In early May, 1997, Jean and I left the UK and flew to Boston, on our way to spend a year on sabbatical in New Hampshire. I had spent four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”) as Program Director, having planned to stay for only three; as I mentioned in an earlier blog, I agreed to stay a fourth year to lead the restructuring of Plan’s field structure, and to support the rollout of the new structure. Then it was time to move on.
The last four entries in this series have described the major initiatives that we undertook while I worked at IH (defining a new program approach, goals and principles; deciding where to expand and where to shrink Plan’s program work; and restructuring how we worked at country level), and included, most recently, a “guest blog” from Plan’s International Executive Director during those years, Max van der Schalk.
It was an honour to work at IH, to contribute to Plan’s work at that level. I look back on that time with some pride in successes, and also with a clear realisation of areas where we fell short.
So, this time, I want to share my own reflections on those four years at IH. Joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, and lots of lessons learned.
I’ve been writing a series of blog posts that describe how I’ve been climbing each of the 48 mountains in New Hampshire that are over 4000 feet tall. The idea is to publish 48 posts, each time describing getting to one of those summits, and also reflecting a bit on the journey since I joined Peace Corps, 30 years ago, on development, social justice, conflict, experiences along the way, etc. This is number 16, so covering all 48 of those mountains might take me a couple of years…
Last time I described how Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia, and I climbed Mt Eisenhower on 20 August 2016. From the summit of Mt Eisenhower we retraced our steps back down the Crawford Path and then reached the top of Mt Pierce (4312ft, 1314m), just after 3pm.
Here are my hiking companions on the way down Mispah Cutoff, close to the point where we would rejoin the Crawford Path:
We had planned on climbing three 4000-footers that day – continuing south from Mt Pierce along Webster Cliff Trail, to Mt Jackson, and then dropping from there back down to Saco Lake where we had left the car. But by the time we reached Mizpah Spring Hut we were very knackered, so decided to take the Mizpah Cutoff over to rejoin Crawford Path, and then hike back down to the parking area that way. Retracing our steps.
So we didn’t get to the top of Mt Jackson, which awaits ascent on another day – but we did scale Mt Eisenhower and Mt Pierce.
It was a strenuous hike that day, but with beautiful views and no insect problems. Glorious views from the Presidential Range, mainly looking south.
Looking back on four years at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), what stands out? Let me share some thoughts on what went well and on what went badly.
What went well
- We made good choices about what to change;
- The way we went about making those changes was, mostly (but not always), smart;
- We were able to involve some of Plan’s future stars in what we did, giving them exposure and experience at the highest organisational levels, thus helping to build a new generation of Plan leaders;
- I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four.
Let me reflect briefly about each of these positive aspects of my time at Plan’s head office.
First, in addition to normal, daily tasks and senior-management duties, I decided to focus on three major change projects, all aimed at creating unity of purpose across what was, I felt, a quickly-atomising organisation.
I had outlined these priorities to Max in our first interactions, before I even went to IH. Described in three earlier blog posts in this series, these projects were focused on: overhauling Plan’s program approach; deciding, in accordance with set strategy, where to grow and where to phase out our work; and finishing Plan’s restructuring by reorganizing the organization’s field structure.
Looking back, these were very good choices. Before moving to IH I had served as Plan’s Regional Director for South America, and had appreciated wide latitude to run operations in that region as I saw fit. As Plan finished regionalizing, with six Regional Offices in place by the time I was brought to IH, and as each of the six Regional Directors began to “appreciate” that wide latitude, Plan was in real danger of atomizing, becoming six separate kingdoms (all six were, initially, men!)
So I selected those three major change projects carefully, seeking to build unity of purpose, to bring the organization together around shared language, culture, and purpose. This would, I hoped, balance the centrifugal forces inherent in regionalization and decentralization with necessary, binding, centripetal forces that would hold Plan together. Building unity of purpose around a common program approach, a common structure (with local variations in some particular functions), and a shared understanding of where we would work.
Plan should have taken these change efforts much farther – for example, to build shared staff-development tools around the core, common positions at Country Offices, and finishing a monitoring and evaluation system centered on the program goals and principles that we developed. More on that below. But, in four years, I think we accomplished a lot and, generally speaking, we were able to notably increase unity of purpose across Plan.
Second, as we developed those changes, we were (mostly) pretty smart about it. Plan’s new program goals and principles evolved from a wide organizational conversation, which began with a workshop that involved people from across the agency. Development of the Country Structure began with a “skunk works” that involved a very impressive set of people, chosen both because of their expertise and experience, as well as their credibility. In both cases, we took initial prototypes across the organization, through senior management and the board, and the results worked well… and lasted.
