Change & Continuity in a
Leadership Transition:
The Story of TechnoServe

(A conversation with Peter A. Reiling)

Kathryn M. Kaczmarski

Introduction

The growth of a global civil society cannot be denied, as evidenced by the presence of large, established international development organizations and the proliferation of nongovernmental, grassroots organizations all over the world. The post-World War II nongovernmental and private voluntary organizations that mark this landscape were founded by an individual or a small group of people with a deeply ingrained sense of mission. The establishment of these organizations not only epitomized their founders' desire to serve some greater good, but also extended their deeply held values, beliefs, and personalities.

Yet, as many of these organizations "come of age," they are facing a challenge of leadership succession. For many NGOs and PVOs, now is a highly fragile time of transition, for the passage from founding leader to second-generation leader is proving to be a make-or-break experience. Indeed, the very identity of many organizations is at risk, as a change in leadership cannot help but rattle their foundations.

This article explores the recent shift in leadership at TechnoServe (TNS), a US-based PVO promoting rural enterprise in the developing world. Founded in the late 1960s by Edward P. Bullard (known to us and his development colleagues as simply "Ed"), the organization gained a second-generation president and CEO, Peter A. Reiling (hereafter referred to as "Peter") in January 1996. The following story traces the management transition during this most critical time of TechnoServe's evolution. The material based largely on a conversational interview with Peter as well as on the consultative relationship built with Ed and the TNS management team through their participation in the GEM Organizational Excellence Program. It is our hope that this story offers valuable insight into how organizations can make a successful change in leadership at this important crossroad.

Background

TechnoServe, a nongovernmental organization based in Norwalk, Connecticut, has been working with rural people in developing countries over the last three decades. During this period the organization has assisted in the development of over 500 community-based businesses throughout Africa, Latin America, and Poland - benefiting more than two million people. TechnoServe's approach to enterprise development uses the basic building blocks of "desire," "knowledge," and "opportunity" to create wealth. What is more, by working in partnership with indigenous and peer organizations, TNS has learned how to scale up its impact, leveraging even greater results for the rural poor.

Ed Bullard founded TNS in 1968, after returning from a transformational missionary experience in rural Ghana. As Ed explained it, while in Ghana he was both puzzled and disturbed to see people working so hard to support their families, and yet, in the end, barely subsisting. Based on his interactions with and observations of the people and the culture, he concluded that while they lacked neither drive nor commitment, they did lack technical know-how and the opportunity to convert it into jobs and income. He consequently took leave of his family's business and created TNS to "help the rural poor to help themselves" by pooling their resources for the creation of group-owned, community-based businesses.

Ed believed this to be a way to bring dignity and self-sufficiency to rural people everywhere, "enabling God's children to be all they can be."1 Through his own tenacity and determination, he succeeded in building TNS from the ground up. With his first funds, $12,000 from a church group, he began the work of creating community-based enterprises in Ghana. From then on Ed persevered, drawing upon his admitted "brute-strength" and "stick-to-it-iveness" to grow a nondenominational organization that now operates in Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe with a $9 million-plus budget.

Peter Reiling contacted TechnoServe in 1987, after spotting a job announcement in the New York Times while working for a small development consulting firm outside of Washington, DC. A former Peace Corps volunteer and USAID worker, Peter had returned to the States to pursue an MBA after having spent six years in Togo and Niger. He was fascinated by TechnoServe's combination of business and international development, as well as by the organization's founder, Ed Bullard.

In my most recent meeting with Peter at the Norwalk headquarters, he recalled his first impressions of Ed:

PR: He interviewed me in this office, right here, and I'll never forget that interview. About ten minutes into our conversation, Ed looked me in the eye and said, "You haven't looked over your shoulder yet, have you?" I said, "No, why?" He said, "Well you haven't seen who's sitting back there." I looked around and I said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "Well, everyday when I come into this office, I say 'Good morning' to that person sitting in that corner right over there. Can't you see her, that Ghanaian farmer? Every morning I look at her and I ask myself what I am going to do today to help her build a better life for her children and for her community." And that was Ed. I mean Ed lived and breathed [the mission of this organization] every single day of his life.

Peter was hired as a program officer in the Africa Division and traveled extensively to Rwanda, Zaire, Kenya, and Ghana. The ardent dissatisfaction with the status quo and impetus for positive change that characterizes his leadership style soon surfaced: for Peter, TNS seemed to have so much to offer the world, yet seemed to be growing stale. He wondered whether the right people were in place to make the changes needed to take TechnoServe to the next level of growth and impact. In 1989, Peter left the organization briefly after questioning the dynamism of its leadership.

