Another face of Pakistan

I had the chance to spend last week in Karachi for the final round selection for the inaugural class of Acumen’s new Pakistan Fellows program.  From more than 500 applicants from all corners of this country of 175 million people, we had winnowed the group down to just 40 finalists and had, in the course of a day, to select 20 people as our first Acumen Pakistan Fellows.  The program begins in early 2013.

The images the world (and Americans in particular) sees of Pakistan are difficult ones.  Just yesterday a very troubling article came out in the New York Times about Quetta, the capital of Balochistan, where there have been increasing numbers of open attacks on members of the Hazara community.  The article suggests that the police and security forces are at best ambivalent about stemming the violence that has resulted in the deaths of 100 Hazaras this year alone.

This is one reality in Pakistan, and it is daunting to say the least.

Last week I saw another story, perhaps a quieter one and one that doesn’t scream for headlines.  These are the stories of the applicants to our Pakistan Fellows program: a woman from rural Punjab, the first in her family to get a formal education, who is working on extending credit and education to those who are still excluded from all formal systems; a woman with a Masters in Economics who left her teaching job at Fatima Jinnah Women University in Rawalpindi and is now creating a speed English literacy program for kids in the slums; another young man, a born entrepreneur from a very humble background, who somehow found his way to a quiet section of the library and began reading Harvard Business Review articles and then watching TED talks, and whose startup business Hometown (the website will blow you away) aims to have local artisans and leather-workers provide world-class quality shoes to the world; and finally, a man with a Master’s in Computer Science who is working in Quetta, Balochistan – the same city profiled in the NY Times piece – who is helping build a university from scratch to bring education to some of the most tough-to-reach, downtrodden populations, and is paying for it by creating small businesses ranging from biomass power generation to cut flowers.

These were just four of the 40 amazing people I met last Friday, each one with a story of hope, each one committing themselves fully to making positive change from the bottom up in Pakistan, each one leaving our panelists – all prominent business and social sector leaders – humbled at their spirit of service and commitment.

These are just four stories that never make the front pages – but they should.

The risk of being a bull

Time is the scarcest of all professional resources, yet we never seem to get enough of it.  A recent conversation with a friend and advisor helped me understand that one of my greatest professional strengths and joys might be exacerbating my time problem.

Earlier in my career, success was doing the right thing in a challenging situation.  Then later on success becam: me, my team, or my organization doing the right thing.

As my span of responsibility has grown, I cannot do everything and I can’t be – and shouldn’t be – involved in every step from here to there.  Obvious enough.  So, outside of work that’s on my plate, I focus my energies on helping those around me solve problems.  I love doing this and I’m generally pretty good at it, which makes it both is intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  I get to problem-solve (fun!) and help a colleague (fun! fun!).  Bingo!

The helpful but very sobering insight is that my enjoyment and capacity at this kind of problem-solving might not be the right end-game.  Because it is so rewarding and because the outcomes are (often) positive – both practically and emotionally – have I created a learned response and, like the proverbial bull seeing a waving red cloth, do I, when presented with a situation in which I might be helpful, just jump in and help?

Why might this be a bad thing?

The suggestion was that consistently helping to solve a set of problems keeps me in the business (forever) of being involved in helping solve those sorts of problems – without ever asking the question: what sort of problems do I want, in the long run, to be in the business of solving?  For example, it could be that I always want to have a role to play in key hiring decisions or important strategic choices, but is there another set of situations that other people are better equipped and better positioned to resolve in the long term?

If so, when I’m presented with a cool, fun, challenging and interesting situation, the first question I should ask myself isn’t “what should we do here?” but rather “is this the kind of problem I should be in the business of helping solve in the long term?”  If it is, great.  If not, how would I act differently?

Whenever I’m looking for advice about a tough situation, working through the solution with a respected colleague teaches me something.  But that process of osmosis could be accelerated by a much more explicit, meta-conversation about how I’m engaging with the problem and how my more experienced colleague is coming up with different and better approaches and solutions to that same problem.

That’s the conversation I suspect I need to be having more often.

Harder, requiring different muscles, and, toughest of all, forcing me to look at all that great short-term feedback I’m getting and say: this thing that I love doing might just be part of the reason I have too little time on my hands.