In 2013, I started OIC Cambodia — an initiative to build speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia. Back then, the scope of the problem was so large that I couldn’t walk away from it. Now, I’m months away from handing over leadership.
Stepping back from OIC, the organisation I founded, will be bittersweet.
But this move isn’t just necessary, it’s also crucial to our future success. Here’s why.
All founders go through their own version of hell to get something started. Without a doubt, the first years of any new operation are the hardest. OIC started from nothing — no institutional or government support, no backing from any large organisation or large philanthropic donor.
After working in Cambodia for a year, I discovered that hundreds and thousands of children were unable to go to school because they had difficulties communicating. An equal number were dying because they had problems with swallowing. And whereas, in most countries, thousands of speech therapists would exist to address this problem, in Cambodia, there was not one.
Not one single Cambodian university-trained speech therapist. It was an issue so large that I could not walk away from it.
Cambodians like Phearom have been working to help children swallow for decades.
I spent the first year looking for support from the typical places — the World Bank, the United Nations, embassies. Though I was welcomed warmly, it became clear that these big organisations weren’t set up to help new issues that had gone under their radar.
We couldn’t afford to spend time writing applications for grants, especially when it took two or three team members months to do so. At times, we were competing with 200 other applicants.
I began to canvass the support of individual people. I learnt to speak from the heart, to appeal to each person’s sense of justice and compassion.
We started Day Without Speech, an initiative in schools where students give up speaking for part of the day, and raise funds for OIC. We opened Happy Kids Clinic, a clinic for those who can afford therapy, with profits going towards the charity. In one mind-boggling moment, I appeared on national Cambodian TV, speaking Khmer, urging the government to support speech therapy.
Appearing on Cambodian TV, urging the government to take up speech therapy.
We will only work with exceptional people. We will hire leaders, not followers.
Our recruitment process is one of the most rigorous that I know, especially for a small organisation without a dedicated HR department. A few of our staff have said, after being hired, that the amount of effort we put into recruitment made them feel assured — that they trusted us more.
And as time goes on, as the founder, I question the need to have me sitting there with them.
My Cambodian colleague Pisey Soeun.
I’ve talked about the struggles that I’ve gone through to get OIC started. These struggles have made me a better, more resilient person. It also makes me see the current situation only through the lens of these experiences. It’s hard to be truly creative when you are already boxed in by the baggage of your past.
That’s why fresh eyes are important.
At OIC, we make our decisions by consensus. It’s not the leader’s role to tell others what to do. We discuss the direction we’re going in, and come to a compromise until everyone is on board.
Despite the fact that our decision making is shared, there’s still the risk of groupthink when I’m in the room.
1) I’m the founder, and, deserved or not, there’s always somewhat of a reverence towards a founder
2) I’m extroverted
3) I’m male
4) I’m tall (by Cambodian standards!)
Not one of these factors indicate that my opinion is worth more than anyone else’s. But all of these factors make others listen to my opinion over others.
But what if my opinion is misguided?
I’ve learnt that the most important opinions are those who of people like Phearom.
In The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuition Deceives Us, the authors describe an experiment where a group, with dominant and non-dominant personalities in it, decide an answer to a math problem. Unsurprisingly, the group tended to follow the answers of the dominant personalities.
What is surprising is why they followed them.
“For 94 percent of the problems, the group’s final answer was the first answer anyone suggested, and people with dominant personalities just tend to speak first and most forcefully.”
It’s a telling example about how much groups can be swayed by one individual. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a role for me to play within OIC.
There is, but it needs to be from the background — as a board member, and as a fundraiser.
Ralph Nader once said that “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
We’ve worked hard to promote leadership within OIC from the beginning. As of July this year, our predominantly female team in Cambodia will be leading the project in country.
It’s a big step for the organisation, and a move in the right direction. For OIC, and the hundreds and thousands of lives we hope to reach, the future is looking bright.
This article was originally posted on Medium.