I’ve just finished “Between the World And Me,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. An important book, highly recommended.
I found myself stopping and re-reading many times, just to drill down into something that took me by surprise, or really reached me. Here is one quote that I like very much.
“History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World And Me, page 97.
Coates’s insight is consistent with a thought from Wendell Berry, but from a slightly-different angle:
“Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.”
Wendell Berry, from “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” 1990
We could think of these messages as pessimistic. My sense is that Coates and Berry are encouraging us to reflect on a deeper sense of how we can sustain meaning for ourselves. Being outwardly directed is important, we have to keep up our work to transform the world. Seeing this work as a way of being true to who we are, and who we want to be, helps us keep at it when the climb so often seems too steep.
Working in international development during the MDG era: what was it like in the sector as it boomed, and evolved, from the response to the Ethiopian crisis in the mid-1980’s through to the conclusion of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.
Picking up the story as I arrived in Sydney in July, 2009, to take up the newly-created position of “International Program Director” for ChildFund Australia, I was thinking a lot about how to build great programs for children and youth. I wrote about that last time.
And I was also thinking about the other big part of my new job: building strong teams. Next time I will introduce some of the people I worked with in those teams – in Sydney, Port Moresby, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Vientiane, and Yangon.
This time I want to share thoughts about how to build teams, in particular in the context of international non-governmental organizations. Through my career in the INGO sector, I was fortunate to work in, and lead, teams across the world, and learning a lot about how to build strong, high-performing teams. Learning-by-doing, from watching others, and from my own mistakes.
I was determined to bring this learning to ChildFund Australia. But before diving into that topic…
To skip the description of my ascent of Mt Garfield, and go directly to my reflections on building strong NGO teams, click here.
The Climb – Mt Garfield
I climbed both Galehead Mountain and Mount Garfield on 19 July, 2017. My plan that day was to walk up Gale River Trail to join the Garfield Ridge Trail, and then take the Frost Trail to reach the top of Galehead Mountain, which would be number 31 of the 48 4000-footers. Then I would loop around Garfield Ridge to go up Mt Garfield, and return to meet up with Jean at the bottom of Garfield Trail.
Jean had driven up from Durham with me, and left me at the trailhead of the Gale River Trail. She would spend the day with an old friend from high school, planning to pick me up at the end of the day.
I reached the top of Galehead Mountain at a little after noon. When I had arrived at the Garfield Ridge Trail, going up, it seemed that I was making great time. But by the time I dropped down from Galehead, and left Galehead Hut to head towards Mt Garfield, I was much less optimistic: to reach the trailhead by 5-6pm, as arranged with Jean, I thought I needed to leave Mt Garfield by 3pm, at the very latest. I had less than three hours to get to the next peak.
So I headed down from Galehead and tried to keep up a good pace.
I got back to the junction with Twinway and Garfield Ridge at about 1pm, and continued towards Garfield. The walking was, at first, quite pleasant as I retraced my steps down to where I had come up Gale River:
From there, it was pleasant walking along Garfield Ridge. Continuing along the ridge in a westerly direction, I reached the junction with the Franconia Brook Trail (at the saddle of Garfield Ridge Trail, between Galehead and Garfield) at about 2:15pm.
I was getting nervous: I had calculated that I needed to start descending from the summit of Mt Garfield by 3pm, in order to reach the trailhead, where Jean would be waiting, by 5-6pm. But from the saddle, well below the summit, at 2:15pm, Mt Garfield towered over me, and the next section of the hike looked to be very steep. VERY steep.
In all of these climbs, all 32 of them thus far, I don’t think I have ever been as tired as I was now. The climb up from the saddle between Galehead Mountain and Mt Garfield felt unrelenting, up up up. It was very hot, very humid, and I was down to one liter of water, of the 2.5 liters I had started with. Luckily, I passed by Garfield Ridge campsite, and there is a wonderful spring there, so I drank a full liter of cool, clean mountain water – a great relief! Fantastic!
But, even so, the climb was unrelenting. It was very challenging, a really tough climb up 0.7 miles from the saddle to the top.
