I’ve been writing in this series about climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are at least 4000 feet tall. And, each time, I’ve also been reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 33 years ago: on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc.
Last time, I described arriving as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam, in July of 1998, and what it was like living in Hanoi. This time I want to describe the team I worked with during the four years that I served in Viet Nam.
I climbed South Hancock (4319ft, 1316m) on 30 August 2016, having reached the top of Mt Hancock earlier that day – it was a solo hike, looping across both Hancocks.
South Hancock was the 18th of the 48 peaks that I would summit in this series – there were still 30 to go!:
After leaving the top of Mt Hancock, the Hancock Loop Trail continues to the top of South Hancock, which I reached at about 1:45pm. South Hancock’s summit is wooded, but has a nice outlook towards the south. Having been frustrated earlier, when a hostile dog had prevented me from having lunch at the top of Mt Hancock, when I arrived at South Hancock’s summit, two hikers were resting at the outlook. Rats!
So I had a late lunch away from the top, and when the hikers moved on I spent some time at the outlook, which was fine.
Here are some images of the hike down from South Hancock and back to the trailhead, where I arrived at about 3:45pm:
So it was a short hike from the top of South Hancock to my car, just about two hours. All in all, a fine day in the White Mountains.
Jean and I arrived in Hanoi in July, 1998, after having spent a year on an unpaid sabbatical. Plan was very generous allowing this time to rest and reflect, which I felt I really needed after four rather intense years at International Headquarters (“IH”).
Readers of this blog may recall that three of my major projects at IH were focused on redefining Plan’s programmatic objectives, transforming the agency’s operational structure in the field, and orienting Plan’s growth to where the organization should be, strategically. And I’ve mentioned at least once my feeling that one of Plan’s major weaknesses was its tendency not to finish major initiatives: when personnel changed, priorities were reinvented, and work underway before staff changes was very often abandoned. It was like “Year Zero” whenever a new manager arrived.
This tendency was wasteful and, even worse, introduced an underlying cynicism into Plan’s culture.
I was determined not to fall into this trap when I took on the challenge of becoming Plan’s second Country Director in Viet Nam, a relatively new program country. And I was excited at the opportunity to put the reengineering of Plan’s approach that we had carried out at IH into practice locally. This meant that I hoped to:
- Determinedly build on the work of my predecessor, Supriyanto, and to never, ever disparage what had been accomplished in his tenure;
- Faithfully implement the operational structure that we had designed at IH;
- Reflect Plan’s new program directions in our work in Viet Nam;
- and, since Plan’s growth plan indicated that our work in Viet Nam should grow robustly, I would work to scale up our program in-country.
In other words, I wanted to face the real, practical consequences of what we had done at IH!
Let me describe how this worked.
It was very easy to respect, recognize, and build on, Supriyanto’s work, because he was (and is) a very smart and pragmatic leader, a strong and practical manager. In particular, he had made sure that Plan’s work fit into the structure of Vietnamese society, enlisting the local government structure into project management while at the same time devising and implementing a “Community Management System” which provided the checks and balances that Vietnam’s monolithic, single-party state lacked. As an Indonesian, Supriyanto was deeply familiar with this kind of context (governance in Suharto’s Indonesia bore some similarities with the way that Viet Nam was structured), and the system he devised was very effective. It worked, both in terms of being acceptable to local authorities, while also ensuring realistic levels of accountability.
I didn’t mess with it!
In fact, when the Vietnamese government proposed to award Supriyanto a medal for his work, I enthusiastically organized for him to return for the ceremony. (Putting aside false modesty, I would receive the same medal, later…)
As I arrived in mid-1998, Supriyanto was moving towards implementing the operational structure that had been devised at IH during my tenure there. In particular, he had named two gifted Vietnamese women as “Operations Support Officer” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Officer.” These posts were meant to be, short-term, stepping stones into two of the core, common positions that we had designed at IH – “Operations Support Manager – OSM,” and “Sponsorship and Grants Support Manager – SGSM.” Supriyanto had named them as “Officers” instead of “Managers” simply to give them time to grow and mature into the very significant responsibilities that the “Manager” positions entailed. They needed to get ready. And, I think, he wanted to let the incoming Country Director make the final decisions. Smart guy.
