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Career Success
OCT 13, 2020

The What & How of Social Impact: From Mali to Japan

By Melissa McIvor, With Mahamoud Dante
©Marco Spola

Success can be measured in a multitude of ways: profit, money saved, opportunity for expansion, public response—even Instagram likes. But business leaders looking to create a better future for the global community know that social impact is the secret sauce. It not only brings personal success, but supports the greater good.

This all comes together in what the Japanese call a kokorozashi—essentially, a personal mission that unifies passion and skill to create positive change in society.

Mahamoud Dante is a management consultant for a Japanese consulting firm. He spends his days pursuing new business partners in Africa and Europe, as well as consulting and facilitating training in Japan and the global market. Much of his work is related to cross-cultural management, communication, innovation, and leadership initiatives in multinational companies.

But his career didn’t start that way. As a young boy in Mali, his goal was a simple one shared by children everywhere: to see the world.

His goal for the future—his kokorozashi—is something else entirely.

Dante Mahamoud | ©Marco Spola

You never really envisioned yourself working as a management consultant. How did your career begin?

From a very young age, I always wanted to see the world, as my father did. He was a politician in a fairly important position in government, so he took a lot of business trips. I knew I could not afford to travel, so my first plan was to let the world travel to me. I started to look for a job in the tourism industry, as a tour guide. That dream came true thanks to my uncle, who kindly introduced me to the tourism agency he was working for. My long-term plan was to create my own agency.

But working as a tour guide, I started to really understand the importance of education. All the great people who were coming as tourists were always talking about that. I’m from Mali, and I was covering West Africa, where formal education almost didn’t exist in remote areas. I started to feel that people—mainly kids—in those remote places were being treated unfairly, and something needed to be done for them. I became very interested in education, and that’s what ultimately led me to my work now as a consultant and trainer. This is also education.

How did you go from tourism in Mali to getting an MBA in Japan?

When I decided to change my career to education, I was also deciding to become a person of influence. I wanted to improve education in my country, so if I had no influence, nobody would listen to or follow me. I had to take my career to the next level. There were many options for how to do that, but I believed that an MBA was the best choice for my vision.

It was like I was in the middle of the ocean—I knew where I wanted to go, but I did not know how to get there. The GLOBIS MBA became like a compass and helped me find a direction. In other words, I had the what, but I needed the how.

I also learned some really important skills. In particular, I became good at planning.

While I was doing my MBA, I didn’t exactly get to focus all my time on my studies. I was working a full time job that involved a lot of traveling, I was the class leader of my batch for the first year, I was the general secretary of the Association of Malians in Japan, and I had a family—my wife and two kids, who were very little… I had a lot on my plate. But it was a wonderful experience. The “Critical Thinking” course helped me out a lot in my weekly planning and prioritization.

How has your mission evolved since coming to Japan?

I had a big “aha!” moment during a conversation with one of my instructors, Wakasugi-sensei. We were celebrating the last day of class when he turned to me and asked about my kokorozashi to bring better education to West Africa—to Mali, in particular.

Wakasugi-sensei:
Dante, the way you talk about your kokorozashi, I feel like it is just a matter of time until you achieve it. How do you plan to see it through?

Me:
I want to study and keep working on myself so that I can someday become the minister of education in Mali. Then I can start to change things.

Wakasugi-sensei:
Hmm…I notice you are using only “I.” The best leaders get like-minded people together and lead them to achieve a vision.

It was like a light bulb flipped on over my head. I started to see a different picture. Then he asked if I really thought becoming the minister of education would give me the freedom to bring the change I wanted. I realized I wasn’t sure!

From that night, I started to rework the how part of my vision. It’s still evolving, even now.

What do you consider to be the biggest success of your career?

People have different definitions of success. For me, success is measured by how much positive impact you leave on others.

When I was working in tourism back in Mali, there was a time when it was getting difficult for tourists to get visas at the borders when traveling to multiple countries by road. Because they didn’t know how much time they’d have to spend at the border, tourists were shortening their sightseeing time and visiting fewer places. That was affecting some remote villages that depended on tourism for about 30% of their income. So I decided to write a letter to the Ministry of Tourism. They kindly invited me to create a taskforce to tackle the issue. Our proposal was about pre-issued visas—very similar to what we now call e-visas. These allowed tourists to cross the border first, reach the main town, and then present their passports for visa stamps as a group.

We tested the process for a couple of weeks, working with the National Police, then finally got approval. After that, I made sure to inform all the registered tourism companies in Mali about the new system so that they could start including those villages in their planning. When the new year came, the remote villages were so happy with the abundance of tourists! I am so proud that I could help revive the economies of those villages.

The success of the project was in its social impact.

Dante Mahamoud poses in front of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali, his home country where he hopes to make social impact
Dante Mahamoud at the Great Mosque of Djenné, Mali | ©Dante Mahamoud

What are the biggest struggles you’ve faced in your professional journey?

I went through the same cultural struggle many foreigners do in Japan. The great trap we quickly find ourselves in is comparing two cultures: my country vs. Japan. We do it in both positive and negative ways.

But cultural differences are something to celebrate, not struggle with.

In my case, I loved what I was doing at my company, and I believed in our products, but it was difficult for me to fit into the cultural expectations. Part of it was my fault. Where I come from, you are assessed based on the outcome. If your KPI is five new businesses per week, that’s what they check. But at my Japanese company, the outcome isn’t the only thing that matters. There’s also a big focus on the process: how you communicate with clients, how you document success, and how much information you share with colleagues… To me, it seemed like we were spending much more time preparing for the work than doing the work itself. And that was frustrating.

The lesson I learned from that is simple: I was not open to the new culture. The problem was more internal than external. It was very easy for me to blame my colleagues or the company culture. I was not courageous enough to look into myself and take responsibility for my part of what was happening.

This is what I try to do now: I try to look at culture as shoes.

If I want to try on your shoe, I need to take off mine first. Culture is the same: if I want to try a new culture, I need to immerse myself in it, fully enjoy it without comparing it with my own culture. That is how I connect with it. And that does not require you to change yourself, forget your own culture, or be untrue to yourself. By really experiencing the culture this way, we get rid of preconceived notions.

So what’s ahead for you and your kokorozashi?

My kokorozashi is evolving and growing bit by bit. The more I look at education, the more I realize how big it is. These days, I am really interested in the impact of religion on my country. Religion has a huge role in Mali, and I’m researching the way it is being thought—the pedagogy.

Because academic education is dominated by religious belief, I’m realizing that if I want to bring real change, I need to address both. A good combination of those two should help Mali build sustainable economic growth.

I want to be part of that not as a spectator, but as one of the main actors.