© Helvetas

Does Experience in a Senior Leadership Role Equate to Future Success?

FROM: Holly Lard Krueger , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 16. August 2021
© Helvetas

Conventional wisdom says yes.

But are donors and implementing partners over-relying on this requirement when developing job descriptions and selecting candidates for senior leadership positions?

In their most recent research,  the Canopy Lab spoke to more than a dozen recruiters and project managers from a range of implementing partners to understand the impact of restrictive job criteria on the diversity of candidates proposed for senior leadership positions. 

Donors’ heavy reliance on years of similar experience was cited by many of the recruiters as a serious underlying issue impeding the diversity and inclusion of senior leaders.

Why do years of experience impact who is selected for senior leadership roles?

Research shows that both the number of requirements and particularly the minimum years of experience can have an adverse impact on who decides to apply for a given senior leadership role.  These requirements negatively affect most minority/excluded groups (e.g. women, minorities, cooperating country nationals) and women in particular who apply on average to 20% fewer jobs than men. 

Moreover, from the recruiters’ perspective, similar experience is not necessarily a good predictor of future success.  They suggested other factors such as the presence of managerial and soft skills which were often, in their experience, better indications of a candidate’s potential for success in a senior leadership role.

For example, for Helvetas, a Swiss implementing organization, recruiting top talent has been a challenge.  While Helvetas pays attention to a proven track record of success in the recruitment process, an experienced hire has not always been a better hire. In other words, long years of experience did not predict performance. For example, some recruits with many years of experience are required to “unlearn” their previous job’s procedures. They were ill-prepared to handle changing dynamics of the countries the recruits were assigned to.

Instead, the organization had candidates with a few years of experience who performed much better than those with more years of experience. Contrary to the usual assumption that candidates with less experience need more training and time to get ‘up to speed’, good organizational support (e.g. backstopping, clarity of functions, horizontal and vertical coordination) enabled the candidates to perform well.

What are other factors influencing the diversity of senior leaders on MSD programs?

Canopy’s research revealed other underlying issues. They include:

To win, you have to play by the rules.

In competitive tenders (as discussed in the previous blog post) there is no reward for second place. The recruiters interviewed repeatedly pointed to the reality of having to meet and exceed requirements listed for key personnel in tender documents.

“When we have strict requirements, we have to bid the requirements. We can’t go in non-compliant.” - Woman recruiter, mid-size implementing partner

Yet, playing by the rules potentially creates ‘perverse behavioral’ outcomes that prevent challenging the status quo.

At the same time, the contexts in which organizations like Helvetas are implementing programs are becoming increasingly complex, dynamic and unpredictable.  These factors make a conventional approach to recruitment and human resource development less effective for addressing decision-making in the face of uncertainties.

There are no incentives to challenge the status quo.

As MSD practitioners, we are very familiar with the importance of incentives to change behavior.  Unfortunately, recruiters shared that they do not have an incentive to challenge the status quo by submitting a non-compliant candidate and will not take the risk of submitting someone who they know can deliver the work but does not meet or exceed every requirement.

“[Traditional candidates] may not always be the best people for the job but you go with them because either your bid gets thrown out or someone else goes with them.” - Man recruiter, freelance

In Helvetas, there were cases of ‘organizational reluctance’ to invest resources in training young people when the organization could hire more experienced candidates.

How are implementing partners and donors addressing these challenges?

Despite these underlying issues in the tender process, the research revealed promising practices by both implementing partners and donors.

Investing in diversity & inclusion initiatives

Most recruiters mentioned that their respective organizations were implementing diversity and inclusion initiatives to address the lack of representation of women and people of color in senior leadership roles.  Many highlighted different systems, processes, and tools that their companies and organizations are using and or piloting to build gender-balanced and more inclusive teams.

“We include inclusion and gender screening questions as well in interview questions. We’re focused on building a gender-balanced team. We have experience not moving male candidates further after their first screen, based on their answers to these questions - we ask about their last team and what they thought about it, whether there is any substance to their views.”

 - Woman recruiter, large-size implementing partner

Rather than looking solely from the outside for suitable candidates, it also makes sense to invest in attracting promising internal candidates. This, in turn, requires improving the human resource development systems of organizations. This is precisely what the East and Southeast Unit of Helvetas has recently initiated. In a pilot program, Helvetas seeks to effectively diversify and broaden the pool of leaders/managers through a tailor-made blended leadership program on a regional level. The program considers potential to be the most important predictor of success. It focuses on training (classroom and/or virtual); individual coaching, and peer exchange.

One of the nine principles of gender and social inclusion of Helvetas [HK1] is the focus of the human resource policy to support gender equality and workforce diversity. The organization has been striving to create a gender-balanced workforce, especially in middle and senior management as well as in the Board of Directors. Some of the practical processes have been (a) monitoring the workforce diversity and endeavoring with a commitment to achieving a minimum of 40% women or men in middle and senior management, as well as in the Board of Directors; (b) shaping the human resource regulations to be responsive to gender equality and social equity; and (c) pro-actively recruiting women, seeking to do this in a way that challenges gender stereotypes, and offering training as appropriate.


The interviews revealed that there are encouraging signs of experimentation. A few of the most experienced recruiters cited encouraging examples of experimentation with key personnel requirements from USAID. These included initiatives which used ‘team-based’ scoring instead of scoring each key personnel individually. These recruiters saw this as part of the broader procurement reform trends.

Instead of trying to ‘fix’ the talent in question, Helvetas in its East and Southeast Unit is trying to address the system of requirements and human resource development instead. This includes, for example, defining a range of criteria for recruitment (going beyond the conventional list of predictable requirements) as well as specific roles and responsibilities for employee development after the recruitment. In some of the recruitment processes, team members of a project, for which candidates were assessed, were allowed to participate in assessing candidates in a live presentation session.

How to build upon this momentum and change the status quo?

These are important first steps, but it is clear that as an industry if we want to be led by more diverse people and teams, we must take more action.  Especially since new research shows that COVID-19 is disproportionately negatively impacting the workforce participation and career ambition of women senior leaders of market systems development programs.

We need to:

  • Start talking more openly about the underlying mental models and unconscious bias like the number of years of experience which prevent both donors and implementing partners from changing the structures which preserve the status quo. While it is easier to measure past performance, Helvetas has started more and more focusing on evaluating the potential of candidates. Such evaluation looks at motivation, creativity, and the ability to learn quickly. If such a trial works out, it can be used as a good case to demonstrate to donors and other implementing partners that more years of experience is not the only criterion of successful hiring.
  • Have a dialogue between implementers and donors about useful criteria for and expectations of program managers and management teams and inclusive ways development organizations can develop a cadre of program management professionals.
  • Test more approaches to increase the diversity of senior leadership teams in market systems development programs and decrease the inefficiencies in the process.

Holly Lard Krueger is a private sector and market systems specialist with over 15 years of experience providing technical advice with a specific focus on applying Value for Money (VfM) principles to project and strategy design for trade, agriculture, urban development and women economic empowerment (WEE) programmes. She is a proven strategic leader having managed large private sector development projects with diverse teams in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Côte d’Ivoire and negotiated complex public-private partnerships to improve supply chain efficiency and transparency. Holly is skilled as an evaluator, strategic advisor, coach and trainer in the practical application of systems approaches to market development and has deep experience in gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) and WEE. Holly is currently a Managing Partner at The Canopy Lab and advising three market systems development programmes. Holly has completed courses in market systems development with the Springfield Centre. She holds a MA in International Relations from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC and a BA from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.
Programme Manager, East Europe, South Caucuses & Western Balkans; Senior Advisor, Sustainable & Inclusive Economies