Interview with TeamUp graduate Megan Graham, Project Administration Manager, Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders).

How long have you worked with MSF?
I’ve done three missions in 3 years – the first two were 6 months each.
I currently work from Dhaka, Bangladesh supporting our project in the mega camp near Cox’s Bazar for the Rohyingha people displaced from Myanmar.

What are the pros of working in a remote location?
Pros: you really see what MSF is there to do and the impact on the communities they assist.
Cons: In my other missions there was high security and we were restricted to a compound so you can’t go out, and there’s no escaping the team. You are far away from family and friends and you feel that you miss out on big events and milestones.

What do you love about your work? 
I love the day to day problem-solving – challenges you would rarely get in a 9 to 5 corporate job in the developed world, dealing with things that you couldn’t imagine before. Every mission is different, every project is different, cultures are different, some are tougher than Bangladesh where I’m based now – they have different challenges. Each time you have to learn a culture and how to deal with people and make it work. Being a female manager is not always easy in some countries. That’s an extra challenge and you have to be adaptable.

What are the specific challenges of working in an NGO? 
One of biggest challenges is throwing a bunch of people together to work together, ideally for the same purpose, although sometimes there might be mixed messages. I do finance and HR, so a big challenge is to understand the rules and regulations in different countries. You can’t just take what you’ve learnt and assume it will work – you need to understand the labour and financial laws, money and funding. The human factor is one of the biggest challenges both with expats and national staff. It’s constant learning.

How do you manage stress? 
It’s a very good question. I wouldn’t say I do it all that well at times, but I’m getting better at it and TeamUp has certainly helped. For me, it’s trying to turn off. We spoke about it during the course, but one thing I really try hard to do is to detach when people constantly talk about the same problems even after you leave the office. Often it’s the only thing you have in common with your team, so it’s the constant talking about it that can add to your stress! I’ve been lucky in that I live by myself now which helps me switch off. I go home, I don’t have to talk to anyone. But if there are people around who only want to talk work, I take myself away from it and focus on something else. Someone said to me in a recent debrief that NGO’s have a complaining culture. I think it’s true and because you’re all in the same situation negativity breeds negativity.

During missions it’s hard for me to maintain a healthy routine. Due to motivation and environmental limitations I haven’t been able to keep weight off and keep my strength up as I’d normally do. But I have tried to get into yoga more than I ever have before and TeamUp has helped me practice “down-time” and look after my “mind- health”.

How do you ask for or give support to your colleagues? 
I think it depends on who is in your network and how well you gel with them, like all work groups. Most of my time in Dhaka I had only one expat colleague. He had a very calming personality and didn’t let little frustrations show. He was a good support for me to observe my behaviours and reactions compared to his own. In the project we have a much larger team. I visit them regularly and it is during informal gatherings that staff will approach me if they feel they need support from outside the team. I’m usually also aware before going if there is anyone to try and have a general wellbeing chat with. Like all groups though, some will engage and some won’t.

Has TeamUp helped with that?
Yes I think so. At one point we we had some very difficult personalities in the mission and their behaviour impacted the whole team. One of the biggest things I took from TeamUp was recognising that “it is what it is” and ‘people are just being who they are”. I no longer make up conversations in my head that I’m going to have with them about whatever’s gone wrong or right, I just focus on moving on and what I can do – that’s easier for sure! Not dwelling on things, or feel I have to defend myself or prove my point as much as I used to. I certainly used to be a person who always wanted to have my say just for the sake of it. Now I take the time not to react as quickly as I used to, even when reading emails. I know yesterday I reacted to one very quickly and the other person responded in an extremely passive-aggressive way. I reflected and decided not to respond to that one, I just let it go. In the past I would have had to have the last word and say my piece.

If the conversation doesn’t need to continue, I stop it now, rather than continuing to argue and risk that it doesn’t make me look good. I re-read emails before I send them. I know I am very matter of fact. I don’t mean to be abrupt, but sometimes my messages are read that way, so I’m practicing being more conscious of who is reading it and how they will respond. I do the same in person, deciding to agree to disagree when necessary and just move on.

Do you feel differently about those interactions now? 
Yes, I think so. Understanding my own personality, I realise in my work place I’m not a person who has to be liked – I’d rather have respect from those I work with. I feel better now because I don’t let things stress me out as much as before, but there’s still a lot of work to do!

Have you kept up your practices from the program?
I’m continuing the ‘me time’ practice. It’s a bit up and down – sometimes I work till 10pm but I don’t do well at that, and I know I’m not productive. It’s a culture within MSF that you work late into the night and recently when other team members expected this of me I had to be honest and say that I was no longer engaged in the meeting and it was becoming unproductive.

And I’m continuing my practice of not being so reactive – taking three breaths and thinking about what I’m going to say.

What value does TeamUp have for NGO workers in general? 
The value of the program for NGO workers….I think of the medical team members in our mission – it’s really about looking after themselves and working out how to work with the team and understand the pressures. I’ve seen where expatriates burn out because of the expectation they set on themselves to create a hospital to perform at the same level as a western hospital. The training of national staff is not at a high enough standard and it’s important to be realistic about what we can achieve. If more expatriates and national staff at management levels were to do courses like TeamUp I think it would really help them manage their own stress and expectations in multi-cultural settings, hardship environments and traumatic situations. This would be good not only for their beneficiaries but also for the national staff and expatriates they are working with each day.

How was it to open up to people you didn’t know in your triad? 
For me, it was interesting to work with two other people I didn’t know. I felt comfortable opening up to both my triad members and Kate, our facilitator. We all came from non-profit backgrounds but had quite different roles. We probably didn’t fully appreciate what our roles were although I don’t feel this impacted the triad or what we could achieve.

I know you did the program with external people, but what do you think would be the impact of a whole NGO team doing the program together?

For me, getting the team on the same page, forgetting about themselves for a bit and stepping back and asking ‘what are we here to do’ would be very beneficial. For many reasons, everyone gets so self-absorbed in their own little silo, what they’re doing, who they like, who they don’t like etc. There are so many other actors there – are we really making a difference or are we just one of hundreds of other NGOs? Particularly when we were lacking some leadership, TeamUp could have made a difference and it would have hopefully brought teams together and work for the same purpose.

TeamUp and especially its focus on communication would have brought more cohesiveness to the team. However, people have to be committed. If it was forced on them, I don’t think it would work. They have to make the decision to do it and invest in it for themselves.

One thought to “Interview with TeamUp graduate Megan Graham, Project Administration Manager, Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders).”

  1. Hi, thank you for the sharing – it is very helpful for me as I’m interested in humanitarian / NGO work. However, I was a little surprised that you used the term “western hospital”, as the concept of the West is nebulous and I believe there are also great hospitals in the “East”, so the differences in the standards are not an East/West divide, but more likely a developed/developing country divide (even then, this may be problematic as some developed areas even in the West may not have optimal healthcare standards, such as in the UK where waiting time may be very long).

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