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IDinsider Talks: Episode 3 – Felipe’s journey: being your own advocate

In our third episode, alum Felipe Acero joins IDinsight Associate Daniel N’guessan for a riveting conversation on how IDinsight helped him actualise his professional potential as he grew alongside our offices in the West and North Africa region. He opens up about his IDinsight journey and how the organisation gave him the room to be a vocal advocate for his growth.

Full transcript of the interview:

Daniel N’guessan: Hello, and welcome to IDinsider Talks. A podcast series where we get to sit down with IDinsight alumni and explore their journeys, hoping that some of their examples inspire someone listening to us. My name is Daniel N’guessan. I’m an Associate at IDinsight, based out of our office in Dakar, Senegal. And today, we have a chance to delve into a conversation about professional growth. 

Now, one of the most remarkable things that IDinsight prides itself on is a deliberate commitment to supporting the professional growth of colleagues. And the way this is done is through professional opportunities that are created to purposefully support their growth and help them to reach their potential. Now, our guest today is Felipe Acero. I hope I’m saying the name right! But, he truly was an example of professional growth at IDinsight. 

Felipe is currently working at the UN Global Pulse as a monitoring and evaluation specialist. Thank you very much for joining us today on IDinsider Talks, Felipe!

Felipe Acero: Thanks, Daniel! Glad to see you. And thanks, IDinsight, for the opportunity to be part of this talk. I am really excited to share my experience with you guys.

Daniel:  It is, indeed, amazing to have you with us today. Before we dive into this, please tell us in a few words about yourself. And I would like you to tell us who you are, what you do, and why you do what you do.

Felipe: So, to start again, my name is Felipe. I’m from Colombia. I’ve been living abroad for almost 12 years now. I’m currently working at UN Global Pulse. UN Global Pulse is the UN Secretary General’s Innovation Lab, and it’s been in place for 10-12 years. I’m working with them as a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, trying to support the organisation in building Monitoring Evaluation and Learning Systems for the entire network. They have been struggling with understanding their impact on the UN system through the innovation work they’re doing. And so I’m trying to set up some structures and systems for them to start informing themselves about the different things that they’re doing and how that’s impacting not just the organisation itself but also the UN system at large. So all the UN programmes and agencies that you can imagine, that we work with. 

And why do I do this? I’ve always been passionate about development work. I’m curious to see how things work in different countries and contexts. And, you know, my background is in Economics and Public Policy, so I’m very interested in better understanding how big organisations are impacting the world and how the different programmes and projects we have in place in the public sector actually help people. That’s my motivation, and that’s why I’ve been doing that for the past ten years.

Daniel:  Thank you very much for that answer. Very rich background, indeed. As I mentioned, from the get-go, our topic for today is professional growth. From this conversation, we hope to see your example of professional growth at IDinsight. But before we even dive into that, when you joined IDinsight, you had already worked with organisations like Dalberg, the Overseas Development Institute, and the FAO. Now, what drew you to IDinsight?

Felipe: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Back in 2017, I was working with Dalberg. And maybe some of you don’t know what it is, but it’s a consulting group. They do a lot of work in what they call “emerging economies”. I remember at the time, it was my first time working in the consulting private sector world, and I found it very interesting and very fast-paced. The mindset and the work habits are what I enjoyed very much. We were doing a lot of effective work, and communication was very clear across teams, and so on. But at the same time, the work was very much in the area of strategy, which I wasn’t very familiar with. A lot of my background was in research and economics. I was very much interested in finding a role that would allow me to strengthen those more technical skills, and have those rigorous methodologies being used in the work that I was doing, plus having a bit of a connection with the field – the people and communities that we were working with – and a bit of that was lacking at the time. And so, when I was, you know, checking for different opportunities, I realised that IDinsight was a bit of a combination of both – I didn’t know at the beginning that it was a combination of those things. But once I joined IDinsight, I realised that it was a mix of precisely that kind of private sector mindset and fast-paced type of work, plus, they were in contact with the communities in the countries where they were working. All the offices were based in the countries we work in different regions. And then at the same time, all the methodologies and tools we were using for the work came from the impact evaluation work at the beginning. And then turning that into everything that touches on the evaluations, monitoring, etc. So, for me, that was a great combination of things! And it met all the expectations I had at the time when I was looking for a role that would encompass all those areas. I think that was that was the main motivation. And yeah, overall, I think it was a great experience. As you mentioned, I was part of IDinsight for almost four years and part of the Dakar office. And the growing kind of context of that office at the time allowed me to eventually explore all these areas that I mentioned and grow professionally. So yeah, that was the main thinking behind that.

