#ebbfmilan - how a design engineer became a global leader using trust, democracy and comfort with uncertainty
We interviewed Ana Saldarriaga keynoter at ebbf’s annual conference, fifth AIESEC international female and first Colombian president of this global Organization activating the potential of young leaders leadership in over 125 countries. Ana’s keynote and ebbf’s own keynotes at AIESEC’s international and national events continues a 15 year-long active relationship between these two networks that started when ebbf organized one of the first microcredit summits inviting then little known Muhammad Yunus and AIESEC to be protagonists there.
QUESTION: Ana where did your journey to become AIESEC’s global president start?
I come from Medellin in Colombia where I was studying product design engineering. Eager to broaden my experience abroad, I was searching for an exchange program when I came across AIESEC. I went to some of their intro talks at my university and found that this Organization could offer me much more than that.
At University I learnt methodologies to create physical products, in AIESEC I have become an engineer of social change, learning to solve complex problems, solutions oriented approaches to developing people and ideas, instead of products.
The kind of ideas that can transform the lives of people.
In AIESEC we stand for cross cultural understanding and it is here where I first learnt how to be the path to collaboration between different people and cultures starts with yourself being authentic and true to your values and and then being able to understand and respect others, and what is important to them.
Q: This sounds wonderful but how easy had this path been for you?
It is not easy at all, in fact it is very hard to learn and master. I have been at it for the last seven years and keep learning, using AIESEC’s cross cultural understanding methodology. I found particularly useful how our leadership model starts with self awareness.
Gaining self awareness, understanding better who you are, before you are able to understand and interact with others and finding / creating common ground. Understanding personal priorities, strengths and weaknesses to then reflect and live of global citizenship with other people with extremely different sets of values and cultural behaviours.
I have been using spaces and opportunities for deeper self awareness, also using some common personality tests to determine the best fit with other people and improve conscious collaboration.
Q: what were some of the main challenges and differences that you encountered along the way?
The challenges started I my own nation and in nations with similar cultures who are used to a last minute, undefined way of working. I have learnt and offer to others ways to become extremely confortable with uncertainty. Very useful as uncertainty surrounds us and is an increasingly predominant trait of our times.
But I also learnt to apply this in extremely rigid and organized cultures, where other kinds of pressures come into play, e.g. getting everything right but and on time without having the information or resources to make that happen.
Q: with your background I engineering, being comfortable with uncertainty sounds very challenging, what leadership traits helped you achieve this?
Indeed being comfortable with uncertainty is central to who I am now and to how our teams work. Specially for an engineer like me this is complex but I learnt a key element of this status that helped me and my teams to be successful was trust.
Trust both in yourself and in others to be able to not only cope but be comfortable with uncertainty is fundamental. Operating successfully when not all details are (nor need to be) clear, even if something unplanned happens it is easier to cope with a high level of trust to make things happen.
Q: you also mentioned democracy as an important element of team leadership, what does that imply?
I have experienced and use different elements of democracy in my work in AIESEC. First of all, all leadership positions in AIESEC, local, national and international, are democratically elected.
But there is another underlying element of democracy that resides in our culture: considering that we are a voluntary organization, without formal bosses, without financial incentives, the WHY behind what we are doing is an important element.
No one will do something unless they are driven to do it, either individuals are on board or it is not going to happen.
This challenges the way you brainstorm and present and execute ideas – and 90% of ideas don’t come from one person but from democratic dynamic group meetings.
The third democratic element is how the long term picture is formed.
In AIESEC we rotate positions and all the teams change every single year. We had to build a process that would allow entirely new teams to transition into their roles every year but with a direction and overall strategy that cannot change every year. There is an element of coherence and direction that needs to continue and show a longer term, in our case a five year, heading that cannot be challenged.
I happened to be elected president of this Organization in one of those five year plan creation and transition periods in the history of AIESEC.
So I had to close AIESEC 2015 and open AIESEC 2020, using two great resources that are abundant for millennialis: brains and technology.
This meant that together with my team we involved more than 70,000 members, and involve people at every level, who shared their vision of where AIESEC should be in five years, through both physical meetings and online surveys. 25,000 inputs were then collated into a democratically-created global strategy
Q: what is one attitude that defines you and your leadership style?
My Personal driver is:
“well done is better than well said”
I believe that inspiration comes from words, but what creates lasting impact is when words reflect actions.
To this day, this has been my biggest challenge and aim.
Come to ebbf’s annual conference in Milan
to meet and interact with Ana and another 20 sessions around innovative learning and decision-making processes