An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Take every opportunity to appreciate the people who are on your team, those who are riding through the turbulence with you, and find ways to show appreciation.

As a part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Agapi Gessesse.

Agapi Gessesse is a powerful, influential and fearless changemaker. Born and raised in Toronto by a refugee mother, Agapi’s commitment to community development stems from her lived experience, which then propelled her to obtain her master’s degree in Social Justice. Agapi has captivated audiences on local and national stages and conferences including the National Housing Conference, AFP, and Maytree’s Five Good Ideas. She speaks and writes articles on topics such as diversity and inclusion, workforce development and youth engagement. Agapi Gessesse is currently the Executive Director of CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals, addressing economic issues affecting Black youth.

Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I grew up in a refugee single-parent household that received and utilized social services. My mother passed away when I was 14, which meant I had to navigate adulthood at an early age. I have always had a passion and conviction for social justice and the need to help others. Through my own life experiences growing up, I originally did not believe working in this sector would offer a career with a decent wage. I have always volunteered my time to various organizations and, eventually, my 5–9 after-work passion projects evolved into a passionate career. My life experiences have truly offered me the ability to serve my community.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

Once, I was doing a TV interview and I was supposed to speak about the work CEE has been doing in several communities across the GTA. The anchor confused CEE with another non-profit organization in the GTA, asking specific questions about their programming. I did not want to intervene on live television addressing the mix up and, as such, I gave the best answers that I could regarding the other non-profit organization. Looking back, I believe I answered the questions very well and made them look good! The takeaways here are to learn to be adaptable, roll with the punches, and that everyone, especially Executive Directors and news anchors, make mistakes, even on live TV.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

My life has been the epitome of a village raising me, especially at a pivotal time in my life when I had to be an adult quite quickly. Throughout my career, I have always had managers who showed me how to do their job and encouraged me to do what was best for myself. I have also had great friends and amazing mentors along the way; there have been too many people for me to individually name! I truly believe all things work together and that all my interactions and relationships have propelled my personal and career growth through the years.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company (ORGANIZATION) started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

When CEE was first launched in 2012 under the Youth Challenge Fund, it was initially created to help young Black entrepreneurs furthest from the labour market. Over the years, this has quickly evolved into creating high-paying jobs with upward mobility in labour gaps where young people can express their entrepreneurial skills in said job, but also gain concrete skills to use as they see beneficial.

Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

The ongoing COVID Pandemic is the first thing that comes to mind. It was an uncertain time for CEE during the first wave in March 2020. It was very unclear how things, with respect to funding, programming and social supports, would stay afloat. Our organization needed assistance, as did the members that we served. During the first wave, CEE staff worked long hours, where we went from serving 30 young people at one time to 175–200 young people. Our team was small and stretched, and we needed innovative ways to meet everyone’s needs. My leadership style has been and continues to be collaborative, especially during these uncertain times. No idea was left off the table, which I believe is important in a passionate team. As a leader, one needs to strongly believe in things no one else can see. I had to convey to my team that CEE would come out of this pandemic better and stronger.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

I was 26 years old when I first became an Executive Director, with no prior experience in managing people. I struggled with imposter syndrome (self-doubt) and grappled with ‘throwing in the towel’ many times. I was too focused on the title of my job, rather than what it took to complete the job.

My motivation has been consistently thinking about what supports I needed when I was a young person, the youth who currently need my help, as well as services that are needed to address needs in the community. This is what motivates me to this day; there are young people who need assistance daily, who need me to show up and show out at work, to ensure that they achieve upward social and economic mobility, as well as stability.

In terms of sustaining drive, seeing the successes that we cultivate through CEE’s programming and wraparound supports on a daily basis feeds my motivation, especially with young people who may have been in particularly difficult situations. With us as contributors to their journey, they end up in a completely different position that is favorable to them. These success stories motivate me, as does my team, as they show up to work daily, always outdoing themselves and upholding CEE’s mission and vision above and beyond.

What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

You must have a clear vision and resiliency. A leader must have a vision and express it very clearly to staff, partners, funders, stakeholders, etc., to ensure everyone is on the same page in an organization’s journey. Transparency in difficult times is also extremely important; leaders must share what they know. Knowledge is meant to be shared!

The sooner leaders understand that their jobs are to problem-solve and that there will never be a day where they are not problem-solving, the better.

When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

In the case of CEE, we remind people why we exist; someone’s life can be dependent on whether our team shows up to work motivated and ready to be their best. This is not something that we can take lightly. As a leader, we can create an environment where balance and self-care are priorities, capture opportunities to celebrate even the smallest wins, and set boundaries.

What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and members and alumni?

The best way to communicate difficult news is to put yourself into the members’ realities and what they might be facing. We must put ourselves in their shoes and attempt to understand how we would want to be communicated with. It is also important to mention that by building trust and transparency, if difficult news needs to be communicated, it will come with understanding.

How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

A leader cannot only be looking at the current circumstance and what is happening around them; a leader must have the ability to look outside of their own circumstance! At CEE, this is what we ask young people to do when they come through our doors — to look beyond their circumstances in a realistic manner and envision what the future could be. In order to be successful, you cannot do what everyone else is doing, you have to focus on yourself, your vision, and your organization’s vision in order to succeed.

Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

The number one principle is to stick to your organization’s mission and vision. If your organization focuses on solving a specific problem, serving a community, or attempting to solve an everyday problem for the communities it serves, it is important to keep in mind the purpose of your company and who you are trying to serve. This motivates staff, customers, members and, including oneself, leaders.

Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

1. Giving up too easily.

2. Reinventing themselves so far from where they originally planned and making decisions that make the organization unrecognizable or unapproachable to those they serve.

3. Getting too comfortable, to the point where innovation is no longer a priority and they simply believe that what they are doing is working.

How to Avoid these Common Mistakes: In a company, organization or business, it is imperative to keep people on your team who are stronger in areas you are not, can fill gaps where weaknesses lie, will consistently think outside of the box, and won’t allow yourself, others or the organization to get too comfortable. These persons must keep you accountable to the mission of your company or organization.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Going back to the words of advice I mentioned earlier:

1. It is important to think outside of the ‘box’, rather than solely pay attention to the challenging and turbulent times.

2. Have a vision that is greater than the current circumstances. During an economic downturn, organizations need to find opportunities.

3. People give money to people, not necessarily to organizations! It is extremely important to build and maintain relationships and partnerships in order to generate funding for subsequent years. An organization must have a long-term vision; it is about thriving, not surviving.

Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Leaders, themselves, need to roll up their sleeves and do what needs to get done, no matter what the job is.

2. Transparency is key. Open and honest communication is needed so that others are aware of everything at any given time.

3. Take every opportunity to appreciate the people who are on your team, those who are riding through the turbulence with you, and find ways to show appreciation.

4. Turbulent times are not where you should become scared — this is where you have the opportunity to try new things and think outside the box.

5. Put the right people in the right places. Use the opportunity for staff to utilize talents outside of their job scope.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite life lesson quote is, “When you make plans, God laughs.”

Why? In my life, and in my career experience, I have had the opportunity to have jobs I was not ideally ready for career-wise or qualified for in terms of experience. But the people who hired me saw great potential in me, something I would not have initially seen in myself or my plan otherwise.

How can our readers further follow your work?

You can follow CEE’s various social media platforms to stay up-to-date with our work:

Instagram: @ceetoronto

CEE’s website:

Twitter: @cee_toronto

LinkedIn: CEE Centre for Young Black Professionals

YouTube: CEE Toronto

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

Agapi Gessesse: Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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