I reached the junction with the Garfield Trail at just after 3pm, and decided to drop my backpack there, and finish the climb to the summit with just a bottle of water and my walking stick:
At least I had water.
Luckily, though the last section was very steep, I got there at about 3:15pm. Though I was exhausted, the views from the top of Mt Garfield were stunning, with just enough clouds to produce a nice contrast as I looked around. I could see Owl’s Head in front of me, and the peaks of Flume, Liberty, Lincoln and Lafayette to the west.
Sadly, my camera seriously fogged up at the top of Mt Garfield, so the photos I took towards Franconia Ridge were spoiled. This video panorama of the view is also fogged up, but perhaps the beauty of the day can be inferred here?
I couldn’t stay too long at the top, though it was beautiful, because I was worried about reaching the parking lot too late. So I headed back down to the junction with Garfield Trail, picked up my backpack, and started down from there at 3:30pm, a half hour later than I had hoped. Here I’m looking back up at the junction as I began the descent down Garfield Trail:
Luckily, because I was so exhausted, the 4.8 miles down Garfield Trail were not challenging, just long long long. By about 4pm, I hadn’t seen anybody at all, which was quite a change from the steady stream of hikers, and through-hikers, up on the ridge. But, at a very awkward moment, a young hiker passed by me, walking quickly, just saying hello. If she had been just a few moments earlier, it would have been quite embarrassing (probably for us both!)
The walking was fairly easy, gently downward, on a beautiful White-Mountains day:
My feet were sore and I was very ready to finish the hike by the time I arrived at the end of Garfield Trail, at 5:30pm – nicely within the range I had predicted. It had been two hours, and Jean was waiting there! Happily, she had only been waiting a few minutes!
What a great day – two 4000-footers on a beautiful day. But far more challenging that I had expected!
Building Strong NGO Teams
As I flew towards Sydney in mid-July, 2009 (Jean would join me there two months later), I was thinking a lot about two aspects of my new role. On the one hand, my role was “International Program Director,” which meant that I was expected to lead the thinking and strategy related to ChildFund Australia’s development and humanitarian work. In my last blog entry I outlined some of what I was thinking about when I was thinking about great INGO programming…
At the same time, I would lead several teams and be a member of others. In Sydney, I would lead the “International Program Team” (“IPT” – I will write more about this team next time), and I would be a member of the two “Senior Management” teams that Nigel Spence, ChildFund Australia’s CEO, had recently established: first, there was the Sydney-based “Business Support Leadership Team” (“BSLT,” chaired by Nigel), which was comprised of Nigel and the five Department Directors based in Sydney. The BSLT was focused on leading the functions that made our programs possible: fundraising, finance, IT, human resources, sponsor relations, governance support, etc. The role of the BSLT was described in the team’s charter:
The Business Support Leadership Team is responsible and accountable for developing and implementing systems, policies, procedures, guidelines and controls that enable the organisation to meet strategic and business objectives. The Business Support Team is also responsible and accountable for securing resources and determining resource allocation.
And then there was my relationship with ChildFund Australia’s overseas teams in Hanoi, Port Moresby, and Phnom Penh. As Nigel and I had discussed my new role, we looked at two possibilities:
Nigel could continue to directly manage ChildFund’s three Country Directors (located in Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and Viet Nam), as he had been doing. This option would put me in a “staff” role in relation to overseas operations, “line” managing only IPT members in Sydney. This would be similar in some ways to my role at Plan’s headquarters;
I could take over Nigel’s “line” management of the overseas CDs in addition to managing IPT members in Sydney.
Loyal readers of this blog will recall an earlier discussion of the tradeoffs involved here: as I moved from being Plan’s Regional Director for South America to the post of Program Director for the global organization, Max van der Schalk (Plan’s CEO at the time) and I had looked at two similar options.
