An Interview with Tania Beard, Co-Lead of Dalberg’s Talent and Leadership Practice

“In our Talent and Leadership Practice, we help organizations drive and sustain their impact by empowering their most important asset—their people. We are not human beings, but rather human ‘becomings’; so helping changemakers, whether as part of a group or organization, find their ‘why’ sets them on a path to live and work authentically. It is when people are the best versions of themselves that they can be transformational and impact team and organizational performance.” 

Tania Beard (she/her) is an Associate Partner at Dalberg, based in Johannesburg. She co-leads Dalberg’s Talent and Leadership practice and runs the firm’s Global Coaching Program. As a trained team and leadership coach, she seeks to unlock the potential of individuals, groups, and organizations to reach their full impact potential. Tania is also a founding leader of the firm’s Gender practice and an architect of the firm’s “Neutral is Not Enough” pledge to apply a gender lens consistently and rigorously across all our work.

In this interview, she talks about her journey into social impact, inspired by her immigrant parents, her mother’s nursing background, and her belief in gender-transformative educational systems as a powerful driver for achieving gender equality. She also emphasizes the value of measuring personal growth and development in her talent and leadership work and shares insights into how partnerships and alliances can effectively address complex developmental challenges. 

Tell us about the personal and professional influences that led you to take this journey into social impact.

My mum and dad are immigrants—from Thailand and Yemen respectively—and I have always been conscious of how rich my parents’ cultures are, as well as how their country contexts shaped a set of experiences and opportunities different to mine. In addition, my mum is a nurse; so social impact is writ large upon how I’ve seen the world and what I value. In terms of talent and leadership, my journey to coaching arose following a stressful period where my mental wellbeing suffered; so, supporting individuals, groups, and organizations to be deliberate about what matters to them has allowed me to bring these things together.

What problem statement are you working on that inspires you?

Two come immediately to mind. 

I’m passionate about our work to support funders to shift power and effectively localize the work that they are doing and the impact they are seeking to have. This is a task that is easier said than done, with funders often citing grantee capacity and skill gaps as critical barriers to further localizing their funding streams.  In our work with private, non-profit, and government funders, we have found that a key often-neglected lever is the co-design of effective learning and development programs. When developed with an equity-centered objective, such programs can become a two-way learning journey for grantee and grant-maker, where both can challenge each other to grow and refine skills, perspectives, and equity-based practices.  However, programs are rarely designed in this way, often offered under the umbrella terms “capacity building” or “technical assistance” which implicitly uphold colonial dynamics by prioritizing Global North knowledge imparted to Global South recipients. We are currently supporting a large foundation who is doing this particularly well—providing unrestricted learning and development support where grantees decide what they need (e.g., coaching, on-demand research, facilitation, or training) and can work directly with Dalberg teams to reach their goals. This funder makes it clear that monitoring, evaluation, and learning should be focused on “learning” not “evaluating,” with the messaging to “be bold and fail” versus meeting conservative targets. As a result, they have built strong relationships with grantees and are refining their equity-centered grant-making practices in the process.

From a funder perspective, one of the most important lessons we have learned is that institutional change is required for gender transformation to be successful.

In the gender space, I’m really excited about gender- and power-transformative educational systems! The potential impact is tremendous and yet largely unrealized today as a powerful and scalable driver of creating a gender-equal world. Gender- and power-transformative education means examining the overall education system and the gender and power dynamics throughout, not just girls’ experience of learning. Concretely, this means moving beyond issues of “access” or “individual learning outcomes,” which are extremely valuable in themselves but will not address gender equality on their own. This might mean developing transformative curriculum and pedagogical approaches, creating structural shifts in the school environment such as retaining female teachers after having children, or working at the intersection of education and employment, where schools can actively collaborate with economic partners in their communities to create placement opportunities for girls and boys in a wide range of occupations beyond the traditional gender divide. From a funder perspective, one of the most important lessons we have learned is that institutional change is required for gender transformation to be successful. This means exploring several questions: Does senior leadership buy into and actively champion gender transformation within the organization? Are managers incentivized to create sex-disaggregated impact monitoring and evaluation to measure and learn? Are women key contract signatories and owners? This often feels beyond the scope of an engagement to make education programming gender- and power-transformative, but we have found that even planting these seeds as a first step can start a broader institutional conversation.

Fundamentally, a gender- and power-transformative approach focuses on transforming educational systems so that they do not reproduce systemic gender gaps and can actively contribute to gender equality. I find this incredibly exciting. Imagine such a world! 

When considering the impact of your projects, what metrics or indicators do you prioritize to measure success, and why do you find them valuable?

I love to do talent and leadership work, because I love helping individuals and groups to find their “why” and practice different ways of being and doing that will allow them to live and work authentically and reach their aspirations for impact. The metrics here are peoples experiences of growth and development—both tangible and intangible—and the impact of working directly with people feels very real. On any individual coaching journey, I measure pre- and post- sense of control,” sense of wellbeing, perceived self-efficacy,” and professional experience, which show an aggregate uptick. Beyond this quantitative data, I love hearing people’s most significant change that they have brought about in their livesfrom changing their mindsets, to engaging in difficult but important conversations, to unblocking themselves from taking action aligned to their values.  I love being part of people’s journeys to becoming the best version of themselves and seeing the impact this has on team and organizational performance.

As you support various stakeholders to achieve their goals for impact, can you advise partnerships and alliances that are not living up to their collaborative potential?

We need people to collaborate to make change happen but we often find that people resist collaboration in important ways that get in the way of their workperhaps they dont show up to meetings or engage in competitive behaviors that restrict the flow of information. Why does this happen and what can we do about this? To answer this question, we recently designed and delivered the UNDCO/GELI Sustainable Development Goals Leadership Lab with our friends at KONU, where we supported several U.N. teams around the world on ways they can collaborate better on the systemic, thorny, cross-cutting challenges at the heart of the SDGs. One of the insights from applying the Adaptive Leadership toolkit, developed at the Harvard Kennedy school, is that resistance to change is really about resistance to loss. For example, when you dig under an unhelpful behavior that threatens collaboration, you might find that stakeholders fear a loss of authority, security, identity, or belonging. When someone resists change through behaviors of defending, attacking, and avoiding, they are protecting these things. If those things were at stake, how could you not use every tool you have to defend them? The implication is that taking the time to collectively understand what stakeholders are losing in any partnership or alliance enables us to work productively with those issues to achieve the change we seek. People are at the center of many developmental challenges, and so working at this deeper level of hearts and minds unlocks perspectives on the change process that we often miss when focusing on technical problems and solutions alone.

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