The first employee I ever dismissed – after two serious notices – recently invited me to spend three beautiful days with her and her family in the Balkans.

Though I had to let go another 60 staff in the same operation due to budget cuts, Jelena’s case was different. Her position was not at stake, instead our collaboration was challenged by her strong opposition to me, my leadership style, and my vision, as well sometimes a behavior out of line.

Warnings were issued, yet Jelena, a very intelligent and fierce refugee who was familiar with hardship, was not going to make it easy to let her go nor to keep her. She sought legal advice, and it seemed a lose-lose situation.

But then, on her very last day before the final notice, a radical shift took place.

During a profound conversation, Jelena shared with me how, during our meetings with field-staff the previous day, she had been able to see my approach from a different perspective. Her worldview, shaped by what life had dealt her, had not allowed her to see the situation – in which projects impacting thousands were supposed to be closed – through a lens of possibilities.

From this point on, Jelena became an extraordinary colleague – one of the best of my career. Her change spurred me to revisit my own perceptions, which in turn affected my whole team. In collectively having a mindset of opportunity, we were not only able to synergize beyond what we thought possible, but our team also created an entirely new prototype of development-oriented relief-aid in the Balkans.

Pioneering a new empowerment-model, all redundant staff were trained and supported to become micro-entrepreneurs and take charge of their own projects. Within 8 months, all projects were running independently of us. This approach was instrumental in our agency becoming the lead-agency, and today – over 20 years later – several spin-offs of those projects still exist.

Our slice of social change was achieved through an inside-out approach, without which both the effectiveness and outcome for both employees and beneficiaries would have looked significantly different.

Now, as the cherry on the top, here I am visiting Jelena 23 years later. Reinforcing a lasting friendship which was birthed from adversity.

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