A lesson in likeability with CRS CEO Sean Callahan

Catholic Relief Services CEO Sean Callahan introduces himself to staff at CRS offices in Niger. Photo by: Michael Stulman / Catholic Relief Services

NIAMEY, Niger — In 1994, Sean Callahan drove from Ghana to Burkina Faso with a faux Christmas tree in the trunk of his car.

At every checkpoint, guards would puzzle over the box, a gift he had brought from the U.S. at the request of a colleague. And each time, the Catholic Relief Services president — then a public donor liaison for the faith-based nonprofit — would open the box and construct the tree to satisfy their curiosity before packing it back up to continue his journey.

He laughs quietly as he shares the tale, remembering the glee of his colleague at receiving the unlikely present when he arrived in Burkina Faso.

Callahan, who assumed leadership of CRS in January, is a captivating storyteller, perhaps because he has collected experiences like others might collect foreign coins throughout nearly three decades and eight consecutive positions with the U.S. Catholic community’s international humanitarian agency.

Give him the time and he will tell a tale that draws everyone within earshot. It may have something to do with his casual references to Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama — whom he knew or knows personally — but it’s more the fact that he speaks with a distinct lack of showiness. It’s an approachable matter-of-factness that accompanies Callahan into a room — an attribute that has served him from conflict zones to boardrooms and that has now launched him to CRS’ top spot. (If you get the chance, ask him about the time Mother Teresa sent him a nurse when he had a combination of hepatitis, giardia and typhoid).

There is little rest for CRS CEO Sean Callahan during a weeklong visit to CRS projects in Niger.

Callahan has bold plans for an organization he wants to see take a stronger advocacy stance in the U.S. as well as continue growing humanitarian efforts worldwide — all while capitalizing on the sea change he’s witnessed in the wider humanitarian aid community’s’ perception of faith-based organizations.

“There used to be somewhat of an acceptance of us despite the fact that we were a faith-based organization,” he said, noting that the increased respect he sees today because they are faith-based likely stems from CRS’ demonstrated value in responding to multiple health pandemics in recent years.

It’s the steadfast building and strengthening of organizational culture as much as external relationships that will form the foundation of the new strategy he’s currently drafting, he said — an approach synonymous with Callahan if you ask anyone at the organization.

A likeable leader

On a recent two-and-a-half-hour chartered flight from Niamey to eastern Niger, the INGO chief hopped energetically from seat to seat, chatting with flight attendants he’d just met and catching up with local staff about both their personal and professional lives. Showing no signs of fatigue from the long days, he did the same on the plane to Agadez — after convincing his government-appointed bodyguard to accompany him for a morning run earlier that day. At lunch, he looked around to make sure everyone had water before he cracked open his bottle, then offered part of his meal to fellow vegetarians.

It only takes a day with Callahan to learn he isn’t just passionate about CRS’ mission; he’s passionate about people’s well-being.

At the organization’s home office in Baltimore, after having moved his desk into a more modest office, he’s known to meander around the space, saying hello and checking in on his employees — and not in an offhand “Hey, how ya doin?” way. No, Callahan remembers things. He humbly denies practicing any memorization trick to do so, but staff in Niger shared tales of him checking in about a sick uncle or on whether an employee’s two young children got into their preferred school — details of a personal life often ignored by someone in the top echelon of INGO operations. Whether or not he’s briefed on such matters before office visits matters less than the fact that he genuinely listens to the answers.

“One of the things with me, I do really feel for our staff,” he told Devex in a stolen moment between back-to-back meetings with Nigerien civil society leaders and international donors. “When I hear some of these stories, it really does touch me, so it’s hard to forget it.”

This small skill may seem unimportant in the face of CRS’ ambitious mandate to save, protect and transform lives around the world. As CEO, Callahan must also oversee things like budgets and department reorganizations, after all. But it turns out Callahan’s likeability is just as valuable as his many years in the field — and one that CRS recognizes in him.

Bill O’Keefe, CRS vice president of government relations and advocacy, has worked with Callahan for 26 years and describes him as “a very relational person, and therefore a relational leader.”

“He has a large reservoir of trust and loyalty in the organization,” O’Keefe said. “People follow people … our partners around the world also feel this natural solidarity from him that helps in building the kind of mutual relationships where we can push each other to do more better.”

The Callahan strategy

At the time of the infamous faux Christmas tree trip, Callahan was on his way to Niamey, Niger, to scout whether it made sense to open a formal CRS office in the country. Just a few weeks ago, he was back to visit the thriving office — and the working relationships he began all those years ago — as the organization’s president.

“It showed how intelligent we were back then because we decided to open an office here,” Callahan said to more than 30 staff gathered in Niamey’s leafy compound, eliciting cheers. “I want to congratulate you, I have taken all the credit from what you have done,” Callahan added, referring to his nonstop breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings with high-level officials and beneficiaries in the West African country during his weeklong visit. The cheers turned to chuckles.

