Ten days in Cape Town – an emotional rollercoaster

The 10-day trip to South Africa was definitely one of the highlights of my Henley Executive MBA – Global journey so far. We travelled there together with our whole study cohort, meaning that we also had a chance to meet our fellow students from Denmark and the UK.

During the trip, we worked actively with a local non-governmental organisation (NGO), The Justice Desk, who celebrate their 10-year anniversary next year. The Justice Desk is a human rights organisation headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa. Their aim is to empower everyday people to understand and defend their human rights, with a particular emphasis on children and young people. Our task was to consult them on their reputation, and to help in direction setting for the next ten years.

The trip is part of the Reputation and Responsibility module of the Henley Executive MBA – Global. The module consists of two parts: workshop and the study trip. During the workshop, we learned theories, models and frameworks that are useful in leading reputation and responsibility within organisations. In the practical part, we got to consult local partner organisations in South Africa on their reputation by gathering, analysing and presenting a 360 degree view from their various stakeholders.

Below you can find my diary from the trip.

Friday, 28th October

Taking off from Helsinki Airport, it felt great to start traveling to the other side of the globe. I had never been to South Africa before, so I didn’t even know what to expect. I was even a bit nervous, which is unusual for me. My main expectation was to gain perspective and to have a memorable experience.

There was around ten of us leaving towards Cape Town via Doha. Our second flight was delayed which gave us a five-hour layover in Doha: a great opportunity for some late-night team building with the Finnish delegation in one of the Qatar Airways lounges.

Saturday, 29th October

Arriving to Cape Town after more than 24 hours of traveling, we were quickly transported to the hotel to enjoy our free day before the official part of the programme started. Me and Juhani took the opportunity to visit Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was prisoned. We had the honour of having one of the former political prisoners as our guide, who shared with us not only the history of the island but also his personal experience as a political prisoner.

Sunday, 30th October

On Sunday, the official part of the Global Immersion Study Visit started and we got a good introduction to South Africa, its history and culture. This provided the necessary context for the work that would follow. We also heard six extremely personal stories from different volunteers and activists in the Cape Town area. Listening to them was both highly inspiring and very sad, because there have been so many tragedies and difficulties in their lives. This was a great lesson about the power of storytelling and leadership: sometimes the best way to get a message across is to tell a personal story.

Before the trip, our project team designed and conducted an online survey that was sent to all the volunteers and other key people of the The Justice Desk. Daniel and Marjo in our project team did a great job in designing the research and analysing the results – hats off to them! On Sunday, we had the first look at the survey results.

Monday, 31st October

Early on Monday morning, we set off towards the The Justice Desk headquarters, which was located very close to our hotel. We had the opportunity to interview members of the organisation’s management, including the founder Jessica Dewhurst, about their perceptions of The Justice Desk’s reputation. We also interviewed employees who served as social workers and project coordinators.

I have worked with and volunteered for non-governmental organisations before but it was still surprising to hear and see how committed the people are, and how much they get done with minimal resources. I also learned that the typical organisational dynamics which are present in larger corporations here in Finland, are also present in the context of South African NGOs – work life is not that different despite the distance.

In the afternoon, we were invited to a private home in the Bonteheuwel township, where we had the opportunity to discuss with the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies, who are local community leaders who are also actively volunteering for The Justice Desk. Most of them had their children involved in the activities of The Justice Desk, which provided us with a great opportunity to also hear about their experience as parents. It was inspiring to hear about their willingness and commitment to be the change in their communities, which were suffering from many problems such as drugs and violence.

Tuesday, 1st November

On Tuesday morning, we set towards the community of Khayelitsha, where we visited the Sisters of Charity home that hosts the Umoya project of The Justice Desk. The aim of the Umoya project is to spend time with the residents who have various mental and physical disabilities and only little or no contact with their families. We had the opportunity to talk with the residents, and interview several volunteers as well as parents of the users for The Justice Desks services.

I have visited several care homes in Finland and despite the conditions and resources in Cape Town townships being far worse, I think the main problem is still the same: loneliness and lack of human connection. This is why I was so happy to see that The Justice Desk addresses this very issue by being present and providing social stimulation to the residents.

