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Leading as an Outsider
Episode 1620th March 2023 • Leadership Forum: The Podcast • John Glenn College of Public Affairs, The Ohio State University
00:00:00 00:23:48

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Ellie Valentine knows what it’s like to be an outsider in a position of leadership. Having led parliamentary strengthening programs around the world, she now works with Winrock International helping governments, NGOs and the private sector in Central Asia to prevent human trafficking and promote safe migration. Often operating in contexts where her role as a female leader is novel, she builds trust and credibility by starting from a position of respect for the cultural and historical environment. Listening is imperative, she says, for brainstorming ideas, deliberating outcomes and building partnerships with local counterparts to determine their needs for capacity strengthening, education, resources and tools. 


Trevor Brown 0:04

Welcome to the podcast Leadership Forum conversation with leaders who serve the public good. My name is Trevor Brown, and I'm privileged to serve as Dean of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University, where we aspire to fulfill a simple phrase that Senator John Glenn use to describe what we do, inspire citizenship and develop leadership. I also have the honor of serving as the host of this conversation series. So welcome to a thoughtful and reflective conversation about leadership. I'm joined today by Ellie Valentine, who currently serves as the Chief of Party of Winrock International in Central Asia, an organization dedicated to preventing regional trafficking of humans persons across the area. Ellie is the definition of wanderlust. I have worked with Ellie myself a little truth in advertising, Ellie and I are good friends. And I started my relationship with Ellie in Kyiv, Ukraine, after she had spent time in Poland. But after Ukraine, Ellie has gone on to many parts of the former Soviet Union, including Astons, Bangladesh, and other countries far afield in two principal roles. One in serving as a Chief of Party of what are referred to as legislative strengthening programs, helping legislatures around the world navigate the transition towards operating as democratic parliamentary bodies, and then second as Chief of Party for counter trafficking programs like the one that she's running now for Winrock. So Ellie has been involved in in managing distributed organizations in which the central office is usually located somewhere in the United States. But she's running the office that is operating far afield. So as we all navigate the virtual world, Ellie has been doing it for decades, across time zones and geographic boundaries. But she's also been working in contexts where her role as a female leader, is often novel, and new, many of these are places where women have not often been in charge of organizations. So as we venture into this conversation, I'm eager to seek her thoughts on on what she's learned in those contexts. So Ellie, thanks for joining me for a conversation about your leadership.

Ellie Valentine 2:44

Thanks for having me, Trevor.

Trevor Brown 2:48

It's good to see you. It's been too long. You've been doing this for a long time all over the world. And many of the places you've worked and you've started as an outsider, what are some of the strategies you've developed for building trust and credibility with those who serve but also those who manage and lead because you're often working with people from those contexts?

Ellie Valentine 3:07

the word that I would put to that is respect. You know, I think you have to start from a position of respect, respect for the cultural environment in which you are going to be working, understanding that cultural environment. So, you know, in some ways, you know, I sort of try to do a deep dive into what is what is the history and culture of the country where I'm going to be working. And I think that sort of mitigates some of that outsiderness. Early on, I mean, it was also learning the language. Certainly, certainly, I went to Ukraine, knowing some Slavic languages, but not Ukrainian. But I found that by learning Ukrainian that really opened doors, but it not only doors for me, but it opened my mind to understanding the cultural, the cultural nuances and specifics of Ukrainian culture. So I think, you know, reading, watching films go into the theater, you know, music and, and contemporary performance, whether it's visual arts or performing arts, cuisine.

Trevor Brown 4:18

I was about to say, I don't know if it was written into your first contract with our project, but I do remember our boss was like, hey, find find some good restaurants while you're at a deli. And didn't we though? You did you did an exceptional job.

Ellie Valentine 4:33

Um, so you know, I think I think, you know, all kidding aside, understanding those those that deep dive into the into the cultural and historical meat of the country that you're working in, also provides you with legitimate and sincere opportunities to have genuine conversations with people about that, you know, it's not just sort of surface, but it'll also helps you understand how problems have evolved, and how solutions to those problems might be, you know, specifically tailored to those cultural contexts. And I think, I think, you know, if what, what helped us to be successful in our in the project that we worked on together in Ukraine was both understanding that cultural context, providing providing, you know, international best experience or comparative experience for them to learn from, but providing it in Ukrainian so that they could have discussions among themselves in Ukrainian with us, and, and come up with their own solutions. That were that would work in Ukraine. And and, you know, I think that was that was really, that was really important.

