After four years as Director of Planning and Program Support (Program Director) at Plan’s International Headquarters (“IH”), I stepped down in early May, 1997. Jean and I would spend the next 12 months on sabbatical in New Hampshire.
My time at IH was very eventful for me, as I hope I’ve described in the four previous blogs in this series. Even today I feel (mostly) proud of what we achieved, but at the end of it I was certainly ready to go back to the field. After the year-long sabbatical, I would wrap up 15 great years with Plan: Jean and I would move to Hanoi, where I would serve as Plan’s Country Director for Viet Nam. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself …
During my time at IH, I worked closely with Plan’s then-new International Executive Director (“IED”, equivalent to CEO), Max van der Schalk. In an earlier blog in this series I described Max as “Dutch, in his late 50’s, who had just completed a long career at Shell, finishing up as President of Shell Colombia … 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.”
Before I wrap up my description of those years at IH, sharing some overall reflections, it occurred to me to ask Max to share his thoughts about his five years as IED: another perspective on some of the events I’ve been describing from my own point of view.
Max kindly agreed, and his reflections are included below as a “guest blog.” Next time, it’ll be my turn!
This is one in an ongoing series of posts that has been describing 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, 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.
I climbed Mt Eisenhower (4780ft, 1457m) on 20 August 2016, with Raúl and Kelly, friends and colleagues from Australia. We also climbed Mt Pierce later that day, and we had planned to climb Mt Jackson as well, but we ran out of steam. In my next blog I’ll write about our walk down from the top of Eisenhower, over Mt Pierce, and then the long hike back down Crawford Path via the Mizpah Cutoff.
We drove up from Durham that morning, and parked by the side of Saco Lake, just across from the old Crawford Depot.
The first part of the hike took us around the lake, rejoining Rt 302 briefly, arriving at the start of the Crawford Path, the “oldest continuously-used mountain trail in America,” or so the sign says! The section we walked on was created in 1819 by Abel and Ethan Crawford.
The walk up Crawford Path was pleasant, a steady upward walk.
We arrived at the saddle between Mt Pierce and Mt Eisenhower a little before 2pm, and took a break there. It was a beautiful spot, with a view towards the north and Mt Eisenhower:
From here, towards Mt Eisenhower, the Crawford Path forms part of the famous Appalachian Trail. The section leading up to Mt Eisenhower is above the tree line, through some low scrub and ledge with fine views in all directions.
It was quite cool and windy at the top of Mt Eisenhower. There were plenty of other hikers around, walking up or resting around the cairn at the top, where we arrived at around 2:15pm:
We were all pretty tired when we got to the top of Mt Eisenhower, and the day wasn’t even close to half over!
I’ll write more about our ascent of Mt Pierce, and the long walk back down to Crawford Notch, next time. But the walk up Eisenhower was great that day, and the company was just as good.
Max van der Schalk served as Plan’s International Executive Director for five years; for four of those years, I worked directly with, and for, him. Earlier, I described how I ended up being appointed to that position, and I noted Max’s involvement in the three major projects that I advanced in my four years in this blog on Plan’s Program Directions; in this blog on the preparation of Plan’s growth plan; and here as related to our creation of the new country-level operational structure for the agency.
I thought it would be valuable to get Max’s perspective on events during those four years. And I don’t know of very many “memoirs” from nonprofit CEOs, particularly in the international development sector, so his thoughts might be useful more broadly.
So, since I’m still in contact with him, I invited Max to share his thoughts, which follow:
“I arrived in Rhode Island from Colombia. I had had 30 years experience in industry and the main reason I was selected for the job of IED was that this experience was mainly in the developing world. That also caused my interest in the job: I had seen enough poverty to know that something should be done to eradicate that pest on human happiness. When I arrived at IH I was asked whether I joined the charity in order to make up for the sins I had committed in private industry. My answer was exactly the opposite: I was going to introduce a businesslike attitude to the charity in order to make best use of the generous contribution of so many people to poverty reduction, specially child poverty.
