Thunderbird and the American Express Leadership Academy: Plumbing solutions for developing countries

2016 American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird

2016 participants of the American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird


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 second in a series of articles highlighting how three organizations from the 2016 academy experienced its value and impact. Read part one here

Individual participants aren’t the only ones gaining from the Leadership Academy. Indeed, the companies they work for and managers they work with are also seeing the benefits of participation.

Citizens in developed countries often do not give a second thought about their indoor plumbing, until it stops working. But imagine living in a country where even a basic toilet is considered a luxury and the norm is a plastic bag that is tossed aside when done.

Sanergy, based in Nairobi, Kenya, is out to change that by helping entrepreneurs bring sanitary toilets to remote locations lacking any facilities. Sanergy’s Fresh Life toilet initiative provides a turn-key solution for the entrepreneurial business owner, from toilet facility fabrication and installation, to business services and marketing assistance to generate demand. In addition to entrepreneurs, Sanergy sells to multi-unit landlords, creating an upsell opportunity to potential residents and schools. 

These small-scale, concrete, high-quality, permanent toilet structures offer business owners and residents sanitary facilities on a pay-per-use basis. Pay-per-use is common in Kenya, even though most available facilities are either pit or open toilets common to the less-developed areas of the country. About 40,000 people currently access Sanergy’s network of over 900 toilets.

As a growing non-profit, Sanergy knew it needed to increase its ability to train and support new managers and had this as an organizational priority. So, when a previous participant nominated Sanergy to the American Express Leadership Academy at Thunderbird, the company jumped at the opportunity.

Lindsay Stradley, one of Sanergy’s co-founders, said selecting the participants wasn’t an easy task.

“[It was] hard to choose because you want everyone to have this type of opportunity,” she said. Ultimately, Sanergy founders nominated managers Sarah Atieno, Eric Muchira and Dennis Koome to take part in the academy. “They are each in leadership positions, but are young and without much experience or formal leadership training. They had huge potential, and we wanted to help realize this potential.”

At the academy, Atieno, Muchira and Koome worked on creating a training and support plan for new managers, something Sanergy is focused on as a company priority. 

“We wanted to push them to be inclusive leaders, in order to be open to their team members and to inspire these same team members,” Stradley said.

Since returning from the academy, each has taken on new roles in supporting managers by holding monthly manager discussion breakfasts, planning quarterly off-site strategy days and helping define leadership within the organization. The result has been better morale and comradery among the managers. 

“Part of what Sarah, Eric and Dennis valued [about the academy experience] was the sense of a cohort and building connections with other inspiring young leaders. In many ways, their experience has helped us replicate this within our diverse workforce,” Stradley said. “At one of the recent breakfasts, we focused on a specific tool [managers] can use with this instance, career conversations…and how and why these conversations are important to their teams.”

So, was the experience and benefit worth participating in?

“One-hundred percent, without a doubt,” she said. “The American Express Leadership Academy has been life-changing for them in how they relate with their coworkers and direct reports. For example, many of Eric’s team members have only a high school education and are manual laborers. Prior to Eric’s attendance at the Leadership Academy, many of his team were intimidated to give any feedback. But after applying what he learned, Eric now solicits feedback in a way where his team sees he is really listening and is invested in their feedback.” 

Due to their success with the academy, Stradley reports they’ve already recommended the academy to another non-profit organization.

“It’s hard to overestimate the value of what they were exposed to and how they were inspired by the cohort they worked with. A lot of the work they’ve done [since returning] and the way they’ve approached it and the success they have had can be tied back to what they learned,” she said. “And we’re all better for it.”

Read more about Thunderbird's American Express Leadership Academy

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