Yene Assegid: “The greatest challenge is uncertainty”

By Lilly Drumeva-O’Reilly

The COVID-19 pandemic puts a lot of stress on our personal lives and business. This time, I decided to interview an interesting lady from Ethiopia, who visited Bulgaria in 2019 as a lecturer at the Innovation Explorer conference, supported by the Bulgarian Entrepreneurship Center foundation. 

Yene Аssegid is a transformational leadership practitioner with over 25 years’ experience as a professional facilitator, coach and trainer with an extensive background in talent development. 

She has delivered well over 5,000 hours of coaching to date, starting in the mid-nineties working with grassroots communities, with children orphaned through HIV/AIDS, supporting women in the red-light districts, working with communities affected by leprosy as well as people with physical disabilities. Her most recent work has been with organizations such as: UNICEF, UNSSC, EU, UNAIDS, UNDP, DHL, 3M, Castel Breweries, NATO, African Union, GIZ, Société Générale, British Council, CNV, and many women led, civil society organizations in Africa and Asia. Yene Assegid has a PhD in Transformation and Change in Human Systems, a BA and an MBA in Finance and serves on the Global Board of the International Coaching Federation Foundation (ICFF).  

How is your life now during COVID-19? How do you cope with the isolation? How do you protect yourself? What is your survival strategy?

Confinement has been tough. What makes it difficult is knowing how many people are affected around the world. We are all affected of course, but when I think of the pain and suffering of those that had to go on ventilators, it makes me really sad.  For me, I thank God that so far I am ok and my family is also ok. My survival strategy is to stick to a daily routine.  I start my day with prayer, then meditation. Then, I start my work day online. I take regular breaks to get away from the screen. I stay in touch with my family and friends, that’s always very nice. What keeps me going is prayer and knowing that one day this too shall pass. I hope that COVID-19 will help us change the way we live. I hope we become kinder to one another. I hope we are kinder and more considerate to our Planet and all life on the Planet. 

Did you read books (what kind), did you watch movies (what are your favorite ones), did you exercise (gymnastics, yoga, stationary bike)? How did you spend the long hours of staying home? 

As much as possible, I do my best to do some Yoga each day. Some days, I am not so inspired so I skip a day or two. But in general, I practice Yoga and spend substantial time for Meditation. Meditation helps with accepting life as it is. 

Did you have time to think about your life and analyze things? What conclusions did you draw?  What personal benefits can we extract from the coronavirus situation? 

The biggest lesson from Corona Virus is to realize how vulnerable we are. It made me realize, more than ever, that what is important in life is creating meaningful experiences. The more we engage in what makes us happy and what gives meaning to our lives, the more we are able to generate joy for ourselves and everyone around us.  It takes courage to do that. 

How did your job change under the circumstances? Do you consult groups and individuals online, is it effective? 

I was fortunate that my job did not change much. The only change is that I now work online instead of traveling to deliver training.  Working online is great. It takes some getting used to, but once you find your way around, it’s very effective.  Think of all the time we save from not having to travel. The only danger with working online is that unless you draw strict boundaries, it’s possible that your work blends with your private life – and this is not too good. 

You are a facilitator of meetings. How difficult is it to control a large group of people, to give each person equal exposure, to avoid frustration?

I work mainly on Zoom. It’s an amazing platform. As a facilitator, you can keep an eye on your participants and make sure everyone is having a chance to share.  It’s important that you spend a few minutes to connect with all participants to make them comfortable. The more comfortable participants are, the livelier the discussion will be. 

Leadership has never been so important as at this time we are now experiencing with the arrival of the pandemic. What leadership skills do you think are most important at a time like this? 

Now more than ever, Emotional Intelligence is essential. As leaders face uncertainty, it’s key that they are aware of what is going on for them, emotionally, and also be able to perceive how others might be feeling. It’s this competence that will make the difference between teams that make it through COVID successfully and those that don’t. And by success, I mean the team becoming an even better team, having more clarity of why they do what they do, and improving on how they do what they do. 

What challenges facing today’s leaders are the most difficult to navigate? 

The greatest challenge is uncertainty. Not knowing how to revive revenue. I work with many business owners. It’s really hard to find an answer for uncertainty. The stress from uncertainty creates paralysis so creativity goes down. How does one deal with all the job cuts, how do companies keep paying expenses, salaries, etc. when there is no revenue. It’s hard. It’s really hard.  

Can you think of great leaders from past history who faced similar challenges? What did they all have in common? 

I am not sure if there was ever a time where the entire world just stopped. But from other crises at regional or country level, the leaders that managed to overcome are those who could see the reality in relative terms. It’s those who were able to see beyond the crisis and somehow found strength to deal with the crisis one step at a time. 

You work with leaders who are at a point of transition, who are trying to change their lives and careers. What do you advise them? How brave should they be? Or should they take the safe path? 

I am a strong believer in God and I pray a lot. Actually, I am in constant conversation with God. With this, I have learned that when you feel something in your heart, something that is drawing you to change … then, I find that it’s the Universe, the Divine, God if you will, nudging you to look in another direction. My advice is not to jump and change right away, but rather to take time to reflect. Take time to sit in silence, to take long walks so that your mind is clear and the conversation between you and the Universe is very clear. Then, once you are clear, you will see that changes start emerging, you start seeing opportunities and serendipitous encounters happen.  When you are in the space, you know the change is solid. It will not be overnight, it might not be easy but a small step at a time, the transition happens. 

Tell me about your work with people in trouble, with addictions, with illnesses? What special skills does a good coach need? 

My coaching is mainly on leadership so I have not worked with people with addictions or illnesses. That’s more the work for counselors or therapists or medical professionals. 

In terms of skills for a good coach, it would be the coach’s ability to hold space for inquiry, to listen deeply and ask power questions that can expand perspective. The key is being in that space of inquiry and discovery. 

What is the first thing that you are going to do when the pandemic is over?

The first thing will be to visit my parents and visit my extended family. 

And finally, make a prognosis. How is life going to be after COVID-19? Will people be afraid to socialize? Will most of the activities happen online? 

We have certainly been so affected by social distancing that it might take a while to socialize and be in large crowds. My guess is that a lot will continue online especially for work. We will travel much less and only travel when the work or travel motive cannot be done online. I hope we learn to treat the Planet better and learn to make choices that do no harm to life here on Earth.

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