Pasteur Byabeza on transitioning to self-management at Davis College

Ep. 65

Pasteur Byabeza is the lead link of the Student Care Circle at Davis College, a higher learning institution in Rwanda. He is one of the pioneers who has been driving the college’s transition to becoming a self-managed, Holacratic organisation. Though they are early in their journey, taking steps like disbanding the global council and replacing management hierarchies with distributed decision making have already had a huge impact on people’s engagement levels. Pasteur shares what he has learned so far with honesty and contagious passion.



Lisa Gill: Pastor, thank you for being here. I know that at Davis College you decided to use holacracy as a self management system. And I think many listeners of the podcast will be familiar with holacracy. But I think it would be really interesting if you could share with us what was the process of adopting holacracy in Davis College? How did you start this transformation?

Pasteur Byabeza: Great. Thank you, Lisa. That's a good question to start with. For the last 11 years, what we did was to optimise around standardisation, consistency and centralisation with our academics and curriculum. That means only a small handful of people at the top of the organisation had any decision making rights. So this resulted in frustration, lack of trust and disempowerment for so many people on our team. This was reflected in regular feedback in surveys that were conducted, to gauge faculty levels of stress. So this is what sparked the need or the desire to make some kind of radical shift in our management paradigm.

From there, we did many training sessions with expert practitioners, and we researched a lot on many other companies and organisations that are already practicing self management. Based on that, we came to a conclusion that self management is worth trying. So the next step was then to test that hypothesis. And based on the feedback we received with the early success of the new system in pilot circles, everyone at Davis College, and Akilah, was invited to transition into holacracy.

That's how we disbanded the global cancer. We did away also with any formal or informal leadership roles or titles. So there are no more departments. All my colleagues were invited to work within one or more circles. So that's the process.

Lisa Gill: So it sounds like you had some pilot teams initially. And it sounds like those went well. And then you took some bigger steps, like disbanding the Global Council and removing formal hierarchical job titles.

Pasteur Byabeza: That right, absolutely, absolutely.

Lisa Gill: So what have been some of the biggest changes? If I had visited Davis College before you started this transformation process, and if I visited today, what are some of the biggest shifts?

Pasteur Byabeza: You would see a lot, of course. The difference is that before we transitioned into self management, standardisation and centralisation with our academics and curriculum were the norm. So decision making and access to information were a privilege of only a handful of individuals at the top. So there was too much bureaucracy which resulted in disempowerment, lack of trust and frustration. So people at the bottom seemed to only work for a paycheck. There was no job satisfaction managers - middle managers would rely completely on micromanaging, using tight controlling mechanisms in order to get things done.

Sometimes the result were there, but at what cost? There was no feeling of fulfillment, and that's what you need when you are an employee somewhere. But now, it's completely the opposite of how things were. So self management - in a short period of time - has resulted in empowerment of every employee. There's more transparency, more accountability, more freedom to think differently. Things are rapidly processed because there is no more bureaucracy. Anyone can make important decisions - youcan launch new initiatives, you can hold colleagues accountable, you can even help resolve conflicts. Everybody knows that these ideas can bring about something new, or contribute to achieving purpose for the team - they belong to all the institution at large.

Lisa Gill: That's super interesting. And I guess, it'd be interesting to hear your experience personally. I know that in your current role, you have evolved into a role called in a holacracy system, a lead link, and you're the lead link of the Student Care Circle. So how has the experience been for you? What have you learned in that new role?

Pasteur Byabeza: So I've been assigned the role of lead link for several months. And I've learned so many lessons. I think the first one is I've learned to have an optimistic, positive view of my colleagues. A lead link is a little different from a traditional manager - but it is somehow the closest to it, compared to other roles. So when I say I've learned to have an optimistic positive view of my colleagues, what I mean is that there's this belief that people dislike their work, and have to be tightly controlled - forced or even threatened to do their work. I have learned that people take pride in doing a good job, and inherently get great satisfaction from their work. That was lesson number one.

