What stepping away from leadership taught me about the organisation I founded

It’s late in the evening, and an unmistakable air of tension can be felt around the table. Six board members are debating a topic crucial to the organisation’s future.

The organisation is OIC Cambodia, a non-profit I founded in Cambodia in 2013 to establish speech therapy as a profession for the over 600,000 Cambodians estimated to need it.

While the debate’s being conducted respectfully, it’s clear that each person believes they are right. Brows furrow in opposition. Counter-arguments scratch at the backs of throats. No one appears ready to back down.

Being born in Australia, there is a part of me that is conflict-averse. At times, I even have a physical reaction to it; my shoulders and neck tense, my stomach tightens. But this time around, every muscle in my body is relaxed.

In my home country of Australia, there are over 7,000 speech therapists working in hospitals, schools and health centres all over the country. And yet, in Cambodia, there are no Cambodian speech therapists at all. OIC is a an organisation that was founded on the recognition of this enormous gap in health care.

Speech therapists help children and adults to communicate, whether by improving their speech, language development or oral comprehension. As many people also have muscle weaknesses that lead to swallowing difficulties, speech therapists also often teach patients to swallow food and liquid more effectively. Their vital assistance helps to save lives.

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Given the essential role that speech therapists play in healthcare, it was mind-blowing to me that there was not one single local professional in Cambodia.

This was an issue I simply couldn’t leave alone, and so, I started OIC to establish speech therapy as a profession. I realised from the beginning, however, that in order to avoid dependency, the organisation had to be led by Cambodians. And it also had to dissolve itself as soon as its work was done.

I knew that if I was to achieve anything, I would have to grow the team quickly, and start to plan the organisation’s exit. And so, in 2014, with the help of minds far superior to mine, we outlined the organisation’s exit strategy. By the year 2030, we want to see 100 speech therapists across Cambodia’s public and private sectors. After 100 speech therapy positions had been established, the profession would have the strength to grow organically, if the organisation had done its work correctly. This allows the organisation to be shut down. It’s no longer needed.

Planning our exit from a country like Cambodia was crucial. Without a planned exit, we would simply be treating the symptoms of a problem, rather than the root causes.

If the work was to be sustainable, I also knew that we’d need to have local Cambodian leadership. It’s the reason why, four years after starting OIC, I stepped back as the leader and handed over the reins to a Cambodian woman named Chenda Net, and moved back to Australia to support from afar.

 Weh and Chenda (OIC Cambodia)

Weh and Chenda (OIC Cambodia)

The process of extraction, of removing both the founder and leader has been anything but smooth. Mistakes have been made, especially by myself. But the team survived. And now it thrives.

And so, after close to a year out of Cambodia, I find myself back in the OIC boardroom, in the midst of a heated debate. I’m relaxed this time around because I sit here as an observer, not a leader, an experience that is equal parts humbling and exciting. Humbling to see industry leaders apply themselves to this cause. Exciting because of the potential of several minds, not just one.

Because when the founder is no longer the leader, others must fill the void and take ownership of the project. They are moved to passionately debate their own views as to how the project should be run. It is incumbent on them to personally invest in the solution.

This is absolutely crucial because the challenges that OIC face are enormous and cannot be resolved without the engagement of local communities.

As the founder, I’ve also learnt a huge amount about my own limitations. What my colleagues are now doing in Cambodia is growing, improving and implementing. This requires a very specific skill-set, especially building on the existing foundation that someone else has laid down. They require negotiation, carrying out a plan in detail and evaluating and re-strategising as they go. They require a deep understanding of local context.

While I might have the skills to start an organisation, I don’t necessarily have the skills to grow it. My gut feeling is that these two very different skillsets rarely exist in the same person. As I now start to create my next social enterprise, this bit of self-awareness is crucial. If I don’t have the skills to grow the next enterprise, who am I going to surround myself with who can? And when will it be time to hand that one off?

Is there an ideal time to step back from the leadership role as a founder? In my experience, the answer is probably closer to yesterday than tomorrow.

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