What would you do if you were Jim Kim?

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim. Photo by: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

Staff members at the World Bank are not happy.

Results of the latest employee engagement survey — which come after a contentious reorganization and a controversial investigation of an outspoken World Bank staffer over the leaking of a draft safeguards document — point to a level of discontent with senior management that current and former bankers say is unprecedented.

“In all my years at the bank I have never seen such a lack of trust and such a deterioration of trust between staff and senior management,” said Jean-Louis Sarbib, a former World Bank vice president and senior vice president who worked at the institution for 26 years. “I’ve never seen such a climate of fear in the bank. People are afraid to speak out.”

Just 38 percent of survey participants said the World Bank Group’s senior management “clearly communicates” the institution's “strategic priorities.” One-third indicated they have “a clear understanding of the direction in which [senior management] is leading [the World Bank Group]. Only 26 percent believe senior management “creates a culture of openness and trust.” And 34 percent are confident “the [World Bank Group] will take action on the engagement survey.”

World Bank staff survey highlights discontent with senior management

Results from the World Bank's latest staff survey were released to staff last week, and they reveal a lack of confidence in the institution's leadership.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim has made it clear that he intends to respond to the revealing survey results, highlighting leadership, internal bank processes and career development as three focus areas his leadership team intends to give immediate attention. Kim wrote in an internal message to staff that each vice president will identify one or two “focus priorities” of their own and that the senior management team will report back to staff in July with action plans and “clear lines of accountability.”

With just two years left in his contract, can Kim recover his 2012 reputation as an innovative and fresh president with the potential to change the World Bank for the better?

What does the physician, anthropologist and former president of Dartmouth College need to do to improve his image and make the global financial institution more open and efficient in the eyes of staff?

A rocky road

When Kim first came to the World Bank, he earned some praise when he said he planned to turn the world’s largest multilateral donor into a “solutions bank” — one that works with its partners and clients to apply “evidence-based, nonideological solutions to development challenges.” He raised eyebrows by introducing the term “science of delivery” to the bank and in turn to the broader global development community. His theories of development — rooted in his medical and scientific background — created a stir that many inside and outside the institution still value today.

But after enacting a dramatic shift in bank structure and a $400 million cut in operational expenses — a move that necessitated staffing cuts — his reputation among staff took a downward turn.

Kim shifted from a structure centered on country units and introduced 14 Global Practices — knowledge-based departments centered around sectors, such as health, education and agriculture — meant to facilitate the sharing of development knowledge.

Leading up to last year’s World Bank annual meetings in October, bank staffers who felt they lacked information about the reform process organized a series of protests in the institution’s atrium. And a series of “yellow flyers” posted throughout the bank’s corridors encouraged staff to voice discontent. Exacerbating discontent is the “scarce skills” bonus of $94,000 awarded to World Bank Managing Director and Chief Financial Officer Bertrand Badré amid job cuts across the institution.

These protests were followed by an “improvised” town hall meeting organized by senior management during the annual meetings at which staff had the opportunity to raise questions and voice concerns to the World Bank president.

Then earlier this year Kim was criticized during a controversial investigation — initiated by the World Bank and undertaken by the law firm Locke Lord — of LGBTI activist and World Bank Senior Country Officer for the Maghreb Fabrice Houdart, who was accused of leaking a draft of the bank’s social and environmental safeguards. Houdart, a well-known critic of bank reforms and of senior management, is regarded by many as a whistleblower who was unfairly singled out for leaking an internal document. While Houdart was cleared of leaking the “strictly confidential” safeguard document, the investigation found he leaked another “official-use only” document. As a result, Houdart was demoted and issued a salary cut — a punishment critics say was too harsh and representative of a culture of retaliation.

What would you do if you were Jim Kim?

Following the results of the latest staff survey, how should the World Bank president respond?

“This was the largest change ever... I’ve done this before in other organizations, and what I’ve found is that if you know a change has to be made, just do it as quickly as you can, and get it done.”

— World Bank President Jim Yong Kim

According to Patrick Masterson, an organizational development consultant at the University of Maryland’s Center for Leadership and Organizational Change, one thing Kim might want to establish right off the bat is whether he even wants to repair his image.

“Sometimes your image is not the most important thing and you know that you’ve come to do something that you know is going to be unpopular,” Masterson said. “So I would just get clear. Do I even care about my image?”

Kim knew his reorganization wasn’t going to be easy or popular.

“This was the largest change ever,” Kim previously told Devex President Raj Kumar. “I’ve done this before in other organizations, and what I’ve found is that if you know a change has to be made, just do it as quickly as you can, and get it done.”

The negative results of the survey aren’t surprising in light of the institutional changes taking place at the bank, said Tony Fratto, former deputy assistant and deputy press secretary to U.S. President George W. Bush.