My second lesson is that I've learned that information flow and access to information are really critical in a self managed circle. For a self managed team to be able to make good decisions, they really need to have all the information. Before we shifted to self management, as I've said, only a handful of people at the top had access to information and people at the bottom of the pyramid could not understand the rationale for certain decisions being made at the top - they simply didn't have enough information to understand the motives behind [certain decisions].

Let me give you a simple example. If the institution is not a financial one, these people should have that information to understand to limit their expenditures. For instance, if the contribution margin is not as needed, there are some financial implication and people need to have that information. So if they have that information, it can definitely affect the decisions they make. So that's why I said, it's very important to have access to information. So that was lesson two.

Another very important lesson I've learned is that there is more accountability in a self manage team than in a traditional structure. So you probably know this misconception that in a self managed team people do as they feel, and there's no one to hold them accountable. That's wrong - I think that the setup of a self managed team creates some situations where everybody feels comfortable holding everyone else accountable, for their commitments. But that can be done maybe through feedback, or sometimes even respectful confrontations.

And because of that, I've seen that people tend to be more authentic - more true to themselves. And even more responsible. You know, traditionally, all you would really care about is your managers appreciation of your work. It used to feel like everyone is working to please one person - their direct supervisor. And that's not really good. So it's very important to point out that, for circle members to be able to hold each other accountable - shouldn't be some radical transparency in some psychological sense, you see.

Another very important lesson that I've learned - and actually, this is the most important part. I should have started with it. It's crucial for all team members to develop skills that are needed for self managed teams to really be effective and efficient. These skills are mostly general communication skills, active listening skills, critical thinking, you - these skills can become very useful. And then people on the team promote psychological safety - when it is safe to take interpersonal risks as a group - and these risks can, for instance, include speaking up when there is a problem within team dynamics, and sharing creative ideas. So those are my lessons.

Lisa Gill: Thank you for sharing. It's really interesting to hear that some real themes are coming through since shifting to self management, and information is being distributed. So suddenly, everyone has much more transparent access to information, and also the power to take part in and influence decisions that affect them. And this shift, as you describe it from having almost two jobs - my actual job, and my job of looking good or pleasing my manager - towards my job being about fulfilling the purpose of my role in the organisation and being much more connected to that.

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, that's true. You feel like all that matters to you is the way your manager sees you. And you can maneuver and find all sorts of ways to please your manager. And that's not fulfilling in the long run.

Lisa Gill: I'm curious to ask a follow up question about your kind of second point. Regarding the skills that you've noticed are needed to work in a self managing way - around active listening, and upgrading communication skills in general in order to create this climate of psychological safety. Did you do training in those? Or was that something that you just started to have conversations about? How have people developed those skills?

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, obviously, people tend to think that everybody who went to school have those skills - but that is incorrect. These are skills that require training - people have to be intentional and develop those skills. Especially those basic communication skills that you expect everybody to have. And poor listening skills can really be a challenge to a team - those are skills that people have to be really intentional about. We're very intentional on helping our team to develop those skills. Those basic communication skills like communication skills - how do I speak? How do I express myself in a way that doesn't offend people? How do I listen in a respectful way? How do I encourage people to give me feedback when we are communicating? How do I portray some signs of activities? Those are very simple techniques that I believe people can be very intentional about and develop. So they were really helpful in our transition to self management.

Lisa Gill: And I'm curious also because this is the first African self managing organisation we've had on the podcast. And I know when you and I spoke before you shared with me some reflections as a Rwandan on how certain aspects of African culture have either helped or made this transition more challenging. Could you share with listeners, what your take is on, you know, African culture and how that has played a part in this shift?

Pasteur Byabeza: That's a great question. I would say that our thought is that the role of culture in management is poorly understood. People should know that values, norms and beliefs derived from certain group of people will definitely affect the functioning of organisation they are operating - within that place, or that culture, or that environment.