Here is an image of the Country-Office based managers for Plan Viet Nam, around 2001:
Tran Minh Thu is on the left in this photo, in red. Minh Thu became SGSM when she was just 24 years old, and did an outstanding job in that complex role. She had to oversee the complex and voluminous communications flow between families that Plan worked with and the sponsors that supported the program, hundreds of thousands of individual letters, reports, queries, etc., all across daunting barriers of language and culture. She also managed public-relations, filming visits from Plan’s fundraising offices, which involved mediating and negotiating between very demanding western staff members and supportive but often inflexible government rules and regulations. Viet Nam was a very popular country for these filming visits – a fascinating, picturesque place, with (for westerners) a very exotic culture. This meant that misunderstandings were constant, which could easily have led to mistrust and conflict, but Minh Thu managed things astutely; I can only imagine the pressures she faced.
Later in my career, when Jean and I were based in Australia, I was able to get together with Minh Thu several times – she was living and working in Canberra. It was good staying in touch with her.
Pham Thu Ba is in yellow, second from the left. Thu Ba became OSM when she was only 26 years old, and is one of the smartest, hardest-working and most effective professionals I’ve ever worked with – in Plan and beyond. Her dedication to Plan’s work was unrivaled, and her ability to supervise the complex financial, administrative, and operational side of our work was very impressive. Again, I can only imagine the pressures that Thu Ba faced in shepherding our financial and operational work, but she made it look easy.
I often tell an anecdote about Thu Ba, which I think describes what it was like working with these amazing people. At the end of my first year, I carried out the performance reviews of the people who reported to me, including her. Even more than most, Thu Ba’s work that year (and later) had been superb, so I had only positive comments to share with her.
Imagine my surprise when, after finishing providing lots of specific, positive feedback, Thu Ba’s response was:
- “You’re not doing your job.”
Wow, not the response I had expected. She went on to tell me that, as the only foreigner in the office, staff expected me to bring “international standards” to their work, and to guide them towards doing better jobs. So, if I couldn’t help her improve, I wasn’t doing my job! And, helpfully providing feedback to me (!), she described how people in the office were viewing my style:
- “You always start by saying something positive, something we are doing right, or well. Then you sometimes add suggestions for improvement. We don’t listen to the first part, only to the second part, because that’s where we can learn.”
What an amazing response. Since Thu Ba’s work was of such high quality, it wasn’t easy to identify specific areas where improvement was needed, or even possible, but I promised to give her that kind of feedback in the future. I did rise to that challenge, but it wasn’t easy!
That’s one aspect of what it was like working in Viet Nam in those years – the innate intelligence and hard work of the people, combined with the country’s relatively-recent opening to the world, meant that people like me were seen as very important resources that could be learned from. We were automatically looked up to as sources of “international standards.”
Often this status wasn’t really deserved (some of the foreigners I knew in Hanoi couldn’t add much value), and it’s changed now (Vietnamese people I know there now no longer look to foreigners automatically as fountains of wisdom), but I enjoyed it at the time!
My experience leading and managing the great Vietnamese staff in Plan has influenced my style ever since. We American managers take such a nurturing, affirmational approach (for example, we love using tools like “appreciative inquiry”), that we often neglect to indicate where staff can improve. This is what was happening that first year with Thu Ba. And we don’t spend enough time observing our staff. Working in Viet Nam helped me in this regard – I always make sure to complement positive, affirmational feedback with areas where the staff member could improve or develop.
Later, Thu Ba trained in HR management and development at the University of London, and today she manages that side of Plan’s work in Viet Nam, which is a big job. From Australia, as I will describe in a future article, I would continue to visit Viet Nam several times a year, and was happy to get together with Thu Ba and her husband and two children on most of my visits. In fact, Thu Ba would often take the initiative to convene a “reunion” of Plan staff from my time; these were always joyful events – I’ll include a video of one such reunion below.
On the far right in the photo, in a black shirt, was Le Quang Duat, who served as Program Support Manager during the last three of my four years in Viet Nam. Duat was a bit older than many Country Office staff, which meant that he accrued a degree of intrinsic respect despite being much newer to Plan than Minh Thu or Thu Ba. Because I could rely so confidently on how Thu Ba and Minh Thu managed the fundraising and operational sides of Plan’s work, I was able to spend a lot of time working with Duat on how we would evolve Plan’s program. I relied on his insights into his country, his instincts, and his good hearted and sincere nature.
