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Adapt & Grow: How to Excel at Your Day Job While Building the Skills You’ll Need for Your Dream Job

September 22, 2016 | Elise Mann, Global Health Fellows Program II | This post first appeared on the Global Health Fellows Program II blog.

Prior to coming to the Global Health Fellow’s Program (GHFP) II, I’d spent the first five years of my career resettling refugees in the US. As my job evolved, I was nervous that my lack of technical knowledge would make it difficult for me to support global health professionals—particularly the senior ones with accomplished careers. However, over the course of my time with the program, I’ve found that the skills I developed working with refugees have served me well.

Working with new refugee populations in new program contexts (local and national) required me to observe, listen, be willing to try new approaches when the old ones didn’t work and ask questions. The same is true in global health.

While global health professionals may have a specific area of expertise, there are always new programing priorities, technologies, or acronyms to learn. In addition, adapting approaches to new communities and/or cultures requires professionals to learn what it takes to be effective within each context.

As the Lead for GHFP-II’s Performance and Career Development (PCD) team, I am responsible for ensuring that our Fellows have the performance and career development support they need to be effective in the global health workforce. In order for that support to be effective, it can’t be cookie cutter.

Pictured: Workshop participants at the annual Consortium of Universities for Global Health (CUGH) Conference spend time discussing the challenges they face in global health programs

The PCD team employs a variety of tools that are successful in producing the desired results. For example, I oversee coaching services that allow Fellows to focus on specific challenges and issues, with a professional matched to their needs. I also take a leading role in the planning and facilitation of meetings and trainings for GHFP-II Fellows and Interns that are tailored to their unique USAID environment.

Some recent workshops include Administrative Writing for Global Health Professionals, Performance Monitoring Primer for the Health Sector, and Leadership in Unpredictable Situations. An annual regional meeting brings our overseas Fellows together with professional facilitators to work on issues and challenges that they would like to address.

I also collaborate with our recruitment staff in developing appropriate scopes of work and work closely with USAID On-site Managers to address performance issues that arise with Fellows and Interns before they become unmanageable.

Often, the biggest hurdle for new participants is learning to function in a new organizational culture. The PCD team has created a comprehensive USAID orientation and works with Fellows throughout their tenure with the program to identify resources that will help them be effective in their jobs.

We orient them to USAID’s structure and global health priorities, advise on best practices in performance planning and help identify professional development resources that will allow them to grow their technical area of expertise and professional leadership skills. The Fellowships we offer are time limited, spanning two to four years. In practical terms, that means Fellows are on the lookout for their next career opportunity at some point during their tenure. This is another focus area for the PCD team, and one that is often ignored by other employers.

We provide the resources, including professional development funds, so that Fellows can explore new learning opportunities or enhance the skills they already have, so that when the time comes to transition to a new position, they are ready for the change. A former Fellow, Chelsea Polis, said it quite succinctly, “This position provided me a great opportunity to contribute to scientific progress in an area I feel very passionately about, and to help me better understand what I want in my career moving forward.”

Over the course of my time with GHFP-II, I’ve had the chance to observe the skills and behaviors that allow Fellows to be effective and advance their global health careers. I’ve also seen Fellows experience difficult setbacks in their professional lives because they did not spend enough time or pay enough attention to the organizational culture and team dynamics surrounding them.

The Fellows who tend to be the most successful are those who recognize that learning to navigate their new organization and establish good relationships with their colleagues is just as important as being good at the technical aspects of their job.

Pictured: Laurette Cucuzza, a GHFP-II Fellow and Senior Reproductive, Maternal, Neonatal, Child Health and Adolescent Health (RMNCH+A) Technical Advisor, attends the Women Deliver 4th Global Conference

Laurette Cucuzza, a Senior Reproductive, Maternal, Neonatal, Child Health and Adolescent Health (RMNCH+A) Advisor in Mumbai, India had to figure out how to navigate a new organization, culture, and team dynamics when she moved to India for her GHFP-II Fellowship with Dasra, an Indian philanthropic organization focused on social change, after many years working as a technical advisor for international NGOs in Washington, DC. Although she had worked extensively in India, she had never lived there.

During one of our regular check-ins, Laurette shared with me that she had to stretch a bit out of her comfort zone and embrace Indian cultural norms in the workplace in order to build rapport and good relationships with her colleagues.

One major difference between Indian and American workplace norms has provided her with a unique opportunity — “we are encouraged to all join together for lunch and everyone shares their food. At first, I was wary, not wanting to get sick, pass germs and such, but soon it was quite normal to have someone take a forkful of my food and for me to do the same with others. It’s been great, as there are various cuisines around the table on any given day!” Having the opportunity to talk through this issue helped Laurette put it in perspective and create closer ties with her colleagues.

As a Fellow, Laurette was tasked with helping Dasra build its capacity and technical expertise in reproductive health, “Collaboration with team members and across teams meant a fair bit of relationship building was needed. Having lunch with everyone was not just a social thing to do, it also helped to get to know people and build relationships.”

Teamwork and collaboration are required in most positions in global health. While anyone can be a part of a team or engage colleagues, only successful Fellows like Laurette recognize that through the process of collaborating with others, they must remain open to new ideas, approaches and ways of learning.

Going beyond collaboration, they build relationships and fully appreciate and value the knowledge, experience, and diversity of thought that their colleagues bring. In doing so, they strengthen their ability to accomplish stated goals.

Getting to know her colleagues over shared meals has enhanced Laurette’s ability to provide technical expertise and leadership in support of RMNCH+A and on issues around adolescent girls’ empowerment. She is sought out for her knowledge and regularly provides technical updates and briefs to her colleagues.

Pictured: USAID staff, Fellows, Interns, and Global Health Youth Summit participants work together during a limited resources activity emphasizing negotiation, collaboration, creativity, and communication skills

As a Fellow, Laurette has been able to take advantage of her professional development funds to attend and present at international conferences that are of particular interest to her and enhance her work, including the International Population and Reproductive Health Conference and Women DELIVER, and bring her learning back to Dasra.

Finally, having established relationships has given Laurette a network of people that she can rely on when she doesn’t understand something in her adopted country. “Whenever something came up that I didn’t understand or know how to do, I just had to ask. It was nice to find that my team members were universally very generous toward helping me figure things out, not only with work, but also with personal needs.”

During my time at GHFP-II, I’ve worked with numerous Fellows who have struggled with understanding the complexities of a new organization. For many, it is the hardest part of their job, but Fellows who are able to read and adapt to the context of their organizations and team or recognize when they are not adapting well and seek out assistance tend to be successful—even if they aren’t the best or most experienced technically.

For most people, it’s easy to learn about or adapt to the technical changes in our work—we can attend conferences or read the latest journal articles, but learning how to adapt to a new organization or the changes that occur within an organization is not always easy.

GHFP-II’s Performance and Career Development team is dedicated to helping Fellows develop or enhance the soft skills they need to navigate the complex and fluid field of global health. We regularly meet with Fellows to develop annual performance plans and discuss challenges they are experiencing and identify resources to assist.

As a program, GHFP-II gives people the space to learn, grow and ask questions. The PCD team is dedicated to being a resource for global health professionals by helping our Fellows function effectively in an ever changing environment. After eight years, I’ve had the opportunity to see the impact the program has had on people’s career success, which has been incredibly rewarding both personally and professionally.

To learn more about the value of PCD services, check out Sonia Walia’s profile, GHFP-II Fellow and Public Health and Nutrition Technical Advisor with USAID.

Elise Mann is the Performance and Career Development Lead at GHFP-II.