Less than a year later, he returned to assume a research and development position where he felt he could ask the questions that needed to be asked internally to move the organization forward. This position put him in contact with an array of peer organizations. As a direct consequence, it opened his eyes to the richness of the development field and to just how much TNS could learn from its peers.

In 1990, Peter was offered the position of vice president for Africa but turned it down, feeling that he had insufficient field experience to manage the African country directors and their staff. He opted instead to assume a country director position in the field and moved back to Africa to head up operations in Ghana. During Peter's four years of leadership, the program more than tripled in size making TechnoServe a major player in Ghana and building Peter's credibility internally within the organization.

The Leadership Transition

The choice to make a leadership change grew largely out of Ed Bullard's declining health. In 1990, Ed told Peter that he was ill, suffering from cancer. But over the next few years, Ed appeared so energetic that few spoke of his illness. By 1994, however, Ed began to tire, and it became apparent to Ed and the board of directors that a change in leadership was needed. Somewhat to his surprise, Peter became a candidate to succeed Ed and was soon visited in Ghana by the chairman of the board, Paul Tierney. Thus began the conversation and negotiation around Peter's succeeding Ed as president and CEO of TechnoServe.

Peter spoke about how Ed greatly assisted the transition by offering his full support:

PR: The first thing he did was to call me up and say, "I want you to know I'm one hundred percent behind this; it's not going on behind my back. I think this is important." Ed always had a soft spot in his heart for Ghana, and I think he was happy to see what was going on there under my watch, that the TNS program was really coming into its own after so many years. [This is] one of the reasons I think Ed selected me. . . He was very supportive through the whole transition, telling me often, "I want to keep this a very open process; everything's on the table." He knew very much what my concerns were. Most importantly, I was concerned about Ed's ability to let go after so many years, especially because he intended to maintain an office right down the hall. He was the first to admit that he could be stubborn, but assured me time and again that he would do his best to respect the fact that I was taking his job. "There will undoubtedly be days," he'd say, "when I'll instinctively sort of reach out and say, that something's not a good idea." But he'd always laugh and add, "Look, we'll work it out. We simply have to make this work."

KK: And you felt, by his saying that, that he meant it. Like he was going to honor that.

PR: I knew he meant it.

KK: Even if there would be difficult times...

PR: Yeah, I knew there would be difficult times, but at the same time . . . I knew that, fundamentally, Ed wanted to do what was right.

Peter himself helped to secure a successful transition through his keen sense of timing around the leadership change. He was asked to assume the position on June 1, 1995, having been approached initially in late March of that year. But this timing felt awkward - for his own transition, for the sake of an orderly succession in Ghana, and for the relational issues that needed to be addressed internally. Peter recognized, for example, that this move would dramatically alter some of his working relationships with TechnoServe peers, most of them close personal friends who would now be reporting to him and receiving his guidance.

PR: I didn't feel it was good timing because too many projects were at critical stages in Ghana. Plus, we needed to find a good replacement for me there. Finally, well, there were some things I wanted to work out with a few key players back in the U.S.. . . I think Ed felt that once a decision had been made it was important that I get into the saddle pretty quickly. And so here was a very difficult period because the Ghana program was big and growing and complex, but Ed wanted me to start taking the reins. In essence, he let me postpone taking on the official title but pulled me into the job immediately. I'd be up to my ears in Ghana, and I'd get a call from Ed asking, "What do you think about this?" . . . It was a difficult period because I felt I was often getting dragged into discussions without the full benefit of the context. Ed would say, "I want your okay for this decision," and I'd try and get as much background as I could, but it was hard to get enough. It was a stressful period, to say the least.

The delay in formalizing the transition gave Peter a chance to smooth out potential problems with his TechnoServe colleagues, as well as to begin to establish solid relationships with key board members.

PR: I came back for two weeks in June and again for two weeks in October. I had a chance to meet with board members and to meet with some staff here, which was another major complexity to this whole transition, .... you know, there's a guy who reports to me today that I used to report to. As a country director I reported to the head of Africa. . . [The delay] was good in that it gave me a chance to come back here, sit down with people who knew the transition was coming, and begin to establish new relationships at a somewhat different level. I should say, by the way, that everybody here was extremely supportive. I still have a file right here in my desk of all the nice notes I got from everybody. If they start getting difficult I always know I can say, "Hey, you told me in 1995 that you were thrilled that I was taking this job!" (laughs) All in all, the delay in assuming my new job was good - I can't call it a leisurely period because Ghana was going through a tremendous growth spurt. It was a stressful time, but it did give me time to deal with people here. It gave me time to meet board members, to talk a bit about my vision with them, and, heck, it gave me time to develop that vision a bit further! Throughout, and to this day, the board was extremely, extremely supportive.

