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One year on from the passing of the Founder of BRAC, we speak to Dr Erum Mariam, Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh and Miganur Rahman, who all worked with Sir Fazle Hasan Abed. Each of them began their journey with BRAC at different times, worked with Sir Fazle in different capacities and are currently leading at different levels in BRAC. What they have in common is that they continue to pass Sir Fazle’s leadership traits forward.
Dr Erum Mariam, Executive Director, BRAC Institute of Educational Development, one of the key visionaries behind the Play Labs in Bangladesh, Uganda and Tanzania, and the Humanitarian Play Labs in the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar was mentored by Sir Fazle for years. These are the three key principles she learnt from him:
Conviction in people’s capabilities
Like Sir Fazle, she believes that what people living in poverty lack is the opportunity to realise their potential. This has been her mantra in leading her award-winning early childhood development programme – continuously consulting the community and valuing their input. While thinking of ways to engage children in the Rohingya refugee camps, for example, the first thing she would do is ask their parents, because they have the most knowledge about their children.
Focus on impact, in the field
Scale and impact are emblematic of BRAC. Laying the groundwork for good impact, Dr Mariam believes, lies in being intensively involved in field activities, and carefully watching operations unfold. She spends large amounts of time in the field and encourages her staff to do the same.
Having a sense of deep empathy helps a leader to understand their surroundings. Dr Mariam believes that in order to support people and communities, it is crucial to think from their perspective.
“Leadership deeply rooted in empathy is why BRAC has grown into a strong voice of the global South today.” BRAC’s name comes in the forefront of conversations in the face of pressing concerns in the region, be it a humanitarian crisis, natural disaster, or life-saving healthcare in the midst of a global pandemic. People want to know what BRAC thinks of the situation, and what it is going to do about it. “It is very motivational. It inspires you to keep doing the work”.
Dr Mariam believes that it was his innate ability to make people feel valued for their contribution that made Sir Fazle an inspirational leader, and she has inculcated this trait at the heart of her work.
Sarah-Jane Saltmarsh, Head, Programme and Enterprise Communications, one of the key influences behind BRAC’s writing, storytelling style and the BRAC brand, spent her first five years at BRAC working with Sir Fazle. These are three key principles she is taking forward;
Zoom in and zoom out
Sir Fazle paid attention to the smallest details while also keeping an eye on the big picture. He looked into history to help predict the future, and valued local knowledge while also listening to global best-practices. Sarah-Jane reminisces on how Sir Fazle would ask about specific activity figures, budget lines and edit specific words in a text, and then in almost the same sentence would challenge
people about what impact this would make in twenty years, how we were predicting that issue would change and how BRAC’s activities would need to transform in coming years to stay relevant.
Why is this important? Sarah-Jane says people are often good at either focusing on the details or looking at the big picture. When the ability to look at both can be inculcated within staff, it gives the organisation a good chance of staying relevant.
Sir Fazle ate the same food as the staff, from the staff canteen, for BDT 45, every day he was in the office. He wanted to ensure everyone was getting good food, and the best way to do that was to eat it himself. When he was in the field, food was one of the first things he would ask about – what were the staff eating, were they getting enough nutrition, was it tasty? He made time to speak to everyone, had an open door when it came to staff concerns, and asked about people’s lives outside of work.
Sarah-Jane takes humility as a key personal value, ensuring people are cared for not just within office hours, but taking an interest in supporting staff in their personal, as well as professional development. She checks on her team’s mental health, supports flexible arrangements for study, hobbies and to fulfill parenting and care responsibilities and always makes time to listen.
Space to create
Everyone has potential, but the easiest way to ensure that potential is never realised is to instruct people about how they should do their work. One of the traits Sarah-Jane most appreciated about Sir Fazle was that he rarely gave instructions – he would instead ask questions and suggest areas to look into. Sarah-Jane continues that in her leadership style, opting to give staff space to make mistakes, and learn and grow through those mistakes, rather than being managed closely. “I focus on giving people challenges, encouraging them to own those initiatives, to live and breathe them and I am there to support them if they need. I give them the problems, and suggest the kind of outcomes we want, and let them come up with the steps in between”. She sees the role of leadership as guiding, inspiring and catalysing the potential in others, and helping them to realise what they are capable of.
Md Miganur Rahman, Sub-district Development Coordinator, BRAC Integrated Development Programme
Miganur, currently stationed in Baniachang, Sylhet, started working with BRAC in 2002. He has been instrumental in the field-level operation of BRAC’s ultra-poor graduation, migration, and now the integrated development programme. He worked closely with Sir Fazle in the field, and holds his values at the heart of his work. Here are his key leadership traits:
One of his biggest strengths as a leader is the ability to bring the team together and foster a culture of inclusion and ownership in the workplace. He understands the importance of realising the differences among team members and utilises that in a positive light.
“There are different kinds of people in a team. Each member is gifted in different ways, and all a good leader needs to do is identify their strengths and nurture their weaknesses”. Miganur has had team members with a history of poor work performance transferred to his team, who then flourished under his guidance, and became integral to their teams.
Sir Fazle believed that in-depth understanding of a problem and identifying its roots was crucial. Whenever Miganur is handed a new project to lead, the first thing he does is gather as much data on the issue as possible. He reads about the subject matter, dives into the ground realities, and brainstorms innovative solutions to address the issues. Simultaneously, he engages his team members in actively brainstorming on the subject matter, and encourages them to explore the different modalities to approach it with, and what outcomes they might get. This gives the team members a clear idea about their assignments, and provides them a moral boost to stay committed to the project until they find their desired outcomes.
What would Abed bhai do? Listen.
Whenever in doubt, Miganur often finds himself asking: What would Abed bhai do in this situation? One of Sir Fazle’s famous traits was to listen intently when he was spoken to. Miganur follows this trait closely in his life, and it is one of the reasons programme staff and participants approach him regarding any problem. He establishes himself as the ‘go-to’ person in any project he works in.
Inspiring people through one’s action and encouraging them to push their limits to be their best selves are integral parts of being a leader. Sir Fazle was the embodiment of that. His values, work ethics, and compassion continues to inspire the BRAC family.
Miftahul Jannat Chowdhury is a Content Specialist at BRAC Communications