What Organizations Can Learn From An Orphanage

Andy Porter Andy Porter, Culture, Engagement and Satisfaction, Good HR

My wife and I recently returned from a two week trip to Ghana where, in addition to experiencing the passion of watching two World Cup games (vs US and vs Uruguay), we volunteered at the WORCSA orphanage in Dowdoa.  There are life experiences, and then there are Life Experiences.  Working at the orphanage with such great kids and passionate volunteers was a life experience which makes many of the problems we face in our day-to-day lives in the Western world seem quite trivial, but that’s a story for another blog post or over a beer.  Yeah, these kids face REAL problems – no clean water, lack of food, no proper beds – serious stuff, but somewhat surprisingly these 65 kids taught me the “rich Western volunteer/HR Pro” a thing or two about what really matters in an organization.

Job descriptions are a waste of time.  Just do what needs to be done because it’s the right thing to do.  There are 65 kids (from age 1 to 17) in the orphanage with one, yes one, full time mother to look after all these kids.  So, you can imagine there’s a lot of work to be done – feeding them, bathing them, dressing them for school.  Anyone with kids knows this is no easy task.  But you know what?  All of these kids pitched in to help out with the things they cared about.  Some cooked, some cleaned up the place, others helped bathe and feed the younger ones.  Standing there watching this “organization” in action was pretty amazing.  They were motivated to jump in and help because they cared about their brothers and sisters and their “organization,” not because they were given some silly job description.

Lesson:  the next time someone in your organization tells you they need new job descriptions, it’s time for a talk about what they really care about.

Without community, you have nothing IMG_2974 For kids who literally have nothing, any possession is considered prized.  But nothing more so than the orphanage football team (that’s what the rest of the world calls soccer).  These kids play a match against other kids from the village “officially” every week and often many more times unofficially during the week.  What I couldn’t believe was that almost all the kids from the orphanage would come down to watch all the games!  Imagine a rag tag group of 40 plus kids supporting, having fun and cheering on their team!  And these kids organized it themselves, because they cared about it – not because they were told to care.  But in the corporate world, it’s sometimes hard to get anyone to show up at a company event – usually because company sponsored events suck and have nothing to do with the identity of the company!  But they don’t have to suck, and they can actually be quite important.  Just ask the kids.

Lesson:  go organic – your company has an identity already whether you planned it that way or not.  Your job is to encourage your employees to cultivate it themselves and find the best ways to celebrate it.

Leadership comes in all sizes and at all levels.   Of the 65 kids vying for attention, one kid stood out from all the others.  Chico Baby.  Yes, she has her own nickname, and she has the uncanny ability to change the dynamic of any room she walks into, and people are instinctively drawn to her.  Oh, and she’s 2 years old.  That’s right, 2 years old.  Now, if Chico Baby worked in one of our organizations, we’d have to make sure her boss Chico baby advocated for her in a talent review session, get buy-in for her being recognized as a future leader, and then fill out a bunch of forms detailing her next steps.  Guess what?  Chico Baby is now 6 years old and works for your competitor.

Lesson:  you know leadership when you see it.  Stop screwing around with forms and formality and just develop your employees! 

Your employees, not management or HR, are your best recruiters.  Now, I realize this point of view could get me kicked off of FOT, but I don’t buy the notion that HR or management are the most effective or genuine recruiters.  It’s your employees or in this case the kids.  Period.  It’s their stories, their experiences and their willingness to engage and tell you genuinely how they feel that makes you want to join the organization or decide to make a return trip to Ghana.  Trust me, I got the sales pitch from the woman who runs the orphanage and while she has done some wonderful things for many children, that experience almost made me NOT want to come back.  It was too self centered and not genuine.

Lesson:  yes, kids may say the darndest things but they’re usually true.  Maybe the same is true for our employees but let’s not be afraid to let them speak about how they really feel.

You may be hungry today but don’t forget about tomorrow.  Sadly, sustainability isn’t one of the strong suits of the orphanage.  They were really good at putting food on the table on a day-to-day basis but lacked the ability to take a step back, see the big picture and cultivate a sustainable source of food.  It reminded me a lot of our organizations and how we can often get distracted by what’s in front of us and miss the bigger issue.  For these kids, it’s a matter of life and death.  That’s not usually the case for an organization, but it reminded me of how often we hire someone who’s not quite the right fit to fill a long open position or making a dubious business decision because it makes us some quick cash.  But you always pay for it in the end.

Lesson:  sometimes it might be worth going “hungry” for a day to make sure your organization has the right “food” to sustain itself for the long term.

This was an amazing trip on so many levels (in large part because of my volunteer crew – Michael, Jody, Kalie, Josie, Dom, Danielle, and my wife Cynthia) and I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to do something like this to jump on it.  You won’t be sorry you did!