As President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), Sarah Kambou shares her perspective on leadership

For nearly 15 years, Sarah has been at the helm of this global research institute that focuses on realizing women’s empowerment and gender equality to alleviate poverty worldwide. Under her leadership, ICRW has developed its presence in Asia and East Africa and expanded its footprint around the globe.

Sarah has served as an advisor to multilaterals, leading corporations and governments seeking to integrate gender into policies, programs and services that will advance the status of women and girls worldwide. In December 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Sarah to the President’s Global Development Council, where she served as an advisor to the Administration until January 2017. Also, in 2012, President Bill Clinton tapped Sarah to serve as an Advisor to the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2010, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Sarah to represent ICRW on the U.S. Commission to UNESCO.

Tell us about your leadership style and how this contributes to your organization’s success.

ICRW is a global research institute, with a staff of about 100 people and maintaining offices in Washington DC, India, Kenya and Uganda. When times are good, my dominant leadership style tends to be participatory. I work with a very talented team of researchers, advocates and operational experts. Everyone brings capabilities, experiences and competencies to the table. Through a participatory leadership style, I am able to acknowledge the caliber of staff working at ICRW, engage them as co-creators and leverage our human capital to the greatest extent possible.

With my senior thought leaders, I seek to create an enabling environment that allows them to be their most creative and productive. I’m pretty much along for the ride — because they are awesome. My most common question to them is how can I be of help to you?

Given the size and global nature of our organization, I have less direct interaction with the mid-level and entry level bench. When I travel to our regional offices, I offer lots of one-on-one time – kind of an open mic for staff to come in and talk about things on their mind. I realized recently that because DC is my home office, I don’t create that same opportunity for staff based here. I started up Salads with Sarah, an informal chat over lunch, and that has been well received. I enjoy hearing their take on issues, getting a bead on the institutional pulse, answering questions, and talking about issues like career pathways.

With the Board, I seek to inspire excitement and commitment by communicating to Board members the unique value of the work of ICRW and the enormous impact we achieve together as a team. Yet another leadership style given who they are and their role at ICRW.

When there is an emergency or turbulence in the operating environment, I find that I assess the situation and deploy the leadership style that best suits that situation and the team I’m working with. In an emergency, it’s vital to form and coordinate an experienced team to analyze information, outline critical pathways, mobilize resources and act once a decision has been taken. Respectful tone, but participatory leadership is out of place in this kind of situation. Once fully briefed, I move into ‘telling’ mode – outline the plan, roles and responsibilities, let’s go.

So you can see, I don’t believe I have just one leadership style. While participatory leadership is my dominant style, I am actually very comfortable with several styles that I can draw upon to best address situations facing staff and the organization.

What advice would you offer for other nonprofit leaders?

  • Find what works best for you to center yourself every day. I get up early and, over my first cup of tea, I’ll quiet my mind for half an hour. It helps prepare me for the day.
  • If you haven’t yet, seek out other non-profit leaders who have levels of responsibility similar to your own, and create a safe space for you all to informally share experiences, successes and challenges, words of wisdom, whatever. You’ll find that you’ll garner the support you need to stay fresh, energized, focused and productive.
  • Take in some daily inspiration. I happen to like HBR’s Management Tips of the Day. There are days when the tip is a complete non-sequitur and of little direct help – and then there are days when the tip is so on point I wonder if the folks at HBR are clairvoyant.
  • Work/life balance is vitally important. We all know that, but we may not actually practice that principle for ourselves. I wish I had sage advice to offer – I know I’m doing better at work/life balance when I manage to get to the gym two times a week. Mind you, my goal is three times a week but that seems a bridge too far most weeks.

What does this award mean for you and your organization?

Like so many non-profits, ICRW is weathering tumultuous times. We believe deeply in the organization’s mission, and are passionate about the research we do to improve the well-being of women, girls and marginalized people living in the US and around the world. We work hard to deliver excellence. Naturally, there are moments when we must take a deep breath to deal with challenges in fundraising and policy arenas, when we are juggling external factors common in non-profit operations.

The EXCEL Award, an award bestowed by peers in the non-profit sector, is a mark of distinction. Such public recognition acknowledges our efforts as an institution and assures us – as well as our donors and partners — that we are on the right path, doing good work. We are honored to be among the finalists, and will celebrate each of the Awardees.

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