Daniel: That’s amazing! I liked how you mentioned the combination of these different backgrounds – moving on to government work and combining it with private sector development.

For our listeners, you were at IDinsight for about four years; you joined as a Senior Associate, and you left as a Senior Manager. That is remarkable growth in a field that is as rigorous as the research field. Would you take us through that growth journey at IDinsight?

Felipe: Yeah, absolutely! And by the way, I remember you when we got in touch for the interviews. I think I had a bit of a hint of your name. I’m so glad to see you in person this time. 

Going back to my professional growth at IDinsight. So, as you mentioned, I started as a Senior Associate when I joined IDinsight. I already had a couple of years of experience in research, strategy, and consulting. I wasn’t offered, for example, the managerial position at the time because I felt like I didn’t have the managerial experience yet. And I didn’t have the managerial skills. And so when I joined IDinsight, it was very clear that I wanted to practice those skills as much as I could and see if there was a way for me to grow into those roles later on. 

At the beginning, for example, what happened was that I was assigned to the Dakar office, and at the time, the visa for my residency wasn’t ready. And it took about four months. It was complicated as a Colombian moving to Senegal was a bit strange. And so I was assigned to the Kenya office, which was easier to move to. And I was assigned, as you mentioned, to the Beneficiary or the People’s Preference Project that they had at the time. That was a great experience because I was exposed to a lot of fieldwork; I really wanted to do fieldwork. And I think as an Associate at the time, or I think, in general, for Associates, fieldwork is an opportunity to start practising those managerial skills because you are leading these enumerator teams and driving them through the different challenges, you could find during data collection, and so on. And I think that was a very good opportunity to start practising those things that I wanted to, plus being close to the communities we’re working with – see how things worked in different countries – that was really interesting. And then eventually, when I moved to Dakar, there was an opportunity to work with the Government in Morocco; at the time, that was kind of a pillar project for the West Africa office. Initially, the reasoning behind my assignment was that I could speak French, which made it easier to work with our clients there. But again, I think eventually, that opportunity allowed me, for example, to not just explore a new context and a new language professionally but also to contribute to the growth of what is now the Rabat office. And so, as I think back on what it was, we went from having a small office at the ministry, I think we were at most like three or four people at the time, and I think now we’re fifteen or something in Rabat. Being part of that contribution from the very beginning, shaping how the office will look like, what the work habits are, and what kind of projects we get. And so, I think that’s a different kind of professional growth, where you can show leadership skills in that way as well. 

Even doing different interviews to get different Associates to join our teams is also a way in which I was able to contribute—and also thinking of things like how I would form my team. And how would I drive my team, for example, during COVID times? How would I drive my team remotely? I was with these Associates who were based in the US the whole time – so how to go through those challenges plus working with the government remotely at the same time.? It was a very interesting opportunity as well. 

And then, finally, let’s say that with my work in Morocco, I was already a bit of a Manager. Then, once I moved to the managerial position, I started working more in the West Africa region, allowing me to explore the region more. Being more exposed to the different teams working in parallel, I think IDinsight was very helpful in supporting me in growing professionally in that way, as you know, growing to the Senior Manager level. It was really interesting to see how you could work with different teams in different geographies with completely different projects. One was an Impact Evaluation, and the other one was a Process Evaluation. There was a lot of client development work, and that was part of the skills I wanted to build as a Manager. So overall, it’s been a lot of growth and a lot of exposure. But I think a lot of that was both in my hands by being an advocate for my professional growth and IDinsight’s willingness to support that process and allow me to take on those opportunities that would eventually come up through the different projects we had. So yeah, I hope that makes sense!

Daniel: Yes, definitely. Thank you very much! You’ve spoken very interestingly about moving from Colombia, first to Nairobi, Kenya, and then later to Dakar, Senegal, which is an entirely different context. 

As you mentioned earlier, you’re currently working at the UN Global Pulse, which is the Secretary General’s innovation lab that’s creating impact. That’s a very different channel compared to what IDinsight is doing. What you said of the support you mentioned that IDinsight was able to provide to you during your professional growth. How did that equip you and help you get into the position you are currently in, and how did that help you pull that switch?

