Back from the BrinkFebruary 20, 2019
Several months ago, roughly two years after my appointment to lead the Luc Hoffmann Institute (one of the MAVA Foundation’s major partners and grantees), Lynda Mansson – MAVA’s no-nonsense director – asked me to write a blog for their website on the theme of bringing an organisation back from the brink and winning the trust of partners, especially donors.
She said it was because it seemed to be something I was good at it1 and despite some initial skepticism I had to admit that, while I have been involved in several successful start-ups over the last 30 years, most of my time has been dedicated to the repurposing of underperforming and often badly ailing institutions. So perhaps I have learnt a few things along the way that are worth sharing: You can be the judge.
Since 1982, the year I graduated with a PhD in crocodile behaviour and ecology from the University of Zimbabwe, I have held leadership positions in six organisations, or departments thereof, and of these five desperately needed some ‘TLC’ to return them to the path that leads to social impact and sustainability. All of them are still in action, so I suppose some gains were made on the sustainability front, and I’ll present a few vignettes, one from my time in Africa, others from Europe as the basis for formulating some lessons that I gained from these experiences.
Zimbabwe – Trust and a Common Sense of Purpose
My first position in Zimbabwe was that of Curator of Mammals at the National Museum in Bulawayo just after Zimbabwe emerged as an independent nation. Curiously, the mammal collection was (and still is) the largest of its kind in the southern Hemisphere, but at the time it was neglected and poorly preserved and organised – and the prospects for further investments from government were slim given the inevitable focus of the time on poverty alleviation and the upliftment of previously disadvantaged communities. I therefore assumed that funding would be the main barrier to progress, but that didn’t turn out to be the case.
The biggest challenge by far was a political deadlock between management and the museum workers, the former being primarily of European extraction and the latter being mostly of Ndebele origin, the dominant tribe in much of the west of Zimbabwe. I’m still not entirely sure how it came about given the dearth of trust between the races at the time, but the workers asked if I could help and elected me as the ‘new boy’ to represent them in negotiations with management. Over the next six months I became more of shop steward than a curator, but the impasse was overcome and a volcano of relief and energy flowed into the museum’s work. Within two years we had reorganised half a million specimens, reintroduced field work and re-established museum exchanges – all rather parochial, but unthinkable only a short time before. To this day I don’t really understand why the workers approached me, but I do know that everything we achieved together was based on trust and the development of a sense of common purpose. This in turn grew out of difficult but honest interactions between antagonists, a commitment to transparency and relentless delivery on promises. There were lessons here that I absorbed without much thought at the time.
Cambridge – Slow, persistent trust-building
After leaving the Bulawayo museum I held a range of leadership positions in government, NGOs and the private sector in southern Africa, all of which were linked to nature, natural resources and rural development, but just before the millennium I moved with my family to Europe where, almost exactly 20 years after working with Ndebele comrades in Bulawayo, I was invited to join UNEP to run the World Conservation Monitoring Centre in Cambridge, UK.
UNEP-WCMC was in a particularly dire position when I took up the leadership role in November 2006. Although the staff was not aware at the time, the Centre was essentially insolvent: we didn’t have the cash to pay December salaries. My UNEP career seemed destined to end in a rapid and disgraceful failure. However, it turned out that a degree in crocodile behaviour was remarkably useful when dealing with the UN bureaucracy. Limbs were twisted and somehow we found the money to survive the year, and to enter the new year with unexpected resources.
Having won the possibility of survival our strategy became one of ‘evolution not revolution’. There was a significant turnover within the team as we tried to strengthen key functions, but rather than focusing on changing the Centre’s mission or radical restructuring we set about identifying all our key stakeholders and repairing and strengthening an endless list of broken relationships. It felt like the whole of my first year was spent apologising, trimming expectations and ensuring that when we committed to something we delivered, even if it cost us dearly. As a result of our relentless focus on trust-building we did much more than survive; over the next decade we restored the Centre’s fortunes, reinstating at least in part it’s reputation as a global leader in the synthesis and assessment of biodiversity while simultaneously building up a very significant asset base.
On re-reading the last paragraph, it is too simple and linear. Progress at the Centre was down to a complicated, context specific cocktail of strategy and action and having said that we didn’t restructure, it is important to note that there was one important and notable exception: the Board. When I arrived at the Centre I met a determined, but disenfranchised board. It was tempting to leave it that way, who wants a boss after all? But all the successful and sustainable institutions that I know have strong and independent boards and so we bit the bullet and enhanced the board’s role and membership, inviting Robert Napier, recently retired as CEO of WWF UK, to be its Chair.
