World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. What should the next leader of the financial institution be like? Photo by: Ryan Rayburn / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

What happens when dozens of World Bank retirees get together inside the institution’s headquarters to talk about the future of leadership at the world’s largest international financial institution?

On Tuesday we found out. Members of the World Bank alumni group known as the 1818 Society gathered for their 37th annual meeting. The most buzzed about session asked the question, “What should the world expect of the World Bank Group President?” According to retirees present at the gathering, the ability to listen to current bank staff is among the most important qualities a president needs.

The next president of the World Bank should “not come with any agenda,” said former Vice President and Treasurer of the World Bank Eugene Rotberg. Instead, Rotberg encouraged the next president to ask 100 staff members what their priorities are, what initiatives they want on the table, and what the constraints are to seeing them happen. He encouraged that hypothetical bank chief to ask staff, “what keeps them up at night with worry and concern.”

The next World Bank president should not “reorganize,” “restructure,” nor “prepare a new budget,” Rotberg said to applause from the audience of retirees — a not-so-subtle jab at the restructuring currently ongoing at the bank.

Candidates for the bank presidency are nominated by shareholders and are then elected by the boards of directors. The current World Bank President Jim Yong Kim — the American candidate nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama — was elected by the board in 2012 for a five-year renewable term contract. The next elections for the World Bank presidency will be held in 2017 and many expect the most contested election in World Bank history.

Successful World Bank presidents take time to understand how the global financial institution works, and they “let the place run for a while,” according to Paul Cadario, senior fellow at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and a former senior manager at the bank.

Cadario added that the next World Bank president should have successfully run a large organization and be an experienced talent manager. He or she should also be humble, modest and have a healthy ego, Cadario said.

Former World Bank Vice President and Senior Vice President Jean-Louis Sarbib added that “a good leader is an enabling leader … somebody that allows people to really take risks, learn and not make the same mistakes two or three times.”

Bank staff may not have to look further than across the street for an example of this sort of effective leadership according to Amar Bhattacharya, former senior adviser at the World Bank and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The International Monetary Fund is a “ready made case” of effective leadership and a “good example of good governance,” according to Bhattacharya.

“No managing director comes to the Fund and thinks it’s their business to change the institution in their image,” Bhattacharya said. “So why is it that every president of the World Bank thinks there should be a reorganization?”

“I am nervous about visionaries,” Rotberg said. It’s important for the next World Bank president to be a leader, but that leadership means “motivating staff to tell you the truth … what they really think,” he added.

“Leadership for me is tapping into the knowledge and the experience of the thousands upon thousands whose work has been dedicated to development for decades,” Rotberg said. “And leadership also involves simply saying, ‘I don’t know, I’m not sure what will work.’”

So who then, according to bank retirees, would be the best candidate out there to lead the World Bank in 2017? The leader of the very same institution they’re admiring now, it turns out.

“The world could do worse than to ask [Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde] to move across the street,” Cadario said to nods, cheers, applause and some chuckles.

What do you think are important characteristics of a World Bank president? And who would be the best candidate for the job? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • 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.