Felipe: Yeah, definitely! I learned a lot at IDinsight that I’m currently using at Global Pulse. I can see those kinds of equipment in three ways. 

The first one is soft skills. I remember when I joined IDinsight as a Senior Associate, I used to discuss with my supervisor – you know, the feedback discussions that we regularly had – that I wanted to improve my communication skills. I felt like I was bad at writing stuff concisely; the takeaways, and the so what and communicating orally was a nightmare for me, and still is! But you know, I guess I have improved a little. And I think a lot of that helped me acquire some of those soft skills that I think are really important not just in the private sector or in the kind of work IDinsight does. But also, in general, those soft skills are really important as a professional. For me, specifically, it was the communication part that I could explore and professionalise a little bit more. And then, because of that, it helped me a lot to develop that structured/logical thinking that we tend to have at IDinsight when it comes to discussing the different projects, or discussing solutions with the client, and so on. Those, for me, are really important right now at Global Pulse because if you think of the UN, people tend to think that it is very slow, very hierarchical, very bureaucratic, and has many deficiencies. And I see it, but I think that’s precisely, for example, in my case, what I bring to the table in my teams is bringing more clarity to the things that we do, helping them to express better the kind of impact that they want to have with the different projects that they want to implement. Think logically of how you go from one activity to the actual impact in the UN system, communities, or governments we’re working with. So I think those soft skills, at least for me, have been very helpful. And, you know, even the simple things like the good habits of working on Slack, writing messages clearly, or sharing information. That’s some of the habits that people don’t necessarily have coming from other contexts. And I’ve been told already that those are really appreciated here, where I’m working, and teams like those habits. And it’s good to see that you can credit them a little bit with the teams in other places. So that’s the first one. 

The second one is more like the work culture we had at IDinsight. It was very horizontal. You could get access to different people around the organisation, talk to any Associate, Manager, or even Director in any office – reach out and have a chat, discuss, be transparent and share information. Those values are really important at IDinsight. And I think those as well have been really helpful to bring to the table here where I’m working right now because, as I said, the UN could be very hierarchical, and everything is very political, and so on. But I think there’s an underlying layer of transparency and trust, and those kinds of values that I think are important. And I think, through the work that I do, and through the way I approach the work, the work habits that I have, shows that those values that I learned at IDinsight, and I think that’s definitely helping teams to shift their mindsets and think more of sharing information, sharing experiences, learning from each other, which is not necessarily a default, I would say. 

And then the last one, obviously, the technical skills, like there’s so much that I technically learned at IDinsight. From how to plan a data collection exercise, to how to think through the different indicators, and building theories of change to, you know, planning an impact evaluation, even like process evaluations, which is a relatively more qualitative exercise, like, those skills are important to me right now. And this is basically what I’m doing right now, like the same processes that we have, for projects that we have had, for example, with Governments in Togo, or that I had in Togo, or in Morocco at the time, and replicating them and adjusting them to this organisation. I take this organisation as my client. And so there’s a lot of the tools that IDinsight developed, for example, developing monitoring systems that I’m currently using and adapting them to the context of UN and so on. But, there’s definitely all those tools and those more technical skills and the understanding of what you mean by impact, not confusing that with some random result that you get in your project. I think that’s a lot of that’s a lot of things that I that I’m currently using. So, I am well equipped from my IDinsight experience to do the work that I’m doing right now.

Daniel:  It is so interesting to hear you speak about all these different points. I love that you started by speaking about soft skills, which is when you think about the field we work in, which tends to be technical, it would be easy for people to neglect them and think these soft skills aren’t as important for a super technical field. 

This year, as you may know, marks the five-year anniversary of the Dakar office at IDinsight. And you having been here at the very beginning, the initial stage of this office, you’ve been able to witness the growth of the Dakar office over the last five years. How did growing in such a context that was very nascent help you achieve your personal and professional goals?