The term “Support Manager” might be a bit confusing for non-Plan staff, though I outlined the thinking behind the terminology in an earlier blog. In summary, when we redesigned and brought a measure of consistency to Plan’s operational structure across all field locations, my thinking was that the organization should be as “flat” as possible, with as few layers of bureaucracy as possible. This would enable Plan to be agile, focused on our “customers” (people living in poverty, and our supporters), and efficient. Part of the new structure specified that field operations would be conceived as “Program Units” with “Program Unit Managers” reporting to the Country Director. A core-common structure at Country Offices would include, in addition to the Country Director, three additional positions, reporting to the Country Director but not directly managing PU Managers.
Although in many countries these positions were often filled by expatriates, in Viet Nam they were ably performed by Minh Thu, Thu Ba, and Duat. I was very lucky to work with these three professionals at Plan’s Country Office.
Another key staff member was our Internal Auditor, Vu Khac Tan, who had also been named in his post by Supriyanto. He did a great job, in my time, in a very challenging role.
Two other aspects of Plan’s standard operational structure, as implemented in Viet Nam, are worth mentioning. Firstly, field operations (outside the Country Office) were meant to be organized, whenever possible, consistent with the socio-political structure of the country, with “Program Units” coincident with provinces.
We faithfully implemented this concept. Supriyanto had established four Program Units, with “Program Unit Managers” by the time I arrived. Of these, three were in the north, in and around Hanoi, while the other was in the central region of the country:
- Our first province, which actually had split into two separate provinces by the time I left, was Nam Ha. Our work there was managed by Nguyen Van Mai, who was a very smart manager;
- Hanoi, Viet Nam’s capital, was the second province Plan worked in; Nguyen Van Hung was the PU Manager there. I worked closely with Hung, partly because he was based near to the Country Office, partly because his program in Hanoi was very innovative (he managed a large project focused on “street children” in the city), and partly because I liked him. Hung’s English was very good, and somehow he became my “official translator,” helping me in many of our formal meetings with government. He now teaches pharmacology at the University in Haiphong, but stays active as a consultant in child protection programming;
- Our third province was Bac Giang, where Le Thi Binh managed our work, having succeeded Pham Van Chinh. Binh joined Plan when Chinh moved to the Country Office to take on a technical role. Chinh was an icon in Plan Viet Nam, having been Supriyanto’s first hire. He was a rare, older Vietnamese who had studied overseas, in France, so was able to bridge cultures, which was very important in Plan’s early days, when the Vietnamese government was unfamiliar with the idea of an international NGO, even wary of the concept;
- In Quang Tri, Nguyen Van Quang was Plan’s Program Unit Manager, succeeding Nguyen Van Hung (not the same person as the PU Manager in Hanoi). Most of our staff was from the north of Viet Nam, where our Country Office was based and where the other three Program Units were. Quang Thi was in the central region of the country, bordering the old border and DMZ, and Quang himself was from the central region, from Danang. He joined Plan after leaving World Vision. He did a great job managing the team and our partnerships there, and seemed to be a good, kind-hearted person. Quang still works for Plan.
The growth plan that I had devised while at IH had put a high priority on growth in Viet Nam, we worked to expand during my four years there, trying to move towards poorer areas of the country. We wanted to move our emphasis from areas close to Hanoi, towards more mountainous areas, and to expand in the central region. So we were able to open operations in Phu Tho and Thai Nguyen, in the north, and Quang Ngai in the center.
- In Phu Tho, our work was managed by Ly Phat Viet Linh. Linh was from the south of Viet Nam, which I think was a challenge for him, working in Phu Tho. There were still some barriers to people from the south working in the north, coming from the country’s history. Linh had followed the original PU Manager in Phu Tho, who had been dismissed, which was a second challenge for Linh. But he did a good job and has since held several positions at UNICEF;
- Our second Program Unit in the center of Viet Nam was in Quang Ngai, where our work was managed by PU Manager Nguyen Duc Hoang. Like Quang in Quang Thi, we had hired Hoang from World Vision – World Vision’s loss, Plan’s gain. Both Quang and Hoang were not Christians, which (sadly) seemed to limit their careers in World Vision. Hoang was a very strong leader and manager, and handled setting up operations in Quang Ngai very competently. He still works for Plan, in a very senior position;
- Finally, near the end of my tenure, Plan opened operations in the northern mountainous province of Thai Nguyen, where our PU Manager was Tran Dai Nghia. Nghia came from an academic background, and was himself from Thai Nguyen, which was an advantage for us. Nghia was very able and smart, and handled initial stages of our work in that province very well. I saw Thai Nguyen, known as the “capital” of the northern mountainous region, as a stepping stone towards working up in the provinces farther north and higher up, near the Chinese border.
