15. August 2014

The Choice: Expert, Manager, or Politician?

Nerd, headman, or godfather…you have an idea what this about?

The above choice refers to three main professional career paths in international development. One can aim for becoming an expert in a particular thematic field. Another option is to obtain the managerial skills for supervising teams and projects. Last but not least, one can also consider going into the political realm of international development. Needless to say, it is not unusual to grow from one role into another. Less common, however, is the switching of roles back and forth. Let’s take a closer look.

The Expert

You really like to think about the content of your work. There is always more to learn. You want to apply your knowledge in real-life settings. You can conduct an improvised town-hall meeting while bombs are hailing down on you, but filling out the corresponding back-to-office report gives you a headache for the whole week, if not month. You are the born expert. If there are three people on earth who have become the best special agents in your thematic field, you feel that you have to be amongst them. After many successful years in the field, you have developed your reputation as the doer, implementer, hands-on expert. Your bosses have offered you a promotion to a supervising position several times, but you stay with the nerd role. And why not? Your salary is gradually increasing with your years of experience and you save yourself from all the bureaucratic red tape your bosses have to deal with every single day. At the same time, you are also far away from their bosses and their bosses’ bosses. And the only politics you get to know happens on the ground – the actual real politics, as you see it.

The Manager

Target performance and good team atmosphere are your passion. With short-term goals, medium-term reports, and long-term strategies in mind, you have assembled the perfect team and successfully guided the development of the best implementable portfolio. You feel like the captain of your boat, which you coordinate smoothly through the rough sea of competition and externalities. You do not mind that you have lost interest, time, or knowledge to be still up-to-date about the specialized skills in your former area of expertise. What you have developed instead is the broader perspective. You see the interlinkages. The whole operation gets translated into your very own system thinking. You enjoy keeping your staff on a long leash, while performing the role of a coach who gives them strategic direction and makes sure that results are delivered. You do not fear to deal with the bosses, because you understand your work as an on-going process of performance and monitoring. What happens on the political side is of no interest to you, as long as your portfolio is within the broader framework, constant money flows are secured, and your assigned human resources are not reduced.

The Politician

After a few disappointing experiences, you had it all figured out: content is nothing, politics is all. The big challenges are addressed with big politics. The big stage of agenda setting, backroom deals, high diplomacy, and forming of networks is your habitat. It was tough to get there and qualification was not the sole criterion, but this does not matter now. What is important is change. You are here – as a small cog in the big wheel – to be a part of history making. The new and better world depends on reforms. What you have heard from the manager actually happens right here at the large scale: directing developments, assuring financial streams, influencing development portfolio. If you have learned something over the years it is this: people and words are important. Although you trust the experts to know best about implementing the change, you are not interested in those itsy-bitsy details – you care about forming strong and durable coalitions with whoever seems useful for your cause. You are always wary of holding the pen – “Wer schreibt, der bleibt”. That the whole process can usually take a bit longer and sessions tend to last overnight is what keeps you going…not only seeing the bigger picture, but being one of its painters. For this game you are also accepting the cycles and fluctuations which bring themes and people high up and down again.

The Choice

So, what will it be, your role in international development? We are all exposed to coincidences. And many career opportunities do not lie in our own hands. Having said that, I still think that some thought to the choice can be helpful. Because there are partly huge differences as well as outright contrasts and contradictions between the roles of experts, managers, and politicians. Sometimes, the return to your previous position might be very difficult. And very likely, most of us are not ready-made to go all three career paths. One can shine in each position, though differently. The glamorous world of media’s perception of international development work might not be a very useful reference point in this regard, if we can agree that this endeavor goes far beyond the initiatives of wealthy do-gooders.