I’ve been writing over the last few months about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall. Each time I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
The eleventh of the 48 peaks that I summited was Middle Tripyramid (4140 ft, 1262m). I did the whole loop over both North and Middle Tripyramids on 24 June 2016. My last posting described the hike up North Tripyramid, so in this posting I will describe the climb up Middle Tripyramid, and my move from Plan’s South America Regional Office, to take up the position of Director, Planning and Program Support at International Headquarters.
After the very steep slog up North Tripyramid, the hike over to Middle Tripyramid was pleasant; I arrived at the top of Middle Tripyramid at about 2pm.
I mentioned last time that most hikers do the loop over North and Middle Tripyramids in a clock-wise fashion. This is due to the large rockslide on the northwest side of North Tripyramid, better to climb up that steep (but stable) field of ledge. And because on the southwest side of Middle Tripyramid, there is another slide, mostly unstable gravel, which would be frustrating to climb, so better to descend there.
As began the descent from Middle Tripyramid, I prepared myself for that gravel slide, happy that I would be going down it instead of slogging up (and sliding back down!) Gravity would be my friend.
Just as I started down, I encountered a hiker coming up, so I asked him how he was doing. He seemed very tired and sweaty, a bit out-of-shape perhaps, but certainly he had been battling the gravel. He quickly launched into a lengthy description of how terrible the gravel slide was. So I got even more worried, though thankful that I was going down.
“How long is the slide?”, I asked him.
“Around a half mile,” he replied, “maybe more.”
That seemed to be very long, so I moved ahead to get through it… imagine my surprise when the gravel slide was only about 100 meters long! Maybe it would have seemed longer to me, as it did to him, if I had been ascending!
Here is a video of a small waterfall filmed on the way back to the Livermore trailhead, once I got down past the slide:
This photo was taken later, as I descended from Mt Tecumseh on 26 October 2016, on the west side of Waterville Valley. I’m standing on the ski slope here, looking back at both North and Middle Tripyramid:
The Tripyramid hike was great that day in late June, 2016: strenuous, but scenic and fun. The rock slides added a bit of challenge to the day.
Once Alberto Neri had left Plan, the board began to search for a new International Executive Director. It took a while, and during that delay my old friend and mentor, Andy Rubi, took over as interim IED. Andy had been appointed as Regional Director for Central America and the Caribbean, leaving his position as RD for South America a few months before. So when he went to Plan’s headquarters as interim IED, he left his post as RD of Central America and the Caribbean.
Andy’s earlier move to Central America had, of course, left a vacancy in South America. And although I was still pretty new to Plan, having served for three years in Colombia and a year as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador from the Regional Office in Quito, I became Andy’s successor as RD for South America.
Looking back on it, I think there were a few reasons why I was given that senior position despite a relatively short tenure in the organization. Certainly there were many staff members with more seniority, longer experience.
Perhaps the most important reason that I was appointed was that, even though I had worked with Plan for only four or five years, I had been in the right place in the right time throughout those years:
- Plan in Tuluá had been a pilot office for the ambitious changes that Alberto Neri was introducing, so I participated in all the innovations that were getting such careful attention from across the organization. I learned a lot, contributed some, and got a lot of exposure along the way;
- I had great managers and mentors throughout that time. From Monique van’t Hek, who was my Field Director in Tuluá; to Leticia Escobar, who supervised me from the Regional Office when I succeeded Monique as Tuluá Field Director; and then Andy himself, when I moved to the Regional Office as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador. Monique, Leticia, and Andy were all very strong managers and leaders, and they took the time to mentor me. I was very lucky in that sense – they were supportive, experienced, kind, and expected a lot from me;
- The strategic changes outlined in my last two postings – moving South America’s programs towards “Empowerment” and working through how program quality and Total Quality Management could strengthen the wider agency, gave me experience with senior management issues, and even more exposure across the organization.
But there was an element of luck to the move, also… being in the right place at the right time. My favorite example of that serendipity came early in my time as Area Manager for Bolivia and Ecuador, when I spent a couple of weeks at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), which was located in Rhode Island. A sort of an Area Manager orientation period, which was very useful.
During that stay at IH, a large (meaning, expensive) project proposal was forwarded to me from the Plan office in Azogues, which I was supervising – loyal readers of this blog will remember that I had lived and worked in Azogues as a Peace Corps Volunteer. It was a water project, a big one, with a budget of over a million dollars. So after I reviewed it, and Andy signed off, it still needed Alberto Neri’s signature. Luckily, as I was at IH, I would be able to take the proposal directly to him for quick review and, hopefully, approval.