Trevor Brown 5:51

ram together, that started in:

Ellie Valentine 6:39

know, they wrote that law in:

Trevor Brown 8:10

So you and I went, I witnessed this, we worked together. But I've also heard and can imagine that this is an experience you've had in other contexts, you you were often, in some cases, the first woman to be in a leadership role where the people reporting to you were not, that was just not something they'd ever had that experience before. And they came from cultures, where were women often weren't in managerial or leadership roles. And I'm imagining that that's that's occurred in some of the other places you've been? What are some of the strategies that you've employed? Or actually, let's, before we get to strategies, what what has that experience been been like? And what are some of the challenges that you faced in those contexts?

Ellie Valentine 8:57

You know, so I look at women's leadership as, as, you know, more a question of accepting, accepting someone, anyone, as a leader, and you know, it might be it might be someone who's very young, but very, you know, very competent, but if they're competent, then they gain the trust and, and, and respect of, of, of their team. I believe that one of the you know, one of the key attributes of, of good leadership is listening. And I think I've always gone into a situation of where I have had to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and I've often had to do it after somebody else has failed, unfortunately. So it often has involved on Understanding why that failed. And so that meant listening. And it meant, again, you know, having done the deep dive into the cultural circumstances that that team is working in, and be to be able to then evolve with the team to, to, to their needs. Now, being a woman, for example, in Pakistan, I was very concerned about it. And I thought, you know, that would be a huge challenge. Although, you know, we know that historically, Pakistan was the first Islamic country to have a woman, a woman leader, political leader. But what I found was that I could, I could go one on one with male counterparts. And they would respect me for the position that I held. And they would respect that I was the leader of that, of that particular project. And it allowed me an entree, to work with women that I would not have had if I were a man. So it really it really was a bonus. And that was something that was similarly in, in Bangladesh, in Yemen, I think I also felt a similar a similar type of relationship, that absolutely I could, I could garner the respect of male colleagues. But I had also that that opportunity to have a special relationship with women colleagues that I might not have had, if I if I, if I had been a man, that position.

Trevor Brown:

So let's let's use that to pivot to the work you're doing now, the important work of preventing the trafficking of humans often often women, what are in, you can limit it to the region you're in. But you've had this experience, as you said earlier, across various contexts, what are the primary drivers of human trafficking? What What, what are the causal factors that make it occur?

Ellie Valentine:

It's really interesting, because we just had a very long discussion about this today with some of our researchers, who are doing studies on vulnerability. And the lack of economic opportunity has has always been a driver of persons pursuing opportunities outside of their home environment. And by pursuing those opportunities, perhaps with the skills, perhaps not with the skills, perhaps, you know, with without knowing what the legal requirements are, puts them at risks and make them vulnerable to the scams of traffickers. But, you know, also, especially when we were working in Ukraine in the 2000s, and it was, you know, domestic violence was, was certainly a push factor, that continues to be to be an issue of situations where women especially are, are not respected in their home. And so they look to, to seek opportunities outside the home, that could be either domestically within their own country or internationally. Conflict situations. So right now, many of the organizations that we worked with in Ukraine, and I want to give them credo, because they are have been doing this work for more than 20 years, and they're still doing it. And they're facing especially difficult situations now to keep people safe. And especially all of these women and children who are exited Ukraine into countries where they're not familiar with the, with the with the country, culture, the language, the the economic opportunities, the laws, that they become vulnerable to someone scamming them, or manipulating them, or abusing them and exploiting them. And so anyone can be can be open to to exploitation and unfortunately, you know, traffickers are always one step ahead. And we're, we're finding now that we have a lot of people both in South Asia but also now also in in Central Asia, and I'm sure in other places that are being recruited and on the face to be involved in, you know, Internet transactions. But once they get to the destination that they've been recruited to, they're forced into cybercrime. So, and usually limited freedom of movement from where they've been brought, that creates a vulnerability they often can find a way out if they know that there are places that they can turn to for help and that's one of the things that we do.

Trevor Brown:

Can I ask, lay out what what do you do?

Ellie Valentine:

Especially our Yeah, especially our our our NGO partners do a lot of pre-, what we call pre departure orientation. For labor migrants who are considering going abroad making sure that they have contracts, making sure that they know who's in hiring them. Also, that we're on the policy level, we're trying to get recruitment, labor recruitment agencies to have employer paid fees rather than employee paid fees, so that labor doesn't go already in debt bondage to a country and then could be exploited or manipulated by the employer. So, you know, it increasing their, their knowledge about the environment that they are, the destination that they're planning on going to, as a migrant, whether student could also be, you know, could be a student could be a laborer, or even a tourist, what we try to do at a policy level, as I mentioned, you know, trying to, to make sure that that companies are adhering to fair labor practices and, and not participating in enforced labor practices, but also that laws that are passed have teeth and that the criminal justice actors are able to pursue cases. And it's very hard because it's usually they're transnational crimes, it's expensive to investigate. It's difficult, you know, across cultures to, to trade evidence. There are mechanisms for mutual legal assistance, there's mechanisms for transnational referral mechanisms of survivors so that they get the psychological, medical or legal assistance that can help them to, both to to revive and rehabilitate once they're repatriated, but hopefully also to help in the in the investigation and criminal proceedings against the perpetrators. So it's difficult. It's a complex problem.