In that case, we decided that I would not manage Plan’s Regional Directors, leaving him as their “line” manager; this left me in a “staff” role. This would keep the organization’s structure a little bit flatter, but would burden Max with a broader span of control. But that’s the way we went, and we made my new title reflect the difference: instead of following Marjorie Smit as “Program Director,” we decided my title would be “Director of Planning and Program Support.” A rose by any other name…
So I was free to focus on strategy and structure, without being distracted by the daily dramas involved in line management – spending pressures, audit responses, personnel issues, etc. It felt right at the time, and I certainly had more than enough power to get my job done; but later I did feel that the additional clout that line management would have given my role might have been helpful in making the transformational changes (in Plan’s goals,structure, and resource allocation) we achieved. But I was happy with the choice we made, and we did make those changes.
I described the tradeoffs as I saw them to Nigel, and left the decision to him; I felt that I could go either way. But I was delighted when he decided that I would become the line manager of ChildFund Australia’s three Country Directors … though, I quickly discovered that the CDs felt quite differently about what they felt was a loss of status.
So I would also lead and manage those three people, which became five as we expanded into Laos and Myanmar in the next few years. The second “Senior Management” team that Nigel had recently formed was the “Program Operations Team,” (“POT”), which was comprised of him, me, and the three Country Directors; I would chair that team. The role of the POT was described in its charter:
The Program Operations Team is responsible and accountable for operations: individually in their countries and head office; and collectively for the wider organization.The Program Operations Team is focused on program strategy, managing the daily operations of the organization and furthering the achievement of ChildFund Australia’s programmatic goals.
This meant that I was going to be in three teams in my new role, leading two and joining the third as a member. (I’d also co-chair the ChildFund Alliance Program Committee, but that’s a different story…)
Over the previous 25 years, I had learned a lot about working in, and leading, teams. I had learned that people working in INGOs, generally speaking, are intrinsically motivated. We join our agencies because we felt driven to help improve the world, with a passion for making a difference – not everybody was like that in my experience, but most were. I saw this across all the organizations I had worked in, and all the locations where I had worked – we could almost take motivation for granted. This was a luxury, something that many private-sector organizations work very hard to produce.
And that intrinsic motivation is a gift that could be spoiled if not handled correctly. For example, my sense was that if a team leader managed as if motivation were a problem, and put in place mechanisms of control based (in part) on distrust, that kind of management culture would clash with the nature of our people, and would demotivate staff. This accounted for some of the trouble that Alberto Neri got himself into in Plan…
As I have discussed in an earlier blog post in this series, I had also learned that leading teams of INGO people did not mean that everything was going to be positive and nice. Our organizations have plenty of internal complexities and might even have more-pervasive politics and ego than some for-profit environments. There were dishonest people in our agencies.
In that earlier article I noted that:
… there is no inherent, inevitable contradiction between being clear and firm about roles, being fair but strict about adherence to procedures and performance, and the ideals of a nonprofit organization dedicated to social justice.
And, for me, the way to successfully navigate the terrain between principle and pragmatism is to learn how to manage conflict while developing a deep sense of humility and self-awareness, mindfulness and equanimity, and engaged non-attachment.
Looking back, it seems to me that it boils down to four key domains that I would try to focus on during those years in Australia:
Teams, and team members, needed to be completely clear (1) about their task, their role, and the way that they were meant to carry out their duties;
They needed to work in an environment of trust (2), where they felt motivated, and
Inspired (3) to achieve their best in an important endeavor. And, finally,
The whole effort needed to be founded on maintaining and restoring (4) relationships. The most fundamental aspect of INGO management, in this model, is building and preserving authentic relationships in a context of clear accountability.
The rest of this blog post will describe how I tried to draw from what I had learned to make things clear, build trust, inspire, and restore relationships in the teams I worked with at ChildFund Australia. It worked much (but certainly not all) of the time…
One aspect of team leadership that seemed to be essential when dealing with INGO people was establishing a clear aim, clear strategy, clear logic, and a clear way of measuring progress.
So the first element I thought about was clarity. Clarity, in practical terms, meant building a shared understanding of what our teams were going to do, why we were going to do that, how we were going to do it, and how we would track what we accomplished to be accountable for our use of time and resources, and to learn from it.
Building clarity was probably my biggest focus during my first year or two in Sydney. I was lucky that I was able to build on the solid, existing statements of vision and mission for the overall organization:
ChildFund Australia’s vision is of a global community, free from poverty, where children are protected and have the opportunity to reach their full potential.