When I made the appointment to see Alberto, my colleagues in the program department took me aside. With very grave, serious tones in their voices, they let me know that I was in for very harsh treatment, that Alberto was famous for tearing project proposals apart and treating staff rudely. They wanted me to not take it too personally, and assure me that they supported me no matter what. I would be OK…
I had met Alberto, but never worked on something directly with him, so this was scary, ominous stuff. So I was appropriately nervous when the time came for Alberto and I to meet. I vividly remember going into his office, and sitting down with him.
Alberto was famous for getting in to the details in the most excruciating way, something that staff at IH thought was not appropriate – they felt that he wasn’t trusting them and didn’t he have better things to do?
Sure enough, he wanted to understand the project at depth: the location, numbers that would benefit, budget… Then he pointed to the list of materials included in the project, and asked me a very specific question:
“What does ‘RDE’ mean?” he asked.
The project document was in Spanish, but Alberto was Italian and I suppose that he knew that he had pointed to a list of PVC tubing that we were going to buy. The tubes had a number after each one, with the designation “RDE” by each of them.
“It’s the tube-wall gauge specification,” I replied.
Imagine my luck: as I have described earlier, I had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the area of Ecuador that the project would be covering. And I worked as a Project Engineer, designing and building water projects there. So, by an enormous coincidence, I happened to know very well what ‘RDE’ referred to!
(To be more exact, it the ratio of the tube diameter to the tube-wall thickness.)
I can imagine how other staff, other Area Managers or other program people, would have answered Alberto: they would promise to find out what “RDE” meant, as soon as possible, and would feel embarrassed and perhaps slightly humiliated. There is no reason that they would have known or could have known what “RDE” means, and it’s not reasonable to expect that they would know it. But, by shear luck, I had a clear and confident, unhesitating answer at my fingertips.
From that moment forward, Alberto seemed to trust me completely. I had passed the random test that he put me through, with flying colors! (Not that knowing what ‘RDE’ means somehow qualified me to become SARO’s second Regional Director, but sometimes that’s how things go.)
So, later, when Andy moved to Central America and I applied to replace him as Regional Director for South America, even though I was relatively junior, and despite some mild grumbling from more senior staff, I got the job! Knowing what “RDE” means wasn’t the reason, or perhaps even a significant factor, but I’m guessing that Alberto signed off on my appointment without a second thought!
Many months later, Plan’s board settled on a new, permanent IED – Max van der Schalk – and Andy Rubi returned to Central America after a challenging tenure as interim. In the turbulent, post-Alberto months, that role would have been a huge task for anybody, and Andy did a great job in an impossible situation.
Max van der Schalk was Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just finished a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia. After he had been appointed, but before taking up the job, the six Regional Directors met with him in Miami – an informal getting-to-know-you visit. And after his appointment, but before he and his dynamic wife Isa moved to Rhode Island, I was able to visit him in Colombia. After all, I was Regional Director for South America, including our work in Colombia, so off I went.
I found Max to be very easy to get along with. He was a great listener, funny and curious, and very confident in his own skin. Max had just as much business experience as Alberto (something that Plan’s board clearly wanted), but seemed to be a much more accessible, open, and emotionally-intelligent person.
In preparation for visiting Max and Isa in Colombia (they were living in Barranquilla, where my old friend Annuska Heldring was Field Director), I prepared a briefing on our work in the Region, on the people working for us (both at the Regional Office and in the Field Offices in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia), and I organized a presentation on our regional strategy – something I’ve described in this series, in earlier postings.
I also prepared some thoughts about the role of International Headquarters (“IH”), which I planned to hold in reserve in case he asked me; I felt it might be a bit inappropriate to offer thoughts on such a sensitive topic without being asked… but if he asked, I wanted to have my thoughts together!
My sense was that, now that regionalization of Plan had been completed, with Regional Offices and Regional Directors in Quito, Guatemala City, Dakar, Nairobi, Colombo, and Manila, IH needed to change and change radically. The role and structure of Plan’s headquarters needed to shift quickly, because – otherwise – there would be duplication of roles and, therefore, potential for conflict. In fact, I planned to point out examples of where that exact kind of conflict was already appearing.
At that point, there were just over 100 people working at IH, in Rhode Island. My sense was that, now that regionalization was complete, the number of people at the head office could, and should, be substantially reduced. And since operational matters were handled, nearly 100%, by regional staff, we needed to think clearly about the role of the functions that would remain at IH – there were critical roles that should only be carried out at the organization’s center. As I’ve described earlier, I felt that Plan’s successful regionalization had been, at least initially, more like a decentralization of IH departments. That mistake had been corrected, and now that regionalization (not decentralization) had been completed, the center could and should start carrying out other, new and valuable duties that corresponded to the headquarters.