Felipe:  I am definitely aware of the fifth anniversary of IDinsight. Congratulations! I saw some pictures of the celebration you guys had in Dakar on LinkedIn. But yeah, thinking back to that growth. So, I was part of the office a few months after it was founded and put together in Dakar. And I think that, for me, at least, being part of a new office, for example, at the beginning allowed me to be part of projects, or be part of, like, some of these initiatives taken by the Dakar office, where I could take more of a leadership role. And so there were a lot of things that were to be figured out at the office at the time. And so for me, there was the opportunity to contribute to those and to lead some of those – you know, could be something simple as defining what would be the work culture of the office at the time, there were, I guess, discussions about this, to being part of a very big project that we had at the time that we still have, for example, with the Government in Morocco. And so, the big question for me was not about how can I contribute to the growth of the office. I mean, there’s an element of that. But there was another element of how can I make the most out of this opportunity of office growth for my own professional growth. And this is what I mentioned before: I was very much my own advocate for professional growth. And I saw the opportunities of, like I said, going to the field and doing the data collection, exercise and taking those challenges, even though I hadn’t done data collection in a while, or with such a big enumerator team. For example, I remember the first time they asked me to start doing interviews for building the Associates team in Dakar. And I wasn’t familiar with the process. And I think we had to do it either in English or French at some point. And, how do you use those opportunities to start thinking of “what does a team that I will work with look like in the future?” and contribute to the office in that way? I think that was really cool. And eventually, when the office got stronger, there was more space for managers to think through new projects and engage with new clients. For me, that was also an opportunity, or at least IDinsight allowed me the opportunity to be exposed to people that we’ve met in different contexts, from different organisations and kind of lead the discussion and how we could collaborate together and be creative and think of ways we could propose a project, propose some interesting work and push through the different people and different ideas and so on to make it happen. 

I remember when I was in Dakar, our Director, Cassandre, she, you know, exposed me to this organisation that we now work with in Dakar, in the education sector, and this other entity in the Ministry of Health in Togo. And so, I wasn’t familiar with the whole client development process, but I sought the opportunity. I took it, and you prepare your work a little before, and then you go and have those discussions and see how you can contribute to the growth of the office by thinking creatively on, like, how can we collaborate? How can we make projects together? For example, now we’re working with the Minister of Health in Togo, and it’s very pleasing news because I was part of that from the very beginning. So, there were a lot of opportunities to contribute in many different ways, not just through the projects, and IDinsight allowed us to take on those opportunities and seize them. And so it’s, it’s a really interesting part as well.

Daniel: Amazing! Thank you very much for sharing that.

Now, I got to speak with some of the people you worked with here in Dakar, in the office, especially some of the Associates you worked with when you were a Manager. They describe you – and I’ll mention some of the words they use – as a smart, calm, methodic, rigorous, thoughtful person who pays attention to detail, is straight to the point, and is inspiring. Are these the ingredients for a successful Associate in the field IDinsight is in and in an organisation such as IDinsight? Would you say these are the ingredients? 

Felipe: I mean, they were for me, so I guess that’s my recipe! But, I think it comes down to what are your weaknesses and what are your strengths. And I think that for me, at least given the kind of work we do at IDinsight, sometimes it can be very challenging because we work with different clients. Sometimes, it can be intense because we need to spend long periods with communities, talk to people, or maybe you’re working on hard/technical work that needs to be done. I think making the work as easy and fun as possible is important. I think that was how I thought about work when I was managing my team. I was trying to ensure that things weren’t dragged too much. They were straight to the point, like what is it that we need, who can do it, how can I help, how can we help each other. I think a lot of it was about making things easier for the team, and if sometimes that involved me doing the actual technical work, I had no problem doing that. And I think that keeps people motivated, showing that you can help them and that you are working together to achieve a particular goal. I think that’s really good.

And then what worked for me was that I don’t work well in stressful situations because I’m not good at being stressed, so it was a good thing to be calm. You know there is always another day to solve the problem, and there is always another person you can check questions with, so keep it together and think through the things that we need to do logically, and work with other people to work through those problems and you’ll figure it out. That was my approach. And that worked for me, hopefully! But there have always been a lot of other things that have potentially been useful, but that was useful for me at the time. 

Daniel: Awesome! Thank you very much for sharing that. I have one last question for you as we move towards the end of our conversation: I am an Associate at IDinsight, and I’m asking this question with the hope that the answer will help our listeners who might be in a similar context as me today and may be trying to get into a position where I am today. 

From this conversation that we’ve had today, what should I try to do more, and what should I do less as an Associate at IDinsight from today on? 