So, let me discuss the influence of African culture on organisation transformation. First of all, I need to clarify that Davis College can rightly call itself this - because it is an African organisation which serves African people, and of course, the majority of employee are Africans, I'd say 90%. But it is important to mention that we have a good number of Americans and Asian, colleagues - that's important to note.

Secondly, I'll be very careful not to conflate a variety of African cultures into one. So it must be emphasised that there's not one but many African cultures. So the cultures found in Rwanda cannot be the same as ones found in Malawi. So now allow me to discuss some strongly held African values - ones that are very common, that I believe had an impact on our transformation.

Submission to authority. While some African cultures are egalitarian out really, it's very important to know that most African cultures are very hierarchical. From a young age, Africans are trained to respect their superiors, and people with authority. So this means for instance, recognising and acknowledging the authority that a person has, and sometimes even yielding to that authority if it is higher than yours. So I'm just trying to help you understand this African way of thinking that is really rooted in us. It is an abomination to criticise an authority figure - a personal authority figure, or maybe to speak up publicly against that authority figure. So this seemingly would work in favor of traditional management structure and a little bit against flat organisational organisational structure.

This cultural element of submission to authority helps those traditional managers who take a lot of pleasure in controlling and micromanaging - because they have a lot of interest in having their orders strictly obeyed and accepted by their subordinates. So in a tiered organisation, you know, there's no money for you to see. So I've noticed - when people in an organisation are accustomed to receiving orders and instructions about what to do from their managers, because it is in their culture, it takes them time to get used to taking the lead and getting things done without waiting on anyone to tell them what to do.

You would see a situation where people are empowered by their structure, but they did not really seem to exercise their power to the fullest. And there is that tendency to want to seek consent, or approval from some individuals - mostly former managers. You see, part of this, I would say is because Africans lean on this African cultural perspective which is linked to this submission to authority, something that is really rooted into them.

Lisa Gill: A quick reflection on that theme - because I've heard almost exactly the same thing from people in India, for example, when they have explored self management - and I'm wondering if that dynamic you're describing is a product of colonisation? Or if that's really an inherently African dynamic - do you see what I mean? And I don't know if you have the answer to that, but it's just interesting to me.

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, I wouldn't say that it's a result of colonisation, because African culture existed before colonisation. Actually, colonisation came in and, brought in some new thinking, new structure, some things we didn't actually know from outside. Traditional African culture is rooted in hierarchies and is about yielding to authority and seeing all subordinates yielding to authority.

You look at the African chiefs - traditional leaders who have absolute power - and I would say sometimes they're totalitarians, using the tools to manage and control people sometimes. I would say it was not totally counter productive. You look at the results, and sometimes it sustained people, the nations. So those new ideas about different ways to do things, I think, came as a result of colonisation. And that other aspect was deeply rooted into African cultures even before colonisation.

Lisa Gill: Yes, thank you. That's really clarifying. You were going to share some other observations from a cultural perspective.

Pasteur Byabeza: Sure. I would say that most African managers display some authoritarian work orientation, as a result of what I've just said. You realise that they are mainly intent on controlling or micromanaging. As I pointed out before, you would think African managers, use authoritarian styles to manage people because maybe some employees lacked some technical skills to make good decisions. And then they have to rely on applying an authoritarian work orientation, because of the cultural aspect of submission and using a strong controlling mechanism to get people to do something.

It's important to add one more thing that is very positive. African cultures promotes the principles of reciprocity and solidarity. That's very positive - Africans tend to be united and work together. They say that promotes group solidarity and cohesion. That's very important. You look at, for instance, the concept of Ubuntu that is very common in many African cultures, especially in central and South Africa.

That concept emphasises helping others as a way of helping oneself - collective activities and collective well being, rather than individually. Unification rather than division. Respect of elders and superiors. And, you know, sharing everything you see, - that's something that is also deeply rooted into our culture. And I believe, when you mentioned things like united teamwork, solidarity, they work a lot in favour of the self management paradigm.

