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7 Questions on Leadership with Swati Sharma

Name: Swati Sharma

Title: Grants Manager (India)

Organisation: Fidelity APAC Foundation

I am a development sector specialist driving positive change and fostering sustainable development across diverse sectors of health, education, disability and employability for marginalised communities for the last 14+ years. I have directly contributed to the design and execution of numerous development programmes which have impacted the lives of many marginalised communities through fostering the right partnerships. Given the ever-evolving nature of the world we live in, I am convinced that an integrated and inclusive approach is key to driving positive change. Having worked on both the donor and implementation sides of the development sector, I have a unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities in this field..

Thank you to the 2,000 leaders who’ve generously done the 7 Questions on Leadership!

I hope Swati's answers will encourage you in your leadership journey. Enjoy!


Jonno White

1. What have you found most challenging as a leader?

As a development sector professional working in a country as diverse as India, I have encountered a multitude of challenges, each unique in its way. However, if I were to pinpoint the single most challenging aspect of my role, it would be addressing the deeply entrenched structural and systemic issues that persist across various domains in areas such as healthcare, access to clean water, economic opportunities and social justice that compounds the challenges one can plan in advance for. Addressing one challenge often reveals an intricate web of related challenges. For instance, I was working on a mobile medical programme (an ambulance converted to a mobile clinic equipped with a doctor, a nurse and a pharmacist that visits the rural communities at their doorstep for basic health check-ups and medicine administration). In one such health check-up visit, the doctor in the mobile van prescribed medicines that had to be taken thrice a day after every meal. The woman who was being screened shared that her family has only managed to arrange for one meal in the day. That was a revelation for us as we had not planned for a scenario like this. I had to change the course of how the health intervention should be planned to cater to local issues like this. We met with a few local leaders and local government officials to get a below-poverty-line card made for such families who were then able to get subsidised grains and other daily essentials from government shops that enabled them to have three meals a day.

2. How did you become a leader? Can you please briefly tell the story?

My career in the development sector commenced with a role in an implementation organisation. In one of the initial programmes, we visited a rural community in Uttar Pradesh to address the water supply issue for irrigation as that village was predominantly into farming. My team had come up with a solution for improving the water supply to ensure the water needs of the farmers were met. When they started sharing their plans, the community in the discussion was not very participative nor they were giving the response we had anticipated. After half an hour into the discussion, I figured that something was not working. Despite my manager not being too happy about it, I asked our team to take a step back and invited the local elected leader sitting there and the experienced farmers to take charge of the meeting and share with us what according to them is the solution to address the issue at hand. This was the first instance when they were given the centre stage to share their suggestions. The village leader started sharing how everyone from big companies or NGOs would come with an intention to solve our issues without even knowing exactly what the issues were or without asking us what we wanted. While our team had proposed to lay out new pipes from the water source to the fields which was a cost and labour-intensive exercise, we were pleasantly surprised when the farmers suggested that the existing pipes laid down years back could be cleaned and repaired. Not only this suggestion was cost-effective but also would have taken less time than laying out new infrastructure. We made it a norm that whenever the team was working in the community, we would first ask the community what is it they wanted and what was their opinion on how things should be done. Once the pipes were repaired and the water supply was enhanced, on the last day of our visit to the village, an old lady who also used to be a farmer gave me her blessings and has put her hand on my head and said keep doing the good work you are doing. It was that day I realised that no matter where I go and what I do, my work needs to make a difference in the lives of people. It has been 14 years since and I am still working in the development sector helping marginalised communities by supporting non-profits that are making a difference in the grassroots.

3. How do you structure your work days from waking up to going to sleep?

I usually believe in keeping a routine which involves sleeping on time (not later than 22:30 except on weekends) and waking up no later than 07:00 am. I begin the day by making my bed as my first followed by a few stretching and breathing exercises. I never skip breakfast as it helps me keep my energy high during the day. I start my work by creating a to-do list (based on the priority of tasks I need to address) before starting my actual work which helps me organise my thoughts and activities I need to complete. Although meetings are hard to avoid as they are an intrinsic part of my work, I try to schedule my meetings strategically, keeping them concise and focused. I also avoid opening any emails I know I will not be able to respond to immediately. Once I open an email, I always ensure I respond to it at the same time as it is easy to forget about responding to emails with other activities that keeps one busy. I am the kind of person who draws energy from people around me and I try and make a conscious effort to keep the environment positive and energetic so that office remains a positive space for everyone in the team. Since the entire week passes in the blink of an eye, I keep my Fridays reserved for reading reports and documents for my learning and being up-to-date with the new updates in the sector. I limit my time on my phone as it is the biggest distraction there is to work.

4. What's a recent leadership lesson you've learned for the first time or been reminded of?

The leadership lesson I learned is that to make myself sound smart, I do not need to make the person in front feel stupid. I have learned the hard way that the leader doesn’t have to be necessarily the smartest one in the room. Trying to look perfect isn’t authentic, it creates stress and models unhealthy perfectionism. I have seen that showing vulnerability and accepting mistakes goes a long way with the team and makes you more approachable and relatable as a leader.

5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?

One book that made a difference for me was Leading Change by John P. Kotter. We all know change is inevitable and whether personal or professional, it happens every day. In his book, Leading Change, John Kotter argues that we shouldn’t be afraid of it, instead, we should learn to make the most of it in order to maximize our opportunities. His legendary 8-step process is meant for people who not only want to deal with change, but also lead change within their organizations.

6. If you could only give one piece of advice to a young leader, what would you say to them?

One advice I would like to give to a young leader is that if you find yourself in a situation which seems like a dead end, always remember that nothing is permanent in this life. Whether good or bad, every phase will pass ultimately. The important thing is to learn the lesson from the situation and not to let it affect your decisions and career. Everyone makes mistakes and that’s fine as long as you look beyond them and keep moving forward one step at a time.

7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a leader, so far?

In one of my roles where I was leading the grant-making portfolio for my organisation, my organisation was completing 10 years of its existence and had organised a huge event to showcase the work done in the last 10 years. One of the activities planned for the event was creating a Coffee Table Book that showcased this journey through texts and illustrations. The coffee table book was a big deal as it was to be unveiled by one of the former Presidents of India and the senior leadership of the organisation. I did some research and made a broad presentation of how the coffee table book should look like and what all the achievements in the timeline of 10 years should cover and gave a presentation to the CEO. He was happy and appreciated the initiative I had taken on my own and the preparation I had done. I ended up leading the entire work on the coffee table book which involved collaborating with multiple teams and stakeholders like other non-profits, government officials and community leaders. The Coffee table book was very well received and appreciated by everyone at the event and was used years after the event as a string marketing collateral for the organisation.

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