As I’ve described earlier, the preparation of the organizational growth plan, on the other hand, was primarily handled by me, myself, without anything like the kind of participation, contribution, and ownership that characterized the other two projects. Yes, we consulted, but it wasn’t enough. Partly as a result, the growth plan was less successful in bringing Plan together than were the other two projects.
So the way we went about addressing unity of purpose in Plan was effective, mostly. The model of advancing change in an international NGO by convening a focused reflection, including key staff, and honestly consulting the initial prototype across all stakeholder groups, seems appropriate. (See below for some reflections on implementation, however.)
Third, I look back on the people that we involved in those projects, and I’m proud that we helped bring Plan’s next generation of leadership into being. Just to give a few examples, participants and leaders in those key efforts included people like Donal Keane, who would become my manager when I went to Viet Nam as Plan’s Country Director; Subhadra Belbase, who would soon become Regional Director in Eastern and Southern Africa; Jim Emerson, who helped me create the planning framework for Country Offices, and who would later become Finance Director and Deputy IED at IH; Mohan Thazhathu, who would become RD for Central America and the Caribbean, and later a CEO in other INGOs; and many others. To a great extent, this was purposeful: I wanted to involve the right people, and I wanted their experience, and the associated high-profile visibility, to help move these amazing people onward and upward in Plan.
Finally, I’m glad I set a goal of leaving IH in three years, even though it took me four. My experience working with many INGO headquarters is that people stay too long: head offices are exciting places to work and to contribute; people who join our social-justice organizations (mostly) have strong desires to make the world a better, fairer, more-just place, and a lot can be accomplished from the center. Plus, there are great opportunities for power and prestige, not to mention ego-fulfillment.
This reality can be entrancing, and can lead to people staying for too long. I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t overstay my time, and I wanted Plan to be the kind of organization where the most important place to work was the field, not International Headquarters; in fact, my predecessor as Program Director, Jim Byrne, returned to the field from IH, as Country Director for Bolivia and then Ghana. I was determined to follow that great example, and did so.
Plus, I was pretty burned out after four years, partly because of the things that went badly during those four years…
What went badly
- I was much too gentle with Plan’s Regional Directors;
- After designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions;
- I wasn’t smart enough in relating to Plan’s Board;
- Again related to the Board, we didn’t tackle basic governance problems, especially the imbalance due to the huge success of Plan’s Dutch National Organisation in those days;
- Personally, I was much too focused on making the three major changes that I described above, and didn’t spend enough time attending to the wider, political reality inside the agency.
First, I should have been much tougher with Plan’s Regional Directors during my time as Program Director. In this, I agree with much of Max van der Schalk’s “guest blog,” published earlier in this series, when he says that he “learned from experience to mistrust most of the RD’s. I wasn’t always sure of their honesty and I also doubted that the whole team felt responsible for the effectiveness of the organization. Quite a few RD’s appeared to me to take advantage of their position and to think mainly about their own achievement.”
I completely understand what he’s referring to. When Max arrived as Plan’s IED, he organised senior management to include the Regional Directors. This was a change – previously, Plan’s senior management had all been IH-based. Thus, in principle at least, all major operational decisions, and proposals to be made to Plan’s board of directors, would go through a staff team that included the field managers at Regional level.
From my perspective, this was very smart. It was a great way to balance headquarters priorities with the realities of field implementation. But, sadly, Plan developed a bad case of what I called the “Heathrow Syndrome” in those years – the global agreements that we made when Senior Management gathered in Woking, outside London, seemed to evaporate (at least for our six Regional Directors) when they got in to the taxi to go to the airport. And then, by the time they boarded their flights home, their priorities seemed to have already shifted to their Regions, and thoughts of the wider organisation seemed to have disappeared.
In fact, a couple of the Regional Directors of the time should have been dismissed for behavior that was even worse than the “Heathrow Syndrome“, and I should have done more to encourage that. Even though they didn’t report directly to me, I should have been much more willing to advocate changes to Max, been much less gentle. In the future, I would be more willing to take action in similar situations.
After leaving IH I came to realise that part of the problem was related to the emotional connection that NGO staff – at least the good ones – make with their work. Our people, at their best, associate their own values and self image with the aims of our organisations: we work for justice, human rights, to overcome oppression and deprivation, because we hold those values very deeply.
This emotional connection is a strong motivational force and, if managed well, can produce levels of commitment and passion that private-sector organisations rarely achieve. But it often also means that NGO people overly personalise their work, take things too personally, and resist change. Perhaps part of the reason that several of Plan’s Regional Directors in those days resisted thinking globally and acting locally was that their personal ambitions – for good and for bad – were advanced more easily by thinking locally and acting globally.
