Nothin' But Attitude: Correcting the Failure of Leadership Recruitment to get more Effective and Adaptive Leaders

Dec 21, 2016 by David Ratliff Comments (0)

This blog was originally posted by BEAM Exchange on Tuesday, December 20th, 2016. David Ratliff is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving on USAID's Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA) Team.

How can we change a broken recruitment system to get more effective and adaptive leaders?

Adaptive Management Logo"Oh, but they're really smart." The age old adage that we hear time and time again when defending our ineffective leaders. Every organisation has them because we often don't consider the impact that personnel recruitment has, or we don't get involved in HR issues because we don't understand them. Organisations often value technical experience over the leadership qualities that are actually needed. Unfortunately, that creates ineffective organisational leadership that negatively impacts our ability to quickly identify problems and adapt our programming. But, it’s time for that to change and you can help make it happen!

Have you ever had a really well designed activity ruined by an ineffective leader, or an average design achieving amazing results because of great leadership? Here’s an example from my own experience. When I arrived at USAID's Sahel Office we were in the midst of three very important procurements for our resilience project and I served on the reviewing committee for one of them. As with all USAID procurements we reviewed the qualifications of key personnel as part of the criteria system. What was requested was probably cut and pasted from numerous other procurements because the qualifications were the same as what I’ve seen in nearly every solicitation ever developed. Previous Chief of Party experience, 10-15 years technical experience, and higher level degree. 

What was the result? The organisation we selected put forward a candidate that did not have the technical skills in the area of the procurement, but did have proven leadership experience with great references that highlighted his interpersonal skills much more than the technical skills. I had to fight to get the candidate approved because he didn’t fit the traditional mould that USAID looks for. I’m glad that I fought. He turned out to be an incredibly effective leader and was the perfect diplomat when collaborating with other organisations and the host country governments. He was able to see areas that we could adapt even before we could ask. That was exactly what we needed, but hadn’t asked for in the solicitation! 

The other two procurements ‒ not so fortunate. They stuck to the traditional mentality of going for a candidate with lots of technical experience. What we got were Chiefs of Party that were not effective leaders and didn't have any incentive or desire to collaborate with our other partners. They were focused on achieving their own results and definitely didn’t care about the bigger picture that USAID was trying to achieve. Both partners were supposed to work on complementary aspects of agriculture market development, one on the supply side and the other on the demand side. Both leaders didn't communicate, didn't create an environment to allow their staff to fail and learn, and definitely didn't practice or emphasise adaptive management. The activity is still continuing so I won't call it a failure. But, I will say that both Chiefs of Party have changed over since the activity started.

So, how do we change this broken recruitment system to get more effective and adaptive leaders? Let's take market systems development for example. What do you really need your leader to achieve? Since leaders aren’t actually supposed to do the work (blasphemy I know), you need to think about how to request those qualities that facilitate, motivate, and inspire staff to be more effective. Guess what, you may not need a technical expert in market systems, or be able to find someone that is both a technical expert and can lead staff! You probably want someone that can effectively negotiate with the host government and local stakeholders. Most importantly, you want a leader that can put in place the enabling conditions that will allow the staff to learn and manage adaptively for improved results. Unfortunately those skills are not as simple as 15 years' experience and a higher level degree. 

It works the other way as well. Donor partners and grantees need to do a better job recruiting for adaptive leaders, and pushing donors to accept candidates that may not have all the requested qualifications, but that will be effective and get the job done. 

Some organisations have developed a personality test when recruiting leaders that highlights competence in qualities that they do, and don’t, want their leaders to have. Other organisations are using non-traditional interview techniques or group scenarios to gauge a candidate’s interpersonal skills. I’ve also seen organisations hire a completely non-traditional candidate, which can bring an entirely new perspective and creativity to problem solving and adaptive management.

Essentially, if you want different results, start with getting different types of people. Leaders especially, since they set the tone, but it’s important to have staff all the way down the chain that think and act in adaptive ways. It’s really all about the people. Remember, you ignore HR and recruitment at your own peril!

Filed Under: Working Smarter