How on earth did I ever get here? And I don’t mean that only in the geographical sense.
I started out in life as an exploration geologist, mapping and sampling in the far northern parts of South Africa, searching for various types of base metal deposits. I’d studied geology as I thought exploration was interesting and cool (I still think so!) and since I thought that I’d struggle to work with people. I had this romantic image of myself as a lonely explorer in the bush, using all sorts of tech skills to increase knowledge and find mineral deposits.
Well, I was wrong – most of my career has been spent in working with people, of all types and nationalities, ages, genders, levels of education, etc. And I absolutely love it. I know that rocks are “alive” and tell their own stories (at least if you are trained to listen), but leading and participating in teams of people with a range of qualifications and experiences, is the best.
Fast forward through some ore reserve evaluation and related IT support work, and the mid-late 90’s found me leading a gold exploration subsidiary in Ghana. Six years of living and working in Ghana along with my family, an experience that changed my life, and theirs.
This was followed by a hiccup in my career – the company went out of business (that’s the short version) and we were all retrenched. My family and I moved to The Netherlands, the country where our roots are from, even if we’d all been “planted” in South Africa. Faced with an uncertain future and a distinct lack of gold exploration, I completed the MBA that I’d started in Ghana and spent a few years as the sort-of-administrator-and-general-assistant for my wife’s private midwifery practice. Learnt a lot about accounting, Dutch medical insurance systems and the pleasures of working with a changing mix of young female bosses, who appreciated my work but not always each other.
And then, good fortune struck, again.
Another opportunity opened up, which would require me to move back to Ghana for 3 years, this time on my own. My wife and I would have to shuttle back and forth every 6 or 8 weeks or so, while she held on to and developed the midwifery practice in The Netherlands.
I remember that we thought very seriously about this decision, but in hindsight, there was never any doubt that I’d do it. If some doors open, you just have to go through them.
Through a friend of a friend (literally) I landed a role as Team Leader for a large EU-funded project in Ghana, assessing the environmental and social impacts of mining on the country. So this time I was on the other side of the sector, advising government. Yet another experience that changed my life, my first project of many on the governance side of mining. Serendipity.
Projects took me to many African countries, also to Colombia and to Mongolia, in large or small teams or on my own. Usually to do with mining (with a detour through e-scrap recycling) but every time dealing with a new and somehow different aspect of governance or development.
Some people have asked me how to prepare for such a job and I honestly don’t know.
I guess you must have some basic skills (your first formal qualification, but also things like Excel, and how to communicate decently with people) and then be prepared to try things! And certainly in my case, as I moved onwards and sideways and upwards, I learnt to appreciate and rely on the work done by my colleagues.
Most of all, you’ve got to be prepared to have fun!
Oh, and enjoy the different brands of beer available in different countries. I even got used to “Three Horses” in Madagascar, although it took a week, by which time we were leaving the country again.
How to prepare for such a career? I think that it’s less about that and more about how to be the person you like to be.