Second, and related to my first point, after designing organizational changes as described above, with lots of consultation and co-creation, we should have been much more forceful when it came to implement the resulting decisions. For example:
- there should have been no exceptions for putting in place the agreed country structure, because a suitable level of flexibility was already included;
- we had agreed to develop training packages for the four core, common positions that would be in place at all Country Offices, but we didn’t get that done;
- we should have mandated that all Country Strategic Plans be structured around the new Domains and Principles that comprised Plan’s Program Approach;
- an effort existed to design and implement a “Corporate Planning, Monitoring, and Evaluation” system, which didn’t really get off the ground until Catherine Webster took over the project;
- finally, I should be been much more insistent that the agreed growth plan be followed, insisting on plans to close operations in the countries where our strategy mandated phase-out.
Generally speaking, my conclusion here is that we were right to design changes in a very open, participatory way, and to consult (and adjust) with all key stakeholders before finalising decisions. That was good. But once decisions were made, we should have been much stronger, much tougher, in carrying out those agreements. Over time, that approach might have reduced the toxic “Heathrow Syndrome.”
Third, I should have developed a much stronger relationship with Plan’s board of directors than I did. Again, in his “guest blog,” Max notes that he is “… less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there…” As Program Director, I naturally had less direct relation with Plan’s Board than Max did, but I could have usefully developed more of a connection. That might have helped me achieve my own goals, advance the organization, and also helped Max (though he might not have agreed with that, or even accepted it!)
For example, one Board member was named to work with us on the development of Plan’s program approach; Ian Buist had worked in the UK government’s overseas aid efforts across a long career, and his contributions to what became Plan’s “Domains” and “Principles” were valuable. In retrospect, I would have been more effective, more successful, and more helpful to Max if I had developed similar relationships with other program-minded board members.
But I wanted to focus on program, and felt that working with the Board was not my role; Max would involve me when it was necessary, I thought. But, of course, I knew Plan much better than Max did, having at that point worked at local, regional, and global levels for nearly ten years, so my reluctance to put more energy into working with Plan’s board was short-sighted on my part.
Fourth, and perhaps most fundamental, comes governance. When organisational governance doesn’t function smoothly, watch out! And, in those days, if not broken, Plan’s governance was not working very well at all, for one main reason.
When I was at IH, Plan’s funds came from nine “National Organisations” in nine developed countries (Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, the UK, and the US). The way that Plan’s corporate bylaws were designed meant that the Dutch organisation was allocated four seats, four votes, on the 25-person board, even though over 50% of Plan’s funding came from the Netherlands. (In comparison, the Canadian and US National Offices, each bringing in around 10% of Plan’s funding, each had three seats, three votes.)
This lack of balance – over half of Plan’s funding coming from the Netherlands, with the Dutch organisation having just 16% of the votes on Plan’s board – distorted the agency’s behavior in negative ways, ways that I could see in my daily work.
Unsurprisingly, and most damaging, was that an informal power structure evolved to compensate for Plan’s unbalanced governance. This could be seen in action in several ways. For example, it felt to me as I observed board meetings, that Dutch board members had effective veto over any major decisions: if a Dutch board member spoke strongly against, or in favour of, a proposition at a meeting, the vote would always go that way, despite the Dutch only having 4 of 25 votes.
There’s nothing inherently bad, or wrong, or evil about what was happening; it was completely logical that the interests of the biggest financial stakeholder would become paramount. Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg! But the problem was, as I saw it, Plan’s formal governance structure wasn’t able to handle the reality of those days, so informal mechanisms evolved, and those informal mechanisms were not always transparent or effective.
For example, I vividly remember a lunch meeting which included Max, me, and the National Director for the Netherlands. The Dutch National Director was, without a doubt, a genius fundraiser, and had build Plan Netherlands into an iconic force in Holland, known and respected by virtually everybody in the country from the royal family on down.
His undoubted accomplishments were accompanied by similar levels of ego and assertiveness.
I don’t recall the exact issue that we were discussing that day over lunch, but I do remember our Dutch colleague expressing his strong disagreement with the direction that Max and I were planning to take. Those kinds disagreements are common in any human endeavour, of course. But he took it one step further: in so many words, he made it very clear that, if we proceeded with the course of action we were planning, he would have Max dismissed.
In Plan’s formal governance setup, the Dutch National Director was not a Plan board member, and had no formal influence on Max’s job security. But the informal governance structures which had evolved, to recognise the importance of the Dutch Office’s success to the overall organisation, meant that his threat was completely credible.
