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Thunderbird and the American Express Leadership Academy: Teaching leadership, one NGO at a time

Thunderbird/American Express Leadership Academy
February 02, 2017

Editor's Note: From May 8-13, 2016, Thunderbird and American Express hosted their annual American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird’s Glendale, Arizona main campus. The 30 program participants from 10 different non-profit/non-governmental organizations represented 6 different countries: Kenya, Malawi, Palestine, People’s Republic of China, Uganda and the United States. Forty percent of the participants were from outside the U.S.

Thunderbird’s annual program, launched in 2009 through a partnership with American Express, has now served over 200 managers from nearly 70 organizations. Its goal is to help emerging leaders become more effective leaders for further impact on the NGO’s goals and missions.

“One of the philanthropic goals of American Express is to focus on the development of social sector leaders,” said Thunderbird professor Mary Teagarden, the Academy’s academic director. “These participants are on their way to positions of senior leadership.”

This is the first in a series of articles highlighting how three organizations from the 2016 Academy experienced its value and impact. Read part two here.

When you speak with Abaas Mpindi, you immediately notice his energy and the infectious enthusiasm in his voice. He exudes the confidence many young entrepreneurs have of seeming to know exactly what he wants in life. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find someone who not only knows what he wants, but who also seeks to help others find their path, as well.

Abaas is a program manager with the Global Health Corps’ Ugandan operations. A New York-based non-profit organization founded in 2009, GHC develops global health leaders by recruiting early-to-mid-career professionals from around the world and pairing them with partner organizations in Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, the United States, and Zambia. 

As a program manager, Abaas coordinates the program’s alumni in the region, helps with professional development of the current Global Health Corps Fellows and generally helps the organization promote health equality. Since its founding, Global Health Corps has supported over 700 alumni fellows, 60 of whom are from Uganda.

Abaas was selected along with two other Global Health Corps colleagues, Isabel Kumwembe from Malawi and Carrie Rubury from the New York office, to attend the 2016 American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Arizona. The weeklong program that also includes two post-program individual coaching sessions focuses on building the personal, business and leadership skills needed to run a successful nonprofit organization.

When asked about his experience at the Leadership Academy, Abaas doesn’t hesitate in his answer: “Life changing.”

“When I came to Thunderbird for the Leadership Academy, I had no idea what to expect. Arizona is nothing like Uganda physically. But Thunderbird, that’s a different story. At GHC, it’s like a family. We have Fellows from all over the world paired with local health practitioners. With students and faculty from around the globe, Thunderbird is like a United Nations in the middle of the desert.”

One of the benefits of attending the Leadership Academy is for the organizations’ attendees to solve a project that can help their organization improve in some fashion, using the faculty and fellow attendees as resources.

“I was surprised at the diversity in the overall group,” he said. “People from Palestine, Kenya, United States, and Uganda. We all had a single purpose — to solve a problem facing our respective organizations, but it was so educational to learn how people from other cultures see and hear things differently. It really opened my eyes to try and approach challenges in a different fashion.”

The project Abaas and his team chose was how to better engage the Global Health Corps Fellows in participating in the organization’s annual reports. The fellows looked at the reports as an obligation instead of an opportunity, meaning the reports weren’t a priority.

Abaas’s team looked at the disconnect between the programming and the organization, and decided to restructure the reports as a method of accountability for Global Health Corps, not just an obligation. Understanding what is happening with the Fellows can hold the organization accountable for the program, but Global Health Corps needs to know and understand what’s happening. The fellows’ reports do just that.

“One way we looked at restructuring was to make the reports engaging, so the Fellows would want to participate. Instead of insisting on boring PowerPoint slides, we asked for photos and videos of their experiences,” Abaas said.

“Another thing we did was take the approach that Simon Sinek wrote about in his book, Start with Why. We ask our Fellows about their ‘why’: Why are they doing this work? What is their personal mission? Why do they care?”

His experience with the Leadership Academy at Thunderbird extends beyond his employment with Global Health Corps. Abaas said his experience at the Leadership Academy prompted him to start a non-profit organization, the Media Challenge Initiative. Extending his involvement with his background in journalism, the initiative helps train the next generation of journalists through monthly workshops on goal setting, radio and TV presentation and production, online journalism and now solutions journalism to promote the idea that journalists have to become part of solutions dialogue.

“Uganda has some of the highest youth unemployment rates due to the huge gap between graduate skills and market requirements and [also] the absence of practical facilities in universities. We set up a Media Academy with a make-shift TV and radio training studio, as well as training space for around 20-25 students,” he said.  Some of the media equipment was donated by a local Scottsdale photographer, Mr. Reg Boynton-Lee from The Happy Snapper Ltd.

“Because of Thunderbird’s American Express Leadership Academy, my entire way of thinking about challenges has changed. My teammates Isabel and Carrie and I had a life-changing experience. I am the manager I am today because of the program. I cannot recommend it enough.”

Read more about Thunderbird's American Express Leadership Academy.

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