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Leadership Matters: Building the conditions for sustainable organizational learning and impact

August 7, 2018

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Piers Bocock

Chief of Party, USAID's Knowledge Management and Learning (LEARN) contract
Dexis Consulting Group

I’m not sure how it happened: perhaps it’s just a factor of time and persistence; or maybe it’s the hints of gray near my temples. But suddenly I find myself in a place where people think I have a degree of wisdom to share — especially when I spend a lot of time talking about leadership. So let me start this piece by acknowledging that when I speak about leadership, I most often focus on those traits in others that I observe in conjunction with effective, happy, productive, creative and dynamic teams — mainly because they are characteristics to which I aspire.

At the same time, there are those who are put into positions where they have leadership responsibility for teams, for organizations, for contracts, and for agencies as a function. In my experience, it is the combination of these two — a formal leadership role paired with leadership characteristics — where we tend to see game-changing results.  And this is particularly true in the international aid and development sector.  This topic — why and how leadership leads to better development results — was the focus of the panel I participated on at Humentum’s first Annual Conference, July 26-28.

The session was moderated by one of the development sector’s thought leaders on the connection between organizational learning and improved development results, Stacey Young, Senior Learning Advisor in the Office of Learning, Evaluation and Research (LER), in USAID’s Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning (PPL); and the Agency’s Collaborating, Learning and Adapting Team Lead. Joining me on the panel was three other thought-leaders who, like me, head up multi-year USAID efforts to improve development outcomes through more effective organizational learning and knowledge management:


  • Liz Lauck, Chief of Party, USAID Measuring Impact (MI) Contract (Environmental Incentives)
  • Peter Hobby, Chief of Party, USAID Knowledge-Driven Agricultural Development (KDAD) Contract (Insight Systems)
  • Tara Sullivan, Project Director, USAID Knowledge for Health Project (Johns Hopkins University Center for Communication Programs)


Our intention for this panel was to address the evidence for, challenges to, and recommendations for how to strengthen this connection between leadership that creates the right conditions for effective organizational learning and adaptive management, as well as the challenges inherent in these efforts. We wanted to engage the attendees in a real conversation about practical approaches to help continue to integrate leadership responsibility and leadership behaviors.

The main challenge we had was delivering a 1-hour session that could include a panel discussion as well as attendee participation and discussion.  The session facilitator, Stacey Young, is one of the few recognized thought-leaders in organizational learning and knowledge management in the development sector.  She masterfully managed the session, providing an overview of USAID’s approach to organizational learning and then asking strategic questions to the panelists that would help provide food for thought for the table-top discussions to come.  I found myself responding to her question about why we don’t see all organizations focusing on learning by talking about my experience building effective teams by demonstrating vulnerability, welcoming input and ideas from all levels, and being open to experimentation.

The panel discussion gave way to table-top discussions that brought together a full room into six dynamic conversations on what works, and what doesn’t in leadership for learning.  What I walked away with was a strong sense that all organizations want create the right conditions for effective learning for better results; the difference between those that succeed and those that don’t are the leaders who intentionally and systematically make space for that learning culture to emerge.

If you’d like to learn more about the contract that I lead and where and how we support the connections between leadership, learning cultures, and improved effectiveness internally and with partners, please visit USAID Learning Lab, to check out our blogs, podcasts and other resources related to — and supporting — effective leadership for learning and impact.