Another example of the dysfunctional consequences of Plan’s imbalanced governance came soon after I (and Max) left IH. Max’s successor fired one of Plan’s Regional Directors, who was Dutch. From my perspective, this was probably well within the new IED’s authority, but from what I heard (I wasn’t in the room!) the actual dismissal was not handled very astutely. The Regional Director then threatened legal action to challenge his dismissal and, as I understand it, had an assurance of financial support from the Netherlands office in this action – essentially, one part of the agency would be suing the other! This led to several years of estrangement (and worse) between Plan and the Dutch Office, our biggest source of funds!
Apparently, the imbalance in governance, and resulting informal power structures, extended to the Dutch Office having the ability to veto personnel-related decisions, at least when a Dutch Regional Director was involved!
These examples illustrate how our operational management was influenced by the realities as seen from the point of view of our biggest revenue source. Nothing wrong with that, in theory – in fact, it makes a lot of sense. But in the absence of a formal governance structure that reflected organisational realities, informal mechanisms evolved to reflect the needs of Plan’s biggest funder: such as heated lunch discussions, and a law suit against Plan funded by one of its own National Organisations. These informal mechanisms drained our energy, stressed us all, and became major distractions from what we were supposed to be focused on: the effective and efficient implementation of our mission to help children living in poverty have better lives.
Now, the best solution to re-balancing Plan’s governance would have been for other National Organisations to grow – for the Australian or Canadian or German or US offices to increase their fundraising closer to what our Dutch colleagues were achieving. Then Plan’s existing governance structure would have functioned well. Alternatively, perhaps, at least in the short term, we could have increased the votes allocated to the Dutch organization. In these ways, the imbalance described above would have been corrected without informal mechanisms.
What actually happened, sadly, was that the Dutch organisation ended up shrinking dramatically, as the result of a mishandled public-relations crisis. In fact, I think that our management of that crisis actually illustrated the basic problem: Plan’s Dutch Office refused to let us address false accusations coming from a Dutch supporter as we should have done, and the problem just festered, got worse and worse. But the informal power of the Dutch Office, caused in part by the governance imbalance I’ve described, was such that we at Plan’s International Headquarters were not able to go against the preferences of the Dutch Office to take the actions we felt would have defused the crisis. (Namely, full, frank, and fast disclosure of the facts of the particular case.) In this case, I’m pretty sure that we were right and the Dutch Office was wrong… and, as a direct result, Plan’s fundraising in the Netherlands dropped by half.
My sense is that these kinds of governance dynamics are common in federated International NGOs (ChildFund, Save the Children, Oxfam, World Vision, etc.) though there are differences in the particularities of each grouping, of course. The solution, as far as I can see it, is to periodically re-examine governance and make sure that structures fit the reality of the agency. (Ironically, Plan had attempted to review and adjust its governance before I arrived at IH. Glorianne Stromberg, who readers of this blog series have already met, was Board Secretary in those days, during Alberto Neri’s time; she had proposed a far-reaching update of Plan’s governance. Probably Glorianne’s proposals would have helped reduce the imbalance I’ve described, and would also have addressed Max’s feeling that the Board was too big…)
Finally, I was much too focused on my program changes, my three projects, and was not “political” enough. In a sense, this failure on my part relates to all of the above accomplishments and setbacks – if I had been more astute “politically” I could have helped Max correct the behaviour of several Regional Directors, and connected more effectively with Plan’s board of directors.
But I just wasn’t interested in spending my limited time and energy on those things. I was focused, passionate, and effective focused on program matters (goals and principles, structure, and growth.) I felt, and still feel, that behaving “politically” would be inconsistent with the values and aspirations of the NGO sector. I wanted to enact those values – honesty, transparency, empathy, compassion – and I didn’t see how I could do that while also being “political.”
Today I think I see that it is indeed possible to be focused and true to the moral and ethical values of our sector while also being “political.” It’s not about learning from Machiavelli; rather, it’s mostly about being able to handle conflict competently. Conflict is inherent in the human experience, certainly including at senior management levels in an INGO like Plan! Managing conflict productively, being able to confront conflict situations with confidence and panache, is a skill that I would deepen later, some years after my time at Plan’s International Headquarters.
Those four years at IH were great. Weighing up all the successes and failures, large and small, looking back there’s no doubt in my mind that Plan was stronger and more unified when Jean and I left the UK, in May, 1997, than it had been when I arrived.
But it was time to move on, and it would be for others to take up the challenges and joys of running that organization.
In future blogs in this series I’ll describe my tenure as Country Director for Plan in Viet Nam, as consultant at CCF, as Executive Director at the UU Service Committee, and as International Program Director at ChildFund Australia. As I approached my work in those organisations, I tried to apply what I learned from those four years at Plan’s International Headquarters, from the successes and failures described above. Stay tuned!
Next time I’ll begin to reflect on four years living and working in Viet Nam, as Plan’s Country Director in that very special country.
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;
- 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.