• Written by Alvaro de Salvo
    14 April 2020

After almost six incredible years, the time has come for me to leave Akvo. It has been a privilege to work with this amazing crowd of passionate colleagues who want to change the world for the better. On 29 April this year, I'll be stepping out to take a career break, spend time with my family, and figure out what my next professional chapter will be, all in the midst of a global pandemic.

From the window of my house, I see Amsterdam totally still, silent and somehow peaceful, like I’ve never seen it before. The Netherlands has been in lockdown for four weeks so far due to the COVID-19 virus, and I’ve been working remotely like many people around the world. Although confined to the boundaries of my home, I still connect on a daily basis with many of my colleagues who are spread all the way from Bali to Delhi, Nairobi to Ouagadougou and Bamako, from Amsterdam to Spain and across the Atlantic ocean all the way to Washington and Colombia. We are physically distanced, but still socially connected and figuring things out on the go, together.

Above: An Akvo "All hands and hearts" meeting in Zoom. 6 April 2020. Screenshot by Alvaro de Salvo.

Surrounded by a park, with a view of a pond which is reminiscent of the Amsterdam canals which I used to enjoy near my work office, I now see little to no traffic at all. I witness trees slowly unfold as spring arrives. Whenever I spot someone walking in the streets, I cannot help but think of the risk assessment that person did before going outside. The world has changed. It’s definitely not the same as it was a month ago. I bet it won't be the same world we once knew, either, once we’ve come through this period. It’s not unprecedented that human beings experience a crisis of such magnitude, which forces them to adapt rapidly. Governments around the world differ on what’s the best way to approach the new reality. As the days go by and we witness the true human cost of this virus, I cannot help but feel a wave of hope for something better - a hope that this will shake things up. I want to believe this will work as a wakeup call to humanity and make us see that we are indeed vulnerable, no matter how much wealth or hierarchy we have, and that we are in all of this together, and together we shall get out of it, to reinvent social, economic, financial and political systems for the better. Of course, only time will tell and we’ll be able to join the dots years from now.

As a father of two, I can also not help but ask myself: "What will my role be in all of this? How will I help to shape a better world for my daughters to live in?" The question will one day come: “What were you doing when Corona happened dad?” And it is today that I’ll start preparing the answer for it. This is indeed the question that resonates in me the most at this moment, and which will drive a measure of accountability for decades to come.

Late December 2019, I decided it was time for a career break. With my family, we planned to travel through Latin America and spend time in Argentina, my homeland. There was a date set to kick off that adventure. Coming 29 April, I’ll be leaving Akvo and jumping into the unknown. Although travel plans are indefinitely on hold, my initial objective stands strong: to enjoy time with my family which I haven’t had much of in the last three years and reshuffle the deck to see what is meaningful for me to be doing next. It’s not the first time I personally experience isolation, but in a moment when it seems totally counterintuitive to leave the efforts (and security) of an organisation that needs all hands and hearts on deck, I’m sticking to my decision to make the best use of this time to move on, while standing still.

Looking back at my 10 favourite highlights of my time at Akvo

There are a lot of things I’ve been involved with at Akvo that I’m particularly proud of. It feels special to leave a mark and to have initiated patterns that others will pick up and evolve from now on. I’ve been very lucky to say the least. First, for having the chance to work with the amazing people I did, many of whom I now consider long lasting friends. Second, for getting the trust from my managers, colleagues, and team to be able to provide my best input and lead aspects of the future of the organisation, on multiple levels, which along the years I’ve registered in multiple blog entries.

So in retrospective, here the things I’ve enjoyed the most:

1. The people

I feel privileged. I really do. I’m so fortunate to have worked with this group of talented, motivated, committed, professional, fun and creative individuals from all corners of the globe, coming together to create a difference in the world we live in. I really have learned SO MUCH from each and every one of you and it is a true pleasure to not only call you colleagues but also friends. I am sure these relationships will continue long after I’ve become Akvo alumni. Akvo has a unique mix of cultures, nationalities, and languages which have enriched my life enormously, providing a window into the complexities of North South and South South relationships. As a Latin american living in Europe, I’ve felt I could resonate and relate well with everyone at Akvo.

Above: A small selection of the many warm and inspiring moments we shared as colleagues.

