By Fred Swaniker, Founder & CEO, African Leadership Group & Sand Technologies

I’ve spent my career building leaders. Growing up in Africa, a continent rich in resources — not least in its human capital — but plagued by weak institutions, I soon came to believe that even one good leader could make a huge difference.

To meet the continent’s dire need for better leadership, I founded the African Leadership Academy with several colleagues, based on a plan that a team and I hatched in 2004 as students at Stanford Business School. Ten years later, this two-year university preparatory program outside Johannesburg was joined by the African Leadership University — which is now 10 times the size of the Academy and will be 100 times bigger in the next five years. Three years ago, we scaled up yet again with a hybrid learning organization called ALX, which offers a mix of in-person and online learning to train software engineers across eight countries.

As a result, an organization that started by reaching just 250 students a year now trains 250,000 of them annually. Overall, we aim to create 3 million new African leaders by 2035. And these will be leaders with a strong sense of purpose. Rather than choosing a major, students at our African Leadership University choose a personal mission from 14 “grand challenges” or “great opportunities,” ranging from urbanization and healthcare to agriculture and empowering women. At ALX we insist our software engineers complete a four-to-eight-month leadership foundations program before they even begin learning to code. This module helps ensure they have the critical problem-solving and communication skills, as well as the ethics and values that effective future leaders at every level require. Most importantly, we ensure hat all our young leaders graduate into good jobs in the private and public sectors or create their own paths as for-profit and social-impact entrepreneurs.

What are the broader lessons from this journey so far?

Radically reimagine solutions to seemingly intractable problems and deploy the right technology at speed in order to grow.

Such principles, which have been critical to our success, will be essential for anyone trying to meet the global challenges posed by AI, climate change, geopolitical fracturing and deep-rooted inequities in health and wealth.

But what I’ve also come to realize is that to drive and manage change at scale, leaders must put building and maintaining trust at the core of their mission. There are at least four ways this trust equation has played out in our ecosystem.

  1. Large organizations run on trust. In today’s world the most effective big enterprises try to push decision-making down as close as possible to the front lines. For leaders, that requires a huge amount of trust in your people. This is especially so when you are hyper-scaling across multiple locations. With enrollment soaring by almost 500,000 percent in three years, we opened 29 campuses in just four months. Given our increasingly virtual world, and with multiple sites operating at once, I could no longer walk around and see what was going on. I had to lead differently — I had to learn to trust. So I replaced an all-powerful 12-person executive committee with a smaller four-person executive committee. We empowered 40 entrepreneurial leaders below Exco and pushed almost all day-to-day decision-making down. In such a structure, a strongly held common purpose helps provide the foundation for the trust that such delegation requires.
  2. Great data systems verify trust for all stakeholders. Radical transparency is the essential enabler of a decentralized cross-border operation. Real-time digital dashboards give me as CEO a clear window into how every piece of our ecosystem is performing on an hourly basis. Transparency also builds trust with stakeholders. To track progress on our 2030 employment goal, we have built a real-time digital dashboard with detailed daily breakdowns of where our graduates are getting jobs, at what levels, with what pay and much more. We are now using this system to provide our funders and other key stakeholders with a dynamic, transparent view of our impact.
  3. In-person engagement is an essential trust-builder in a hybrid world. Coming out of the pandemic, we have all had to learn to work and trust each other in virtual settings. But interactions over screens still can’t replace the deep connections, the tacit knowledge and the cultural bonds forged during in-person meetings. To mimic the “water cooler effect” that existed when we all worked in office environments, we put a premium on gathering our top leadership every quarter for seven to 10 days at one of our campuses. Here we exchange ideas, meet stakeholders and students and build the kind of trust that only face-to-face encounters can foster.
  4. Social media is critical to earning trust from the rising generation of workers. A few years ago, a young Gen Zer, gave me some candid feedback: “If we don’t see you on social media, we can’t trust you.” It made sense. Long ago, I could meet all the 250 students at our first academy in the auditorium and let them hear me or ask questions, as I tried to share my vision and values. I could walk the halls of the office and see my management team. Now that’s impossible. But social media — and for me that’s mainly LinkedIn posts for content and Instagram for images — offers an effective channel for projecting authenticity and transparency, both to the broader world and to my primary audience, which is my staff and students. It helps underscore, as another young staffer put it, that “there is no gap between what you say you are doing and what we see you actually doing.”   

    Two years ago, we opened the latest chapter in African Leadership Group’s ongoing story: We bought a small technology company in Silicon Valley, plus two others in Romania and the U.K., and created a for-profit entity called Sand Technologies. We’re already employing a number of graduates from ALX at Sand and developing AI-based solutions for European insurers, British utilities and a number of industrial clients around the world. We’re also deploying the same trust-building techniques that we honed in our non-profit endeavors. Prospective clients who want to feel and touch the goods, for example, can visit one of our eight capability hubs in Africa, among them a state-of-the-art real-time Health Intelligence Center we have built for one of our clients.

Our 15-year goal with Sand is to create a company with over $40 billion in revenue and 1 million employees. Doing that would make us one of Africa’s largest employers. But we would still account for just a fraction of the 595 million jobs the continent will need to generate to ensure prosperity for its soaring young population by 2050. That’s why the real impact at scale, we believe, will come from our ability to funnel part of the earnings we generate back into subsidizing even more training and education for the millions of future leaders in business, government and civil society that our ecosystem aspires to produce.

Leaders can only create the future solutions our change-driven world requires by mastering scale. And they can only master scale if they also build trust.



Bridging the Generation Trust Gap

Rena Kawasaki, Winner of the 2022 International Children’s Peace Prize