I have heard many people say that they were assigned to the wrong ministry or agency. Usually it is not on the basis on their skill set but rather on whether the place is vibrant or ‘lucrative’. These people, even with a degree in Chemistry would prefer to go to the Ministry of Finance than to work in the Laboratory at the University of Liberia. So, when they complain about the wrong assignment, it is not on the basis on their competence or skill set.
What I usually tell people is that it is not the place, but rather the people who manage those places that create relevance and vibrancy. Most ministries and agencies would be vibrant if they had leaders with the right mindset, attitude, and skills.
Imagine as a young man coming from Harvard and the President asking you to go to the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs. In Liberia, it is no secret that when we do not have confidence in or use for someone then we sent them to the ‘planning’ section of the ministry or agency or maybe the government. The Research and Planning section is where we usually send people that we met in Ministry or agency whom we believe have loyalty to our predecessor. We move them there to make room for our own ‘foot soldiers’ whether they are qualified or not.
Well, I was not in country when Amara accepted the position as Minister of Planning, and I did not know Amara then. I also know that Natty B. Davies had turned down the Minister of Planning job before it was offered to Amara. Dr. McInTosh, the former Minister of Planning, hardly spend time at the Ministry. He spent most of his time at the UNDP office doing his job. This is what the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs was in the Government before Amara and his team arrived.
For whatever reason, he accepted the job in August 2008 and then had the herculean task of making a moribund or neglected entity relevant and vibrant. This was indeed a daunting task and would require professional and leadership skills to pull this off or he would become just another minister in the cabinet with no real value other than his relationship with the President.
Though the Minister had a good relationship with the President, he had to make his job important so that even his colleagues would respect his opinion and proposal. Your relationship might get you in but earning the respect and administration of external stakeholders and observers will require a lot more substantive undertaking.
With this debacle in mind, Amara really needed folks who could make ‘planning’ to have its rightful place within the governing structure of the country. And so, bringing on board the right folks with the right mindset was critical. In addition to recruiting the right team, the leader needed to manage them properly.
As a part of his leadership skill, Amara made it his business to cultivate a relationship with his principal deputies so that working together would be cordial. He would eat lunch, almost every day, with his deputies or at least do ‘fruits’ in the evening with them. This really helped in building the chemistry amongst members of the team. This was the soft side, the people skills.
On the hard side, to ensure that we delivered the highest quality products that would grab the attention of cabinet ministers and the President, Amara instituted a practice called the “dry run.” Before any report went out or any presentation was made, the responsible unit had to make a presentation to the senior management of the ministry. This would give everyone the chance to ask questions and make suggestions. This rule applied to everyone without exception. Even our highly paid consultants who came to do work for us would have to do a ‘dry run’ before the final work product is released.
The process would usually happen in the evening, after normal working hours or if you were lucky, it would happen during lunch time. The boss would be kind to order lunch from a place called US Five or if it were late in the evening, he would order some sandwiches from Diana Restaurant. But come hell or high water, that ‘dry run’ would have to be done and everyone will have to be present. After the first dry run, then the responsible team would take all the relevant comments and suggestions and finalize the report or presentation and schedule another dry run.
If the report or presentation were for the Cabinet, the responsible team would have to a do a “high level” brief so that Amara would share with the President before the actual presentation. This was a ritual for him! This was part of his leadership style. He never surprised the President with anything that we would be releasing or presenting. She would always have her master folder with the brief in it. And you know what? She always read her briefs. I do not know what time she found to read those briefs especially since she left the mansion very late at night and came early in the morning, but she always did.
Many can remember that others in the cabinet called us “the laptop boys.” We worked as a team. And this is very important: it is always a good thing to work together rather than undermine one another especially when you are on the same team. Whatever success the ministry scored, everyone on the team enjoyed it. It was always about “those guys” from the Ministry of Planning or Amara and his boys. Everyone was proud to be a member of the planning family. The team worked as a unit and delivered results that we could all own no matter which shop it came from.
Always remember that teamwork is extremely important, and it really does not matter where you are assigned. It is what you do at the place of assignment. The relevance that the Ministry of Planning had toward the end of Madam’s first term was due in large part to the team that ran the Ministry and nothing else. Planning Ministry had always been there but when Amara brought together a team and provided the leadership along with overall support from Madam President, the Planning Ministry became the talk in the cabinet and out there.
We created an enviable entity that many would have loved to be part of. It is the people, not the place that makes the difference.
Go back and look at the Ministry of Planning between 1997 and 2014. You will notice that Planning was very active between 2009 and 2012 than at any other time in the recent past. This was due mainly to the fact that the team, with deliberate intent and delicate efforts, decided that it will make the Ministry of Planning relevant and vibrant.
It was the people that made the place.