I started my fellowship journey three months after my cohort because I was involved in a (partisan) political race to the state senate seat in my district, the outcome of which would determine whether I could still pursue my self-design plan.
Regardless of that delay, I always felt connected, to varying degrees, to the other members of my 2020 cohort. I developed close relationships that will go beyond the fellowship period. Additionally, I have been closely following my counterparts’ journeys not only through our monthly reflections but also thanks to direct interactions. Some of my own learning plan activities were inspired by what was shared by other fellows on different platforms.
My biggest takeaways can be summed as follows:
To say that the Bush fellowship is an opportunity of a lifetime is a gross understatement. I have accelerated my overall growth during these past two years beyond my expectations. I attended classes and conferences, read multiple books, as well as networked with great mentors from sectors I naturally don’t engage with. As part of my plan, I also traveled to different places where I combined rest and learning. Cape Town in South Africa is the one I am choosing to highlight in this month reflection. While in South Africa and relevant to my fellowship learning focus, I intentionally engaged with people who are civically active in a country whose systems deprived them of their basic human rights generations after generations. As I sought to understand the long-lasting effects of oppression, I was also fascinated by finding a common thread among the Black people who found their voices after being silenced for decades.
Working with an executive coach for the first time was instrumental in helping me establish priorities and staying focused on my fellowship plan despite my multiple involvements. She also helped me uncover areas (personal and professional) that I needed to continue working on beyond the two-year plan. Thanks to that partnership, my self-awareness increased to better appreciate why addressing past emotional and psychological traumas is paramount to sustaining my leadership.
As a result of my personal growth, my leadership influence expanded tremendously to cover new fields or sectors I was less confident to engage with prior to my fellowship, as well as new geographies. Besides, I now see challenges as an opportunity to evolve that needs to be explored instead of an obstacle that should be avoided.
The biggest surprise of the past two years was how I underestimated the amount of time the fellowship plan would require to be implemented and how much pivoting would be needed as life continued to throw its twists and turns throughout the process, including endless family demands, accommodations that were needed for the COVID-19 pandemic, competing priorities related to my work, community engagements, and much more.
In hindsight, I would have been less stressed out should I have taken a sabbatical period from my work and streamlined community involvements that were not directly aligned with my fellowship to focus on my growth plan. I still reaped innumerable benefits from my 24-months Bush fellowship. Despite having self-care practices consistently embedded in my development activities, I was juggling multiple high stakes aspects of my life which made the learning process very challenging and less enjoyable. Certain tasks, like attending conferences, at times, felt like checking a box. I am deliberate with my actions by nature and taking classes while dealing with the pressure of a work-related deadline felt poorly planned. In addition to having too much on my plate, shifting to the virtual world with conferences or classes due to COVID-19 the first year of the fellowship made the experience less than ideal. As much as I appreciate the technology that, for instance, allowed me to still work toward a Harvard executive certification remotely, it ended up being harder to focus on the studies from home than if I had moved away from community and taken the classes in-person on campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The fellowship coordinating team members at the Bush Foundation were great at guiding me and other new fellows during the last phases of planning and budgeting. We were seriously encouraged to create space to accommodate this new commitment. They consistently emphasized the need to have balance as they recognized how busy most of us, if not all of us were already. I wish I had cleared my calendar more instead of just “lighting” it up. That itself was a tough lesson to learn.
I am extremely proud and grateful to have had the Bush fellowship experience. I would encourage other leaders to give the application a shot regardless of its competitive nature. When these applicants would find themselves among the lucky twenty-four award recipients, my advice to them would be an unequivocal “don’t just remove one or two things from your calendar. Instead, make plenty of space for the fellowship. You will be glad you did”. Having a coaching session or a moderated conversation with a panel of fellows before firming up my plan might also have been helpful. My biggest fear was losing the momentum of the network I was building as a relatively new independent consultant. I was concerned that twelve or twenty-four months devoted to the fellowship might translate into a setback in my consulting partnerships. I kept a level of flexibility and took less consulting engagements. With the unaddressed underlying fear, I did not cut enough and still felt constantly overwhelmed. As time became more and more scarce, I unprioritized coaching and rest, which was another big mistake. That fear, it turns out, is deeper than what I thought I might be losing in the present. That fear has been linked to a traumatic past that I could not control and that I am still working to address beyond my fellowship. The celebration is that, at least, I have started, and the Bush fellowship gave me that gift.