Lisa Gill: Yes, thank you for sharing that. It's interesting. I'm learning more and more as I speak to people on the podcast that there are so many different dimensions - and the culture that you start from totally influences the journey and how you see the journey. So I'm curious to hear from you, what have been some of the biggest challenges in this shift? Has it been challenging for, for certain people? Has there been resistance? What have been some of the painful moments along the way? What have been the biggest challenges?

Pasteur Byabeza: You're right. Of course, every every change comes with the challenges. You mentioned resistance - and yes, resistance was there. Like any other change, of course, you expect some people to resist. I would say it took some of my colleagues a lot of time to fully embrace the philosophy of self management. You see, as you know, operating in a self managed team requires learning and unlearning certain things. So I can confidently say that some of my colleagues never fully embraced this shift, because different people have different needs and desires.

So, I've seen some people - especially my former managers - behaving from a place of insecurity when we started rolling out self management. You see, a lot of energy had to be spent. We invested in getting everybody on board, and we faced resistence from one team, with some people sending videos. And again, of course, you're confronted with a dilemma. You don't want people to operate in a management mode that they don't think is the right for them, or maybe for the institution - that's in the videos, people can have their their interpretation. And of course, you can't get rid of everyone as an institution, simply because they're not keen on, you know, change, and they maybe need time.

And as an institution you may think that you probably need more time to accept their perspective, and maybe help them out and get them on board. Because they need time maybe to digest the different aspects of to organisation, or maybe they are trying to wait and see, what do I lose? Maybe I lose my title, I lose respect. I've been relying on micromanaging, controlling people. I get things done, maybe I get credit for everything. There's a lot I can say, but I would say it's obvious to believe that some people can resist some changes. So I would say our institution has exercised a lot of patience, and hopefully it will pay off. So of course, there are many other challenges, but that's actually the main one.

Another challenge that I believe we face is that no other higher learning institution had practiced self management before. So that was a very big challenge. So in an African context, or across the globe, I do not think that there are many higher learning institution that practice holacracy and self management. So, because of that, you can understand why most people were a little bit skeptical. We like the idea of self management. It's brilliant - but is it really something that can work in a higher learning institution, or other organisations, or practice holacracy from other fields? Does it work for our business? We don't know, we don't have any other higher level institution that already practiced self management.

So sometimes people may not want to try it out. Or maybe they can be reluctant because they don't have a reference. And that was really one of the biggest challenges we faced. But it's very productive, and people should know that it's important to try something out. And you know, you can learn on the way. There are people who really want something that is already tried and tested. But I would say that the feedback we got from the pilots, our calls and their success, gave us every assurance that we needed to invite everybody into this new system. And that's how we wrote it out officially.

There is one more challenge - and this one is connected to what was just mentioned. As a higher learning institution, we operate under directives that are set by our regulators. Our main regulatory institution is called the Higher Learning Education Council, the Rwandan Higher Learning Education Council. This is a government agency. So we knew that reorganising our structure could potentially create some skepticism from their side. So that's why we needed to do a lot of consultation internally and externally to ensure that we set up a model that will be acceptable to our regulators, and partners. So that was another very important challenge that I should mention.

Lisa Gill: Yes, I know that lots of organisations struggle with that - if they're externally regulated. You have to do some clever positioning of how you don't have classical supervision, for example, but here's our version of doing that. And actually, in many cases, you can show that the accountability is much stronger than the traditional supervisory.

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, that's true. And one more thing you need to know is that those agencies themselves, they are hierarchical. So they believe that for things to get done, there should be a certain control mechanism with hierarchical positions. So for them, saying that things are getting done without managers, without positions - for them, it's unthinkable. So that was the challenge - because they themselves are built, those organisations themselves, are hierarchical.

