Learning from Change

My first two months at Habitat for Humanity International were a whirlwind. Friday of my first week I was asked to travel to South Africa to support final preparations for a regional conference we were organizing on land rights and governance. Saturday morning, less than 24-hours later, I was sitting on a plane watching DC shrink out of view. Coming back, my team jumped straight into pursuing new funding opportunities with tight deadlines. The hours were long and the learning curve was steep, but I learned so much.

Then, six weeks into my fellowship, my supervisor called me into her office and told me she had accepted a new option with Habitat and would be relocating to the area office in Pretoria, South Africa. I was excited for her, and also nervous for what the change would mean for my fellowship year. I did not know who would be my new supervisor or what my work assignments would be during the transition. While the main Habitat office is in Atlanta, my supervisor and I are based in DC, which is the government relations and advocacy office. The rest of our Global Program Design and Implementation team is based in Atlanta or works remotely. My supervisor and I worked extremely closely, being the only two D&I staff in DC. Every week my tasks changed to respond to new program and grant deadlines.

It would be impossible for me to separate my fellowship experience from the experience of supporting and navigating my supervisors’ transitions. So many of the professional and “soft” skills I gained this year came from this process. Here are five things I have learned and gained in navigating a supervisor transition this year:

  1. Patience and flexibility

There were a number of unknowns in the transition, in large part because the visa and relocation process is complicated, even for employees staying with the same organization. The timeline for opening a call for applicants to fill my supervisor’s positon was partly dependent on the timeline of her relocation, which was, in turn, dependent on her receiving her work visa. My supervisor was often out of the office, traveling to prepare for the new position or working remotely to facilitate collecting and compiling the lengthy documents for her visa application. Patience and flexibility in the face of uncertainty have been two of my biggest areas of growth this year, and I know these skills will be invaluable moving forward.

  1. New projects and opportunities

Because my supervisor had additional commitments and responsibilities, she asked me to take on new and different responsibilities. In November, I helped plan a learning exchange in Manila, Philippines, titled “Strengthening Land Tenure Security for Urban Poverty Reduction in Asia-Pacific.” Usually my supervisor would have traveled to attend and help facilitate the event, but because of the transition I had the opportunity to go and to represent the Global Programs Design & Implementation team. Now being the only staff member on my team based in DC, I have also had a number of opportunities to represent Habitat for Humanity at various sector events, including working groups, and workshops hosted by USAID and the US State Department.

  1. Connecting and collaborating with new colleagues

As I previously mentioned, Habitat’s DC office is the organizations’ Government Relations and Advocacy office. With my supervisor in transition, I have been able to be more involved in supporting collaboration between our team and the global advocacy team. Through this collaboration have learned a lot about access to land and tenure security, which is the focus of Habitat’s global advocacy campaign, Solid Ground. With the global advocacy team, I helped coordinate Habitat’s 30-person delegation at the ninth World Urban Forum (WUF9) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia where we were engaged in more than forty events and presentations. WUF9 is the premier global conference on urban issues and development. It was incredible to spend a week in Malaysia learning about, and working towards, more sustainable and resilient cities with 22,000 attendees from 164 countries.

  1. Two-times the expertise to learn from

Having two different supervisors this year has also meant that I get to learn from two highly qualified experts with different professional background. My first supervisor was an expert in urban planning and development, with experience working for UN-Habitat, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. She was instrumental in developing Habitat’s extremely successful REELIH project and building a coordination structure for our Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) programs. My new supervisor is an expert in WASH and disaster response, with over 20 years’ experience in the development sector. He has responded on the ground to the Haiti earthquake in 2010, Japan Tsunami in 2011, Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, Nepal earthquake in 2015, and the refugee crisis in South Sudan. I am so fortunate to have worked closely and built relationships with both my supervisors, who are generous and take the time to explain new concepts, tools and methodologies to me.

  1. Looking forward and back

I was eight-months into my fellowship when my new supervisor started in his position, and I was grateful to be able to support his transition by compiling and sharing resources, providing background, and sharing my experience working on Habitat’s land, urban, WASH and gender programs. In a role that has often been very face-paced, his transition has helped prompt me to reflect back on my experiences this year. I am reminded of just how much I have learned this year. Helping explain Habitat’s unique structure and programs now will also prepare me to on-board the next Davidson Impact Fellow this summer.

Change, it is said, is the only constant in life. Its inevitability does not, however, make it easier in the moment (at least not at first). In can be hard to see opportunities when you are in the midst of uncertainty — I know because, nine months ago, when I was told this would be an important learning opportunity I struggled to see past the challenges that come with change. Now, I am infinitely grateful to both my supervisors and the experiences I have gained, which I know will serve me well beyond this role as well.