I was slapped in the face by the fact that these boys cannot be stereotyped by my westernized perception of Africa; no one at GreenChar needed me to save them, I was at GreenChar to contribute my skills and insights to their existing talents.
The only time we ever came to a mutual agreement was when I jumped off my high horse and spoke in terms of the other person's interest, in terms of what they thought was right. If I could connect the both of us, point out that we were united under the same goal to make GreenChar as successful as possible, ask the other person questions that would get him thinking about my idea, make suggestions calmly, and comprise, then I could succeed in avoiding an argument and coming to a conclusion for which both parties were in favor.
This is one of the most important things I've learned while at GreenChar. It's always great to be organized, responsible, detail-oriented, and proficient in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. These are great and important skills to have, and I myself look for them when hiring GreenChar employees. But truly to lead, to overcome challenges effectively, and to strive for success, while keeping a team together, means more than those skills; it means being able to motivate each other when everyone is feeling discouraged, being able to unite the team when everyone hates each other, and being able to influence others instead of pushing yourself onto them. It also means not being a righteous condescending jerk, or an over-the-top perfectionist.