In the afternoon, we visited two nurseries and interviewed parents of service users as well as community leaders. The community leaders we met were particularly inspiring: strong personalities with a lot of positivity and willpower – despite the very challenging operating environment. A great example for anyone looking to become a better leader! The children at one of the nurseries had prepared five songs for us – a truly memorable greeting! For many children in these nurseries, the food they get during nursery hours is often the only hot meal of the day for them.

Wednesday, 2nd November

On Wednesday, we started with a lecture on storytelling by Professor Kevin Money. We learned about different categories of stories and how to frame the presentation of our key message to one of the existing fundamental storylines. This was actually really helpful for our final presentation, and we did come up with a non-evident metaphor – “NGO as a start-up” – that we used.

In the afternoon, we continued stakeholder interviews with board members of The Justice Desk, and with advocacy teachers from communities in South Africa and Zimbabwe. It was interesting to hear that the board members had very different experiences and expectations compared to how people described The Justice Desk at grassroots level. This was a good reminder of the fact that strategic and operational realities can look very different.

We also started analysing the data we had gathered and preparing our presentation to The Justice Desk, which was scheduled for Friday. This marked the beginning of a rather intensive ”management consulting simulation” part of the experience, with the eight of us sitting in a circle, tapping away with our laptops. I was in charge of leading our project team and I was happy to see that we managed to create a safe, efficient and fun environment to work in. We tried to utilise everyone’s strengths as much as possible – knowing that this would create the optimal result and experience.

Thursday, 3rd November

On Thursday, the management consulting work continued. We divided our project team into two groups, with one group focusing on the presentation for The Justice Desk and the other group focusing on the written final report. This enabled us to be more effective and get more work done towards our deliverables.

In the afternoon, we met with the management of The Justice Desk to go through the high-level findings and recommendations in our work. It was great and also somewhat relieving to get positive feedback. To be honest, I was a bit afraid that they would openly disagree with some our recommendations or that they would consider our input to be rather superficial.

Friday, 4th November

The last day of the Global Immersion Study Visit focused on presenting the findings and recommendations to the NGOs. The six project teams of our cohort gave their final presentations to the representatives of their respective partner organisations. Our presentation was the sixth and final presentation of the day at 4pm – luckily the audience was still very attentive and encouraging at that point, even after eight hours of presentations.

A key takeaway for me from the presentations was that it is indeed possible to come up with noteworthy and insightful recommendations based merely on a short but intensive field study. The research and analysis made by the six different project teams translated into useful and pragmatic solutions that could easily be implemented by the partner organisations.

The Friday ended with a farewell dinner, which marked the end of the official programme and the immersion study visit experience.

Saturday, 5th November

On Saturday, the alarm went off at 6am because I needed to catch the transport to the Aguila Game Reserve. I had organised a full-day safari trip for a group of nine Executive MBA students. It was a great experience: we got to see dozens of African wild animals, including lions, rhinos, hippos, and giraffes. The safari trip also acted as a relaxing counterbalance after an intense week as management consultants.

Sunday, 6th November

The last day in Cape Town started with a morning trip to the Table Mountain. We took the easy option and rode there with the cable car. The views were stunning and the walking activity provided a good opportunity to get some exercise. When we got back to the hotel, it was time to start the preparation for heading back home. Before heading to the airport, I took one last opportunity to enjoy the sun by the poolside and to take a quick swim.

Monday, 7th November

After 20 hours of flying, we finally touched down in Helsinki, which marked the end of our trip. The feeling of gratitude when I got home was immense. What a privilege it is to have a home, a job, and a family. Even in the face of some adversities, things are really good here in Finland.

This was my first trip to South Africa, and also the first time ever on the African continent. I learned a great deal about how different organisations are leading the way in responsibility and actively managing their reputation towards multiple stakeholders – a truly immersive learning experience! Luckily, during the trip I also had some time for more touristic endeavours. I took time to go to Robben Island, visit the Table Mountain, local vineyards, and we also saw wild animals. All in all, I would say that this was a life-changing experience in the sense that my perspective on things has changed for good. I will remember this trip for the rest of my life and maybe someday I will be back to South Africa.

Juho Toivola

Juho Toivola is Henley's Executive MBA student and brand ambassador. He's an organisational psychologist leading two Finnish companies, Asselmointi and Digital Minds. As a proud father of three small children, Juho lives an active life in the happy town of Lempäälä, Finland. He will be sharing his MBA journey from 2021 to 2023. #JuhoGoesEMBA

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