What did these 3 development leaders learn from their first jobs?

Fresh graduates can learn from these development leaders, who are now making decisions to help shape the future of global development. Photo by: Flazingo Photos / CC BY-SA 

Ask Devex: Transitioning into and within the development sector

Devex weighs in on some of the most pressing questions for global development job seekers, including how to transition into development from the private sector, transitioning to and from being a development consultant, and how to tackle gaps in your CV.

Nigel Fisher’s impatience, combined with an affinity for team building, found a home in crisis and response. Andrew Kaiser’s sharp business sense and problem-solving nature led to founding his own company to address emerging market challenges. And Laurence Carter’s relationship-building talent landed him a career in partnerships.

The common thread? None of the three knew quite where they’d end up when embarking on a career in international development.

Devex asked the three leaders to take a step back and share what they learned from their first job — and what they know now that they may have benefitted from knowing then.

Here’s an excerpt from our conversations.

Andrew Kaiser

Andrew Kaiser (far right), chief of party, Ethiopia Local Capacity Development Program, and founder of The Kaizen Company.

Andrew Kaiser, now the chief of party for the Ethiopia Local Capacity Development Program, studied international relations and economics, but it was a year-long fellowship in Bolivia after his undergraduate degree that sparked his interest in development.

After spending a few years teaching and consulting in Japan, he decided to pursue a graduate degree in international development, but was “convinced to get an MBA instead,” he said, as industry professionals he spoke with encouraged him that a master’s of business administration would help him stand out in a field that was becoming more outcome driven. Their predictions were right on — and Kaiser later called on his international business background to found The Kaizen Company, an incubator for innovative, scalable solutions that address emerging market challenges and opportunities.

What was your first job out of school?

I turned down the offers I got after business school and crashed on my cousin’s couch in D.C.  

I did a lot of informational interviews — something I’d still recommend doing. You're basically asking for someone’s time, but not putting pressure on them. Instead, it gives you the opportunity to impress them. I got an internship at World Resources Institute for three months, then found a job at Chemonics, one step above the most junior level, as a business development coordinator working on proposals.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you made as a young employee? What did you learn from that experience?  

“I was inexperienced, I didn't have everything one needs, but there was never going to be a good time to do it, and this industry is as much art as it is science.”

— Andrew Kaiser

One of the biggest mistakes early on was my attitude. I thought i was more valuable to [my employer] than I was. It became clear that I needed to learn a lot before I added value. Many of my junior-level colleagues thought they deserved more opportunities to get the coveted trips to the field, but the other half were the ones who took the opportunities to do the hard stuff that may have been one or two pay grades above them.

I had the opportunity to write my first technical proposal — the top writer was out, the other one was occupied. So who could do it? I stuck my hand up, and with a lot of support ended up writing a winning technical approach. That gets you noticed. I learned to be pleasantly persistent, borderline aggressive in looking for opportunities to add value. When the coveted field spots came open, I applied and got one. The reason I got it was because I impressed in other ways.

Did you ever think you'd be doing what you're doing now?

I never considered myself overly business oriented. It was more of a practical design to go to business school, and I never planned on starting a business per se. I was in the field for Chemonics and developed an approach that most considered to be innovative. They wanted me to take that idea and turn it into a practice area within the organization and sell it internally. But I had the idea that we could leverage information technology to continue support for reform-minded individuals in developing countries after USAID projects ended. If I wanted to do it, I needed to go out on my own and give it a shot. I was inexperienced, I didn't have everything one needs, but there was never going to be a good time to do it, and this industry is as much art as it is science. We survived … before we thrived.

Anything you know now that you wished you would have known when either searching for or taking on your first job?

Regardless of whether you’re really good and have strong competencies, there’s a lot you need to learn from the ground up before you're valuable. I got my MBA and was in pretty high demand in the marketplace. But development attracts extremely educated people who perform. I had to take a $20,000 reduction in salary from my job. You have to swallow that bitter pill of “I’m willing to work for less to get into development.”

Your piece of advice for young grads wishing to enter the field of development?

Hit the pavement hard, don’t be afraid to ask for informational interviews and be pleasantly persistent. One of the untold filters in development: You have to really want it. There are so many people who do want it, are willing to take a lower salary, willing to do work that is maybe not the ideal job for someone coming out of graduate or undergraduate studies. Half of the battle is: How committed are you? That same logic applies once you have that first job. How far are you willing to go to stand out and a develop solutions that go beyond your job?

Nigel Fisher

Nigel Fisher, former United Nations assistant secretary-general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, joined the Konterra Group as senior adviser, humanitarian policy and complex crises.

An international career was always attractive to Nigel Fisher, who has enjoyed a long and illustrious career at the United Nations. But it was his professor during his undergraduate studies of political theory and government who helped him focus on international development and African studies.

Fisher, who recently took a position as senior adviser at the Konterra Group, went on to obtain a master’s in political science, then taught in Nigeria as a volunteer. He “didn't grow up wanting to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” he said, but work throughout his career for multiple U.N. agencies in Mozambique, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, the West Bank, Laos, India and Nepal allowed him to shine in crisis situations.

Now in the private sector, Fisher assists Konterra’s clients to plan and implement its humanitarian and resilience strategies as well as their operational initiatives.

What was your first job out of school?

I worked in the private sector for a year, but I wanted to do something international, and felt I wanted to do something that would make a difference. To me, the important point wasn't to get the job straight out of university that would lead me on a career path, it was to explore.

My first two, three jobs were just bouncing around for a couple years here and there to get experience.

“I can get things done, and the impatience in me found a home in crisis and response.”

— Nigel Fisher

So I taught West African economics and West African history in Nigeria. I was also the sports master, so I got to travel around to other towns doing that. [My wife and I] lived in the Niger Delta, so we had to the chance to discover Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast.  