Finally, Plan’s standard structure envisioned a “decentralized operations support – DOS” office, providing administrative and financial support to Program Units far from the Country Office. We hoped to grow our work in the center of the country, and established a DOS in Hue, led and managed by Ary Laufer. (Establishing a DOS in Thai Nguyen, supporting Program Units farther north, was also in our thinking…)
Ary had worked for Plan in West Africa, and did a fantastic job setting up the DOS in Hue. It ran well, and served as an essential support for our expansion into Quang Ngai, and Plan’s later growth (after I left) into the Central Highlands. Ary worked hard, far from the Country Office.
When he joined, Ary would also be assigned the task of setting up and managing Plan Viet Nam’s pilot “Large Grants Implementation Unit”; I plan to write an entire blog article on the LGIU, which was a significant innovation. The Unit was very successful before it succumbed to Plan’s fatal weakness when I left and the “Year Zero” phenomenon kicked in. I’m hoping that Ary will contribute to that article, which will describe the challenge that the LGIU was designed to overcome, how we designed it, how it performed, and how it was closed.
Here are images of the full Plan Viet Nam Country Management Team, around the year 2000, with their base indicated on the map:
And here is a video clip of a New Years gathering (“Tet”) that took place at the Country Office in early 2001. Many of the people mentioned above appear in this video:
I mentioned earlier in this article that Thu Ba often organized reunions when I visited Viet Nam, after Jean and I left. Here is a short (4 minute) video of one such reunion, which took place in October, 2007, five years after we had left. Jean and I had visited Bhutan, and spent a few days in Hanoi on our way back to New Hampshire:
Of course, beyond the team that I worked with directly, there were dozens of other staff working with Plan in those days, who really made so many great things happen. Along with the senior management team that I’ve mentioned here, people like Nguyen Minh Nhat (who managed our monitoring and evaluation program, later working with UNICEF and UNDP), Vu Duc Thanh (a brilliant IT professional who was our MIS officer), Mai Thi Thuy Nga (finance officer at the Country Office, who had a keen and sharp sense of humor), Thanh Thuy and Minh Ha (very capable and professional Sponsorship Communications Officers who worked with Minh Thu at the Country Office), Thuc Anh (another key finance officer), Nguyen Phuong Thuy (communications officer at our Hanoi Program Unit, now with ActionAid), Thanh and Quang (our first staff members in Nam Ha), Tran Thi Lan (the Health Coordinator in Quang Tri), Nguyen Thi Que (finance facilitator in Bac Giang), Tran Thi Thu (who handled sponsorship communications in Nam Ha), Vo Thi Bich Lan (sponsorship communications in Quang Ngai), Ngo Kim Dung (sponsorship communications in Bac Giang) … too many to mention. Of course, I’ve forgotten some great, and superb people in this list, my apologies, please write to correct me! But here is a complete listing, at least at one point in time: Plan Viet Nam Staff List – 2001.
My thanks to this great team.
My time working with Plan’s teams in Viet Nam was probably the most memorable posting in my career so far. I enjoyed every minute of our four years there. At the time, levels of child poverty were still high, so our work was important – see the next post in this series for more about Plan’s work. It was a fascinating place to work, with its long history and deep culture. And, as I’ve described here, I was honored to work with a motivated, smart, and hard-working team of people who wanted to improve themselves, and improve their country. Many thanks to those amazing people for teaching me so much.
My next blog entry in this series will describe Plan’s work in Viet Ham. Stay tuned!
Here are links to earlier blogs in this series. Eventually there will be 48 articles, each one about climbing one of New Hampshire’s 4000-footers, and also 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;
- Middle Tripyramid (11) – To International Headquarters!;
- North Kinsman (12) – Fighting Fragmentation and Building Unity: New Program Goals and Principles for Plan International;
- South Kinsman (13) – A Growth Plan for Plan International;
- Mt Carrigain (14) – Restructuring Plan International;
- Mt Eisenhower (15) – A Guest Blog: Max van der Schalk Reflects on 5 Years at Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Pierce (16) – Four Years At Plan’s International Headquarters;
- Mt Hancock (17) – Hanoi, 1998.