Trevor Brown:

I was about to say sounds complex. So I'm not gonna ask you to that end and ask you a question I asked you before, although I asked you at the individual level. Now, when asked you the organizational level, so I asked you about sort of how you personally have approached working in a context where you're the outsider? Well, here, your organization is the outsider in the sense that you gave us the background. It's a US based NGO, it's funded by USAID, the US Agency for International Development. And you're working in this very complex, sensitive context in which people have lost trust that they there, they've been trafficked, or they're fearing this. How do you How have you positioned your organization to be a credible, respected actor?

Ellie Valentine:

Yeah. That's, that's a really interesting question, Trevor. Because I think it it has to do with, with building partnerships with local counterparts, so building partnerships with the NGO community, helping them to, to be on top of the trends and developments in the field, but also to again, listen to them, what is what is what, where are the areas that you need capacity, strengthening, what what new things do you need to learn? What new resources do you need to add? What new tools do we need to develop together? And so most of the time, the interventions that we have come through those local partners, whether they're NGOs, or government partners, we have some very strong government partners that are, you know, introducing innovation, and really embracing the opportunities to, to to innovate and to apply the knowledge that they're learning. We just had a meeting last week in the capital of, of Kazakhstan, Astana and, and a young, a young civil servant from the Ministry of Social Protection had been at a a presentation of some draft guidelines that we had developed and we hit we had we had issued the draft because we wanted feedback. And he said in the in the meeting, he's but and this was about two weeks afterwards. He said to me, he said, Yeah, I took that I scanned it, I sent it to all my all my guys on all the regions, they're already using it, let me sit but you know, my phone there, though, those are draft it was he said that they need it, they need it. No, this you know, so I mean, to have people like that who are so enthusiastic, is just, I mean, it's just really rewarding. And it just, you know, that's what that's what keeps you going is that kind of level of enthusiasm and, and and, you know, readiness to do something different and to be able to be open to those, those those opportunities that, you know, again, we don't we don't come with the answers. But But thanks to USAID, thanks to the American people, the American taxpayer, you know, we're able to provide some of the resources that they might not otherwise have to, to pursue some of those innovations and some of those interventions.

Trevor Brown:

Well, as we, we pull this really interesting conversation to a close, I want you to come back to a personal question to you. And I want you to be thinking of advice you'd give to young people who are starting their career and, and perhaps have some wanderlust like, like you did, and your line, like most people's line, that was not a straight line, you were trained as a librarian, and you spoke some polish, and then all of a sudden, you're in Ukraine running a legislative strengthening program. And now you're, you're doing something where, obviously, I can see the connections, but it's not as if like, oh, yeah, this thing leads to that thing. What's your, your advice and guidance to young people who are embarking on what they hope to be an engaging journey that's adding value, when you don't know where that that line is gonna take you.

Ellie Valentine:

And you don't you don't ever and, you know, I, and thanks for mentioning, I mean, I think that, you know, any training can prepare you for that profession. I, you know, I was trained in, in, in library science, I've never worked in a library, but I use all of those tools of librarianship in everything I do. You know, whether it's citizen access to information, or its innovation, or its management, you know, it really doesn't matter. So I think you have to, first of all, not define yourself by your degree, or, you know, say, okay, you know, I, that's what I did. So that's what I'm going to do, to be absolutely open to opportunities and to see beyond, you know, the, the obvious to stretch yourself out of out of out of that out of that comfort zone, and to be vulnerable. You know, we talk about the vulnerability of people to trafficking, but, you know, vulnerability is also about being able to be open and to make mistakes, and to, you know, sometimes sometimes you you pursue something and it doesn't work. But sometimes you do, and it's, it's absolutely amazing, and so rewarding. And, you know, you look back, I look back, and I see, you know, the people that we've worked with, who have accomplished so much, and, you know, I feel so proud to have had the opportunity to have worked with them, and to be able to call them my friends today. And, and I think that's just a treasure, to be able to have to have, you know, that that cadre of, of, of people that you can depend on and you know, hopefully they can depend on me as well. And we, you know, we move forward together with better understanding of each of each other and what the possibilities are in our world. And, you know, it might be a little pollyannish but I really do believe that you know, with with a greater understanding of the diversity of the world, but also our commonalities that we could all have quality, quality futures together.