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“I Used to Think That Vulnerability Was Something We Should Hide”, Tiana Andriamanana on Leading With Courage

Tiana Andriamanana, image source: supplied

Tiana Andriamanana graduated with a degree in biochemistry and joined Fanamby as an assistant to the Executive Director in 2009. Over a period of 9 years, she climbed the ranks to become the organisation’s Executive Director.

Tiana strongly believes that local solutions will ensure sustainable management of the protected areas in her home country, Madagascar.

She shares her story with Damaris Agweyu.

Tiana, what are you passionate about?

Making real changes in people’s lives. I believe that a life that cannot translate to a positive impact for others is meaningless. My mum always told me this: you don’t learn to be happy; you just be happy, and however hard your life is, if you cannot make a change for those who need it, your life is meaningless.

What she meant is that your life should have a purpose, and that purpose should, in some way, give back. That is how she raised me. You don’t have to be Mother Teresa, just do your thing, and even if it positively impacts one person’s life, that is enough.

Do you feel like your work is creating the change you desire to see?

On some level, yes. Some organisations tend to talk about how they are saving people from poverty. Well, that’s not how we see it at Fanamby. We believe that everyone has the power to make the change for themselves and improve their own lives. As an organisation, all we do is empower people with the tools they need to make that change for themselves.

The sustainable extraction and sale of vanilla has been our biggest success story. So successful that people think it’s our Fanamby that produces vanilla; this is not the case. We identify producers at the local level that are strong enough to make their voices heard. We then train and equip them in a way that they can voice their concerns, opinions and needs to the government or the buyers from a place of empowerment. They don’t really need us, but they have been silenced for so long that they have lost all confidence to stand up and bargain for themselves.

We have reached about 12,000 people, a tiny drop in the ocean, but that’s still a chance for those 12,000 people.

We can still see that things are not changing quickly enough despite all our efforts. When you see people who are still not living within structures that enable them to lead decent lives, you wonder what more you can do. It’s complicated. The hardest thing is being patient enough to see real and permanent changes.

If you could create an ideal world, what would it look like?

My ideal world is one where we would get what we need from nature without putting so much pressure on it—a world where organisations like ours didn’t need to exist.

Tell me about your journey into becoming the leader that you are today.

I started my career as an assistant to the Founder of the organisation I currently work for. This was back in 2009. I was then promoted to a project manager and, later, a business engagement officer.

In 2017, I got the offer to apply to the Executive Director position. The organisation was restructuring, not because it wasn’t working well, but because our Founder, who was also the Executive Director, wanted to pass the mantle to me. I asked him to give me a year to think about it because while I felt that I made a great technician, I didn’t believe I could lead. I was afraid of everything that leadership comes with. And having worked with him for so long, I noticed the impact of leading a company on a personal level. I’d seen him travel for months on end without seeing his family. I had just had my children in 2014 and 2016. In 2018, having thought long and hard about the proposal, I accepted to take on the leadership position. It was scary. And difficult. I thank God that the WE Africa leadership programme came when it did because it taught me a lot about the kind of leader I wanted to be.

And what kind of leader would that be?

Someone who cares for their team. Someone who owns their mistakes. Someone who can be vulnerable. I used to think that vulnerability was something we should hide. I never thought it was a sign of bravery and courage. The We Africa leadership programme taught me otherwise. Today vulnerability is something that I apply, not just in my professional but also in my personal life. 2021 was the first year that I wasn’t in the bathroom crying my balls out because it was too much to bear. I became aware of how easy it is to just talk with the team about situations as they are and work together to find the solution. Before, I thought I had to bear every burden alone.

I’ve been telling my people to talk more, to slow down. If they are too mentally charged to take care of a situation at work or dealing with a difficult situation at home, they can take a break. There has been a lot of trial and error, but my approach to leadership translated to 2021 being the greatest year for us so far.

I still have so many things to work on, but I think I have an excellent baseline.

How has the idea of having a vulnerable leader sat with your team?

