Graham Wood is The CEO, Aga Khan Foundation, East Africa region. AKF is a private not-for-profit organisation, one of the social development agencies of Aga Khan Development Network agencies, AKDN.
Is what you do a role that you actively sought or is it just a career progression?
This is not a new area for me because all my career life, I have been working with vulnerable persons. Early on, in the 90’s, I worked for the humanitarian sector in Sudan, what is now South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Somalia. Before I took up this role last year, I had undertaken other leadership roles in organisations that work towards bettering the lives of the poor and marginalised.
Now I help communities achieve systemic change by helping to build systems that will work to their benefit in areas such as education, health and nutrition, agriculture and food security, civil society and economic inclusion.
What kind of skills or qualifications does one interested in working in the humanitarian and development sectors, need?
It depends on whether you want to be a specialist or, like me, a generalist. Those who specialise in certain areas, education or health for example, need to be experts in those disciplines.
My own background is broad, with a first degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and graduate degrees in Linguistics and Ethnic Conflict. I also trained as a teacher early on. I often advise people to focus too on softer skills such as collaboration, listening, understanding yourself and others.
I have completed secondary school and I am interested in working with the vulnerable in society, how do I go about amassing the skills and knowledge that I need besides getting a formal education?
Many non-profit organisations will take on interns, but ensure there is a proper, mutually beneficial scheme. Grass roots experience is invaluable. Understanding people’s lives is vital to working with them for solutions.
You have been a teacher and head of policy and programs, now you’re a CEO. What are some of the lessons you have picked along the way?
One of the biggest lessons that I have learnt is to get the best out of the people that I work and interact with. As a CEO or leader of an organisation, you can’t really do much on your own. I have also learnt that valuing my colleagues and developing a sense of emotional intelligence is key to leadership.
My endeavour is to understand better the people that I work with, empathising with them and recognising an important rule – that people have different motivational needs.
How has working with the vulnerable moulded you?
On one hand, it makes me realise how lucky I am having come from the United Kingdom, a developed nation, and the world’s fifth largest economy. I was also lucky to do my first degree at Oxford University.
On the other hand, it humbles me to see some of the poorest people in the world maintaining a true sense of spirit, of identity and a sense of community. It is incredible to see that despite the hardships and all the problems they face, they still maintain an optimistic mind.
What is that one decision you made in your career that, when you look back, are proud of?
I, among others, decided to rally for education among refugees in Dadaab. That happened a long time ago - in the mid-90s. Each time I visit the camp and see children learning, it gives me fulfilment.
Back then, kids at the camp didn’t have access to education, especially at secondary level. Now, it’s accepted as a right, not an add-on. With access to education, I am convinced that the kids will be able to break the cycle of poverty and dependency.
I am proud to have played a small part in that agenda.
What is the place of millennials at Aga Khan Foundation?
AKF recognises that people are different, and so we try to give our staff, especially the youth, as many opportunities as possible to be creative and to find inspiration in what they do because waking up every morning and going to work isn’t just about the salary.
There has to be something beyond that. Purpose.
What attributes make a leader?
Humility. A good leader ought to recognise that most of the times, you don’t have answers within yourself. Listen to what others have to say and don’t be afraid to ask ‘why’.
You have worked and lived in several countries, does change come to you easily?
I have worked in 50 countries and lived in nine. I also travel a lot. One of the lessons I have garnered from one city to another is that every culture is different. I am responsible for East Africa, and have found, for instance, that countries like Tanzania and Kenya are very different in terms of their beliefs and way of life. When I visit a new country, I have one resolve - to live within the culture and learn how to work with it instead of fighting it.
On your LinkedIn profile, you mention that you have “finally” completed writing two novels. What are they about?
One of the novels is set in the Dadaab refugee camp as it was in the early 90s. The other one is set in a fictional Africa country at some point in the future - it’s some sort of science fiction. I am in the process of working with an agent to publish both.
It took you quite some time to complete your books, would you say that you struggle with procrastination?
No, not anymore, and just so you know, I didn’t procrastinate writing the novels, I was writing them at a time when I was very engaged in my previous capacity. I actually had to take time off work to finish working on them. To avoid procrastination, I try to do the things I least enjoy as quickly as possible early in the morning. Those that I enjoy, I work on during the day. That’s how I get things done. Procrastination just pushes a problem to tomorrow.
How would you describe your childhood? Did it shape the person you are today?
My father died when I was very young and my mother, who’s now 95 years, struggled to support my three elder brothers and me.
Through her, I learnt the value of hard work and the need to stay focused. These are values that I have held dear since. She used to tell me, “Be humble. Humility will take you to many places.”
Which stage of your life have you enjoyed yourself most?
I am in my 50s now, and what I have learnt is that life gets better as you grow older. In my 20s, I didn’t really know what I wanted and I spent a lot of time wondering about that.
When I got to my 30s, I had discovered what I wanted to do but I wasn’t sure that I had the skills to do it. Now, I feel comfortable where I am since I don’t feel like I need to make an impression. At this age, I don’t have to pretend to be someone that I am not. I wake up everyday energised. When not working, I am writing, running, travelling or at the theatre.
What advice would you give a young person reading this?
Keep the dream. No matter what happens, don’t lose it. Growing up, your wish might have been to become a professional famous actor, but even if you don’t become one, let the burning desire in you push you to do some amateur stuff.