2. The multiple team transformations

In the beginning, my main role at Akvo was to act as a bridge to connect the existing communications team in London with the partnership team in Amsterdam and also liaise with the software development team, coordinated from Sweden. Over time, our Comms team took multiple configurations with various people coming in and out. Later in 2017, I was tasked with the role of leading the transformation from a communications team into a data driven and accountable marketing team. It’s proven to be a very challenging and enjoyable experience which I will treasure and most likely replicate moving forward. As a team architect, I’ve harvested many lessons which I am grateful for, from all of my direct marketing and communications colleagues: Mark Charmer, Jo Pratt, Linda Leunissen, Emily Armanetti, Mano Argyrakis, Sam Thomas, Wendemi Illboudo, Georgia Walker, and Laura Tufis.

Above: From Comms to Marcomms. The multiple team transformations.

3. The importance of internal comms

Since my start at Akvo back in October 2014, and from the very first day, I’ve helped Akvo build internal capacity for both internal and external comms. Not only helping with simplifying the narrative of a broad portfolio and clarifying challenging messages to multiple target audiences in multiple regions and languages but also creating digital and printed marketing collateral for over five products, with a very reduced budget. I’ve always been fascinated by how you align teams of people which are decentralised across the globe. How you create patterns which others can build upon with their own voice and tone, but that still feel in line with the organisational values. Among the things I've created, there is the Akvo open source timeline, the Akvo Peak intranet (which I set up in 2014 and still stands strong today), the reinforcement of our comms values, the Monday Meeting agenda structures, the mapping and boosting of people's comms skills, the Akvo one pager brandscripts, the multiple briefs, the product, services and solutions descriptions, the core messages in the website, the core building blocks for proposals, and the quarterly Management Team updates to keep things open and transparent.

4. The scaling up of a startup

I entered as Akvonaut number 54. At its peak, we’ve reached over 100 people distributed across the globe. We doubled our size and budget in less than 24 months. That was really exciting. I’ve learned a lot about the art of talking to the right people, in the right order, at the right time and creating stories and systems that bring everyone along with the changing times. This is essential in creating alignment and avoiding reinventing the wheel, as things develop at a fast speed. I’ve learned a lot about keeping overviews of where the people, the strategy, the execution and the cash situations sit and how they intertwine. Facilitating the evolution of the organisational culture, creating capacity in all our regions through the combi programme, creating regional context in the languages we needed, and contributing to onboarding processes of newcomers were some of the things I’ve enjoyed the most, in terms for bringing everyone together.

5. The repositioning and rebranding

“We may have started out as a software and tool provider for the development aid sector, but that’s not what we do today. Alvaro, this presents us with the opportunity to not only reposition as well as do a visual rebrand at the same time. It’ll show this change in direction both practically and visually.” This was once said to me by Linda Leunissen, our Art Director. It’s not everyday as a marketer you get to work on a full rebrand and repositioning of a ten year old organisation. Understanding that we had a wide portfolio and it was getting challenging to define our market position, we set ourselves the challenge of revamping our brand and strengthening and simplifying our message. We decided to both rebrand and reposition at the same time - an exciting and scary task. The work done in 2019 was intense but proved to increase curiosity, enlightenment and awareness of our brand and translate into multiple partner engagements that would later hit the bottom line in ways we haven't achieved before. Branding affects how a customer feels about your brand, while marketing communicates a specific offer. I believe we’ve succeeded at both at Akvo.

6. The experiments

Akvo has been a place in which I experimented A LOT, on a weekly basis. With concepts, ideas, metrics, prototypes, and team structures. I am forever thankful for the chance and confidence to go and test things out. My managers have always been supportive of such attitudes. Many of these initiatives were useful, others failed or evaporated shortly after being implemented, but the remaining ones are ingrained at the core of the organisation. Report structures, campaign approaches, automatisations, internal comms, the tripods, the growth team, the revolving doors, the team weeks, the hub manager meetings, the bring a cake to work for no reason movement, the unboxing Marcomms onboarding, the Monday morning meeting agendas, the #Frilights (highlights to share on Fridays!), the lead generation products, the follow up routines, the sales templates, the many processes. We’ve tested a lot. We wanted to learn what worked and what didn’t. And we were OK running experiments, because we knew from the start that they could fail. And that’s exactly why we’ve succeeded.

Above: Playing with ideas to see what works and what doesn't.

7. The meetings and events

The times at Stockholm World Water Week, the days (and nights!) we spent awake producing the Akvo track days, the times we organised memorable -All members teamweeks-, or the times I got to produce, facilitate or participate in the Hub Manager meetings, or that time I got to spend time in our Indonesian Hub to produce promotional videos, or the Quarterly Marcomms team gatherings in London or Amsterdam were all time well spent. They’ll all be treasured as moments where we meet not only as colleagues, but as people that resonated to achieve something bigger than ourselves.