I commenced by trying to create a management team (IED, RD’s and IH managers) that would feel joint responsibility for the quality of the programme part of the organization. Despite the efforts of some of the more capable managers in the team, this was never achieved. To the contrary: the RD’s didn’t see eye to eye with the IH managers and what was worse : they didn’t see eye to eye with each other. There was a lack of mutual confidence. This was something new, in my 30 years industry experience I had not encountered that. I 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.
Part of the reason for that behaviour is the difference in work attitude in charity as compared to industry. Where in industry people are motivated by the objectives of the organization and by their success in achieving these, in charity staff has a much more personal viewpoint about what should be done. As a result you could find great differences in how the money was spent in PLAN: some field offices were mainly concentrated on health matters, others on education or on wealth creation for the communities they were assisting. My cooperation with Mark was so useful because he had the intelligence to see that that was not the optimum way to spend the money. I brought him into IH to create a framework, setting out the objectives and ambitions of the organization: to reduce poverty in our communities and achieve a way they could live comfortably without outside financial contribution. This was eventually achieved, though acceptance of this framework throughout the organisation took a long time. In the end it was generally accepted by all staff, but we never achieved full acceptance by the International Board.
The International Board (IB) consisted of non-executive directors of the fundraising organisations. The number of directors each country organisation could appoint to the IB was dependant on the money they contributed. The Board was far too big to be useful, some 25 persons. The main problem was that board members were generally from a business or government background, seldom was there any experience in development work. However they all thought they had a full understanding of the problems of international development and furthermore that they knew quite a bit more about running a business than the PLAN staff. This created an atmosphere where instead of being supportive they were often highly critical of the way the organization was run. Furthermore, because of the various nationalities that were represented there was often a cultural difference amongst the various board members. As IED I made the mistake to try running the show as far as possible without the active participation of the IB, but that led to a lack of trust of board members in their Chief Executive. This was shown very clearly when my 5-year term came up and I was requested to continue in the job. I said I only wanted to do that if the IB would become a supportive board rather than a critical one and if I would get complete freedom to technically run the show on my own, without specific approval for things like staff changes and office accommodation. The Chairman of the IB did a round of phone calls to discuss my request with his colleagues and the outcome was a clear NO to both .
Reflecting on the things that went well during my tenure and the things which could have been done better, I am not unhappy with the results obtained. We clearly formalized the objectives of the organization and the way to achieve them. We also exchanged many – expensive- expatriate staff members for high quality local staff, thereby reducing the cost of carrying out the work of the charity. We also created a career path for staff and improved the audit procedure: both financial audit – how was the money spent – as the programme audit – how successful were the programmes. The organisation grew rapidly in money, volume and results; a number of additional national organisations were created. However, I am less than happy about my relationship with the Board and I missed a chance there. It is always difficult to change the culture of an organization, but we changed the staff attitude considerably and with good results for our effectiveness. I could have achieved the same results with the International Board, but as I was unhappy with their attitude regarding my role, I decided to ‘walk around them’ . On balance I believe I made a wrong decision there and it resulted in my effectiveness being less than what could have been achieved.
After I resigned from the charity, I expected I would be asked to join the local board of either the Dutch ( my nationality) or English ( my residence) organisation. This didn’t happen and my relationship with the organisation ended the day after my resignation. I felt very disappointed about this, but now – at a much bigger distance – I feel I should blame my own attitude to the IB and also to the local boards for this total rupture. I just wasn’t liked by them………
My next job after PLAN was Chairman of the Board of my local Health Authority and I learned so much of my negative experience of dealings with boards in PLAN, that I was sure the managers in the NHS working in my area would not form a similar opinion about my board’s role. And that was indeed very effective, so I learned my lesson just in time before I sat at the other side of the table!”
Next time I will describe the rest of my hike with Raúl and Kelly that day – down from Mt Eisenhower and over Mt Pierce. And I will share my own reflections from those four years at IH.
I’m grateful to Max for sharing his perspectives here in this “Guest Blog.” They set up my own reflections – in some ways consistent, in other ways different. That will come next time.
So, stay tuned!
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.