Home Blog & Media Lessons from Leaders: Kristin Lord, President and CEO of IREX

Lessons from Leaders: Kristin Lord, President and CEO of IREX

November 22, 2019

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Kristin Lord

President and CEO

Welcome back to the Lessons from Leaders series. Join Lynne Gilliland as she interviews Kristin Lord, President and CEO of IREX, to discuss her journey from think tanks to global development. Kriston focuses on the importance of building strong teams and why she believes we don’t need to strive to be leaders all the time.

Below is an abridged excerpt from the podcast, but you can watch the full interview here!

Lynne: Kristin, tell us how you came to be where you are now, a little about your background.

Kristen: I think I have a bit of an unconventional background for someone who’s leading a global development organization. My PhD actually focused more on international politics and security. I worked as an associate dean and member of the faculty at George Washington University. I worked in the State Department. I worked for the Brookings Institution and for the Center for a New American Security. I led the U.S. Institute of Peace for a while…The reason I say it’s unconventional is that I’m a scholar and an academic by training. I’ve been running and building institutions but mostly outside the development world and I have personally never run what most people in our field would consider a traditional development project. Also, I have really had this varied background where I first started much more on the think-side: academia, the policy community, think tanks…So I feel like I’ve been on this long trajectory from the full think-side to the do-side and of course IREX is a global education development organization. It is almost a hundred percent a “do” organization working in more than a hundred countries a year on programs that are directly benefiting people around the world.

You have a vision in this aspect of what you’re trying to create, this bridge you’re trying to build. What do you have to do as a leader?

There’s an internal and an external component to that. The external is that my job as a leader is to help connect us to audiences that are not our usual partners. That’s where my background is a bit of an asset. Because my job is to build those bridges and help an organization like ours work with partners who might not have seen it in that way and to help those partners see how there are new solutions that aren’t part of their usual toolkit. The second thing is internal. We are experimenting with some new internal organizational approaches where, for instance, in the traditional development funding mechanism we have this project-based approach. You get money to do a project in one country, you do it, you do it well, and you report back to your donor. You have another project, you do it well, you report back to your donor. What we’re trying to do is establish our own independent learning agenda that both supports and draws from those projects and that means we have to conceptualize our work in a very different way.

What kind of leader do you have to be?

I need to create an environment where all of those people can do what they are good at, have space to operate in it but also have some accountability, some backing and also some encouragement. To lift their sights to do better, to push harder, to look at things in a different way, to take something we’ve learned in one part of the organization and feed it into other parts of the organization, to be more reflective about what knowledge exists out there in the world that we could bring into our programming.

It sounds like not only are they playing, but, in the way you describe it as being able to lift themselves up, they’re finding they can play more beautifully than they imagined.

I think that’s true and I think I’m really blessed to work with some wonderfully talented people. What we really want is not that you are precisely the sum of your parts, each brilliant or dedicated person doing their own thing, but somehow by working with each other, challenging each other, holding each other accountable, injecting new ideas, is that somehow, we have way more impact than any one of us could alone. That’s trying to create a climate where that happens on the issues we work on. It’s not a small challenge, but it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. And when it works, it’s a beautiful thing.

I know it’s hard to hold on to that, “What am I doing and am I doing the best work?” when they’re are so many competing priorities.

One of the challenges is that there are always things grabbing at your ankles. The personnel challenge, the complicated bureaucratic issue you have to deal with, the paperwork that someone finds out that they didn’t file because of some law change in country XYZ. There are all these things and development organizations, not to mention the really dangerous things. We had a partner who was murdered this year. We have partners who are intimidated and under threat. We have people who have all kinds of challenges…One of the assets I have, and I think one of the things that leaders should strive to do, is to build a really strong team so that it frees us from being constantly captured.

Any thoughts or learnings that you have had about coming up as a woman leader that would be useful to share?

I think one thing that I really benefited from and see it even more so in hindsight is how I had great mentors around me and, by the way, a lot of them were men. I didn’t realize it because they gave me so much support and space. I look back and think how crazy they must have been to give someone who was so young so much responsibility, but I just really benefited from that and they treated me like a partner. I think that for younger women you need that, too. You need to “hire a boss” as they say.

Knowing what you know now what advice would you give your younger self, or what do you wish you knew then?

It’s a permanent apprenticeship and highly contextualized in that there are times when you think “I know how to run an organization,” or “I’ve been through some really hard things and we made it through the other end,” “I know something about how to do that,” and then you deal with a similar problem in a different context with different people and it’s like you’re in kindergarten all over again. It’s not that there aren’t any lessons that can be brought from one context to another, there are and those are real, but learning how to apply those in the right way and in that contextualized approach and sometimes recognizing that thing that worked in that other context just isn’t going to work at this moment in time and in this situation – I think it’s taken me a long time to appreciate that earlier.

As you’re talking, I was wondering what one should do to recharge? How do you stay charged?

My husband and I just like to hang out together and be around. I have a child but he’s off at college so I would say family or friends are very important. I like yoga, I like to read, and I think I am pretty disciplined about not working all the time. If you are running a complex organization and you are as emotionally and intellectually invested in it as I am, and you have a personality that likes to be all in, I think you also have to be really careful that you don’t work all of the time or even keep your brain on it all the time because you lose that emotional distance. It’s a marathon, not a sprint and you really need to put it all aside.

Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

I’d want to encourage younger people who are listening to both think about the benefits and joys of leadership but also not to get so wrapped up in it. But on the one hand, sometimes you see people shy away from leadership positions because it does come with responsibility and accountability and I actually want to urge people and say to embrace it because owning something like that and being responsible, there’s a real reward that comes from that, and not just for yourself. One of the things I most enjoy about running organizations is helping other people to be successful…

The other thing I’d like to say is that I feel that in our schools and our universities – in our culture – we want everybody to talk about being a leader all the time. Not everybody needs to be a leader all the time, including myself. I think a challenge for leaders, since we get so used to being in charge, is that sometimes you have to check yourself, especially if you’re really energized by an idea. We should be encouraging people to be leaders and not to be afraid and to embrace that accountability but also tell people that there’s a time and place for leadership and there’s a time and place to be a follower and a partner and part of a coalition or a movement, and that’s valuable to tell.

Head over to Lynne Gilliland’s website where you can also listen to many of her podcast episodes.