Move over generalists, make way for integrators

Delegates and regional stakeholders from public, private, civil society and academia sectors come together at a food security and climate change workshop in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. This type of collaboration is increasingly important and has opened a career path for “integrators." Photo by: Elisabeth van de Grift / CGIAR Climate / CC BY-NC-SA 

There have historically been two career paths professionals pursued in the field of international development: That of a specialist and that of a generalist. Specialists bring a deep expertise in a specific area like forestry, microfinance or reproductive health. Generalists, not necessarily experts in any one sector, bring the ability to effectively manage and implement development projects, honing their expertise in operations, finance and donor regulations.

As the global development field becomes more highly specialized — and many of the project management positions generalists once occupied are increasingly filled by local professionals — the role of the international generalist has been on the decline.

However, there is a new career path emerging for professionals who don’t necessarily want to pursue a specialization but want to play a meaningful role in global development: the “integrator.” Over the past few months, I have increasingly heard leaders across multiple development disciplines use this term to describe what has quickly become a critical role to achieving development results.

Read: Wanted: Integrators

So what is an integrator?

An integrator is someone who understands multiple specialties and how they impact each other and excels in fostering collaboration between various stakeholders who may not be accustomed to working together, like government, private sector and civil society.

Solving complex challenges like food security, climate change, global health and extreme poverty will require multidisciplinary approaches with input from a wide array of specialties and actors. Historically, generalists could work between silos, applying their project management expertise where needed. But to stay in demand in today’s world, they will need to increasingly work across silos, fostering collaboration, seeing connections and building partnerships between stakeholders to achieve meaningful results.

Whether you consider yourself a generalist or specialist, or just aren’t sure, thinking like an integrator can add significant value to any role. If you want to become an integrator — or think like one — start doing these five things now.

1. Build relationships with the other departments in your organization

Some organizations are divided by sector, function or region. Regardless of how your organization organizes itself, start reaching out to colleagues in other departments to begin breaking down those silos that can be detrimental to collaboration. Depending on the internal politics that may be at play, you can start small — just ask to grab lunch or coffee with a colleague to learn more about what he or she is working on.

2. Build relationships with stakeholders outside of your organization

Perhaps because of the bidding process many organizations have to go through to obtain funding, there is often a feeling of competition among global development organizations. Even if not directly competing for funding, different sectors sometimes have a turf war mentality when it comes to their programming. Start breaking down these walls by reaching out to other stakeholders, learning about their goals and priorities and looking at where they align with yours. Most professionals are in this field because they care about making a difference in the world, so show them how working together can help you both achieve your goals.

Watch: Want to become a tri-sector leader? Master these 3 skills 

3. Try getting experience in another sector

One of the key skills of an integrator is understanding how each of the various sectors operates. If you have only worked for an NGO, for example, try getting a job within a corporate or government institution to broaden your perspective. Easier said than done, I know, but understanding the internal politics, motivations and lay of the land of various stakeholders will allow you to be a better collaborator. Read more on career transitions in global development.  

Watch: What does a masters in tri-sector collaboration look like?

4. Ask a lot of questions, then listen

When trying to build relationships with professionals outside your immediate circle, ask a lot of questions, and then listen. The ability to be an integrator depends on understanding how other actors work and think. Bring a sense of curiosity to everything you do, including reading widely to develop a broad range of views while developing a deep understanding of development’s complexities. Look for the connections that others don’t see.

5. Be persistent

The reason this role is so needed is because effective collaboration is hard to do. With often no one at the helm driving partnerships from any one side, it takes someone with the grit and determination to see things through. Partnerships do not happen overnight and even well thought out collaboration among motivated partners can hit roadblocks and hurdles along the way. Integrators are the ones who can see the forest through the trees and keep everyone on track even when it gets difficult.

How do you see integrators playing a new role in global development? Do you consider yourself an integrator and what advice would you give others looking to do the same? Please leave your comments below.

If you have a questions about managing your career in global development, please tweet me @DevexCareers. Check out more career advice stories online, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news.

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.