With a greater focus on interdisciplinary programming and constantly shifting contexts in international development, we need to hire staff who can make the most of complex situations to achieve meaningful results. Put another way, we need to prioritize hiring employees with an adaptive skill set, regardless of technical sector or geographic expertise. When we don’t, our implementation suffers and our ability to achieve meaningful results is compromised.
To put it simply, adaptive employees are “individuals, regardless of title, that in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, systematically acquire and use knowledge to make decisions and adjustments in their work in order to achieve greater impact.” Perhaps the most important piece of this definition is the focus on impact: adaptive employees stay focused on achieving meaningful results and this “North Star” guides their decisions. A program manager in this situation won’t just “check the box” on a quarterly review of a program — they will stay focused on achieving programmatic outcomes and use the review to figure out what is working, what isn’t, and how to improve results.
Driven by a sense of curiosity and commitment, these individuals aren’t satisfied with the status quo. Lastly, they don’t assume they have all the answers or that their experience is all that matters. As they navigate inevitable changes, they remain humble, aware of all that they don’t yet know, and value relationships that are critical to achieving success.
We have all been blessed with one of these team members. They are the kind of person who can be put in a variety of situations and will still excel. Think of the colleague who, regardless of technical sector or region, always writes the best proposals. Why? Because they stay curious and ask the right questions, are inclusive and can work with people from various cultural backgrounds, and are focused on creating the best product possible.
The good news is that our industry seems to intuitively understand the importance of this adaptive skill set. In Devex’s Next Generation Professional report, those surveyed identified adaptive and agile program management as one of the most important approaches for development and flexibility, and adaptability as the most important interpersonal skill for development professionals of the future.
However, we often fail to focus on recruiting team members with these skills because we prioritize technical and regional expertise over adaptive management capacity. And because of this, we end up with the candidate who is perfect on paper but can’t actually get the job done, because they struggle to move forward when the trajectory of the work diverges from what was expected. What if, instead, we were intentional about recruiting for the adaptive skill set? Here’s what that would look like:
1. Identify which adaptive competencies are most relevant to the position you are filling
USAID’s research identified 18 distinct adaptive competencies from critical and reflective thinking, to being comfortable with ambiguity. While some people call these “soft skills,” they are often the hardest to learn and need to be prioritized when recruiting candidates. Take time to consider which adaptive competencies are most important for the position based on the needs of the program, organization, and team.
For example, is this person in a formal leadership position? If yes, you might want to consider the importance of the political acumen competency. Using this tool can help you determine which adaptive competencies are most relevant to your needs.
2. Place adaptive competencies front and center in job ads and position descriptions
How often do you read a job ad or a position description only to find mention of those adaptive competencies as the last bullet on the page? What if the critical adaptive competencies you were most in need of were put at the top instead — or at the very least not last? That would send a clear message to applicants that this isn’t an afterthought and will make or break a successful candidacy. This is not to say technical qualifications don’t matter — of course they do.
But we have all known the “perfect on paper, wins you the proposal” chief of party who isn’t a strong manager. This isn’t about ignoring the technical requirements, but putting more weight on the adaptive competencies so implementation goes as smoothly as you intended when you wrote the solicitation or proposal.
3. Ask behavioral interview questions that relate to prioritized adaptive competencies
We often fall into the trap of asking candidates to explain their experience by posing them questions like: “Have you ever overseen a large team like this?” Or, “What’s the largest program you’ve ever managed?” These data points don’t give you a sense of the challenges a candidate has faced, how they have overcome them, or their leadership potential. A lot of people have done those things — many of them very badly.
Instead, use the interview to ask behavior-based questions, such as, “Give me an example of a time when you felt you led by example. What did you do and how did others react?” Or, “Tell me about a time when you were required to change an approach or plan in the moment with very little warning. What happened and what did you do?”
These answers should give you a fuller picture of the candidate and their ability to manage adaptively. See this guide for more questions like this.
After finding the right candidate with a balance of technical and adaptive competencies, don’t forget to tout the candidate’s adaptive capacity in proposals or when submitting for key personnel changes. Donors are increasingly looking for these candidates, recognizing that they need to enable implementing partners to manage more adaptively, and that starts with who we hire. We have all known candidates who did not meet the technical qualifications, but who were nevertheless successful in the role because of their strong adaptive competencies. We need to start giving these candidates a real chance to compete, even if they fall short on the ideal technical qualifications.
These slight shifts can have lasting impact. Once you start to hire candidates with strong adaptive competencies, you slowly start to influence the organization’s culture, what it values, and how it functions. Over time, you move away from the candidate that is only perfect on paper to the one that is just right in reality, increasing your organization’s effectiveness and its ability to achieve lasting, meaningful results.