Leading culture change from within

Fellowship stories

26 March 2015

Rosanda McGrath, Leaders’ Quest Associate, shares her experience of a visit to Wavanje, a small village in rural Maharashtra, in spring 2015. Rosanda met with a Quest Fellow – Shoba – and the many women whose lives were being directly and positively impacted by her work.

The fan whirled as I dozed. It was 5.30am and I wasn’t ready to get up. I was tired after a fitful night’s sleep on a mat on the floor with colleagues, Tina and Mihika.

I was hearing the clunking of metal pots, water sloshing and sweeping. Then the fan stopped. The power had gone. Pity I didn’t get up earlier. Instead I was fumbling around for my clothes and washing in a simple, tiled room in the dark. Much to my surprise and delight the metal bucket was full of warm water.

The sun was rising and children gathered around us as we drank chai, sweet tea in the courtyard. The kids had sacrificed their bed for us. Some had even just been on a 2km run in their sandals!

Wavanje village, Mumbai

We were staying in a rural community with Quest Fellows, about 90 minutes from Mumbai. We were an eclectic mix of leaders: Americans, Turks, Kenyans, Australian, Palestinian, Israelis and English.

When we arrived in the village, ladies dressed in electric blue and aquamarine saris offered a customary Diwali greeting on the temple steps. Inside, the hall was crowded with women and children in richly coloured saris. They were sitting on the floor, which was beautifully decorated with folk art: ‘Rangoli’, like a henna skin design in brilliant colours.

This stunning decoration is done on special occasions using a mixture of dyed flour, rice and flowers. These vibrant patterns extended along the street and there were unique creations outside many homes. Like many amongst the group, I totally connected with their creativity. The sheer beauty of the place took my breath away. I sensed that the warmth of the space and their welcome invited us to be generous too. It created an immediate bond between us.

Our host was Shoba. She’d lived in the village since she’d joined her husband’s family home as a newlywed. She, like most of the women, had spent her days collecting water, straw bales and firewood on her head, scything the rice and wheat fields, washing everything by hand, and cooking. It was gruelling work. She rarely left her home. Her family was struggling to survive. She was depressed and desperate for a better life for herself and the community.

How would I cope if I had to collect our family’s water and live without power between the hours of 6 and 9, morning and evening? I’d have less time to earn money, walk our dog, and drink coffee with friends... (Though there would be at least one significant upside – I’d be fitter than I am now.)

Happily, Shoba wanted something more. She enrolled on the Quest Fellowship programme in 2009. It was the beginning of a beautiful transformation. Five years later, Shoba is the leader, showing everyone that there’s a better, easier way to live in the village. She’s inspired 350 women (10% of the village) to join self-help groups to secure food rations and water from local sources. These women are breaking down cultural barriers, bringing hope and vitality to the village. There’s a strong sense of community emerging. And their positivity is affecting their families too. Children are aspiring to be engineers and doctors.

Empowering women through self-help groups

That morning in the village, I lay on the floor and realised what was changing. The ladies were beginning to believe in themselves. Each one of them was growing in confidence. Everyone had something special to offer this buzzing community.

Amongst this group, I experienced Karuna’s home to be the gathering place, always full of laughter. She’s a very special host. She had all her sisters around, sitting on the floor preparing our meal and then serving us. It would have been unthinkable not to eat what we were served. They were feeding us so generously, even though they are dependent on food rations.

It was only later in the evening that I appreciated the significance of one of Asha’s achievements – her fight for a paved road. I care deeply about safety and yet didn’t initially see the risks until I found myself cautiously navigating an uneven path in complete darkness. I felt very vulnerable and wished I was walking on a flat pavement.

Vrushali had the most beautiful home. It could be featured in a Western paint brochure. Each wall was a different rich colour. I realised that she had created the stunning Rangoli in the temple with her daughters. I appreciated her creative flair and wondered what else she might create.

