Saturday, September 18th, 2021

Life and work lessons from Haiti

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A few months ago, I joined a team of business, community and religious leaders for a mission trip to Haiti. Our group had seen all of the troubling post-earthquake images on television and we wanted to do our part to help out.

But, the Haitians that we met ended up giving us even more and since today marks the one-year anniversary of the tragic earthquake, I wanted to share a few of the valuable life and work lessons that our team learned from a caring community of mountain villagers.

Lesson #1 – Be Welcoming

When we arrived in Fondwa, Haiti, we were greeted with a kind of enthusiasm that few of us had ever experienced. A sea of strangers with big smiles circled around us. They excitedly said hello in Creole and then they started singing and dancing. This went on for some time and it was an incredibly heartfelt welcome that immediately bonded us as friends and inspired us to work really hard at rebuilding their community.

As I look back on that experience, I think that it provides a good model for how we should treat new co-workers, customers and neighbors here at home. By enthusiastically welcoming new people into our communities and our workplaces, we can form bonds that lead to meaningful friendships and mutually beneficial business relationships. Sing and dance if you want, but it’s as easy as offering a handshake and inviting someone to lunch.

Lesson #2 – Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

The big goal for our mission trip was to build a schoolhouse that could hold 200+ students. We only had four days to complete the task, so reaching our goal was no sure thing. One day, we worked through a fierce storm. Another day, a group of 100+ teenagers from a nearby town set up a travelling camp by us and used two of the partially completed schoolrooms for shelter. We had no electricity on the worksite and there was a language barrier between the Americans and Haitians working on the project.

Does that sound anything like how projects can unfold at your company? Things come up unexpectedly and managers have to find ways to roll with the punches to reach their business goals. It really comes down to crisis planning. With Haiti, we brought the gear, tools and translators that we needed to overcome our obstacles. But, an alarming number of organizations don’t do the kind of crisis planning that’s needed to persevere when challenges arise. The BP oil spill was a wake-up call for us all. Companies are really rolling the dice if they don’t have a solid crisis plan.

Lesson #3 – Celebrate Success

At the end of the fourth day of our trip, we pounded the last nail into the new schoolhouse and rolled on a second coat of paint (white and blue in honor of Pierre Garcon and the Indianapolis Colts). The hard work was done and it was time to celebrate. Kids and adults from across the village came out. We exchanged hugs, drank a few bottles of beer, took pictures and wrote messages on the support beams. The next morning, we loaded up a few trucks and travelled to the beach. The kids led us in singing all the way to the ocean in celebration of their new school and our new friendships.

As I look back on that celebration, I think that it serves as a great guide for how companies, not-for-profits and other groups should reward people for a job well done. Sometimes we move so fast from one project to another that we forget to celebrate when we reach our goals. Leaders of highly motivated teams know the value of recognizing and rewarding employees when they succeed. As the business management author Tom Peters once said, “Celebrate what you want to see more of.”

Lesson #4 – Simplify and Get Focused

Truth be told, we had a secret weapon in Haiti when it came to completing the schoolhouse in four days. When we were building, that singular project had our undivided attention. We didn’t have new emails popping up every few minutes to distract us. We didn’t have to jump on a conference call after lunch. New Facebook and Twitter posts didn’t lure us in and threaten our productivity. We were in a remote mountain village and we were able to focus exclusively on the task at hand.

That sounds like paradise, right? Unfortunately, the truth about work today is that it is incredibly difficult to stay focused. We multi-task like never before and our distracted approach to work comes at a cost. We get stressed as we fly from one task to the next and we don’t block out nearly enough time to think creatively. Author Jim Collins once encouraged readers to make a ‘stop doing’ list as a ‘mechanism for allocating the most precious of all resources: time.’ That sounds like an idea worthy of our attention in the New Year.

I also like the tips that Leo Babauta shares in his new book Focus. He says, “While people tend to pile more on top of more, and look to technology to solve the problem of too much, I think simplicity is a better answer.”

Lesson #5 – Give Back

We’ve all laughed at far-fetched stories from people that claim to have walked uphill both ways to school when they were kids. In Fondwa, we heard true stories about elementary-age students that actually start hiking up mountain trails at dawn so that they can complete their two-hour trek to school before classes begin.

We found that kind of commitment to be truly inspiring. So, when our mission team returned home, we enlisted people to help us sponsor schooling for some of those students. As you read this, several Haitian children are in a new classroom gaining access to the hope and opportunity that education brings. Caring people from around Indiana helped make that happen and for that, we are grateful.


Today marks the one-year anniversary of a tragic earthquake. The people of Haiti are still recovering and they are now dealing with civil unrest and a deadly Cholera outbreak as well. They need our prayers and our support more than ever before.

As our team watches the images from Haiti on television tonight, we will be thinking about our new friends in Fondwa. We went on a mission trip to help them and they ended up teaching us some very valuable life lessons.