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Building better business skills in Bangladesh

After many years at senior management level within local government, Dave Sternberg decided to take a career break and volunteer with VSO. He spent two years working for a high-profile women’s rights organisation based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Here he describes how he developed his colleagues’ management skills and in doing so enhanced some of his own.

‘Volunteering with VSO had always been my plan,’ says Dave, formerly a senior public sector manager. ‘It was just a matter of timing. So when my youngest daughter Alice started organising her own year out, I applied to VSO.’

As Head of Community and Economic Development at Coventry City Council, Dave was responsible for delivering a range of anti-poverty, unemployment and economic development programmes. ‘Once VSO offered me the job in Bangladesh, I went to my boss to resign. But he told me there was no need – I could take a career break instead.’

Dave joined Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association (BNLWA) as a management and strategy adviser. Established 30 years ago by prominent women lawyers, BNLWA has a national network of legal aid clinics that help women fight injustice and violence. ‘My job was to help BNWLA re-organise itself from the small pressure group it once was to the large, many- branched organisation it had become,’ says Dave. ‘They needed to make a good practical plan for the next five years, bringing all their work together and pinpointing what actions they needed to take.’

Dave advised colleagues at BNLWA on a wide range of management issues such as monitoring and evaluating, report writing and staff development. With the help of key colleagues he also pulled together a strategic plan, along with small steps everyone could take to move it forward. One such step was a significant shift in relationships with donors. ‘The organisation is very dependent on external funding,’ explains Dave. ‘I encouraged my colleagues to talk more assertively to donors so that they could do the work they wanted to do rather than what they thought the donor wanted them to do.’

Despite developing good working relationships with his colleagues, it took Dave nearly a year to really feel accepted at BNLWA. ‘Being a middle aged, middle class white man was a bit of a challenge in a dynamic organisation fighting for women’s rights,’ says Dave. ‘Everyone was very polite and friendly and we achieved a lot in that year, but I wanted to get past that politeness, to get to the heart of the organisation, carve out a role for myself and have my colleagues speak frankly to me. And I did get there eventually.’

Back in the UK, Dave had managed over 30 staff. In Bangladesh he wasn’t a manager, he was an adviser, and that meant he had to approach working with others in a totally different way. ‘At BNLWA I couldn’t ask people to do things as I would have done as a manager – but that meant I developed my persuading and influencing skills.’

Those heightened influencing skills have proved useful in Dave’s latest role. ‘I spend two days a week working with an economic development consultancy – I’m in an advisory role again.’

Dave spends the rest of the working week focusing on special projects for Coventry City Council. His career break had come with two conditions: that Dave update his colleagues with a monthly newsletter (‘I really enjoyed writing that – it was a useful anchor for me’) and that when necessary, Dave’s colleagues could contact him via email for advice on reports and proposals. ‘These were nice touches from my boss, as it meant I stayed in the loop with work at the council, and the council understood what I was doing in Bangladesh.’

As a trustee of the UK arm of large Bangladeshi charity Dhaka Ahsania Mission, Dave remains closely involved with the country he volunteered in. He’s even found the time and energy to set up a thriving VSO Supporter Group, and is a popular presenter at VSO’s information days for potential volunteers. Next on Dave’s agenda is re-volunteering with VSO – this time in a short-term role.

Find out more about volunteer jobs for managers

Find out more about Bangladesh National Women Lawyers’ Association

Find out more about Dhaka Ahsania Mission

Find out more about VSO Supporter Groups

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