It has created a sense of closeness and sincerity that wasn’t there before. Before anything else, we are co-workers with goals and objectives to meet, but at the same time, we are all human beings. We should be able to talk to each other about anything. We are no longer tip-toeing around each other, and we don’t have to be hypocrites. It’s now very clear that if something has to be resolved, no matter how uncomfortable, we will put it on the table, find a solution, and move forward. This makes everyone feel valued and more committed to the job.

What’s the most challenging thing you’ve ever had to do as a leader?

Letting people go. It’s hard when you have created a relationship with people at work, and they make these huge mistakes. If, for instance, someone steals or takes the company car without permission, goes on a drinking spree and has an accident, that should not be forgivable. Logically speaking, I shouldn’t hesitate in letting them go. But then, as a human being, I feel like, why don’t I just give them a second chance. The next thing you know, it happens again. My approach is to explain to them that some things cannot be forgiven in the workplace. Painful as it may be, I must do what I need to do to respect the procedures and standards we all agreed upon.

As a woman, do you feel like you have struggled more than your male counterparts in similar positions?

Oh yes! Many people don’t understand how I can spend extended periods in the field. According to them, a woman’s place should be at home, taking care of their husband and children. I have felt a lot of judgement around that. When I started having my kids for every pregnancy after two months, I would be back in the field. Nobody but my husband understood that. He understood that I needed to be present with the team and ensure that we achieved our objectives at work.

In Madagascar, when you’re a woman going in the field with other men, you just don’t fit in; that is one of the things I want to change as a leader. I want to be an example where more women can see that it’s possible. You can be anyone you want to be as long you are comfortable with your choices.

We were having this discussion with my WE Africa sisters. You are expected to wear heels and makeup when you walk into high-level meetings. The same expectations are not set for men. Why can’t we all just be ourselves? More and more young women, especially, are beginning to do that, just being themselves. This makes me very happy.

Do you feel like you are where you are meant to be?

I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, but at the same time, I’m hoping to push a little bit more over the next five years. I can’t make the change I want by staying where I am; being non-profit puts you on a different level than the private sector. When it comes to agitating and pushing for certain things with the government, they don’t consider you the same way they do with people working within the private sector. I know. I have tried.

Eventually, I will make room for another young person to lead the organisation. I can then move on to something that will be meaningful for myself and not dependent on an organisation. Right now, it’s more about the organisation, and sometimes it gets complicated because the organisation’s objectives do not fully represent what I want to do in terms of change.

What do you want to do in terms of change?

I would start with managing plastic waste. I feel like we aren’t doing enough to reclaim Madagascar’s seaside. This is something that doesn’t have to go on the front page of the newspaper but will undoubtedly change the island. Unfortunately, right now, to reach the objective with the non-profit, I have to be vocal about what we do; visibility is mandatory in leadership. This stresses me out, being visible to so many people who may not all want the best for you. And then there are those judgements and feeling like you are picked on whatever you do. If you take a break, then you’re giving up. If you don’t take a break, you are neglecting your family. It’s a no-win situation.

What have you struggled with most in life?

I would say time. I don’t think I have enough to make the changes I want to make because I want to achieve so many things simultaneously. Right now, we are managing six protected areas around Madagascar, so I usually spend two weeks away from my family and two weeks with my family. I don’t feel that I get enough time for either.

What have you learnt about life from your journey?

That it’s full of surprises, good and bad, and that you need to grab the opportunities when they come. Sometimes the opportunity doesn’t come in the shape or form you expect. Even Covid 19 was an opportunity. An opportunity for us to breathe in a sense. Here in Madagascar, we had more wildfires, but we also have a cleaner ocean and cleaner air in the capital. We put less pressure on our environment. We paused. This was good for nature and good for us.

I have also learned to take advantage of the experiences of those who came before me. I’m grateful for all the colleagues that I have met in my professional life, they were open enough to teach me even though I didn’t quite understand the impact of what they were doing at the time.

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This interview is part of a series profiling the stories of the 2021 WE Africa leadership programme fellows, African women in the environmental conservation sector who are showing up with a strong back, soft front, and wild heart.

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