To Callahan, Niger represents CRS’ progress, but also its potential — something he consistently ponders as he steps from the role of chief operating officer overseeing a portfolio of more than $700 million into his latest undertaking of leading the executive team and 5,400 staff in more than 100 countries around the world.

“When I first started, we were somewhat content that we were changing the lives in a particular village,” he told Devex while on a flight to far eastern Niger to visit communities displaced by Boko Haram violence. “But we need to be bolder, to reach out nationally, transnationally, instead of village by village, covering regions and covering countries.”

He’s animated, talking faster as he describes the impressive response rate on a recent staff wellness survey. The CRS lead is working to reorganize and reshuffle employees to guard against the tendency for INGOs to think only by division, or “only out of headquarters,” he said, making sure representatives from the field are integrated into commonly U.S.-dominated teams.

They’re potentially unpopular moves for an organization accustomed to splitting operations according to traditional arms of finance, human resources, and overseas operations, but Callahan wants “more talking, more listening, more collaborating,” he told Devex, tenting his hands in front of his chest as he does when he’s thinking or listening — a habit he picked up in Asia and has never shed.

To prove it, he’s compiled a list of hundreds of questions submitted from staff around the world during his first company wide virtual “town hall.” Each week, he’ll answer a few more, he shared before turning to ask if anyone on the plane wanted his extra fruit.

Building on a 30-year legacy

Being bold comes naturally to Callahan, who started with the faith-based nonprofit as an intern in Costa Rica and was immediately reassigned to Nicaragua in 1988 when Hurricane Joan slammed into the country’s southeast coast. And so began his nearly 30-year journey in humanitarian aid — a vast pivot from the dreams of sitting as a Supreme Court justice that colored the Massachusetts-native’s childhood.

Instead, without looking back, Callahan went from intern to project manager, assistant country representative to country representative, regional director to head of human resources, executive vice president of overseas operations to chief operating officer, and finally to CEO.

It’s common, Devex learned, for CRS staff to spend their entire careers with the organization: Niger’s country representative has spent more than 30 years at CRS and the West Africa regional director more than 25.

Callahan worked extensively in Latin America, later becoming Nicaragua country representative, as well as throughout Africa, with many years in Asia. He has never stopped to count how many countries he’s visited — “I always thought someday I would sit down and do that!” he said apologetically. He estimates he’s been to about three-fourths of the countries CRS operates in, and he never shies away from visiting the most remote areas of their implementation.

Even as EVP for overseas operations, “I always thought that if our staff can go to certain places, I should go to those tough places, and see what is going on,” he said.

So he does. Callahan slept outside with the rest of the staff right after Super Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. He accompanied staff into hard to reach areas following Nepal’s devastating April 2015 earthquake, and he was immediately “out on a boat with local partners” during a flood while he was based in Calcutta, India.

India holds a particularly special place in his heart — not only because it’s where he came to call Mother Teresa a friend, but it’s where he met his wife Piyali, with whom he now has two children.

Now, on a regular early morning in Baltimore, Callahan can be found dropping his daughter off at swim practice — and maybe squeezing in a few laps himself — before heading into the office. Later, his son may have a swim meet, so he’ll bring his laptop to answer emails in between cheering.

He doesn’t yet share all of the stories — the kind that enrapture other development professionals — with his children, although telling them about what he does helps the two better understand when he has to miss a family event, he said. His motivation for doing the work he does, though, has matured over the past 30 years thanks in large part to his family.

“When I see children without adequate food, it really crushes me … I think of my own children,” he said. “It really is a reflection on what I would want for myself and my family. How can we assist other people to have those same opportunities?”

Despite the distances he travels to visit CRS projects, Callahan finds he often has plenty in common with the staff or local leaders he meets. Most recently in Niger, Callahan felt a connection with the government ministers, the governors and the interim prime minister.

“They’re nice guys, they’re trying to figure [these challenges] out too,” he said. “Our value is in building those relationships. We are not a development agency, we are a relationship agency. To affirm those relationships and the great work they’re doing — that’s what makes me feel good.”

Callahan, calm and practically dressed in a CRS-logoed shirt and breathable khaki hiking pants while preparing to meet beneficiaries in mercilessly hot eastern Niger, isn’t nervous about his new role, he shares, though he is greatly humbled by it.

Many of his thoughts can be traced to his “people person” nature.

“It’s an awesome responsibility to reach out to people in very difficult circumstances,” he said. “The one thing that I always highlight with staff: Anything that we’re doing for local people must be worth their expense and investment in it. We have to be so, so sure that the projects we propose and we support are worthwhile for them.”

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About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.