8. The boat rides

Above: Memorable team canal cruising outings across Amsterdam onboard The Malbec and The Karenina.

I am passionate about sailing. And ever since I landed in Amsterdam I’ve had a boat. Even before I had a car. It’s an important part of my identity and a way to (dis)connect. I’ve always used the boat as a way of bringing people together, connecting on a much higher level and bringing an element of fun to work. Everyone who has ever been on a boat ride either on board of the Malbec or the Karenina will remember it. We’ve always enjoyed receiving colleagues from other regional hubs and showing them around the Amsterdam canals. These moments not only forged camaraderie, but allowed us to talk strategy and execution and look for solutions to our challenges in more relaxed ways, and proved to be a great way to improve team dynamics.

9. The strategy and execution

As time unfolded, I was able to contribute to shape Akvo's vision and mission, and translate it into a marketing and communications strategy that worked. This would not only enable people at Akvo to become confident, active and positive voices for Akvo, but also drive online lead generation and support business development in key markets and focus countries while creating predictable revenue at the same time. All this, supported by effective, transparent and collaborative execution by promoting clear objectives and key results (OKRs) not only in our team, but also globally. We also worked elbow to elbow with the partnership team to accelerate the sales pipeline and help them to generate a sense of accountability and a follow up culture which has been ingrained for the years to come. I liaise with hub managers around the world on a regular basis to improve the management of deals in Hubspot and the solutions narrative in proposals.

10. The management team

Early in June 2019, I was invited to join the management team. This was an incredible honor and responsibility, as it allowed me to focus on the one thing I love the most: translating high level strategy into practical and actionable execution at a global level. I’ve never been part of a management team before, and being involved in the ins and outs of organisational high level decision making allowed me to empathise more with the challenges of being in a leadership position, and contribute to translating decisions to the rest of the organisation as a whole in an open, transparent and simple way. I’ve always said I am a great number two, ready to support a good number one. Exploring this role helped to shape aspects of organisational management which were unknown to me. I’m very thankful to Jeroen van der Sommen, Peter van der Linde, Kathelyne van der Berg and Hans Merton for the trust (and risk!) of bringing a passionate Argentinian into the team, and for being open to my ideas, suggestions and critiques. Cultural differences are a beautiful thing to experience. If taken with empathy and compassion, they only enrich different points of view and make something richer than what we can achieve individually. The daily 15 minute huddles and Management weekly meetings, in an enjoyable mix of English and Dutch, will be treasured in my heart forever. I’ve learned a lot.

A great future behind my back

In one of my recent one-on-ones, my mentor, director, and colleague Jeroen van der Sommen told me: “I respect your decision to take a career break. It’s very brave and courageous to choose for yourself and your family. We are really going to miss you a lot and you’ll always have the doors open here. But before you leave, please take some time to think and provide us with some last pointers for Akvo to take on board while navigating the future moving forward.”

It hasn’t been easy for me to distill these, especially in the context of the changes the world is experiencing these days. Yet, here are five points that I believe can help Akvo to navigate this global crisis and continue to add value to the world.

5. Double down on the ecosystem

No single organisation can solve the large multiple challenges that the international development sector is facing and will continue to face in the years to come. In the big picture, we are still a rather small organisation. Yet, we have a superpower: we are catalysts. Data is at the heart of the decades to come. And the use of it will be increasingly important moving on. As someone that worked for NGOs the majority of his career, I believe that this is a sector in which collaboration is still being more talked about than practiced. Akvo has an extensive network of partners. We’ve worked with hundreds of organisations and I firmly believe that the best is yet to come. I dream of Akvo drastically catalysing change by igniting multiple new collaborations with organisations working to solve similar problems without reinventing the wheel.

4. Embrace the triple bottom line

The triple bottom line is a framework that encourages companies to commit to social and environmental goals as well as financial ones. It basically states that instead of one bottom line, there should be three: profit, people, and the planet. With such a wake up call as a global pandemic, I firmly believe that the companies that survive will be the ones working simultaneously on these three bottom lines, staying financially healthy, taking care of its employees and communities, and becoming environmentally responsible. By focusing on these three interrelated elements, I also think that such a brand will eventually be the one trusted by generations to come; millennials, centennials and coronials.