Did you ever think you'd be doing what you're doing now?

I had my international interests — development, world politics, economics. But how that would pan out? I had no idea in advance.

My first dozen years of life with the U.N. were more traditionally in development situations, then by accident I got involved in Mozambique during their civil war in emergency response.

The immediacy of crises and emergency appeals to me. I can get things done, and the impatience in me found a home in crisis and response. Wherever I was, I was not dissatisfied, but neither was I satisfied. I was always looking for other opportunities, looking over the fence to see what else was going on.

Your guide to the UN job application process

Follow a step-by-step breakdown of the U.N. online job application process with insights from U.N. recruitment staff on what to include, common mistakes, and tips for getting your application noticed.

With the U.N., I volunteered to become part of a regional evaluation group, for example, so I could get involved in other things. I was posted to Jordan in 1990, arrived the day that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait … suddenly Jordan had refugees on its doorstep. I developed a network and kept on getting called on to do this kind of work. I wanted to head up an emergency response, so the head of UNICEF said “you asked for it, off you go” — to Rwanda in 1994.

Anything you know now that you wished you would have known when either searching for or taking on your first job?

If you have an interest, it’s really important to try and follow it, even if in a voluntary capacity at first. In today’s world, where jobs are so competitive, your employer is looking for something that marks you out. Hundreds of people have excellent degrees. Have you taken leadership roles or participated in your community? Traveled overseas? Learned a language? What have you done that marks you out?

Laurence Carter

Laurence Carter, senior director, public-private partnerships group, The World Bank

Laurence Carter, senior director of the public-private partnerships group for The World Bank, grew up in Africa, where his father was a teacher. Carter studied economics at the University of Cambridge, then headed to Botswana to work as a transport planner in the Ministry of Works and Communications — the first job that sparked his interest in living abroad and pursuing a career in development

“In those days you didn’t need a master’s degree, at least it wasn’t so common,” he said, though he later completed a master’s in agricultural economics at the University of London.

What was your first job out of school?

“I mean to be honest if you go back 15 years, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of public-private partnerships.”

— Laurence Carter

I worked in the Ministry of Works and then I transferred to the Ministry of Finance in Botswana, did that for three years. I came back, worked in the U.K. Department of Education for about a year, but I really didn’t like living in London. I wanted to get back into development, so I joined a small development consultancy, a U.K. development consultancy. And then I worked in two of three places. Basically in Malawi, and then I ended up on the Island in St. Helena working as the economist for that island.

What was one of the biggest mistakes you made as a young employee? What did you learn from that experience?  

I’ll give you two. One is less serious. One is more serious.

Less serious: In Botswana, when I went there, my first week it was really really hot. And I was in a small office I shared with two other people. And it was a small ministry; there were maybe just 100 people working in it. And the minister was just down the corridor. A woman I was sharing with, she fainted at work my second or third day there. I had taken my shoes off because it was so hot. There was no air conditioning, so I rushed up to try to get her some ice. I was told the only place in the whole building with ice was the minister’s office. So I rushed into the minister’s office to ask him for ice and he looked at me very strangely because I was standing there in my socks. And that was the first time I’d met the minister. So I guess, keep your shoes on.

But more seriously, about a year later I was working in the Ministry of Finance. Like in many countries, that’s the relatively powerful ministry — in charge of all the money. I wrote a note to my boss, which was critical of an application that had been made from the ministry I’d worked in before, the Ministry of Works, saying I don’t think we should approve this. And this note upset the person in the Ministry of Works who’d made the request, I mean understandably.

My boss took me aside and said look, sometimes, even if you’re right, you need to think about the relationships that you hold at work and sometimes you want to be careful about what you put in writing. And you want to be careful about deciding whether or not you need to maintain relationships or not. And this matter here, now this means you’ve broken the relationship with this person, but you need to work with him, and so you better figure out how to make this up. You may be right professionally … you need to think about relationships more.

Did you ever think you'd be doing what you're doing now?

I haven’t really planned my career at all really. I have to be honest. I have been lucky. I kind of believe that life is …there’s some degree of fate and luck in life. So long as you do the right thing … that good things happen to good people I suppose I’d sum it up as saying. So long as you have the integrity and your work is recognized by people, then things will work out OK. I’ve been lucky enough to change jobs about every three to five years. And that’s been very energizing. And I think that’s also the way of life. It’s very difficult to project. I mean to be honest if you go back 15 years, I don’t think I’d ever even heard of public-private partnerships.

Anything you know now that you wished you would have known when either searching for or taking on your first job?

About 15 years ago I made a move. I worked in the International Finance Corporation … for a long time. But shortly after joining, maybe three years after joining I moved and the person who took me on said ‘I’ll take you on providing you do the CFA, [the Chartered Financial Analyst program]. I need you to show me that you’re up to speed with financial analysis.’ And I wish I’d done that course earlier. That’s a very tough course the CFA … So I think having a good knowledge of financial analysis is really important. That’s one thing.

And then second, I wish that at university there’d been some courses about how to work well in groups. That’s what I’ve learned to work over the years. And that’s what I think is most valuable … In a team of people that are professionally competent, the thing that differentiates good performers from weak performers is mostly interpersonal skills.

Your piece of advice for young grads wishing to enter the field of development?

My view of development is that there is actually no real shortage of money. In contrast there’s a real shortage of good management skills. Both in the countries that are underdeveloped and in many aid agencies. So the thing that really differentiates and is really in short supply is good quality management.

Spend some time in underdeveloped countries so you can just see the constraints that policymakers face there. Try to work for organizations with good values and for managers with high integrity.

About the authors

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.
  • Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.