The visit to Barranquilla was very productive and positive. I began to get a sense of Max, and found that he was paying very close attention to what he was seeing as we visited projects, and he was also listening closely to what I wanted to share. I liked him.
And, as I had suspected, he did ask me about IH: what did I think IH’s role should be?; what should the structure of International Headquarters be?; what were the most important contributions that IH could and should make? What should it stop doing?
We had a great discussion and perhaps I should not have been surprised when, at the end of my visit, he asked me to join him at IH as Program Director. He liked what I was saying, and wanted to move in the direction that I was describing. So, “put up or shut up!”
I was very excited, and a bit daunted at the prospect of moving to IH. Quickly I wished I had been a bit less exuberant in my opinions, especially related to what Plan’s head office should be, and do; but, as I will describe in the next three blog postings, we achieved much of what Max and I had discussed over a beer or two in Barranquilla and Cartagena.
Here is a photo of the six Regional Directors at that time, with Max and me:
Standing, from the left, are: Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), Tim Allen (RD for South America), me. Seated, from the left, are: Max, Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).
Max was also calculating that appointing a Regional Director to such a key role at IH would ensure smooth relations between head office and the other Regional Directors; sadly, we fell a bit short there, as I will describe later!
So Jean and I moved to Rhode Island in September of 1993, leaving lovely Quito, Ecuador for lovely Pawtuxet Village – both great places to live. One illustration of Max’s warm nature came early in my time in Rhode Island. He and Isa invited IH staff to their rented house, partly to welcome Jean and I. They hired some local people to put together a traditional clam bake, which was set up in Max’s garden.
It was fascinating to see how Max spent so much time that afternoon with the people who were managing the clam bake. He was friendly, curious, and utterly authentic in his interest in them, and spent as much time with them, and learning all he could about clam baking, as he did with us! For all of his undoubted intelligence, it was hard to imagine Alberto Neri behaving that way!
Quickly it became apparent that Max, and the board, felt that Rhode Island might no longer be the most central location for our global organization.
Plan had been founded in the UK, during the Spanish Civil War, and moved to New York during World War II. The subsequent move from New York to Rhode Island had been, I believe, for cost reasons, but in those days the bulk of the organization’s income was from the US, and much of its work was in Latin America. So being based in North America made complete sense.
But in 1993, with most income coming from Europe (particularly from the Netherlands, which was contributing nearly half of all revenue at that point), and with Plan’s work focusing more on Africa and South Asia, it was time to consider the best location for the organization’s center.
We commissioned a specialized consulting firm to work with us to consider the question, and we looked carefully at (if I recall correctly) around a half dozen locations, including the idea of staying put in Rhode Island. I think that we considered, also: Washington, DC; Atlanta; London; Harare; and Colombo. Amsterdam was excluded because, with so much revenue generated there, putting IH in Holland would have made the agency essentially Dutch. But also I heard that Plan Netherlands staff felt that we “development hippies” would surely create major public relations problems for them if we visited Amsterdam very often – apparently they feared finding us “drunk in the gutter.”
In the end we proposed moving Plan’s International Headquarters to Woking, in Surrey, just outside London, and the board agreed. I arranged to stop off in London frequently in the months after the board approved the move, as I was traveling to Africa and South Asia a lot in those days, and could go through London. I visited many possible locations, many buildings that our consultant company had short-listed. In the end, we negotiated several years’ rent-free occupancy in a suitable building in Woking: Chobham House, on Christchurch Way.
The move was controversial, and looking back I can see positive and negative aspects. Certainly the location was more central, both for program visits and from the perspective of being close to Plan’s fundraising sources. And moving to another country, another continent, also meant that a redesign of the role and structure for International Headquarters would be far easier. This was very valuable. Woking itself, at the hub of outstanding transport linkages to London, Heathrow, and Gatwick, was convenient – even if it lacked the panache of neighboring Guildford, with its castle.
On the negative side, London was more expensive than Rhode Island. And we lost a lot of institutional memory when we let go of nearly 100 of the 108 staff that were at IH.
Once the decision was made, but before we actually moved across the Atlantic, it was my task to inform those who would not be invited to the UK, from my department, of the date at which their employment would end after, in many cases, years of dedicated service. Not an enjoyable series of meetings.
If I recall correctly, only Max, myself, David Goldenberg, Janet Dulohery, Mohan Thazhathu, Hernando Manrique, and Edward Rodriguez made the move from Rhode Island to Woking. And, of that group, only Max and I were senior management. So we lost a lot of history, knowledge, and commitment in that move, but we gained the chance to re-invent the center of the organization. We took that opportunity.
