The President's Message Summer 2017
Fran Korten’s thorough piece on executive transitions reminds me of an incident in the early to mid 1980s when I was serving as Director of the Foundation’s Human Rights, Social Justice and Governance, and Public Policy programs. Frank Thomas called me to his office for a meeting with former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalind, who had come to solicit additional funding for the Carter Center.
There was little question that renewed funding would be recommended, and the conversation went smoothly until I asked whether a succession plan was in place or being considered. A steely silence fell over the room until Rosalind looked at me as if to say, “What could you be thinking, young man?”, and stated simply and unequivocally, “No!”
My chastening aside, the question, perhaps a bit indelicately and presumptively put, was nonetheless a valid one. I had learned early on at the Foundation that an important measure of an institution’s sustainability was how well a transition from founder to the next generation of leadership is managed. The Carter Center, now a venerable institution, was relatively new, based on the strong ideas of an exceptional individual, and largely dependent on his standing and personality.
Time, of course, has demonstrated President Carter’s staying power and the good works the Center, well-staffed and governed, continues to do on human rights, election monitoring and river blindness, among other pressing international issues. I like to think my question provided at least some food for thought.
Transitions are indeed hard. I arrived in New York from my post in Rio de Janeiro in July 1980 at the start of Frank Thomas’ presidency, and remember well the almost year-long period while staff watched the development of new program ideas and the elimination of others. It was a difficult period, full of anticipation and considerable angst as Frank’s philanthropic vision was defined and put in place.
Many thought it might have been quicker and easier, as Frank assumed executive leadership after five years as a member of the Board. From my vantage point, it was a studied and deliberative process, with program papers carefully drawn, reviewed and presented to the Board for approval, and inevitable staff changes that followed. It is a process common to virtually every foundation transition that I am aware of, as new leadership reviews the accomplishments and problems of the past, and updates programs according to new prerogatives and changing times, in this case adapting to the Reagan era at home and to democratic transitions in Latin America, South Africa and Central and Eastern Europe.
I, like Fran, applied these lessons in my own planned transition to retirement, although I followed a different model for selecting a successor. I left the Foundation in 1996 to start the Center on International Cooperation (CIC), at New York University, a policy research institute focused on improving the delivery of public goods and services through the array of multilateral institutions known as the UN System.
Our timing, at the end of the Cold War and with promising initiatives in international law, peace and security, and humanitarian assistance, was precise. With substantial start-up support from the Ford Foundation, I was able to put together an excellent staff and advisory committees, and CIC had considerable success in leveraging research findings into innovative programs: the UN’s Peacebuilding Commission, the International Criminal Court and World Bank reconstruction aid, among others. We were fully staffed and operating with an annual budget of $4 to $5 million dollars.
I knew, however, that my energies would sap and I wanted to plan an orderly transition. I put out the word and met with several people to discuss the CIC’s future and the kind of leadership I thought was necessary to see it through a rapidly changing international political context and a funding pattern that had shifted dramatically from foundations to European governments.
Bruce Jones, a young Cambridge Ph.D. in international politics who was working at the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and I met periodically over lunch for the better part of a year, and I invited him to join the Center as a program officer, focused largely on matters of peace and security. Two years later he returned to the UN at Kofi Annan’s request to work on its High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change. When he returned to the Center the following year, I named him co-director and slowly passed full responsibility on to him over the next twelve months.
I suppose many will say that an open search would have been preferable to the model we chose. However, the search was broadly consultative and experiential, resulting in a next generation of leadership for an institution that has proved its sustainability over what is now a twenty-year period.
What was important for me, and I believe worked well, was recognizing that the Center had to transition from the vision, design and operating style of its founder to new leadership that would bring fresh ideas and energy to bear on the evolving and ever complex issues that define its mission. To assure the space for that to occur, I opted to step aside completely, and now watch from a distance and with considerable pride at what a second- and third-generation of leadership continues to accomplish.