An evolving aid industry: How COPs can keep up

Having the right leader in place for development programs is essential to effective oversight and delivery of aid dollars. Photo by: Andrew Nguyen/ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

For many aid workers, becoming a chief of party is an aspiration and considered the pinnacle of an international development career. As a COP — or team leader or country director — you guide the overall operational, administrative and technical aspects of a program, much like an aid project’s version of a CEO.

With some development program budgets reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, having the right leader in place is essential to effective oversight and delivery of aid dollars.

But as the aid industry is evolving, so too is the role of a chief of party. Here are four new skills all effective COPs should have.

1. Technical and management prowess

Depending on how a project is set up or how a staffing plan is designed, some COP positions have a management focus, while the technical expertise is left to a deputy or other senior advisors. On other projects, COPs instead serve as the technical lead, leaving the operational function to support staff. But the most effective COPs are those who can bring both skill sets to the table.

Particularly as budgets tighten, many implementers are looking for a project leader who can direct both the technical and operational sides of a project.

2. Knack for seeing the big picture

The most effective development professionals do not work in silos, but rather take into account how their programs impact other sectors. For example, how does an agriculture development project impact climate change, nutrition and job creation efforts? Or how could the local governance system either impede or propel your programming goals?

You do not need to be a technical expert in all sectors nor divert precious time and resources to go beyond your scope of work, but the best program leaders are able to see how their project both impacts and can be impacted by other aid efforts around them.

3. Ability to forge partnerships

Increasingly, donors and implementers are asked to do more with less. One emerging trend is to leverage existing dollars and programing by joining forces with outside groups like corporations, social enterprises, local governments or other donors who are investing in solving the same issues. A COP or project leader who can seek out and build partnerships to augment the impact of their program by, for example, engaging corporate volunteers to increase their training capacity, is increasingly in demand.

4. Capacity building

With the push to localize aid efforts, the chief of party role is evolving to require experience in training and capacity building. Many projects will bring in an expat COP to get a project started while he or she grooms a local deputy to take over at a later date.

Today’s COPs needs to play the role of mentor, passing along skills and guidance to local staff. The most effective leaders should be trying to work themselves out of a job, creating a sustainable path for local country ownership when they leave.

What other skills do you think are important to being an effective project leader like a chief of party? Please leave your comments below.

About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.