Also, on the negative side, with Max and Isa owning a lovely home in Haslemere, a short 20-minute train ride to Woking, I heard mutters of criticism about the decision, especially from those who were losing their jobs.
The photo in the header of this blog post shows IH in Rhode Island, viewed from across the street. The photographer, Jon Howard, saw the opportunity to include in the foreground of his image a construction sign in the parking lot across the road, and was able to make a strong statement with the image!
Our idea was that IH would only be around 30-40 people, at the most, focused on learning and compilation of results. All operational matters would be left to Regional Directors, who would report directly to Max instead of to the Program Director, as formerly. As a result, my title became “Director, Planning and Program Support,” to reflect the changed nature of the Program Director role.
I was very happy with the change, as I would be freed up to focus on areas where I had felt that IH needed to play a stronger role, without being distracted by the daily operational decisions that I was quite familiar with, having been a Regional Director.
One of our earliest priorities was to re-staff IH, starting with the rest of senior management. Bringing Catherine Webster (Audit), Nick Hall (Finance), and Richard Jones (HR) into Plan was something that would be a great learning experience for me, both because of their talents and personalities, but also because all three of them came from the UK private sector. Like Max, they were new to the non-profit world and so I found myself the only program, NGO, sandal-wearing hippy in IH senior management.
Of the three, Catherine Webster seemed to fit in the best, without fuss or any apparent effort. She did a great job as Audit Director, and later moved to head up a couple of major projects for Plan, and was very successful in each. In one of those projects she worked to finish up Plan’s planning, monitoring, and evaluation system, something that was in my department. She did a super job – uncomplicated, smart, and savvy.
Nick and Richard seemed to find the move into our non-profit sector to be a bit more challenging, and had to work hard to understand our context. I think that Plan’s work, and size, had led them to assume that things would be simpler than they turned out to be. It’s a great cause, and (at least compared to the conglomerates where they had been working) it’s very small, so how hard could it be?
Here is a photo of Plan’s Senior Management team at that point:
From left to right, standing: Nick Hall (Finance), Catherine Webster (Audit), Richard Jones (HR), Hans Hoyer (RD for South Asia), me, Tim Allen (RD for South America), Heather Borquez (RD for West Africa) and Richard Thwaites (RD for Eastern and Southern Africa). Sitting, from left to right: Tony Dibella (a consultant who was working with me on our restructuring effort – described in a future post), Isa and Max, Raymond Chevalier (RD for Southeast Asia), and Andy Rubi (RD for Central America and the Caribbean).
Well, as I’ve written elsewhere, our sector is surprisingly complex to manage; our people consider themselves to be owners more than employees, so implementing change and exercising authority can be tricky. Later I thought a lot about this; here’s a link to an article in which I reflect at a bit more length about bringing people, and systems and ideas, from the private sector into NGOs: mcpeak-trojan-horse.
Still, Nick and Richard did good jobs, and I enjoyed working with them. They were good, hard-working, committed people. And I thrived on being the only program person in IH’s senior management, because advocating for the field was such a valuable and necessary role. There was a lot of need for that advocacy!
I had proposed to Max that I would stay in the role for three years, only. I wanted to show that people in NGOs should see authority and advancement as opportunities to contribute, not as pinnacle achievements to be held for as long as possible – I would serve at IH and then return to the field. And I proposed that I would focus on three carefully-chosen major projects, each of which I felt had the potential of refocusing and reasserting IH’s proper authority and role after several years of drift:
- We would articulate a set of goals for the organization, high-level enough to be suitable across our six Regions, yet specific enough to build unity and enable accountability;
- We would create a growth plan for the organization, so that resource allocations would be somewhat more rational and less political;
- We would finish the restructuring of the agency. Now that the Regions were functioning, and IH had been right-sized, we needed to finish the job and review how Plan worked at country level.
My next three blog posts in this series will describe those three projects – how we approached them, what we accomplished, and how well they turned out. In the end, it took me four years to complete those three projects, and all three were completed more-or-less successfully…
Stay tuned for more!
Here are links to earlier blogs – climbing 48 New Hampshire peaks and reflecting on a career in international development:
- Mt Tom (1) – A New Journey;
- Mt Field (2) – Potable Water in Ecuador;
- Mt Moosilauke (3) – A Water System for San Rafael (part 1);
- Mt Flume (4) – A Windmill for San Rafael (part 2);
- Mt Liberty (5) – Onward to Colombia, Plan International in Tuluá;
- Mt Osceola (6) – Three Years in Tuluá;
- East Osceola (7) – Potable Water for Cienegueta;
- Mt Passaconaway (8) – The South America Regional Office;
- Mt Whiteface (9) – Empowerment!
- North Tripyramid (10) – Total Quality Management for Plan International.