“If you’re going to institute large changes and you’re going to deal with budget cuts and staff layoffs and all those kinds of things, I don’t know that I would have had different expectations for the outcome of the staff survey,” Fratto said.

It doesn’t mean Kim handled the reorganization well, or that it was communicated well, the former press secretary clarified. However he conceded that “by nature [the reorganization is] going to be disruptive and difficult for staff to deal with.”

But when trust in leadership is jeopardized, according to Masterson, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

“If you’re dealing with a level of resistance that is ‘I don’t trust you,’ that’s very different [from] ‘I don’t agree with you’ and ‘I don’t understand you,’” Masterson said. “ [If it’s] ‘I don’t trust you, it doesn’t matter if you have the best idea in the world and you are absolutely transparent. If you don’t deal with trust, your plan is not going to work. … As soon as you take a step it’s just suspect.”

Rebuilding trust takes a long time, Masterson added.

“First, senior leaders are going to have to understand the specific actions — or lack thereof — that have cost them trust and credibility since the last survey. Second, and more importantly, they will have to visibly model new behaviors,” Masterson said. “That work is much harder.”

Masterson emphasized that since 34 percent of survey participants indicated confidence that senior leadership would take action on the survey, it is especially important for Kim and his leadership team to respond quickly — to show “significant and visible” changes in three to six months.

The results of the latest staff survey could present an opportunity for Kim to do a “reset,” according to Fratto.

Now is the time for Kim to go back to the “fundamentals” of communicating — to explain his vision for the next two years and beyond, the former White House official said, stressing that World Bank staffers are independent in their thinking and need to be properly incorporated in the conversation.

“Not only should it not be a mystery to people what his mission is and where these plans take the bank, but the staff should actually be partners in determining that path and that’s really the only way you can do it,” Fratto said.

For Sarbib, who spent 26 years at the bank, the answer is much simpler: Step down.

“If I were Jim Kim and if I really cared about the mission of the bank and the role that the bank has to play in the post-2015 [agenda], I would resign,” Sarbib told Devex.

The former World Bank official said the results of the latest staff survey, which are “even more discouraging” than the previous survey conducted in 2013, demonstrate that there’s “little capability of the senior management team and of the president to learn and to address the concerns of staff.”

Sarbib said that as the global development community is in the process of defining the next 15 years of development, now is the time for the World Bank to be an active participant, shaping the dialogue. Instead, Sarbib said, the bank’s controversial reorganization is acting as a distractor.

“I don’t hear the voice of the president of the bank shaping up the post-2015 agenda … it’s not there and in part because the energy of the organization has been turned inward and in a very negative sort of way as the staff survey has shown,” Sarbib said. “It’s a very, very sad thing to see.”

For Sarbib, a Kim resignation would “re-energize the staff of the bank” and provide a needed “jolt of energy … renovation and rejuvenation.”

But now might not be the right time for Kim to resign.

“I don’t think that we’re at the [point] yet where we could have a proper selection process that [would result] in a candidate that folks are happy with,” Amy Studdart, deputy director and fellow of the William E. Simon chair in political economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Devex. “Having a sort of emergency version of [an election] might not result in the best outcome.”

Resigning is not a viable option for Kim, according to Paul Cadario, senior fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and a former senior manager at the World Bank.

If he were Kim, Cadario stated that he “would not resign before there is a legitimate process in place to select my successor. There isn’t, and there is no obvious inside candidate suitable for the job or up to the challenge.”

Instead, he would apologize “unreservedly” and take full responsibility for “the mess that’s occurred.” He would announce that he won’t seek a second term in 2017, and he would commit his remaining two years to supporting the three global practice vice presidents “charged with sorting out the situation in the GPs and presiding over a fair and transparent reskilling effort to give the bank the skills it needs for its ambitious mission.”

Cadario added that he’d work with the board of directors to develop a new process for selecting the president of the World Bank and would study why “the damning warning signals about how unhappy the staff and managers were with my leadership … were either not raised, or ignored when they were mentioned.”

He went on to note that he would invite the Staff Association leadership to meet with him “to take stock and get advice from recognized representatives of the staff.”

Lastly, Cadario stated that he would “find a way to ‘pardon’ those who have been victims of retaliation, starting with Fabrice Houdart.”

“No one likes leaks of important materials that have serious negative consequences on the bank,” Cadario emphasized, “but petty harassment and overreaction and disproportionate punishment destroy trust, and you can’t run an organization without trust.”

Such actions, according to Cadario, would allow Kim to “have a second chance at establishing his legacy as having left the World Bank far better than he found it, and prepared for the challenges of the [sustainable development goals] period and the 21st century.”

What’s clear is that World Bank staffers are eager for Kim and senior management to respond to their concerns — even if most survey participants remain skeptical that their criticisms will spur change within the institution's top ranks.

What do you think Jim Kim can do to restore confidence in his leadership and in the direction he’s taking the World Bank? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, DC, he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the United States, 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.