The tower of strength was Shoba. I observed her tenacity to fight for what’s right. She’d found her voice in local government meetings and things were changing. It seemed particularly brave because she was upsetting the caste norms which dictate a different role for women. Personally, I recognised a maverick who is courageously breaking down cultural barriers.

The day in the village had me thinking more about generosity, creativity and what makes a safe space. Most importantly I was touched by how this group of women, led by Shoba, were playing a part in a huge culture change. She had inspired the wives in Wavanje to find their voice and the strength in numbers to stand up for themselves. I particularly identified with her energy.

My own experience of inequality

It reminded me of moments during my corporate career when I was a minority voice in a man’s world. I was responsible for culture change. My job was drawing people’s attention to uncomfortable truths, showing them a different way of working together. I was hugely energised to create a more inclusive workplace. I was guided by my intuition and experience.

There was a memorable moment at the townhall meeting at BP’s head office with our CEO, Tony Hayward. The room was full and the hierarchy was visible row by row. I was sitting too close to the front for my status. Blissfully carefree, I was keen to engage Tony in a conversation as part of a move towards more interactive Q&A sessions.

I asked a question. Much to my disappointment I received a brisk response. I felt I’d bowled and he’d hit the ball out of the park. Undeterred, I pulled the microphone back and sought to engage Tony.

This wasn’t premeditated. It came from within me. I went on to say what I thought about the crazy quantity and time-consuming pre-work circulated in advance of meetings. I expressed my frustration that conversations didn’t happen and decisions tended to be made before the event. I caught him off guard. He listened and his response was honest. Our chat sent ripples through the company. This strengthened my resolve to continue making small moves to provoke more dialogue and let the word spread virally. Ultimately, I was the victim of my success and I paid for it with my job.

In hindsight my downfall was that I was blind to my boss’s fear and I overlooked paying attention to the leadership team’s needs. I was leading culture change but not worrying enough about how uncomfortable this was for my bosses. I should have spent more time allaying their fears.

Where were the men in this village?

Back in Wavanje, I lay there wondering where the women’s husbands were. I imagined that they were working in the fields, although we didn’t see many as we walked around. They were fairly invisible, even at the party in the evening. This felt rather uncomfortable in a country where custom suggests that women are the property of their husbands.

In light of my corporate experience, I dearly hope that the men receive support to grow as their wives grow, rather than feeling threatened by the formidable energy of the ladies. Hopefully, in securing food and water – the bare essentials for life – the women have gained the men’s respect. With mutual support, everyone in the community can flourish.

Inner strength, purpose, and perseverance

As we walked in the heat of afternoon sun, it felt as though Shoba was the Pied Piper. She was walking elegantly and confidently, surrounded by a gaggle of women as we headed out along the tarmac’d road to scythe rice a few kilometres away. Many children tagged along.

I was struck by the amazing transformation that was happening around her. I wondered how she sustained herself? She smiled at Nutan, her companion, acknowledging her support on the journey. Nutan is a regional coordinator for the Quest Fellowship programme. She is Shoba’s mentor. Clearly there’s a strong bond between them. She helps Shoba unpick her experiences and make sense of important moments, particularly when it’s tough. And the ladies of the village are also benefiting from several years’ experience of being mentored by Shoba herself. (From my experience of leading culture change, I know that it’s vital to have this support. I had a consultant, Patricia, who worked very closely with me. She became a dear friend and definitely enabled me to achieve more.)

It was wonderful to see the confidence of the women. What’s more, I sensed a burning desire inside them to find a livelihood that improves their quality of life. I know that with this deeply held passion and sense of purpose, something extraordinary can happen. For starters, the community is supporting these leading ladies by giving them a plot of land to build a women’s centre. It will surely be a beautiful creative community hub, full of love. Everyone’s lives will be richer for it.

My 24 hours with the ladies of Wavanje vividly reminded me of the ability to influence change when it’s a deeply held belief. A vibrant energy overcomes our inherent fears. It seems to come from within and it’s a powerful force that guides us and draws in others.