The combination of Ed's heartfelt support to make the transition happen, the official support of the board, and the intentional delay combined to initiate a successful leadership transition.

Characterizing Transitional Moments

While the change in leadership of TechnoServe as an organization is a process that continues, a few particular events that helped shape and guide the transition are worth noting. One of these occurred during TechnoServe's participation in GEM's Organizational Excellence Program at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, New York, in January 1996, immediately following Peter's official assumption of leadership. Ed, Peter, and the management team gathered for an intensive week together to crystallize the transition.

PR: I finally packed up and left Ghana in late December of 1995, and started the job on January 2, 1996. A week later we were up in Mohonk - all of us, including Ed. It was a very, very important thing for us to be there at that particular moment. And yet - you were there - you saw how it was . . . we weren't quite prepared for it. We were supposed to be there to create a vision for the future, but it's like we arrived for a rafting trip carrying snow skis. Instead of a vision, we came equipped with charts and tables, operational details, and that's what we wanted to talk about. And I was a part of that. I said, "The year's already underway and we have so much to change. We gotta get going." It took three valuable days for everyone to shake off the cobwebs, and say, "Hey, we'd better step back and look at the forest-we've only been looking at trees."

KK: Yeah, and I just remember that moment, where Ed had come back after having been away [a few days] and just basically . . . There was something about his intervention that just brought everything into focus for the group.

PR: That's right. Ed came back from one of his cancer treatments. He clearly wasn't well. And all of this talk about change....well, I think it hurt him. He started crying and he, he pounded the table and said, "Everything I've done in my life has been for . . . that poor woman in Africa!"

KK: It was coming right back to that again. Ed never wandered or strayed from that as his theme on a daily basis. And there was something about that moment-there was something transitional for the team.

PR: There wasn't a dry eye in the room. And right there, we knew that we weren't there to talk about budget or organizational matrices. We were there to figure out how to build on the wonderful thing Ed had created. To do what he hoped to do. To conquer poverty. To change the way the world thinks about international assistance. To give the rural poor a hand up, not a hand out. On that day, at that moment, our team came together. It really did.

What the team tried to do over the next four months was to take that feeling to the field. We ran mini-GEM sessions around the world. And they were very, very powerful, and there was this important sense of ensuring continuity amidst change. We asked ourselves, "Why did we all join TechnoServe in the first place? What drew us to Ed's vision? What gives life to the organization? What are our core values?" Those discussions needed to take place at every level in the organization. They hadn't for too long. So that was a very, very important process for us. It culminated in a one-day retreat [later in May] with the board. That was the first time, in anyone's memory, that the board and the staff and even a few valued peers from outside TNS had sat down together and looked at strategic issues. So it was a very, very important process.

It was also sort of a coming of age for a lot of us at the top. Here was this group of friends who, years before, out of frustration with not being included in Ed's tight decision-making loop, had formed a so-called 'middle management committee' as a counter to the 'senior management committee,' which always seemed to be in a meeting behind closed doors, and suddenly, hey, you know, we were now in charge! We couldn't blame anything on Ed anymore! (laughs) You know, we couldn't say, "Oh hell, he won't let us do that," or, "This is TechnoServe-we're not allowed to do that here!" Suddenly, it was "Uh oh, it's our game now, and how are we going to deal with this or handle that?"

KK: So there was a stepping up of your collective responsibility?

PR: That's right. Of course, I now recognize quite clearly that what Ed was always trying to do whenever he questioned us in the past was to protect those core values that were so dear to him. Now it's up to us to do the same. And how easy is that to do when every year brings a new development fad? Our challenge is to change what needs changing while protecting Technoserve's core values.

Clearly, the week together in Mohonk catalyzed the transfer of TechnoServe's vision and core values from Ed to the team, and launched the process of aligning all organization members as carriers of the vision and core values. The torch had been passed. It was now the responsibility of everyone to hold the long-standing vision and values for TechnoServe on a daily basis.

Less than five months later, Ed Bullard passed away after a long battle with cancer. Needless to say, this was yet another defining moment in the leadership transition. As Peter put it:

PR: Ed's death was tough on everyone. You can imagine. There was a pall over the organization. The transition in leadership was suddenly made all the more real by Ed's passing. I think it was especially difficult for those who, frankly, took comfort from the fact that, even though I'd moved into his office, Ed was just down the hallway. And as much as all of us complained about aspects of Ed's style - his stubbornness and his resistance to innovation- well, in the end, everybody loved him. And everybody had tremendous respect for him and for what he'd been able to do in founding an organization that, frankly, was way ahead of its time - a real pioneer in this field.

