Integrators — those who understand multiple specialties, how they impact each other, and can foster these collaborations — are a professional profile employers will increasingly be looking for as global development continues to attract and engage new and diverse partners.
In a survey carried out for Devex’s recent “Next Generation Professional” report, 75 percent of respondents felt the professional career path most in demand in the next 10 years would be the integrator. This was instead of generalist or specialist career paths.
Alexis Bonnell, division chief of applied innovation and acceleration with the United States Agency for International Development U.S. Global Development Lab, spoke during a recent webinar about the growing demand for integrators in the development workforce.
Devex followed up with Bonnell to find out which roles are best suited to integrator profiles, what skills and approaches they can bring to the sector, and how to demonstrate these to an employer.
An integrator is as much about a way of thinking as it is about hard skills. It is someone who seeks out “others,” explained Bonnell, whether that involves new partners, technologies, thinkers, or approaches.
“Integrators are always looking for mutual wins and show adaptability to engage other opportunities, even if they come late in the game,” Bonnell said. “They tend to be action oriented and they seek out ways to experiment and start small,” she added.
While integrators tend to be extroverts, introvert integrators are often successful in creating processes and procedures to ensure a diverse range of viewpoints, according to Bonnell.
“They are usually strong at being able to map ecosystems and understanding when a person, organization, company, team might be able to bring a unique skill set,” explained Bonnell, and then find ways to make the process or ecosystem shift to accommodate that player.
While integrators can make a positive contribution to most positions, there are some specific areas — including business development, partnerships, corporate development, communications and engagement, and project management — where integrators bring clear strengths.
For example, if “expanding the partner base” is a key metric of success in a job description, the optimum potential of the role will most likely be fulfilled by an integrator, Bonnell said.
Other less obvious roles are also poised to benefit from that “integrator spirit,” Bonnell said. For example, monitoring and evaluation, or impact investing are roles where integrators can bring a wider lens, she explained. Technical experts who exhibit this spirit also tend to see the value in the “evolution” of thought and approach, as opposed to “maintaining current best practice.”
“They champion both the sector and best practices in a discipline without being permanently wed to an approach,” Bonnell said. “They see other approaches as opportunities versus threats on a risk paradigm.”
Anyone can be an integrator
Anyone can teach themselves to develop these integrator tendencies, according to Bonnell. One of her favorite approaches to this is the “yes, but” versus “yes, and” game.
Experts from the USAID and DAI join Devex to discuss the changes impacting global development jobs and driving demand for integrators and tech-savvy professionals.
Upon hearing other people’s ideas, we tend to have two reactions. One of those is “yes, but,” which focuses on why an idea might not work and stifles the conversation. On the other hand, if the response is “yes, and,” it signals that the idea has not only been heard but that the person hearing it is building on it.
“It creates a sense of positive momentum that really opens the gateway for creativity and partnership,” Bonnell said. “Most of us don’t realize that we tend to live in the ‘yes, but’ land,” she explained. But “with a single word change to ‘yes, and’ we often see integration and integrators bloom.”
Demonstrating your abilities
Integrator traits aren't something that can be summed up in a list of qualifications. Your CV can be used to highlight relevant achievements, such as fostering and leading new partnerships, but you should also be prepared to demonstrate these abilities in an interview.
Bonnell talked through a number of questions she might ask in an interview to assess a candidate's “integrator soft skills” and how she would expect a candidate to demonstrate these:
“If you were asked to solve a major challenge such as ‘increase the number of entrepreneurs in a country by 10,000 in the next three years,’ how would you go about it?”
With this type of question, Bonnell is looking to see how the candidate’s mind works — and the challenge she presents is actually not as important as where the candidate assumes the solution will start from.
“Do they assume it is inside their own organization or do they see it as expansive and engaging others?” Bonnell said. Ideally, the candidate should focus on the other players they could engage with and not only on their organization and its current resources.
“How do you like to work?”
If a candidate likes to work on their own with clear deliverables that depend on their own efforts, they are less likely to be an integrator, according to Bonnell. Integrators, on the other hand, enjoy bouncing ideas off others, and accept the risk that they do well only when others do well.
“Tell me about times you contributed to a partnership. What did you like about it, what did you dislike?”
Again, in asking this question, Bonnell is looking to find out if a candidate prefers to work alone. While some candidates might classify their role as narrow, integrators will tend to discuss many elements of the partnership
“You will perceive that, while it might have been hard work, the integrator ‘received energy’ from the process of partnering,” she explained.
“Tell me about a time where you needed to get people who didn’t agree on something to a place of agreement. How did you go about it?”
Here, Bonnell is looking to see the candidate’s approach: Whether they see the process as a logical one — with steps and few emotional or descriptive references — or if they talk more about finding common ground and creating shared purposes.
“What business are we in?”
The way a candidate defines the business gives some insight as to how they see flexibility in the business model and space for clients or beneficiaries, explained Bonnell. She used Kodak as an example, where executives would say they were in the business of selling film, but an integrator would say they were in the business of “memories.”
Integrators tend to crave “wing space” that will allow them and their company or organization to grow in the future, Bonnell said, and “restrictive definitions of business often don’t allow that culture.”
“In five years, how do you think X organization should do Y differently?”
This question lets the candidate “flex a bit of vision,” Bonnell said. She is looking to see whether they expand that vision to embracing new technologies, models, and players, or if the candidate sticks to a similar track that the organization is already working on.
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