“Failure Is a Learning Experience”

Mikias Sissay from Ethiopia talks about his career, the value of mentorship and how our human nature comes before everything else.

Q: What part of the world do you live in and what is the thing that you love the most about it - and the thing that you would correct if you could? 

A: I live in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia. Things I am passionate about are helping others, particularly in academics and career development.  I want to use my skills, training, as well as experience to help in showing the way for someone to stay focused and achieve what she/he wants.

If I was able to bring about change what I would want to do is bring change in education policy. I see education as one of the very fundamental ingredients for a peaceful world, free of hate and poverty.  By education, I don’t mean the formal education alone, it has to be complemented with informal education as well as coaching and counseling so as people unleash their potential and be able to positively contribute in their societies and beyond. The true test of education is its ability to solving problems. So, the education I want is not only providing technical skills but also enhance one's understanding and problem-solving skills. 

Q: What industry are you in, and why did you pick to do what you do?

A: I’m trained in Literature and Communication. Currently, I work as a Senior Advocacy and Communication Expert in the Africa region.  I work both in development and peace/politics. I have always been passionate about art, creativity, and literature. It is still one of my hobbies. Once I graduated from university I got a job in UN peacekeeping mission as information officer (journalistic and beyond) that introduced me into peacebuilding and peacekeeping. I made a decision then, to work on peacebuilding exercise (I found my other passion). It also gave me a good understanding of the relation between development and lack of resources, poverty, and peace. Also, I understood the world is intertwined with one another. And poverty in one place is poverty everywhere. It affects everyone. Same with peace and justice as well. So, I decided to be working and contributing internationally (with a focus on Africa) for the betterment of the lives of many so that we have a peaceful world that enjoys its diversity.

Q: Was there a time you messed up and felt like you’d failed? How did you bounce back?

A: I consider failure as check and balance. I failed to join university in my first go, but I picked up the pieces and worked hard to go to university a year later. I’m not afraid of failure. Again, I don’t work towards failure. I do all I can with the information and capacity I have. I give it my best shot. If I fail then I’ll look back and see what went wrong. It helps me think, not to mention that I know what doesn't work.  

Q: How did you learn to embrace risk-taking?

A: In my opinion, risk-taking is one of the factors to success. I believe taking a calculated risk is important. Otherwise, I will always be seated in my comfort zone and will be unable to explore beyond the horizon. I learnt taking risk the hard way. I used to be afraid to take a risk in fear of failure. Once I understood failure is a learning experience, I started taking myself out of my comfort zone and take a calculated risk. In many occasions, results were rewarding. And at times when it didn’t work, for I calculated the steps of the risk it was easy to let go. 

Q: Think back to ten (or more...) years ago. Did you envision your career as it is today?

A: It is difficult to say. One’s plan keeps changing with age, wisdom, and more information. To be honest, I envisioned something more than this. But reality took me in a different direction. It doesn’t mean I stopped working towards that, but again I got more happiness in what I’m now at too. I can’t say this one was never envisioned, but not to this level.  One led to the other and here I am, seizing the opportunities and making the best out of what I have at hand. 

"We have only one race – the human race"

Mikias Sissay Communications Specialist

Q: Can you tell us about a time when you had a difficult boss? How did you handle the situation?

A: I had a difficult boss at the very early time of my career. That was a slap on the face. I had to do a lot of thinking, consulting with experienced people (parents included) and colleagues. I was even considering quitting my job. Later, I developed my emotional intelligence to look at things with a different perspective: understanding where she comes from, discussing in detail and keeping records of agreed-upon deliverables, keep others in copy, and understand that it wasn’t personally targeted to me alone. Also letting go was one of the things I learnt. Understanding her, made a lot of difference. Yes, after a while (a few years after I left the office) she was demoted and penalized for all her wrong doings because she was trouble to many. This experience taught me in so many ways: not to be the kind of boss she was, to rise above the details and focus only on the job, and last but not least, patience and humility. 

Q: What’s the most important leadership lesson you’ve learned and how has it proven invaluable?

A: Being a leader doesn’t mean to be bossing around people.  Leadership is understanding, coordination, and working together.  Thinking for others like the way you want people to think for you too is important. We are human before everything, and then we are together to work as a team. The team leader is not above anyone; it is just a matter of reporting mechanism cognizant of experience and skills. So the most important lesson I learnt in leadership is setting the example. Setting example starts from the leader. When one leads with example others follow.