When I left UNEP after ten years service a longstanding colleague remarked that I had seemed undeterred by the state of the Centre’s finances in that first month. She reminded me that my mantra at the time was that we would drive the Ferrari as fast as possible at the wall and the wall would jump out of the way. It did of course, but while my younger self was either overconfident or too lacking in imagination to contemplate failure (or both), it wasn’t bravado that was the key to success – it was slow, careful and persistent trust-building. Robert Napier’s appointment helped enormously in the reestablishment of the Centre’s reputation and his consistent support to me over the years gave me the space I needed to operate. The trust that Robert showed me provided the fuel that drove a successful programme of change. If only all working relationships could be this simple and elegant.
Switzerland – Honesty and transparency … even with donors
On joining the Luc Hoffmann Institute in 2016 it quickly became clear that any remaining overconfidence or lack of imagination was to be severely tested. Despite the usual digging and due diligence before taking up the reins at the Institute it quickly become clear that, once again, the Director’s position wasn’t about driving forward an existing success story, but about the remaking of an important institution that had lost its way2. The challenging situation at the Institute wasn’t only a surprise to me; the MAVA Foundation was frustrated by the lack of progress. In fact, as it emerged in external review, the Institute’s project work was unquestionably highly successful, but it was judged not to have contributed to the mission of the Institute3. In the febrile environment that arose after the evaluation, the spectre of closure loomed.
In my experience, challenging an external evaluation is very rarely fruitful, but capitulation isn’t an attractive option either. In fact there were no attractive options so we decided to petition for a chance to demonstrate that the Institute could develop a value proposition worthy of its namesake, building on the experience and intellectual assets built up over its first five years. I’d like to be able to say that everyone was delighted with the idea and that we immediately launched a successful new programme the very next week, but that is far from the reality. Instead we embarked on a lengthy process of exploration, planning and trust-building while simultaneously winding down all our existing projects. The team all hoped for the best, but we laboured in the full expectation of closure and I confess that my own confidence and cheery optimism was severely dented.
A series of presentations to the MAVA Board and engagements with individual board members probably contributed to much needed trust-building, but the key relationship on this occasion proved to be that between the Foundation’s Director General and the Director of the Institute i.e, between Lynda and me. We agreed early on that we should meet regularly and frequently, weekly at first, so that I could brief her on developments and progress and seek her inputs and advice. Generally speaking the meetings were not very long, but they were often detailed and always honest and transparent. Lynda made her opinions very clear and also contributed significantly to our preparations by drawing on her own knowledge and contacts. She was eventually convinced by our final strategy; even more importantly, she knew how much thought and work went into its development and, I think, was confident that we would all work diligently – and even obsessively – to deliver the outcomes that we promised.
Ultimately we were fortunate that the MAVA Board did decide to continue our funding, albeit with a set of special conditions, and after a year implementing our new strategy I sense a sense of confidence and optimism returning. The Ferrari is serviced and back on the road, but this time the wall is being removed brick by brick…
8 key lessons
On the basis of these experiences and other, and while it may be a bit optimistic, I have tried to distil a lot of what I have learnt from all of these experiences in the following 8 management and leadership lessons. I hope they are of some use.
- Identify and engage positively with all the key stakeholders to understand the context you are operating in.
- Strong institutions are based on a strong board with talented, well informed board members. Make sure you have one.
- Surround yourself with the best people you can hire and give them the credit they deserve if you are successful.
- All institutions have problems and solving them depends on building trust. This can take many forms, but you always have to earn it, through honesty, transparency and consistent delivery against promises.
- Consult meaningfully, but if you are confident enough, trust your intuition. If it is good, the lessons you will learn will hone it even more.
- Being perseverant pays. Success flows from continually pushing. That said, being born lucky is hard to beat!
- Cheerful optimism is infectious, but ultimately what your team needs to hear is an honest assessment of the situation.
- When all else fails, it helps to have a well developed sense of the ridiculous.
1 I had to smile. Along with the decision by the Ndebele workers’ that I should represent them in negotiations with management in newly independent Zimbabwe, this would represent one of the best references I have ever had. Sadly, neither was in a particularly handy form for my CV!
2 I need to be clear that the Institute’s anguish had little to do with the talented and hard working team that I inherited, but instead resulted from a perfect storm that included major restructuring within our host, WWF International, familiar institutional politics and more than a year’s hiatus in formal leadership.
3 There are lessons here for those designing reporting and evaluation systems, but that is for another time…