Sounding off on how to be a competent chief of party

Leaders at the capacity development workshop in Nairobi. Photo by: Joyce Maru/ILRI / CC BY-NC-SA

If you aspire to become today’s project leader, what do you need to have to be effective?

According to Kate Warren, director of global recruiting services at Devex, a chief of party, team leader or country director needs four new skills to cope with an evolving aid industry: technical and management prowess, knack for seeing the big picture, ability to forge partnerships, and capacity building.

But there’s more, according to some Devex readers who have had experience as so-called project CEOs:

• A keen interest in monitoring and evaluation.
• Technical skills to make sure that a baseline is done well.
• Constant assurance that data gathering is being done in a timely manner.
• Knowledge of the kind of statistical analysis that makes sense.
• Ability to write quarterly reports that take the data and explain its meaning to the donor, stakeholders and policymakers.
• Knowledge and ability to use an integrated database management system.
• Gumption to fight the “powers that be” for budgetary and staffing support to do M&E well.
• Understanding of project indicators, including definition and timing of collection.
• Skills to negotiate the measurable and deliverable project indicators with donors.
• Public relation and diplomacy.
• Team building.
• Political savvy.
• Ability to create enabling environment for the human resources to thrive harmoniously.

They likewise shared the challenges that come with the work of current-day COPs.

Project leaders have to master working in an environment that now demands more transparency and accountability, suggested Martin Dawes.

“The orientation should be that anyone using public funds, funds raised from the public or conducting social activities should be in open dialogue and that disclosure is as full as possible to enable a proper conversation,” Dawes wrote. “The logic of this is that aid groups should be working on mechanisms that get feedback from communities (Facebook for all?- why not?), and that criticism is received as a useful method of improvement.”

On a daily basis, most COPs have to deal with issues on finance and accounting, HR and logistics, among others, on top of training local managerial staff, “coping all by ourselves without any proper backup” from the hiring organization, RCarneiro noted.

John Paton, meanwhile, recalled evaluating or managing projects that have been either designed by people who have never managed a project in the field or proposed by a client whose design misunderstands the reality on the ground.

“On such occasions there can either be problems with implementing the project the way it was designed or there is a complete lack of interest in it by the client — leaving the CoP to make the best of a bad job,” Paton said.

Merschrod agreed with Paton’s observation. He said the problem lies in the fact that not all project designers know exactly what they want. In addition, recruiters in consulting firms generally the youngest and least experienced employees writing proposals.

“In the wild days of gathering a team before the competition signs them up, the strategy of implementation to be proposed is still in the works and the wrong talent is recruited, but that will be the team that the COP has to build with,” Merschrod said, citing the example of recruiters proposing a statistician when, in reality, an applied research methodologist would be needed.

What do you think are some the challenges chiefs of party or team leaders face in managing projects in the field? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.