Felipe: That’s a really good question. And I think I got a lot of those when I was back at the Dakar office. What was really useful was to be very vocal about my professional goals. So, when I joined IDinsight, I clearly knew what I wanted to do. I joined as a Senior Associate and knew I wanted to be a Manager, maybe not in the next year – it took me two years to get there – but I knew I wanted to become that person and have that role. And I was very vocal about this with everyone. I remember discussing it with my advisor and different supervisors, and I kept asking myself, “Okay, what do I need to get to that level, in terms of the required skills?” So, as I said, one of the things I was missing at the beginning was communication, so I discussed it with my teams and asked them for feedback. I was very much an advocate for my professional goals. I would ask, “Please give me feedback on my communication. Is this better, or is this not better?” And everything related to that, for example, I remember there were some communication guidance tools we had at the time to build some slides and that kind of stuff, so I was very determined to proactively tackle those weaknesses in my professional role. And then, yeah, telling everyone about it! “I want to do fieldwork,” I remember telling Cassandre in the first few weeks, and she said, “Yes, this is a project where you can do fieldwork; we trust you, and you can do it.” And it was really amazing! 

There was a point when I was a Manager, and I wanted to go to the Senior Manager level, and I was like, “I feel like I need to do more client development,” being in more projects, and discussing what more we can do as IDinsight. And by being more vocal about this, I was exposed to these conversations more, as I mentioned before. So, I think do more of that, be vocal about what you really want and even if IDinsight can’t promise you a project – you know, some people say I want to do an impact evaluation – you might not have it, but look for those opportunities that are not necessarily dependent on a project or a particular type of project, but seek those where you can grow and become a more well-rounded professional, so not just sticking to the important technical parts, but not the only thing. 

And then the other thing that I think was really useful and something that Associates could do is to keep preparing yourself. I’ve seen that in some – Associates if there is a particular skill or particular type of thing that you like doing – I remember there was this one Associate who liked working more with visualisation and working with data and sought opportunities outside of work even. You know we have or are supposed to have more time set up for professional development, so try to stick to a few hours every week to work through those. Read things you like that make you more informed about what you want to grow into. I think those are very useful, and that will help you strengthen and reaffirm your knowledge and perhaps help you in some projects later on. So, I think that’s useful. 

Lastly, for me, in the end, it all comes down to having fun. As I mentioned before, the work is not necessarily easy, and it could be intense, and some of the contexts in which we work are challenging. So, try to see the fun parts of it. I remember when I was doing this very long fieldwork in Ghana at the time. I was in the middle of nowhere, all alone with an enumerator team of thirty people – it was a lot of work! But I loved, for example, having lunch with them. It was my favourite part of the day, discussing things about Ghana with them and learning about the country and then once the day was off, I used to go running in the middle of the forest. And it was really pleasing. It gave me that extra fun that I needed to balance out whatever stress was coming my way from the project. So, I think that’s also something to keep yourself balanced and see the nice things of the work, and those are perks which I don’t think anyone could have in a regular nine-to-five type of job. I think those are things we don’t get access to very often, which are really valuable. Those are the things which I could think of that Associates can keep in mind. 

Daniel: Definitely! So be very vocal about your professional growth, know where you want to be, and seek the skills to get you there. Practice, take feedback, and I’m trying to ensure I got you right! Figure out some of the things you like doing and work on them, and in the entire process, remember to have fun! That’s such a great note to close on. 

Thank you very much for taking the time to have this conversation with us, Felipe. We are at the end. Is there one last piece of advice you want to give our listeners? 

Felipe: Piece of advice, I don’t know, I think I’ve said everything! Keep working hard; it all comes down to focusing on the objective. You’re probably doing fine! You can always do more and will do it, but try to keep a balance. There’s work life and personal life that are both important, so try to keep that in mind. That’s something that I also learnt at IDinsight, and yeah, keep focusing on the objectives and impact. The kind of work that IDinsight does for some people would not feel very tangible, but in the end, thinking back on at least my projects, there were a lot of shifts that we were able to make, and for me, that was very pleasing as a professional, very fulfilling. And the projects IDinsight has, in general, have that element. So, yeah! Keep focused on the objective, keep working hard, and don’t lose track of your personal life. 

Daniel: I love that! Thank you again very much for your time. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed this conversation, and I hope our listeners do, too. This would be the end of it today! Thank you very much, Felipe!

Felipe: Thanks, Daniel, for having me. Have a good day!