As REAL. Leadership Founder Steve is part of the EthicalCoach programme (a bridge between world-class coaches and non-profit organisations), he connected with the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) last year, and was fascinated to hear how they have designed and implemented their own Women in Leadership (WiL) programme.

“There are many reasons why women make great leaders – evidence abounds. However, every leader has to find his or her own path. There is not an exact recipe for what makes a great leader. There are different types of challenges for everyone, coming from different angles and in different forms.  AKF’s approach is focussed on fostering an inclusive workplace culture that enables male and female staff to thrive equally, with opportunities for professional development commensurate with their talent and aspirations.” – Staci Frost, Director, Organisational Effectiveness

In 2020, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) conducted an in-depth diagnosis of its leadership landscape to better understand the existing barriers to women’s career development within the organisation.  In response to the findings, AKF implemented a global Women in Leadership (WiL) programme in 2021/22 targeting high potential women at mid-to-senior level positions, with the aim of strengthening their skills around management and leadership. The overall objective of the programme was to address the imbalance of women in management positions and create better career pathways. The programme was open to 25 participants who were selected through a competitive process, including a written application and a round of panel interviews for shortlisted candidates.  Over 100 applications were received.  Participants represented 15 different countries and three agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).

The programme consisted of a six-month leadership course, delivered remotely by professional trainers (Centre for Creative Leadership), including short lessons, activities, and small and large group conversations. The training was enhanced by peer learning, coaching and sessions around diversity, equity and inclusion, where line managers and stakeholders were invited to participate.  AKF also organised internal Learning Circles to help participants situate their learnings in the context of AKF and the AKDN. These sessions were facilitated by an AKF CEO and were designed to be safe spaces where participants had the opportunity to have open and honest conversations with female leaders from across AKF and AKDN.

A total of 24 women completed the six-month training course (one left AKF for another opportunity prior to completion) and then went on to a second six-month phase of the WiL programme, which is anchored to a Collaborative Learning Project (CLP). This part of the programme pairs participants with mentors and provides them with the opportunity to lead on a project of their choice, working with colleagues across different units, functions, and leadership levels, and putting their learnings into practice.  The CLP component will be concluded in April, though many participants have taken on projects that will go beyond the official end of the programme.  The projects that are being pursued by participants are varied and include designing localised Learning Circles and Women in Leadership programmes.

To respond to the growing demand resulting from the global WiL programme, AKF is now designing localised programmes in Afghanistan and East Africa. AKF Tajikistan has also developed and delivered a shorter, accelerated Women’s Empowerment and Self-Leadership programme in country, led by one of the global WiL participants.  AKF will continue to address broader challenges around leadership and management and is investing in wider mentorship and management initiatives, for male and female staff, across the organisation.

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