Leading with international partnerships

By Laura Gossman

Author’s Note: Many of the Praxis organizations that have been profiled in recent months are either based internationally with nationals and westerners leading the enterprise or have headquarters in the U.S. with national leadership abroad, or some combination of both. I recently interviewed Brian Albright, PhD, to get his take on some of the most significant challenges and lessons he learned in his various long-term partnerships throughout eastern Africa. His reflections will help inform our future interviews with nationals who partner with and work for some of the Praxis organizations.

Brian’s initial background in partnering with nationals from other countries started when he worked at Azusa Pacific University for six years, working with twenty plus mission organizations to host short-term mission teams. While he mostly worked with missionaries and other U.S. organization representatives, sometimes he had the privilege of working with national leaders on not only logistics, but also projects and ministries in which the teams would participate.

For the past nine years, Brian has had the opportunity to work with a few African (mostly Kenyan) partners on several projects. Three of those years he lived in Kenya, and during the other years he lived in the United States and traveled to Africa a few times a year. These partnerships included (and continue to include) involvement in starting an orphanage, managing organizational aspects of a few NGO’s (both on the staff and board level), and in for-profit businesses. Part of his dissertation research included the U.S./African partnership aspect of several faith-based social businesses in sub-Saharan Africa.

Brian Albright, pictured left, at a board meeting in Kenya for Living Room Ministries, which provides holistic care to individuals who are facing life threatening illnesses. Here they are discussing the funeral home business component.

Brian Albright, pictured left, at a board meeting in Kenya for Living Room Ministries, which provides holistic care to individuals who are facing life threatening illnesses. Here they are discussing the funeral home business component.

There have been some significant challenges with his national partnerships over the years. He admits that the hardest thing has been “truly understanding one another, which to me goes deeper than communication. You can work through language, cultural differences, defining roles, and being organized, but getting on the same page regarding heart, motivation, desire, purpose is really tough, but very important and rewarding.”

When Brian and a Kenyan colleague, David Tarus, decided to start a business together, they had been working together in NGO development projects for a few years. Transitioning their mindset to being profitable, while empowering the poor, was harder than Brian expected.  For example, David was focused on his community and making sure that they benefited from their efforts.  Brian agreed, but he also wanted the best, most qualified employees to increase their chances of success. When they had a few “employee issues,” employee selection was a concern in which Brian needed to understand where his Kenyan partner was coming from. It also took some time for David to understand how important profitability was to Brian, in that raising more money from investors, which they had become accustomed to in their NGO work, was not an option.

Pouring milk into a cooling tank at Onesimus, a milk distribution business Brian Albright helped start with a Kenyan colleague.

Pouring milk into a cooling tank at Onesimus, a milk distribution business Brian Albright helped start with a Kenyan colleague, David Tarus.

“One thing I appreciated most about my partner was his willingness to wrestle with issues. We disagreed, and we spoke openly, sometimes I won and sometimes he won, but it was a good healthy tension. I also appreciated that we had equal stake in the business financially. His willingness to invest his own funds into the company was vital to my decision to get involved,” reflected Brian.

Brian is confident that the main reason this partnership works is because of the three years they spent together on a day-to-day basis. Living in Kenya for that longer period of time was key in making their partnership possible. Now that Brian has returned to the U.S. and sees other Americans trying to partner in businesses after only being in country a few weeks out of the year, he is unsure how they make it happen. For him, that time together was vital.

Onesimus account recorder, documenting the quantity of milk collected from farmers.

Onesimus account recorder, documenting the quantity of milk collected from farmers.

Brian recently earned his PhD in Organizational Leadership. His research on partnership uncovered evidence on many of the obvious things one would think about in partnership: the importance of communication, the identification of roles, capitalizing on the strengths of individuals and managing weaknesses, and so forth. However, his most interesting finding was the presence of a “pre-existing hierarchical racial stereotype” within the context of the partnership. Both African and U.S. partners had to recognize that there was a view that “whites are better than blacks,” and that stereotype had to be dealt with, not only between the partners, but also between the partners and the rest of the employees of the companies.

As Brian considered how to best encourage current and future leaders with international partnerships, he shared, “do the work and take the time necessary to build the relationship, even if it means slowing down the project or whatever you are partnering on. Communicate honestly and often because things, feelings, situations change regularly. Understand that there are factors external of the partnership itself that need to be recognized and dealt with.”

Titus Boit and Brian Albright presenting information to the Living Room Board about expansion of its funeral home services.

Titus Boit and Brian Albright presenting information to the Living Room Board about expansion of its funeral home services.

For gospel-motivated organizations initiated by Americans, leaders involved on both sides of the globe must continue to lean into the tensions and conflicts that arise. This is certainly needed to avoid historical paternalistic/colonialist mistakes Americans have made, and to improve the outcomes of each endeavor. But more importantly, it is imperative in order allow room for national leaders to identify unspoken racial stereotypes and partner with Americans on being equal image bearers in the Kingdom of God.

Laura Gossman lives in Pasadena, California. She is the Director of Operations at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and a recent new mother to son Benjamin and wife of Adam Gossman. She received her M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies from Fuller in 2006.

Fieldnotes Magazine is a publication of the Max De Pree Center for Leadership at Fuller Theological Seminary. We would love to hear from you about people, businesses, or other organizations we can interview or feature. Please email the editor at Fieldnotes Magazine.

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