Learning Profile: Ennie Chipembere of ActionAid

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May 01, 2017

Learning Profile: Ennie Chipembere of ActionAid

By Judith Mumford

Specialist, Learning and Systems Humentum

Ennie Chipembere (seen above, to the left of the title) is Head of Learning and Capacity Development for ActionAid International in South Africa. Last year, Ennie was recognized with the LINGOs Rising Star award during the LINGOs Global Forum. In the lead-up to the InsideNGO Annual Conference with LINGOs this year, we checked in with Ennie to learn a little bit more about what she does, see if anything has changed since she was named a Rising Star, and find out her plans for this year’s conference.

You’ve been affiliated with ActionAid for 10 years now. Tell us a little bit about your career progression, and how you arrived in your current role.

In 2006, I joined ActionAid as the international women’s rights technical advisor after ActionAid committed to making women’s rights a focus within all their work. With a bold commitment like that, they knew they needed to strengthen internal capacity to deliver. The staff needed the competency and capacity to work with both partners and communities to be able to define the change they want to see and then to make that change. In that role, I worked in over 33 countries, spending one to two weeks at a time with communities, staff, and partners, taking on the collective exciting challenge and opportunity to work with others to support this organizational change.

In 2010, ActionAid decided to take the Human Rights Based Approach (HRBA) for all program design moving forward. And, once again, they had to build the capacity across the federation to make this happen. With the success of the earlier model and approach used to make the shift to women’s rights, I was given the responsibility to take this on and became the project manager for the HRBA Capacity Building Initiative in 2010, coordinating efforts to ensure that programme staff were equipped with the knowledge, skills, tools, and resources they needed to make this approach a reality. A year later in 2011, my role expanded to head of HRBA and programme support to align with a new ActionAid Global Strategy (2012-2016).

And the most recent turning point came when the current CEO was recruited. Having seen my growth in the organization, my interest in organizational development, and my work as a professional coach, he asked, “What are you interested in doing with all your skills, knowledge and expertise?” And I responded, “My passion, purpose and interest is in equipping people and organizations to achieve their mission!”

I took a huge risk and leap as a young leader and put together a proposal to the CEO and leadership team, to advocate for a central coordination function focused on learning and capacity development. The key rationale behind this proposal was because ActionAid does not do direct implementation but strengthens the capacity of partners and community groups to define and fight for their rights. Yet there was no team helping the organization to think through how best to play that facilitation role in the most efficient and impactful way. And so, the learning and capacity development team was created and my role as head of this team began at the end of 2014. Strategic choices in this role have included partnering with organizations like LINGOs to help build this ecosystem—investing in knowledge management, digital learning, talent management, performance support—and have allowed us to strengthen collective efforts for learning and capacity development support, to be a strategic partner in the delivery of our just ended Global Strategy, and to work together as a harmonized learning eco-system.

What is a typical day like for you?

I don’t think I’ve had one yet! More seriously, I start the day with daily practices that are aimed at modelling self-care and personal learning that I coach others to do—lead yourself well first with authenticity, before leading others. So, I do my spiritual practices, walk-run 8-10 km daily except Sunday, prepare my daughter for school, and post something inspirational on my free online life coaching Facebook page, four Whatsapp groups I facilitate, and other social media spaces. At this point, I am ready to deal with ActionAid and my high-pressured job. I typically talk to or do collaborative work with one of my team members, and I have lots of online meetings/e-mail where I’m either convening, coordinating, or linking one part of the federation to another or giving input to some strategic process. Late afternoon is quiet time to frame things, work out-loud, and prepare to close the day.

If you could picture the perfect learning centric organization what would it look like and what best practice do you think might bring that to life?

For me the learning-centric organization is one where learning has a space in all strategies, from the global strategy to country strategies all the way to individual team strategies.

To start the long journey of achieving that in ActionAid, when the 2011-2016 Global Strategy was being reviewed, we were focused on that and on influencing how our learning work of the past five years was reviewed, reframed, and included in the new Global Strategy (2018-2028). As a team with two years in this strategy cycle, we made a strategic choice to also be operationally impactful because we needed to be visible. So, in 2015 we focused on learning marketing and uptake so that staff globally accessed the many learning opportunities we had. In 2016, I said to the team, “Shift gears, the big focus is the development of the new strategy!” They had this as their main performance objective and, in fact, business-as-usual work was only 20-30%. Our goal was to strategically engage with the global federation!

My final hope was that learning would be recognized in the federation’s top strategic framework—and we achieved more than we could have hoped for: Of the four ways in which ActionAid sees itself contributing to the world, number four in the new Global Strategy is: ‘Learning and Knowledge—strengthening these from our rooted programming and taking a learning approach to all of their work’.  We wanted a line in the strategy, we got a headline!

What was it like to be dubbed a “Rising Star” at the LINGOs Global Learning Forum last year? And has anything changed at ActionAid for you since you earned this recognition?

I was pleasantly surprised and affirmed by a community that I had drawn from so much to be able to lead the work inside ActionAid. I also think it is less about the change it has made but rather the reflection it allowed. I was able to look back on all I had achieved since joining ActionAid in 2006. This then gave me the strength to look at all I could still achieve personally, but most importantly, how ActionAid’s journey and lessons could be used by so many other organizations. It’s tough to get a “soft” area such as learning to be taken seriously by senior leadership and be acknowledged as a strategic partner for delivering the organizational mandate.

Tell us a little bit about the session you’re leading at this year’s conference.

Getting to a point where learning is a recognized bedrock for how the federation functions has not been an easy journey. But the lessons I have learned on the way have been invaluable. I will use this session to share more about negotiating for visibility and how you leverage on this to then help shape the overall mission. I'll talk about negotiations behind the scenes, engaging with leadership—how that engagement happens across all areas including regions, teams, partners, providers, and more. It can feel like an uphill trek for many, but with this session, my insights will help you in your strategies for removing the boulder many feel they are pushing up that hill!

In January 2017, I was nominated by the CEO and leadership team to be part of the ActionAid Global Secretariat redesign team with the mandate of developing new ways of working, and designing a new structure to deliver the new strategy. So, if you want to hear how the story has evolved... come to the session!

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