Ubud, Indonesia - 26 May 2015. Meet Endang Widiati, a civil engineer who grew into a participatory development advocate and then became general manager of Bali’s leading business group in yoga-based events, retail clothing, healthy food, holistic healing, community support, business registry and media resources. What can we learn from her leadership journey, and what are her 3 recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
Born in Indonesia in 1973, Endang grew up in the city of Yogyakarta as the youngest of six children. "As a high-school student, I developed a passion for travel and discovery, and wanted to study architecture. However, I failed my entrance exam, so I chose to study civil engineering in stead."
She started at the polytechnic college of the renowned Institute of Technology in Bandung. After getting her diploma in 1996, she started her career experience as a quality assurance officer in a state-owned engineering firm that was building the highest building in Jakarta, the 56-floor Taman Anggrek complex.
Explains Endang, "I remember standing on top of the unfinished building and observing the workers as they carried out their tasks with a keen awareness of the risks involved. It reinforced my sense of responsibility for ensuring quality and safety."
What she also observed was a system of corrupt practices at all levels. Finding herself without influence to make a difference, she made up her mind to choose only those jobs where she could work with integrity and accountability.
As she continued her study in civil engineering at the prestigious Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia entered a democratic era after the demise of president Suharto’s regime, and Endang’s interest had widened from engineering to multi-disciplinary studies, management and political science.
Supporting social change
She also realized that construction work might be too narrowly focused for her interests, and as she was determined to make a living in a non-corrupt working environment, she decided to look for a job in Indonesia’s growing civil society.
The next decade saw her working in several NGOs, including the Indonesian Development of Education on Permaculture Foundation (IDEP) in Bali—promoting permaculture and community programs for community-based disaster management—and the Jakarta field office of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).
What fascinated her in her NGO work was to promote self-empowerment and democratization of communities, including citizen’s participation in planning and budgeting for local projects. Her job also allowed her to support members of parliament, staff of the ministry of home affairs and of political parties, as well as grass-root organizations, through training and workshops.
Over time, she developed an affinity for managing projects implemented by partner organizations, and she became known for her skills in program development and budgeting, and for her integrity and accountability, with an attitude of giving it her all to produce concrete results.
Promoting two-sided accountability
Shares Endang, "I discovered that there are two sides of accountability, and that both are equally important. One is for delivering substantive results, and the other for satisfying procedural requirements. Early on, I found out that people are often satisfied by only one kind. Some bureaucrats would have all the papers done and stamped to satisfy the administrative requirements, yet produce little in the way of substantive results."
"On the other hand, some development workers were highly productive in results yet without satisfying proper accountability for administrative requirements. When I took charge of sub-granting to local organizations, I learned how to build the awareness and capacity of our partners so that results were delivered in both kinds of accountability."
Using two leadership styles
As her experience grew, she was asked to support the Institute for Peace and Democracy of Udayana University in Bali in training young political leaders from countries across Asia and the Pacific, as well as Egypt, in democracy and leadership.
"In my NGO work, I learned from many experts working in the project teams. I discovered two basic leadership styles. The first I would call command and control. It is narrowly focused, effective and fast. The second style is participation, in which we encourage people to contribute their ideas, based on their knowledge and experience, and to share in the responsibility and ownership for decisions and their implementation. This takes longer, and it’s not easy to get everyone to agree on decisions. It is important to choose which style to use depending on the situation."
As Endang’s experience grew, she started getting requests to advise other organizations in Bali in management and human resource development, including the Pelangi School, BaliSpirit Group, and the Mangrove Action Project.
Combining business and non-profit approaches
Up to that time, her experience had been with NGOs, whose work typically depends to a large degree on the preferences of donors. Endang found that these preferences changed frequently, and wondered how change could be pursued more consistently over a longer period through a combination of non-profit and profit approaches.
She got her chance when she was asked to become general manager of the BaliSpirit Group of enterprises, which was growing rapidly from its pioneering days into a fully-fledged company, and whose annual Bali Spirit Festival attracts more than six thousand visitors from Indonesia and countries all over the world.
This became Endang’s learning and testing ground to expand from her managerial passion and support the company’s creative CEO in leading a number of much needed changes in the way the company was operating.
