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Eleven helpful skills and traits for aid and health logisticians

by Michael Keizer on May 6, 2010

  1. Tenacity. No, I did not put it there because I have been looking for an opportunity to use that word for as long as I can remember (although that is true): a lot of what we do in logistics needs long-term, relentless attention – you will need to follow through what you start in the long term.
  2. Patience. Hardly anything will happen as quickly as you might want to. The flip side of the tenacity is that you will need the patience to wait things out – which sometimes can take quite a while.
  3. Numeracy and maths skills. A lot of what we do requires a feel for numbers and some basic mathematical skills. You don’t have to be an operations research whizz (although a basic understanding might help), but you have no business working as a logistician if you don’t understand the sawtooth graph and its mathematical underpinnings, how it affects what we do, and how our decisions affect it in turn.
  4. A flair for administration and communication. Information management is immensely important for what we do. Without a certain facility with the underlying paperwork and with communicating the information, you will be less effective than you could be.
  5. Time management. As logisticians, we will always need to juggle several balls: it is rare that we can concentrate on one issue. If you don’t manage your time well, you are sure to drop one or more of those balls.
  6. The ability to delegate. You cannot do everything yourself. If you don’t know how to delegate (without abrogating your responsibilities), you will probably do more harm than good.
  7. The ability to ‘switch off’. People who cannot stop mulling over the daily problems and challenges when they go to bed are prime candidates for a burn-out. This is true for most aid professions, but especially for logisticians because logistics is usually a 24/7 process. I put in long hours, but most people I work with have learnt to respect that I prefer not to discuss work when I’m off.
  8. Language skills. You will hardly ever work in a country where everyone (or even a sizable majority) will speak your native language. Speaking more than one language helps, but what is even more important is a facility to quickly pick up the rudiments of a new language.
  9. Cross-cultural skills. What is true for languages, is even more true for cultures. You need the skills to deal with people from very different cultures, with different understandings of many things that we hold self-evident (yes, including those self-evident truths) and different ways of doing things from us. Whatever you might think, cross-cultural skills are not natural to anybody unless they grew up in a truly multicultural setting (which might be true for one or two in every thousand of us); and although they are not difficult to master, you will need training and practice.
  10. Curiosity. Can you work logistics without knowing what exactly are the goods that you shift? Probably, but a good logistician will recognise that a large order for injectable quinine without an order for glucose is probably incorrect and will check back with the originator. Without knowledge of the context and the nature of the work we are trying to do, you will never become a superlative logistician; and the best way to get that knowledge is by developing and exercising your curiosity.
  11. Zen. You might not believe in Buddhism as a religion or accept it as a philosophy (I don’t), but it does contain some very useful life skills. Especially the sense of serenity that is taught in its Zen branch, the skill to deal with whatever comes to you as it is and not as it should be, can be immensely helpful. (I am particularly weak in this skill, as it happens. I try to get better.)

I am sure there must be more skills that are useful for logisticians than just these eleven. What skills have been helpful for you? Which ones do you wish you had? And how have you acquired the missing ones? I am looking forward to your comments.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bonnie Koenig May 7, 2010 at 12:43 am

Michael –
This is an excellent post – these are important skills specifically for aid logisticians but also for any type of international work and in many ways for life! I find that patience is hard for many in this field who are inherently impatient to help people in need, but you are absolutely correct that patience and tenacity can often be key to long-term sustainable solutions. I would also add “Flexibility” to your list. There are often many routes to take in pursuing a solution, especially when different cultures come into play (and those “self-evident truths” are not so self-evident). Recognizing this, being flexibility regarding things you can’t control, and creating alternative pathways, is also an important skill to doing effective international work.


Michael Keizer May 7, 2010 at 8:30 am

Thanks, Bonnie, that is an excellent addition! Yes, flexibility (and a searching mentality that seeks out those alternative solutions) is hugely important.


Laura @ Texas in Africa May 7, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Fantastic post. I just have to know: why does one need glucose with quinine?


Michael Keizer May 7, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Thanks, Laura!

One of quinine’s side-effects, especially when administered intravenously, is that it fairly commonly leads to hypoglycemia; hence the need for glucose.


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