ChildFund Australia works in partnership with children and their communities to create lasting and meaningful change by supporting long-term community development and promoting children’s rights.
These statements were great foundations, but they weren’t detailed enough to provide the clear, measurable foundation for our program work that I was looking for, the clarity that would be needed to foster high-performing program teams.
So we moved quickly, in the first few months of my tenure at ChildFund Australia, to develop a Theory of Change, outcome indicators, and a measurement framework. In future blog posts in this series I will describe each of these elements of our program design in much more detail, because I think that they were state-of-the-art at the time; I mention them in passing here, because they created a clear and shared understanding of our program work. The resulting “Theory of Change” (that I will unpack in a later blog entry in this series) was:
The overall program framework (which, again, I will describe in detail later) looked like this:
Once programmatic clarity began to emerge, in those first months, I started to assemble another key element of clarity and accountability: the ChildFund Australia “Program Handbook.” Here I built on the “UUSC Handbook” that I had created several years earlier. The Program Handbook ended up being a very long, complex document, but to me it seemed vital – an unambiguous reference that I could point to whenever I felt that things were starting to diverge in an unnecessary way.
These, and other, elements of clarity were put in place fairly quickly, and we spent a lot of time over the next five years using that framework as a basis for planning, learning, and accountability.
Along with clarity, I was thinking a lot about trust. Knowing the character of our INGO people, and the culture of our organizations, it seemed to me that once we had a strong sense of clarity, the next essential ingredient in making a high-performance team was trust. If people were motivated (which, as I said above, was something we could count on, at least until we harmed it!), clear about their purpose, learning from their work, and accountable for their behavior, then I had learned that they would get on with the job and fly.
But trust was essential, because without trust then the old management tools of management-by-objective, tight job descriptions, payment for performance, etc., would be necessary, and culture would surely shift in the wrong direction. Motivation would drop because those old management tools were developed, and are suitable only (in my view) in contexts where people fit in to simpler, more-linear processes such as manufacturing or bookkeeping.
That’s a major lesson I had learned from watching Alberto Neri’s work in Plan long before: what he wanted to do was right and good, but the way that he put his initiatives in place destroyed motivation and led him to failure as Plan’s CEO.
How to build trust in a team? It’s a truism that trust takes years to develop, but only an instant to destroy. I had learned how to build trust, and how I had damaged trust, along the way:
Trust has two elements:
You know that the person you trust knows what they are talking about. They are competent;
You know that the person you trust is honest with you, has your best interests at heart, and works to maintain an authentic, human relationship with you.
If either of those two elements are not in place, then trust will be very elusive. If both are in place, over time, trust can build.
As I thought about my new position at ChildFund Australia, it seemed to me that my own competence was probably unquestioned. I had worked in the field for over 20 years, in similar, larger, organizations, across the world, and I had done a very similar job (in Plan) before. I had served as Executive Director of an INGO. I was very familiar with working in globally-federated organizations (as ChildFund Australia was), and had even been very involved in creating the program approach used by a key member of the ChildFund Alliance. So even though I would be new to ChildFund Australia, I felt confident that my own competence would be recognized.
So, to build trust, I had to build on that sense of competence by being honest and straight with people on my teams, in a way that demonstrated that I had their best interests at heart, while trying to build and maintain an authentic relationship with them. This didn’t mean that I would always agree with them, or that I would never discipline people, but that I would strive to be clear and honest and authentic in my management actions.
I had a feeling, as I flew towards Sydney, that if I could build clarity and trust, anything would be possible. But there was one element missing: inspiration. Given the motivation that is intrinsic in our INGO people, even if they were clear about the test and worked in a culture with high levels of trust, as time went by I felt that they would still need to be inspired to do their very best.
Inspiration would be necessary because much of our work in INGOs isn’t particularly exciting. Yes, it’s an honor to visit the field and work alongside people fighting for justice, for better futures. Real inspiration comes from those visits. But we also have to compete for funding, deal with reports and other paperwork, participate in performance reviews, deal with difficult people, (often) cut budgets, change plans, etc. And we spend most of our time on those mundane tasks, which can create a sense of alienation from the source of our motivation.