Lisa Gill: Yes. I'm wondering, at this stage in the process - because I know it's been a number of months so it's still fairly new, I suppose, in some ways - what do you hope the future might look like for Davis College? What things are you interested to keep developing and exploring? How do you think things might continue to evolve?

Pasteur Byabeza: I will not say that we have already gone through all the stages of change. The other day I was reading about steps that every change has to go through. Maybe we had changed two or three, maybe we have one more step. I think the future is going to be bright. It's really promising. We have already seen signs that this revolution, within our paradigm, is going to bring about more good than harm. We've already seen signs, so I can really confidently believe that the future is going to be brighter than it has been for the past 10 or 11 years.

So maybe the next step will be - who knows - maybe spreading out the message all over the continent? Yes, maybe some other institutional institutions are going to learn from us. Who knows? Or maybe we're going to - I would say - revolutionise the entire African managerial paradigm - who knows. Yes, we just need to be patient. And yes, hopefully the future is going to be brighter than it has been.

Topics in this question

Lisa Gill: You mentioned that there have been signs already that the future is going to be bright, that the paradigm is shifting. Can you just share something about some examples of those signs?

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, I would say that people are more content - I see a lot of job satisfaction. We've already seen signs of creativity within our team. We've seen that it's better when everybody can hold anyone on the team accountable. We've seen that when there is more information flow, and access to information, people tend to be more productive. We've seen that they start having job fulfillment - you know, you enjoy what you're doing. You feel happy - that's the freedom that self management has come along with. That contentment, in that the need to, you know, do something more - to be creative, to innovate, the need to utilise your potential to the fullest. You see all of that, and many other things that I don't mention are things that have come along with this shift to self management. And I am confident - as I said. I hope that the future is going to be bright.

Lisa Gill: I'm wondering, especially for people listening who are perhaps in higher learning institutions, or in schools or universities or any kind of situation where they're exploring self management as well - what would be your words of advice or encouragement to someone who has walked this path?

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, that's interesting. Of course, I have a few pieces of advice to give our listeners, and some other people on this journey of discovering new ways of working together. The first one is it's very important to set up institutional culture that fosters self management. For our kids, we have this amazing cultural code - which is built around seven pillars. I can mention three of them. These are my favorites. And I believe if they are really well practiced, they can really be a strong foundation for self management.

We practice radical transparency. That means being open and honest with others and ourselves. That's really important, and has really helped us a great deal. Another one is embracing growth mindset. We believe we are a community of lifelong learners - that's how we accept changes, we learn new things, new ways of doing things. See, that's evolution, we change. Human beings - we change, we evolve. You know, that's growth mindset. We believe we can learn new ways of doing things and that comes from a culture of embracing growth mindset. Another one is drawing the owl. That's our terminology, but it means getting things done and learning as you go. So those three together have really made a tremendous impact in our transition. So it's very important to set up institutional cultures that can foster self management.

Another piece of advice to our to listeners is that you shouldn't expect perfect inclusion. So what I mean here is that there is no single management system that will be loved by everybody in the organisation - because people have diverse interest in needs. Some people will prefer the traditional management style, because their needs are met this way. Or maybe for them, it's just okay. So as an institution, I believe you have to make a decision based on reason. It's very important to have enough reasons to make the shift. So if you believe you have enough reasons to make the shift from this management paradigm to the other, please go ahead and do it.

Lisa Gill: Thank you. I'm so appreciative, listening to you, because it's amazing to me that you're quite early in this self management journey - and yet talking to you it's as if I'm talking to someone who has been doing this for four years or something. You know, I've spoken to people from mature self managing organisations that share these level of insights. And it sounds like you've learned so much already about what it takes to make this shift - some of the things that are challenging, some of the traps and misconceptions. So I'm just so grateful for you sharing this wisdom with us.

Pasteur Byabeza: Yes, thank you so much. We've invested a lot in this shift. And I believe the investment we have made is going to pay off.