We have recently been reviewing the long term impact of our work and the way in which work carried out some years ago is still impacting in the present. In 2010 Creative Metier began a collaboration with an international NGO in Afghanistan to carefully and systematically build the capacity of its Afghan staff. This work, alongside careful implementation over ten years by the local team transformed their resilience and ability to continue their work when the political and security context shifted radically in 2012. Read this incredibly inspiring example of how investing in local leadership and teams can secure significant impact through moments of change, and how our work continues to deliver impact in the years following the engagement. 

[Please note we have purposefully kept this interview anonymous to protect the individual and organisation]

What was the context for our work together in 2010?

I was working with an international NGO in Afghanistan around the time that the international community announced its intention to withdraw troops by 2012. This of course triggered a whole new wave of violence and panic. As others did, we started to plan for the withdrawal. We developed scenarios from the most extreme, where the Taliban took over, which of course happened in 2021, to more optimistic scenarios. We discovered that for many of the scenarios we would not be able to maintain the same level of operation and effectiveness.

We realised that if we evacuate all of our international staff, 76 of them, that would leave only me as an Afghan in a leadership position. We would lose all our directors, all our regional directors and sector heads. So to mitigate this risk, we sought funding and engaged Creative Metier to develop a localisation plan. We set localisation as a vision and goal, but we needed something to guide the process, develop a learning and development strategy alongside the plan, to systematically build capacity and to develop and retain high caliber staff. A key step was to create deputy director roles and to build their leadership capacity, and that is where we also engaged Creative Metier.

When you engaged Creative Metier, what were you hoping the impact of the collaboration would be?

I would say I had two levels of expectation, for me as a leader in my deputy director role, and for me as a person. I was eager and thirsty for learning, particularly around leadership and management because I knew I was good at it. I built my skills in coaching and mentorship through this process, and have continued to hone those over the past ten years. Importantly, I also wanted more Afghans to be in leadership positions, and I saw myself as a gate opener, a pioneer for that. Through this process I hoped to enhance my skills through direct work with your team and then build the skills of those in my team.

What difference do you think the coaching made to you as a leader?

The coaching process made me a better leader, but let’s unpack that. I was new in role, with a bigger team from diverse backgrounds. It boosted my confidence, gave me a sharp understanding of being a democratic leader, what I would now call a servant leader. As my coach worked with my supervisor and I, she was able to facilitate feedback in a sensitive way. This enabled both myself and my supervisor to improve performance in certain areas. Providing that bridge was an interesting element of the process.

My skills improved not only as a coachee but also as a coach. Alongside the coaching Creative Metier delivered three rounds of leadership and supervisory skills training to enable us as leaders to carefully build the capacity of our teams and Afghan staff. One of the key areas for my development was external engagement and representation of the organisation. I had strong ambition to be CEO and saw these programmes as a way to build my skillset.

There was some dissatisfaction at my promotion amongst the other directors, in some cases they were now reporting to me. Some saw the importance of having an Afghan director in providing a role model for other staff, so they could see that it’s not impossible for Afghans. I used my coaching skills to build strong relationships with my team, my peers and with external stakeholders and my acceptance amongst the team increased.

If we think about the broader localisation process, what do you remember about that?

To start, we launched a country wide tour alongside our annual planning process. We developed and consulted the localisation plan with the field teams, right down to the ground. We didn’t want to create a situation where people started to compete negatively, so it had to be very sensitive. We positioned learning and development as positive overall, and then alongside this identified positions which could be localised in the time frame of two to three years.

We created a shadow layer of roles at director level, deputies, and if we look now, these people are in the director roles. We also created deputies in the regions. At the time, without the local capacity yet at the higher levels, the decision as to whether we could and should fully localise was open to discussion. As I look back now, that feels awkward, but at the time we didn’t have the capacity and this was a new idea within the wider organisation. Alongside the structural changes, and Creative Metier’s leadership skills support, there was a need to build best practice technical expertise. We partnered with a world renowned university to develop a masters and supported those in shadow positions to attend the programme.

Overall, it was a very structured, careful process to identify people to step into these roles over that two to three year timeframe and equip them to succeed.

What challenges did you experience in the localisation?

The first was budget availability, which was solved by a multi-lateral donor. Then we had to consider how to create a blended learning programme in a context where the faculty staff could not travel to Afghanistan, nor the delegates travel outside the region. To solve this we partnered with a central Asian University to host the programme. We also worked with a partner to enable access to English language programmes and with other institutions to provide short courses of three to six months around key development areas that the candidates had.

We had to pay particular attention to gender disparity. We supported the travel expenses of family members to accompany women staff members, and negotiated to allow flexible admissions to account for the lower levels of English language abilities for female candidates. Finally, we had a number of star performers, who didn’t have any higher education at all. So we negotiated a process to allow us as the employer to vouch for the capacity of the individuals and for their experience to be recognised in their application. Creative Metier supported us to look at best practices in enabling access.

We sometimes hear of organisations being reluctant to invest in leaders for fear they will leave the organisation. How do you view this?

The data showed 70-75% retention over the following three to five years, and of those who left, they stayed in the development space within Afghanistan or outside the country. So this programme has contributed to building human capital within the country and across the region. It was a really contentious topic, but where we landed was that the organisation was there to invest in the capacity of Afghanistan.

The current leadership of the organisation are both graduates of this process, with regional leads also having participated. Critically, this process then enabled staff members to access specialist technical education, such as public health, in their sectoral area in other universities and progress to roles in the development sector within the organisation or region.

If we step forward to today and look at the devastating situation in Afghanistan, where one of the scenarios came to fruition, what difference has this work made?

As with change, it doesn’t all go to plan. After I left, the organisation hired two further international CEOs, but this didn’t work out, and this convinced the global leadership to localise the CEO position.

The new Afghan CEO stepped into the context of political and security uncertainty in 2022. Everyone was panicking, but he did not. He was like a strong pillar in the organisation, so that’s what I would call impact. And this is a result of a conscious systematic investment made over ten years.

We continued to function and continued our full operation, even when the Taliban captured certain districts prior to August 15th we never stopped any of our operation because of the localisation process and our policy of hiring staff locally to support acceptance at the local level. When the Taliban came into districts and provinces prior to 2021, they did not harm us because 99.9% of our staff were local from that village or from that district, they knew each other.

We established relationships through community organsations. We had to because we are a neutral organisation. We are not involved in politics, we work for people of Afghanistan. So we continued our operation and now we are expanding, we are ready to work with other organisations, to play like a regional or national role. We do have the human resource capacity, the financial management infrastructure and transfer infrastructure. We’re one of the only organisations that have opened a financial fund transfer corridor and are able to transfer funds to the country.

Other organisations closed their offices, where we did not, so that is the impact. Because we had a local team, local leadership, they did not leave. This scenario that we anticipated in 2010/11 didn’t happen to us, but it happened to other organisations because they continue to have international leadership.

It is pretty unique for an organisation to make this kind of investment in a country, but they should, because it works.

What else would you like to share?

I would just like to thank you and your team for being a partner in this journey with us. From a personal point of view, it’s changed people’s lives, changed the trajectory of their careers. Many years later as I continue to interact with people who participated in this programme, they appreciate this engagement. There were many players in it to make it a success, Creative Metier among them. So thank you for that.

At Creative Metier we believe that to secure impact for the long term, you must secure the organisation itself and invest in people for the future. Contact us to find out more about our work to foster resilient and impactful organisations.