That means that we need refreshing of our motivation periodically. When I worked with ChildFund Australia I tried to make that happen in various ways. In the Sydney office I organized occasional, open reflection meetings at which we would consider a range of topics that related to our program work, in a freewheeling way. For example, one time we discussed the notion of direct cash transfers, something that challenged our program approach.
Another way of keeping us connected with the source of our motivation involved using the “case studies” that were produced frequently as part of our Development Effectiveness Framework – see element 3 in the diagram included above. At our regular, formal IPT meetings, and even (when possible) at board committee meetings, I started our work with a quick reflection on one of those “case studies” to ground our work in the real, lived experience of people who faced poverty and injustice. I will describe the DEF, and the “case studies” in much more detail in a future blog, but for now I think that these, and other elements of my approach helped to keep up our teams’ levels of motivation and inspiration.
Finally, even with clarity, trust, and inspiration, over time, harm is done. That’s because the normal, natural interaction in any team produces friction, and that friction takes a toll on the human beings within the team. Luckily there is a range of principles and practices that are designed to restore harm.
Late in my time at ChildFund Australia, as I worked through my Masters in Dispute Resolution at the University of New South Wales, I would study restorative justice in detail, which would help gel this topic for me. But at this point my intention was to model some of the practices that I had seen Atema Eclai use at UUSC: frequent checkins with the team, and with each member; considering not just how people on the team were doing in their work lives, but as human beings; working in circles instead of around square tables; rotating the chairing of meetings around the teams. Atema had clearly achieved very high levels of morale and loyalty, motivation and trust, which in part seemed to come from having spent lots of time building real, caring relationships with her team.
(At UUSC this seemed to veer into a sense of disunity, of aloofness and separation of Atema’s team from the rest of the organization, which was not a positive result. But, overall, her team was very high-performing and, in part, this was due to Atema’s management approach.)
So I tried to put some of those mechanisms in place, and they worked pretty well. Some of them ended up clashing with the very straightforward culture that is common in Australia, and which I came to appreciated. But I tried to adapt things.
That’s what I was thinking about as I began to plan for my new post. It makes sense to me, and reflects lots of learning over the years: our INGO teams will perform strongly if:
their task is clear, accountability is clear, what we are supposed to do, and why, is clear, and if how to carry out our tasks is clear;
we operate in a context of high trust;
the inspiration that we bring to our work is refreshed periodically. And:
the normal wear-and-tear on our human relationships, the harm done over time, is restored intentionally.
Yes, we needed formality and controls. And firm management. I had learned that too much control, too many private-sector management tools, would harm team performance in INGOs. But if I could create a management culture of clarity, trust, inspiration, and authentic human relationships, we might achieve a lot.
I’m sure there’s more to it, but that’s what I was thinking about as I flew towards Sydney!
Here are some random images of teams I’ve worked with:
Next time I will introduce the teams I worked with during my six years in Australia:
The Sydney-based International Program Team;
The Country Directors I worked with, in Papua New Guinea, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar;
The senior managers in Sydney, at ChildFund Australia’s head office.
Imperfectly, doing the best I could, I tried to live up to an ambition to make sure that these teams were clear, trusted, and inspired. Stay tuned!
Here are links to all the blogs in this series. There are 48 articles, including this one, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also reflecting on a career in international development:
I’ve been reading about trust these days, partly as I prepare my next “4000-footer” blog. I came across this quote, that I like very much:
“‘Management,’ in most of its incarnations, is an institutionalized form of distrust.”(1)
That’s not to say that ‘management’ isn’t necessary. But that, in contexts of high trust, traditional ways of ‘managing’ (job descriptions, management by objectives, for example) aren’t appropriate or needed. In fact, I think that in the context of our INGOs, a very different form of ‘management’ is called for.
This seems right to me. If so, then the question of how to create contexts of high trust becomes very important.
Interesting food for thought! Stay tuned for more on this topic in my next article.
(1) “Building Trust in Business, Politics, Relationships and Life,” Solomon and Flores, Oxford University Press, 2001, page 43.