Another one is delegation. Trusting team members delegating responsibility boosts the confidence of the individual. When people are trusted, in most cases, they deliver. They use all their power. Last but not least, following an open-door policy, to let everyone come seek support both personally as a friend, and technically in the profession. I like to reward for outstanding performance, and also encourage efforts publicly. It really helps in creating a healthy competition for delivering. But for the wrong doings, when important, I would like to take it up with the person individually, on one on one. Basically leadership has more to do with managing personality more as much the profession. By putting human first, one can achieve a lot. It has helped me. 

Q: Did you have a mentor in life? If yes, what did you learn from him/her? If not, what do you feel you missed out on?

A: I can’t say I had a mentor. But I had role models that I looked up and learnt from them indirectly. Many people refer to me as a self-made person. I think there is some truth to that. It is a pity that during my early age there wasn’t much of such a thing. And growing up in a poor country with high illiteracy rate, it is not that easy to find a mentor. So I didn’t have one directly. But I had books, documentaries, media reports, biographies that I learnt from. In fact, that is why I like to mentor now. Had I had a mentor or more, I would have understood things better than struggling alone. It could have taken me a shorter time than it took me alone. As a result, I committed myself to mentor for young ones to not suffer and misplace their energy unnecessarily. 

Q: What have you gained from your mentoring journey?

A: I come to know how the younger generation thinks and functions. It also helps me understand young people around me (both professionally and personally). It reminds me of my zeal during that age that I want to maintain always.  

Q: What is one thing that impressed you in your mentee?

A: The enthusiasm of my mentee to bring about change. That burning fire in them to make things happen and make an impact gives me hope that the world can change if all from all walks of life work harmoniously. 

Q: Do you think that the concept of 'global thinking' is important?

A: I strongly believe that we live in a globalized world. We need to think together, we shall prosper together or we will perish together. If we help each other, we can achieve prospering together. Whatever happens (good or bad) on one side of the world affects us one way or the other. Hence, working for a better world together is our only way out.  In the world, we have only one race – the human race. The skin colour, the geographic location, religion, or political thoughts are our diversity to help us see things from a different angle to understand the world and leave a safer world for the future generation. Thinking global, then, makes us working together to a common goal.

Q: The world seems to be in flux, what can we do to make it a better place?

A: Change is not a bad idea. Embracing the change and turning the challenges into an opportunity must be our prime task. What should be done is stopping working in a silo. That must end. We have to understand that we need to work closely for the betterment of the world.  

Q: What is your motto in life? 

A: Live and Let Live. We are each other’s support. If we support one another we can easily solve our problems. 

Mikias Sissay

Communications Specialist

With a Master’s degree in Communication and Journalism and professional qualifications in journalism and strategic communication, Mikias Sissay is a communications specialist, researcher, and writer. He has close to 20 years of international work experience in the United Nations, the African Union Commission, and the World Bank Group among others. He is skilled in communication, research and analysis.

Mikias started his career in public information as an assistant producer with UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations and has worked in several human rights, agriculture, food security, health, and development globally with a focus on Africa.

In addition to being a seasoned communicator, Mikias has written articles and academic papers on communication, developed many communication and media materials, not to mention the book he published: “Effectiveness of a communication Strategy: The Case of African Shared Values”. Furthermore, he has planed and lead the implementation of a number of high-level regional communication activates such as: the African Shared Values Campaign (African Union), Africa UNiTE to End Violence Against Women And Girls (UNWOMEN), and International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (WHO), the AU summit, and global/regional conferences. Recently, he was recognized as the top regional communication specialists at the African Communication Week (2018) on the occasion of Africa Day. Mikias is further known for his voluntary services in many human rights campaigns – the Right to Education – and services such as mentoring young adults in their academic and professional paths as part of the Global Thinkers Forum. 

His areas of content knowledge lie in media outreach, public relations, public health, community dialogue, behaviour change communication, peace and security, and international relations. Currently, he works as Regional Expert for Africa Supporting Silencing the Guns by 2020 in Africa campaign at the African Union Commission. 

Published: 26/11/2019