I recently parted ways with Women 2.0, an organization I had been volunteering with for a few months organizing a mildly popular monthly event. Me leaving was better for everyone, since they did nothing for me, except for making me feel stifled and frustrated, and I kept pushing all their wrong buttons. Regardless, I decided to take what was good from it, particularly the learning experience. I realized I seriously need to improve my bedside manner, specially when working in hierarchical/ bureaucratic organizations (or maybe not work in them at all…).
Still, some criticism was left unattended, so I’ll list it below. I’m pretty sure I’ll get in trouble for writing this, since i got in trouble for much less while working with them… But I’m doing it from a good place, because I genuinely think they’re not really getting it. Criticism is the best form of flattery.
Some of these are issues I found in this organization and directing team in particular, some of them are more widespread amongst international projects entering Mexico. Whatever the case, these are all patterns that I’ve noticed and that I believe are hindering processes:
- Mexico should be approached like one approaches an open book: with the will to learn. This is easier said than done, since it requires changing set patterns to try and fit in with the local culture. What works in the US or Europe is not a one-size-fits-all (some international organizations tend to be very vocal about tropicalizing, but they rarely back it up on the field), getting to know the culture requires work, and a few months in the cities where one wishes to operate. Coming in with a mighty banner is not enough.
- If you’re gonna work with entrepreneurs, you better start thinking like them: living off of sponsorships and donations makes no sense. Sustainability does. Entrepreneurs are usually too busy to be gifting their time and really good at coming up with creative ways to raise money.
- Hierarchical communications are ALWAYS a bad idea. Small teams work and feel better with horizontal structures
- Ranks make no sense when everyone is working for free and doing pretty much the same thing. It results in internal divisions.
- Love and use what you have, instead of pushing for what you think you need. Great opportunities may come from a celebrity appearance, a great blogpost or a good relationship with a local university. Even if none of it aligns perfectly with what the organization does exactly. Local branding is not the enemy (ask Starbucks… in the US most joints look like trash cans with public junkie bathrooms, in Mexico they care for their image and have spun their branding around being high-end) Interesting new things are better than safe, known ones.
- Transparency: know it, embrace it, foster it
- Local facts and needs > Known practice.
- Innovation > tradition.
- Trust local know-how and hunches. If 70% of the women that work are known to be mothers, a nanny service is not a bad, nor expensive suggestion (services like this are very loosely regulated in Mexico and mothers are usually happy to help out and chip in). Ruling it out on sexual grounds, saying that “their husbands or men should be caring for their kids” makes no sense, since the objective of the event is not to get men to care for babies, but to get women to participate. Also, most working mothers are divorced, single or separated… so that rules the men out almost entirely.
- If you don’t want funny pictures of yourself online, do not pose for the cameras. Posing and then demanding to have them taken down is not very professional.
- Do not promise your teams things you can’t really provide. Don’t even mention possibilities, stick to what you CAN do for your people. Frustration is a fire that spreads fast, as well as disappointment, and that’s exactly what a cancelled trip, party or event renders.
- Give back to the people that work for free. A cool cause is not enough. A cool trip, some contacts and a few parties are.
- Parties are not the enemy. In Mexico after-parties tend to be an even better opportunity to network than actual events and most professional crowds are not wild-vomiting drunks. Also, police cars don’t usually raid house-parties, that’s a first world problem.
- Beer is no big deal. Food and diet coke is. Most Mexican women tend to mind what they eat. Beer is associated with cheap, laid-back joints. If you want your event to feel high-end go for wine, if not, then wipe out drinks completely and put some fresh fruit, nuts and diet soda on the bar instead.
- Being professional is not the most important thing, making an impact and changing a culture is.