"I appreciate how our enterprises are run as a business, while our company’s philosophy is focused on conscious living, community action, environmental sensitivity, and artistic inspiration. That holistic focus is what my country needs as its economy is growing rapidly, with many associated challenges."
Her first priority in her new job as GM was on developing people. She started off by overhauling the company’s human resource management—using her preferred participatory leadership style whenever possible—to create equal opportunities for all staff to perform better, be recognized and receive support.
Among the changes she introduced were career management, insurance and leave systems, language training, leadership development for staff in the hospitality industry, and regular workshops to promote continuous learning for staff, including about health.
"I would organize a lot of meetings where I asked staff to answer questions related to their job and tasks. By sharing such information, we developed a much better understanding for teamwork. I often use post-it notes in meetings because it helps the introverted as well as shy staff to contribute in a way they are comfortable with. Listening, reading and sharing are important."
Giving staff equal opportunities was important to her also.
"My CEO had noticed that our non-Balinese staff managed to accumulate annual leave days to take breaks to return home, while our Balinese staff were using their annual leave days for frequent community ceremonies, in which their participation is expected. We felt that all staff should take holiday breaks—which is important for health and creativity—so we introduced a system for our Balinese staff to use their entitlement of 14 national holidays flexibly for their community service activities, thereby saving their 12 annual leave days to create real holiday breaks."
Leading with data
Endang also led changes to strengthen the company’s collection and monitoring of accurate data, starting with developing standard operating procedures, improving forms and records, and developing databases for inventory and human resources, and introducing monthly inventory management.
For the restaurants, this made a difference with smaller stocks, allowing for fresher ingredients and a reduction in waste. The monitoring of data also allowed for better planning of company operations.
Leading for sustainability
A third area of change she mentioned is in sustainability. By its nature, BaliSpirit Group is already invested into holistic development. The use of plastic is minimized, and the company has already demonstrated leadership in introducing waste management in the local community, helping to organize separation and collection for composting in Ubud’s famed Monkey Forest area, and implementing wastewater treatment using a bio-save tank system in their restaurants.
Endang is now considering how to extend the company’s sustainability leadership into water and energy conservation, and in extending healthy food services to surrounding areas beyond Ubud.
Striking a balance
Reflects Endang on the way forward. "Leadership for me now is to bring BaliSpirit Group to the next level, to fully serve its purpose, to motivate our staff and our partners to achieve our goals together. I am happy to work here because our CEO is very creative and supportive in our projects. This helps staff to have fun in our work environment, and to treat each other as members of a big family."
"I see myself as leading 50% of the time, and as managing in the other 50%. I like the combination. It allows me to build on my strength, and it stretches me, which is fun."
Three recommendations for aspiring leaders
So what are Endang’s three recommendations for aspiring leaders in Asia?
First, to develop your integrity and keep it.
Asked what integrity means for her, she explains that it is about taking full responsibility and accountability for each task, never cheating or stabbing from the back. "What you say in front and in the back should be the same. No abuse of power or money for personal benefit. Being a trustworthy person."
And to work seriously. "Your reputation will go ahead of you. When you have integrity, you will keep getting job offers. I only applied for a job twice in my career, so far."
"Also, don’t feel inferior to anyone, locals or foreigners. Work properly and go for it, take full responsibility."
Second, be open-minded.
Keep learning, and be non-judgmental. "You need to be open to new ideas. When your mind narrows, you get stuck in old patterns. We need to adapt to the many changes around us. To do that, we need to be open-minded, flexible, yet keep to our values."
Third, be confident and speak up more.
"Communicate better, learn how to campaign for what you believe in, with effective messages that people will remember. Adapt your message, and the way you deliver it, to the local conditions, cultures, and historical contexts. Cultivate awareness who you are talking with, then choose the appropriate way, the effective way to get your message across."
Our interview started in the late afternoon in one of BaliSpirit Group’s businesses, and we wrapped up during an early-morning walk in the rice paddies.
Throughout our conversation, I was struck by Endang's serious attention and focus, combined with a deep reflection and a keen sense of fun and enjoyment with colleagues and friends.
In her leadership journey, she refreshes her inner power by practicing meditation, yoga, pilates, and by regular travel to see new places, meet new people, and learn new cultures. These help her to lead herself and her staff to prepare for change and growth with an open mind.
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