What Did I Learn? On Departing WRI, Reflections on Nine Years at the Helm
I’m writing this on my final day at WRI, after nearly nine very happy and productive years. Together, we’ve grown the impact and the size of WRI, we’ve internationalized our reach, and we’ve built a well-functioning global team of 1,500 professionals across more than a dozen international offices. Along the way we’ve helped reshape understanding of the relationship between the natural world and economic development, we’ve introduced important new technologies and tools, and we’ve influenced key decisions in cities, corporations, communities and countries — and in the global corridors of power.
In all this we’ve helped shift the needle towards hope.
Over recent days I’ve been asked on several occasions “So what have you learned about how to make a Think Tank/Do Tank effective in addressing the urgent complex problems we face? What are the secrets of WRI’s success?”
What Have We Learned Together?
Here are some of the things I think we’ve learned together as we’ve sought to make WRI even more effective in driving change:
1. Be Clear About Your Offer — and Make it Irresistible.
We have been most successful when we have designed product lines that are focused, crystal clear and so obviously attractive that no sensible decision-maker (or donor!) would say no. WRI’s landmark projects like Global Forest Watch — which provides data and tools to help people better protect forests — or the analysis offered by the New Climate Economy team, or the Cool Food Pledge are just some such examples. This “Steve Jobs-type” message requires exceptional creativity and serious discipline to stay focused on what matters most. In recruiting senior staff these are the skills we need to be looking out for.
2. There are No Silver Bullets. It’s a Jigsaw Puzzle.
We all now recognize that to achieve the needed scale of transformation, incremental change is not enough. It’s not about projects; we need to change systems. This requires different players — governments, citizens, corporates, technology, finance, NGOs, research, media etc — to play their roles. This, in turn requires us to think carefully about missing pieces and what role we can helpfully play. Sometimes our role is quite specific, placing a missing piece into the puzzle, and sometimes it involves making the whole add up. The High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy and the Global Commission on Adaptation have been examples of this latter role. In all cases, our impact depends on a detailed diagnosis of the state of the system-change journey and an understanding of the required ingredients to make momentum unstoppable.
3. Know Your Special Sauce — and Invest in It.
Our biggest impact has been when we bring the special ingredients that make us unique. For WRI this involves combining our globally respected data and research (“count it”) with our on-the-ground practical presence (“change it”) together with our convening and global engagement (“scale it”). Our AFR 100 Landscape Restoration program with the African Union and 20 African governments illustrates this. So too, does our work on New Urban Mobility Alliance (NUMO), and our work with developing country climate negotiators. We have specialized in convening multi-stakeholder partnerships and empowering them with the right analysis in the right format at the right time. Starting with the New Climate Economy in 2013 this has led to the Food and Land Use Alliance, the Coalition for Urban Transitions, and the Ocean Panel.
4. Don’t Believe Them When They Tell You You’re Only an NGO.
When I left the World Bank to join WRI in 2012 I believed my days of engaging with senior global decision-makers were over. I was looking forward to writing and reviewing research papers, hosting seminars and advancing the intellectual agenda. Yes, I did those things, but I had totally underestimated the demand from governments, mayors, corporate leaders, and international institutions for objective evidenced-based partnership in real time. When we have acted boldly we have surprised ourselves. Our current work with China on Greening the Belt and Road or our convening of ministers in Latin America to create the 20x20 Landscape Restoration program are examples. Who gave NGOs permission to set the standards for corporate or city GHG emissions? Or set up Track 2 Dialogs for climate negotiations? And yet 1,500 companies are now signed on to Science Based Targets. And the Track 2s have injected many important insights into formal negotiations.
5. Lower Your Flag to Forge Partnerships.
WRI has a long history of sharing credit with others, and this is now a way of life for us. The NDC Partnership illustrates this well: at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015 it became clear that countries were well-meaning but ill-equipped to implement their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). We approached donors — initially Germany, then Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom — and designed a partnership for ambitious countries that wanted to support each other. WRI hosts the secretariat and manages the funds, but it is owned by all and governed by an Executive Committee of senior government officials. Five years on, the Partnership includes 120 national governments and 42 international institutions egging each other on in implementing their NDCs. Along with the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme and others we now have teams working to support 50 countries in raising their game on NDCs.
6. There are Good and Bad Ways to Grow.
Over the past nine years we have quadrupled our size (and hopefully more than quadrupled our impact!). We learned three things along the way as we sought to avoid the spread and mission creep that often accompanies growth. First, grow only when there is clarity of demand and of purpose. Our new offices in Indonesia, Ethiopia and Colombia, for example, all had senior level country ownership before opening, and highly focused delivery objectives. Second, insist on the right combination of global product lines and context-specific delivery. We have found growth to be more effective and manageable the more it is “modular” — i.e. the more that it is built on the disciplined application of our global platforms and tools. No new office should start from scratch but should rather have a rich array of product lines from which to choose and tailor carefully and professionally for the country context. Third, only grow when new recruitment leads to an uptick in the overall quality, dynamism and synergy of the overall global team.
7. Our Wealth is Our People.
We are only as strong as our staff, management and Board. When we opened international offices and accelerated our international recruitment, there were some concerns that the technical quality might decline. This has not happened. If anything, the opposite. This doesn’t come easily. It requires an exceptional HR team and an insistence that all managers are HR officers committed first and foremost to the mentoring and strengthening of their staff. We’ve just completed our second-year long management training program for 80 next-generation WRI managers. We’ve made mistakes. On diversity, we were focused on our overall diverse staffing structure and neglected the fact that Black staff in our Global Office in Washington, D.C. were under-represented and feeling excluded. We are now engaged on a multi-year commitment to become a truly inclusive organization.
8. Head, Hand and Heart.
Our strength is in analysis and practice — the head and the hand — but this counts for nothing if the heart isn’t in the right place. This is where our values come in. Early in our international growth, we had an important discussion at the Board: how can we recruit new staff in new international offices while instilling a sense of common DNA across the network. We agreed that this was only possible with disciplined investment as soon as staff are recruited and throughout their tenure. Our Mission, Values and Approach training is central to this. It is thrilling to see teams in our international offices proud of their WRI heritage and passionate to honor the values of respect, integrity, urgency, innovation and independence.
Moving Forward in the Decisive Decade
We should expect dramatic changes in economies and societies this decade as decarbonization accelerates, resilience becomes a priority, and we shift from a nature-destroying to a nature-positive form of economic development. WRI and our partners have shown that these transformations are not only possible, they are affordable and can lead to better jobs, healthier citizens, more equality and a better way of life. But it will not be easy. It requires leadership and smart evidence-based decisions and will need a great deal of support.
The services that WRI and our partners offer have never been more needed, nor in such demand. The coming years will see even more opportunities to make a difference with WRI’s “Count It, Change It, Scale It!” approach. We should expect less demand for the “why” of change and much more for the “how.” We will need to double down on the data and analytical basis of our work and deepen our focus on poverty reduction and social justice.
WRI is extremely well-prepared for the challenges ahead. Our staff are technically excellent, politically smart, focused on impact and passionate about their calling. We have a deep bench of experienced senior managers, well-equipped to drive change. And we have superb partners and donors. We are indeed privileged, and I am deeply thankful!