My Journey with Project Potential: Lessons on Leadership and Culture Building for Growth

The American India Foundation’s William J Clinton Fellowship for Service in India was an opportunity I had been aiming for since 2019. After chasing this dream for two years, the dream finally became a reality in 2021, when I got placed for a Fellowship project with Project Potential. Right from the time I had interviewed with Zubin Sharma and Abodh Kumar – the founder and co-founder of Project Potential, respectively – I knew that something was right and that something had clicked. Henceforth, I had achieved the first step of getting through the fellowship. Back then, I believed that the most challenging part was over, which was to get through the application stage. Little did I know about the challenges that would bestow upon me once I would begin the program. 

The fellowship initially began on a virtual note. It was my first time working virtually. As easy and relaxing I believed working in a virtual set-up would be, it turned out to be the exact opposite. I was finding it difficult to communicate effectively with my colleagues. Carrying out sessions and relationship-building activities with my new team was a challenge, and separating my personal and professional life was also becoming a considerable challenge. Another realization that hit me hard was that I didn’t have the required level of technical skills and documentation skills to perform my utmost best and match my host organization’s expectations. As I was slowly and steadily settling into the virtual set-up, it was time for me to move to Bihar. I landed in Bihar on the 15th of December, 2020. Coming to a different land amidst a pandemic was daunting, to say the least. Culturally, this land is way distant from the land where I come from – Assam. I faced a big cultural shock, and for some reason or the other, I was finding it difficult to take this shock. Not to forget, the severity of the winter made matters all the more annoying for me.

As I was finding it difficult to get used to the surroundings and the work environment, I knew that I wasn’t being able to deliver the way I would have wanted to. I was starting to feel like a non-performing asset at my host organization. I felt like I did not belong in this fellowship. This was the point of time where I was considering the option of giving up on the fellowship. 

During this time frame, I had a potential life-altering call with the founder of my host organization – Zubin Sharma. Before our conversation, he could make out that something was off with me. As I mentioned to him the above challenges that I was facing, I broke down. I categorically remember saying to him that I was feeling the way I was feeling for not being able to live up to the expectations with which he must have shown interest in hosting me as a fellow. To this, he replied to me that the work is much larger than any individual in an organization. Even if you laze around and spend the entire duration of the fellowship without contributing much, the work and we will still move forward as an organization. This gave me a much-needed reality check of the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around one person only. Secondly, he mentioned that getting through a rigorous application procedure doesn’t mean that one has become a perfect person, without any flaws and with all kinds of skill sets. This was an extremely crucial realization that I needed to have. Lastly, and most importantly, he mentioned why he and the others at Project Potential expressed their desire to host me. Along with the kind of skill sets that I would bring to the table, my life story and personality played a significant role in their decision too. 

While the conversation made me feel comfortable, it also gave me crucial insights about leadership and the kind of leadership style I find relatable. Leadership for me is about accepting one with all of their flaws while giving them the suitable space to work on their weaknesses and improve. Everyone at my host organization is a leader in that sense. No one in my host organization expects a person to know everything or be versed with all kinds of skills. Instead, there is a non-judgmental space where one doesn’t look down on the other when someone openly admits and says – “I don’t know”. Instead, everyone is there to help each other out. As I begin my professional career, I still have a lot to learn, and it has been a blessing for me to have been placed in an organization with such a culture. The culture allowed me to unapologetically be myself without someone constantly breathing down my neck to achieve 100% perfection at all times. In addition, such a culture acknowledges that everyone has their own pace of learning and understanding. Therefore, this has acted as a massive catalyst for me to develop specific skills at my own pace.

 

Me with the Project Potential team after a street theatre performance.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that something had clicked with Project Potential. Throughout the fellowship, I would often wonder about “what had clicked, and why so”. It was only after our fellowship’s midpoint conference that I had gotten to the bottom of this query of mine. The organization values the uniqueness of each human being. Along with skill sets, it emphasizes the individuality and the personality of a being before onboarding them. This brings me to another crucial learning on leadership, i.e. when one’s identity and uniqueness is valued, they feel incredibly confident about themselves. “Self-confidence” is a potent tool. It makes one strive for and achieve things that they would have never thought they could achieve. Numbers had always been my weak point, and I would dread data and data analysis. But, during my fellowship, I managed and analyzed big data that were coming every evening from the 150 volunteers involved in our home to home COVID vaccination mobilization drive.

Most importantly, when one values the unique identities and strengths of everyone in the team, their commitment to the organization’s cause increases manifold. Such a commitment was to be seen when we launched our coronavirus response efforts. Being a small organization, we achieved massive results and supported the communities during such a challenging time. We were able to provide ration relief to 5000+ families, run multiple campaigns to increase vaccinations, by which we were able to assist 50,000+ families in getting vaccinated and many more.  By no means are these small numbers.

We couldn’t have achieved this impact without solid teamwork and a committed team. An interesting point that needs to be noted here is that most of the employees at Project Potential. They neither have any fancy degrees or extremely high educational qualifications. However, skill-wise, they are excellent. Some even are more skilled in certain aspects like Excel than I am. All of them have learned all of these skills while on the job.

I am fortunate to have found such an environment for my professional and personal growth right at the beginning of my professional career. I hope to take these learnings on leadership, team building and building the right organizational culture and implement them as a leader whenever I get the opportunity to do so.

With the Project Potential team hanging out in Project Potential’s campus.

Tonmoy is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Project Potential in Kishanganj, Bihar. For his fellowship project, he is supporting and coordinating public health projects in four panchayats across Kishanganj. Tonmoy was raised in Numaligarh Refinery Township, a small township in Assam. Right since his childhood, he has been a firm believer in the concept of equity and thereby, equitable and sustainable policymaking has always interested him. With this in mind, he decided to pursue Political Science, with minors in Economics from Delhi University. Early in his undergraduate studies, he understood the power of learning by doing, which made him undertake his first internship at Child Rights and You in his second year of college. Here, he taught various subjects to slum kids along with being a part of their flash mob team. To understand policymaking, he worked as an intern at Niti Aayog, the government of India’s policy think tank, where he handled the partner management process at the Women Entrepreneurship Platform along with being a part of the organizing team of India’s first Global Mobility Summit – MOVE Summit. Later, he was appointed under the special secretary to Niti Aayog, as a research intern at CADFI (Center for Advancement in Digital Financial Inclusion). Apart from this, he has been volunteering in various capacities with other organizations in the development sector like Rural Changemakers in rural Madhya Pradesh, and Maati Community in Assam, exposing him to challenges faced by rural India while simultaneously motivating him to work on eliminating them. In his free time, Tonmoy likes to watch documentaries, read about human psychology, and go for runs. Tonmoy expects the AIF Clinton Fellowship to be a highly reflective experience for him. As an AIF Clinton Fellow, he aims to do better, be better and bring conversations surrounding the development sector, back to his hometown.

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