Writing a Job Description for a Senior Leader Position on a Market Systems Development Program?

FROM: Holly Lard Krueger , Zenebe B. Uraguchi – 12. October 2020

Chances are that your criteria include a minimum of 10 years, a Master’s degree, and traditional technical skills like sector knowledge.

Seems harmless, right? 

After all, you are seeking an experienced professional who will thrive in the role and effect lasting, poverty-reducing change. And hiring talent remains the number one concern for development organizations.

Helvetas came across recent research by the Canopy Lab, a thought partner in the practical application of systems thinking, on how inclusive (or not) criteria are in senior leader job descriptions. We are excited by this research because in our own experience (reflected below) we’ve seen how something as mundane as criteria in a tender document job description is incredibly influential – it sets ‘the rules’ for an entire system.

Who is on the team in a proposal counts a lot

Proposals for market systems development programs are typically evaluated and scored based on their responsiveness to the terms laid out in the request for proposal or tender documents. Each section, the technical approach, key personnel, and financial proposal will be apportioned a set number of points.

The key personnel section can account for 20-40% of all points in a typical proposal and the Team Leader candidate receives the most scrutiny and often, the most points. 

To be competitive, development organizations like Helvetas are incentivized to propose candidates that meet and/or exceed the criteria outlined in the tender document job description. Organizations can’t risk losing the bid with a less ‘experienced’ candidate even if they feel that the candidate may have more adaptive management skills and are a better fit for the role overall.

In the Eastern Europe Unit of Helvetas, we try to overcome rigid, pre-determined hiring requirements. We focus on attracting the best talent on the market through creating a reputation as somewhere candidates want to work, especially high-caliber but ‘passive candidates’ who are not looking to move. While we give equal attention to internal and external candidates, increasingly openings are filled more often by hiring from the outside than by promoting from within. Helvetas prides itself as a learning organization. We invest time and effort in creating an efficient and inclusive recruitment process that promotes and reflects our ‘work culture’ – small but agile team with a commitment to learn and improve.

In our study, we looked at USAID tender documents from 2008 to 2020 and to see how ‘the rules’ are set by an influential bi-lateral donor. We looked at trends in the number of criteria and years of experience and the types of skills sought in the job description. Also, in light of the industry recognition of the importance of adaptive management skills in MSD programs, we looked at the alignment of the criteria listed in the job description with the skills associated with adaptive management such as curiosity, empathy, and communication.

Experience and education: how do they influence success?  

We discovered that there is a modest yet upward trend in both the average number of criteria in senior leader job descriptions and average years of experience required. At first glance, this may seem inconsequential.  However, if you consider that there is ample research showing that women tend to preemptively screen themselves out if they do not feel like they fit 100% of the criteria, an increase, even if modest,  in criteria could have a significant impact on the number of women candidates who apply. Women already apply to 20% fewer jobs than men.

Another important obstacle for women particularly is the years of experience required.  Women candidates may have fewer years of experience, especially in managerial roles, compared to male counterparts because of time taken away (particularly during their mid-career) from the industry to birth and rear children and or take care of elderly parents – caregiving roles which still disproportionately fall to women. Gender gaps are serious challenges facing the world of work. Men outnumber women across all broadly defined occupations – they are (75%) more likely to participate in labor markets than women (49%).

In our study sample, ‘experience’ related criteria comprised nearly 50% of all criteria so we decided to unpack the category. We discovered that 78% of the experience criteria referenced hard skills like managerial experience (39%) or traditional technical skills (39%) like expertise in seed systems, agricultural production, or export competitiveness.  Soft skills such as collaboration, curiosity, and inter-personal communication which are often more associated with women leaders only comprised 11% of all experience criteria.[1]

Education was another prominent requirement in the job descriptions. In total, 78% of all job descriptions required a degree in a relevant field (e.g. agriculture, international development), and 79% of these job descriptions required a Master’s degree or higher in a relevant field.

The emphasis on higher education and traditional forms of experience in senior leader job descriptions may not be surprising – they are, after all, features of most job descriptions in the development industry.  It does, however, demonstrate a disconnect between the development industry’s recognition that we need adaptive leaders and nimble and curious teams to solve the deep-rooted and complex problems around us and the continued reliance on and recruitment of senior leaders with more traditional backgrounds and skillsets.

How can we change the rules of the game?

The good news is that bridging that gap could be a relatively low-cost and quick fix. There is industry guidance already available on writing inclusive job descriptions and it is used by some development organizations including Helvetas.

At Helvetas gender and social inclusion criteria are integrated into human resource management and development cycles and processes, starting from publication of vacancies and interviews, onboarding and trial period reviews, to annual appraisals and professional development plans. Helvetas also pays attention to these criteria and doesn’t just use applicant-tracking software to sift through them for keywords.

Recommended inclusive practices include limiting requirements to ‘must-haves’, avoiding gender-coded and discriminatory language, using performance or competency-based descriptions instead of skills-based criteria, and employing flexibility in qualifying years of experience. Applying these practices would reduce barriers for women (and likely other excluded groups) and improve the alignment with adaptive management skillsets. It could also attract more diverse candidates from less traditional backgrounds. In

Change, however, requires action by those who write ‘the rules’ for the development industry.  It requires donors like USAID, SDC, Sida, and others to recognize their role within the system and their power to either enforce the status quo through boilerplate job descriptions or influence outcomes in favor of women and excluded groups through more inclusively written job descriptions in tender documents.

Related readings


[1] Geographic experience comprised 11% of the experience criteria. 



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