3. Foster more bottom up disciplined execution

As organisations grow, it’s inevitable that new people will come in and contribute to the culture of the organisation, which of course is never static. Yet, getting new staff up to speed in the fast paced environment in which we live in can be challenging. The windwirlh of business as usual can easily eat up everyone's enthusiasm, creativity and focus, and leave the new ones a bit lost. This puts a lot of pressure in any organisation as a whole. How do we make sure that EVERYONE focuses on that which is wildly Important? How do you make sure that we ignite behaviours that predict goal achievements? How do we create measures and standards that ensure that everyone in the organisation stays motivated and eager to achieve the right goals and understand the hierarchy of competing priorities? How do you stimulate great performers to thrive in a culture of accountability that is frequent, positive, and self-directed? High level goals are to be set strategically. Still, it is bottom up when the best execution happens. When people feel responsible for the ideas they come up with, and defend them and thrive to connect these to a high level purpose. As leaders, you have the authority to make things happen, but you want more than that - you want the performance that only passion and engagement can produce. A bottom up approach enables leaders to rise from authority-driven compliance to passion-driven commitment in themselves and the people they lead.

2. Full gas on agile and lean

Agile is a time boxed, iterative approach to software delivery that builds software incrementally from the start of the project, instead of trying to deliver it all at once near the end. It works by breaking projects down into little bits of user functionality called user stories, prioritising them, and then continuously delivering them in short two week cycles called iterations. For it to work well, each team needs to engage in a simple weekly process that highlights successes, analyses failures, and course-corrects as necessary, creating the ultimate delivery of value at the lowest emotional, energetic and financial cost. Lean is about delivering value from your customer’s perspective, eliminating waste (things that don’t bring value to the end product) and all about continuous improvement. In the years to come, I think every team needs to become agile and lean. Not only software. Weekly check ins, transparent and accountable measurable progress, and well defined experiments that allow you to keep your head cool, your heart moving, your eyes on the prize, and the flexibility to pivot when necessary.

1. Follow one course until successful

With unlimited time and resources, an organisation can accomplish anything. Unfortunately, the challenge is now, more than ever, the opposite: accomplish more with less. Exceptional execution starts with narrowing the focus— clearly identifying what must be done, or nothing else we achieve really matters much. Akvo's income model has varied in the years I’ve been around. We’ve pivoted at a couple of opportunities, once we’ve identified where we could bring the most value to our partners. Along the road, we’ve set a good and exemplary balance of Saas and Services income model. We also focused, enormously. From a “sector and country agnostic tool provider” to a “tailored solutions provider focussing on WASH and Agriculture in East and West Africa”. As any startup that finds its way, we started diverging as we scaled up. In the last three years we definitely did some serious converging, doing only more and more of what is at our core. We focused on specific partners, specific countries, key regions and two sectors. We’ve come a long way. I agree with Andrew Carnegie when he says: “Put all your eggs in multiple baskets” is all wrong. Instead, I’d say “put all your eggs in one basket, and then watch that basket.” Organisations who don’t do that often fail.” Diversifying is Ok, but to a certain limit. At this stage, it is healthier to watch and carry the one basket, and be the best at it.

What will I be doing next?

I’ve greatly enjoyed and appreciated the multiple opportunities of professional growth presented to me at Akvo, and the warmth and trust I’ve been shown while contributing to Akvo’s growth. As a former member of the comms team, later in the Marketing team, and most recently together with the Management team, I’ve been part of a group of committed and purposeful people working together to contribute to a better world. I’ve learned so much about international development, water, agriculture, strategy, execution, international finances, and people management, which I will certainly take with me throughout the next steps of my career and life.

It’s a super exciting time for Akvo, not only in terms of communications and marketing, but also in its core business as a whole. This pandemic has presented itself as a global challenge, affecting all of us, in each of our places of work. For an organisation whose core is at capturing and understanding data that matters, and improving and showcasing organisational and governmental results, it seems very challenging to see how to move forward if people cannot leave their houses. As restrictions and measures become tighter, it is having an impact on our work, and also our personal lives. The approach that has brought us here may not be what the organisation wants or needs to move it forward throughout this pandemic. The new paradigm has yet to be defined in detail and we’ll probably be seeing the outcomes of it many more months from now. Anyhow, I think we have an extremely solid foundation to contribute to a prosperous future, and it will be fascinating to see how things evolve.

Moving forward, I’m going to be figuring out what role I’m going to play in all this, most likely in the field of marketing and communications, organisational focus and goal setting, executive operations (metrics and experiments) and building high performing teams. Yet, first, a well deserved pause to catch my breath, enjoy my loved ones, and gain some strength before moving on, while standing still.

Alvaro de Salvo was Comms executive, Marketing Manager, Head of Marketing and Communications, and a member of the Management team at Akvo. You can connect with him via LinkedIn or Twitter.