“Chief of party” is the job title most commonly used for the overall project lead on a United States Agency for International Development-funded program. While the exact duties of a COP can vary, this person plays a critical leadership role in the launch and management of a project. Tasked with overseeing project implementation, the COP is involved in a wide range of activities from hiring staff, to guiding project strategy, to managing financial budgets and donor relationships. Devex spoke to several professionals with chief of party experience in a range of regions and sectors to find out what contributes to a successful project launch and what they would do differently next time round. Here’s what they said.
Recruit the right people
During the startup phase, chiefs of party should invest considerable time in hiring the right people. Identifying a strong team from the beginning is one of the “critical responsibilities” of a chief of party and something that can make or break the project, says Jane Kellum, an education and gender specialist who was COP for more than two years for a Care project in Haiti. Things can of course be tweaked and fixed further down the road, but it is more difficult she adds, so “establishing and finding the right team from the very beginning is a critical part of that beginning launch of the project.” Kate Heuisler, who is currently overseeing USAID’s Development Innovations project in Cambodia, agrees that staff are one of the most critical elements for project success, particularly “the quality and diversity of the people on the team.”
When it comes to hiring, Kristi Ragan, who is based in Washington, D.C., as chief of party for USAID Invest, doesn’t stick to rigid criteria and appreciates candidates who are more interested in “doing real, relevant work” than the job title or profile. “I look for people who are a bit hungry to break into the space and who don’t have the perfect resume,” says Ragan, because skills in collaboration, team building, flexibility, risk taking, client management, and “having your colleagues’ back” are not always apparent in a resume. “These are the skills of adaptive management,” she adds “You have to frame questions that show you value these traits and find ways to see if the candidate does also.”
“At the end of the day, every project is only as good as its entire team.”— Jane Kellum, education and gender specialist
Ragan also pays attention to a candidate's reaction after she tells them that the scope of work often becomes obsolete within the first five minutes of a job, especially those roles dealing with new approaches and innovation in international development.