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A Few Tips for USAID's Rajiv Shah and Anyone Else Leading a Turnaround


President Obama appointed Rajiv Shah to head the US Agency for International Development. The appointment comes after a 10 month vacancy at the top of the Agency and a 40 percent reduction in its full time staff over the past 20 years. Since the effective deployment of foreign aid is a critical component of the United States' diplomatic and security strategies, it's important that Shah get off to a fast and successful start in his job.

In spite of his relatively young age of 36, Shah has a background that seems perfectly suited to the role. He'll be moving to USAID from the US Department of Agriculture where he has played a number of roles including overseeing USDA's participation in the global food security initiative. Prior to USDA, Shah worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as the director of agricultural development and manager of the Foundation's $1.5 billion vaccine fund. Shah has an MD from Penn, a masters in health economics from Wharton, an undergraduate degree from Michigan and spent time at the London School of Economics. It's pretty hard to argue with those credentials.

Still, Shah is stepping into one of the tougher challenges a leader can face which is leading the turnaround of a highly visible and critical organization. Especially in a political environment, it's important to get off to a fast and successful start in this situation. What you do in the first weeks and months on the job largely determines the path for success or failure over the longer run. With that in mind, here a are a few tips for Dr. Shah or any leader getting started on a turnaround:

Identify the key players: Use the access that comes with your new role to sound out experts inside and outside the organization on who the key players are in areas like internal leadership, funding, boundary setting, partnering and priority setting. Get on the calendars of those key players quickly to set up a...

Listening tour: Meet with the key players to get their points of view on some common questions. By asking a set of common questions of the key players you can sift through their responses more easily to determine where the opportunities and pressure points are. Some good questions to ask would include:

  • What are the top three most critical priorities right now?
  • What would success look like in 180 days, 1 year, 3 years?
  • What does this organization do right that we should keep doing?
  • What's the most important thing we should start doing?
  • What is it critical that we stop doing?

Introduce yourself quickly and widely: Use all the communications channels available - retail and wholesale - to introduce yourself quickly to the organization and its stakeholders. Use those early introductions to talk about what your early impressions are of what the organization needs to do and to set the tone of how you want to work within the organization.

Set some early goals that lead to quick wins: While you probably won't have the three year picture fully formed in your first days on the job, you should have a general sense of the direction you're trying to set. Communicate that general direction broadly and repeatedly so people understand the priorities. Find some opportunities for quick win demonstration projects that can be celebrated and highlighted as examples of the new way of doing business.

Recruit a strong core team: The demands on your time as a leader in this situation will be overwhelming. You can't do everything on your own. You'll need a strong team of talented people who get the vision and have the experience to act on it. In the early days, your core team will likely be a mix of people you bring with you who know your style and people you recruit from within who have the talent but have just been waiting for a leader who can leverage their talent. You may not be able to find everyone you need immediately inside the organization. If you've identified a critical need that you can't fill quickly, consider hiring a contractor or consultant who do the job over the short term.

So, that's a starting point list for Dr. Shah or any other leader charged with leading a turnaround. It's certainly not comprehensive. Based on your experience or observation what would you add to the list?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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