Mentors in political leadership challenge their own abilities

“When my first mentor group came to visit they said, a little surprised: ‘You just came into the meeting and took the lead!’ It made me reflect on my approach, how my own leadership skills had developed to the extent that I was confident enough to take on the role, take the initiative and get people actually listening,” she says.

Paula Örn, 39, has been a full-time politician and Social Democrat commissioner in Ale Municipality for seven years. Following the 2014 election, she accepted the position of Chairwoman of the Municipal Executive Board. As an ICLD mentor, she has broadened her perspective, learned new skills and been able to develop the municipality she was elected to run.
“I hope I have. The fact that I’ve improved at my job must have rubbed off on Ale Municipality. And it’s given us a good deal of practical benefit, for example in Ale we’ve taken on board the layout and content of Botswana’s policy documents when presenting our own documents. I gain a wealth of tips and ideas from both international and Swedish networks I’ve established.”

Paula Örn has been a mentor as part of ICLD’s programme since spring 2015. She’s been actively involved in several workshops, hosted municipality visits in Ale and participated in trainings at partner municipalities.
She is a mentor for women from Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia and South Africa. Her commitment extends over two cycles that overlap each other. The December meeting in Zambia marked the conclusion of one of Paula’s groups, and the halfway point for the new one.
“I think ICLD’s mentor programme is vital, both for the women on the programme and to allow the Swedish mentors to meet broader groups of local politicians via the workshops.”

“It turns into a kind of parallel learning. We support them and for me it’s the perfect environment for self-reflection – learning from discussions with the group and the other mentors from Sweden.”

How can your mentorship strengthen women in their political work?

“I can describe the structural work, encourage them to create networks and support one another. Offer training and tips on how to tackle suppression techniques. Sweden has a long-standing tradition of strengthening women’s representation in political contexts, which we can share with others.”

Is it important to break habits?
“I guess it’s quite easy to dismiss yourself. You have to be bold about owning your own role, which I try to do. It turns into a kind of parallel learning. We support them and for me it’s the perfect environment for self-reflection – learning from discussions with the group and the other mentors from Sweden.”

The exercises, tools and methods used by the mentors also give Paula opportunities for training. At the workshop with Local Political Leaders cohort 4 in Zambia in early December, Paula took a new step in her role when she gave a well-received speech on the role of a mentor.
“It becomes a training session for us as well. It’s incredibly stimulating for me as an individual. I can’t be a manager in politics; it’s very much about leadership and there’s a difference between political leadership and political communication, debate and canvassing.”

Has your work as a mentor improved your communication skills?
“It’s hard to give a specific example, but it’s highly rewarding to come together and discuss democracy and civic issues together with these other women,” she comments.
“One aspect of the Botswana project was about this very issue of civic dialogue. It involved combining local meeting formats with a Swedish model, creating a structure that boosted participation from women.”

What difference do you think the mentor programme can make?
“More women have been granted a voice. I recall a woman from Serbia who suddenly took the lead and came up with a strategy on how she could work in her municipality. She said no to some issues because she wanted to work with infrastructure instead. She would never have had the courage to do that if it hadn’t been for the mentor programme.”

Seeing others succeed, hearing their experiences and gaining role models is a confidence booster. Making constructive use of your frustration is a useful tool,” adds Paula.
“Use the platform, make use of the power you have been assigned! You have the ideas and the skills. Don’t worry about what others say. It can be good to be a bit of an angry feminist at times. There are so many unfair structures in the world that have held back gender equality.”

How can the mentor programme be improved?
“It’s important to understand political communication and the political operating environment. Political leadership is not the same as leading an organisation. There are multiple dimensions within politics and you have to find a balance.
“Communication can mean you’re trying to convince others. Debate is important – you need to learn how to do it effectively in these programmes. Speaking in front of large groups of people, how to canvas and spark interest. How to criticise your opponents effectively. Political leadership is complex. We need to increase understanding because conflict can be a key dimension in politics.”

Clearly Paula’s international ICLD involvement has raised a few questions at the county council. But she has no trouble defending her trips and the time she has invested:
“No, it’s plainly obvious that my active involvement in these arenas is of benefit to Ale,” she says.