Simultaneously, Ed's passing also generated a new momentum, forcing a "gear change," as Peter stated, to revitalize an organization that had increasingly weakened under Ed in his failing health. From July through September 1996, TNS engaged in a "strategic blitz" both to regain lost financial grounding and to position the organization strategically for the future. It was a highly successful campaign, identifying and securing new opportunities both for growth and for increased impact.

Moving Forward Under New Leadership

As does any new leader, Peter brought to his new position specific ideas for change within the organization. This was most visible at TechnoServe's 1996 Annual Meeting, where in his address entitled "Continuity Amidst Change," Peter stated: "We need to continue to maintain the core values that make TechnoServe the very special organization that it is.... At the same time, we need to accept that the world is changing and, as a result, we may need to do the same."2

More concretely, Peter's vision for the future of TechnoServe involves three key components. The first, broadening the way in which TNS has traditionally presented itself to the world, entails stressing the organization's accumulated expertise in four "product lines" above and beyond TNS's core work in community-based enterprise creation. These product lines have been dubbed market linkages, financial intermediation, environmental enterprises, and institutional strengthening. Peter sees these as a way to accentuate the fact that TNS promotes "sustainable and equitable rural growth," a theme broader than Ed's focus on "community-based enterprises" almost as an end in themselves. Secondly, he wants to step up the level of internal accountability for results within the organization. And lastly, he wants to "let in some light" - opening the doors to collaboration with-and learning from-peers.

Based on his own experience and insights into the inner workings of TechnoServe, and having had multiple conversations with his colleagues over the years about their shared frustration with TNS' dogma and introversion, Peter assumed the implementation of change would be relatively easy. Yet, as he moved forward into action, he met a good deal of unexpected resistance. Within this resistance Peter found his most valuable lesson during his first year as TechnoServe's leader:

PR: One of the biggest lessons I've learned in the past year is that . . . I underestimated the imprint that Ed had made on a lot of peoples' psyches. And, I now realize, I probably failed to gauge the different levels of comfort with change that exist within the organization. To talk about it is one thing, to do it is another. It's been a tough year. [My] greatest lesson learned is that I need to be less impatient. What I felt could be done in six months is probably going to take two or three years. I never would have thought it would have taken that long. I thought everybody was ready to make the shift. But not everyone is. On the other hand, I have to admit that, in the beginning of the transition, maybe, just maybe, I was just trying to make too many changes at once. The jury's still out on that.

While acknowledging and appreciating the esprit de corps that Ed Bullard built up during his 28-year tenure as founder and CEO of TNS, Peter found that this same spirit resisted moving away from the status quo. Ironically, the organization's greatest strength was also that which prevented it from growing and accelerating its own development. While at first this may have frustrated Peter, the result has been a healthy prioritization process that has somewhat slowed the amount of change being forced in these first two years of transition. Ironically, the board of directors was a great guide for Peter in this process, asking him in late 1996, for example, to narrow his list of twelve "strategic objectives for 1997" to three easily digestible "goals."

These goals include bringing new, young, dynamic talent into the organization - another pressure point for long-time TNS employees. However, Peter continues to push for the changes he feels are necessary to move the organization to the next level, maintaining the creative tension and edge to the organization that he feels are essential to move it forward. Under Peter's leadership, new lines of communications are being established, disassembling some of the arbitrary boundaries of the organization and creating new forms of relating. By initiating new and different ways of sharing information and knowledge, the resistance to change is being offset, and the organization continues to move and grow. Specifically, Peter discussed the following initiatives:

Engaging the board in organizational operations as never before. This includes monthly written progress updates and a target of at least two Board trips to the field every year. Additionally, staff members are, for the first time, free to contact board members at their will, opening up communication between the board and staff and allowing for the development of more in-depth relationships than in the past.

Developing organization-wide core indicators to measure performance, and then openly publishing the results for all to see. Openly sharing this information reinforces accountability and sets up a healthy competition across field programs vying for limited unrestricted resources. This is complemented by holding "country team meetings" every two months to review implementation details and progress against planned goals and strategies.

Asking staff for bi-monthly reports on what they have done to advance TNS's institutional learning. This has greatly increased the level of outside contact maintained by the staff with peer organizations and opened the way for new collaboration worldwide. It has also led to the opening of a TNS office in Washington, DC for the first time in its history.

Instituting a 360-degree performance-appraisal system. This has opened up lines of performance feedback between colleagues as never before, while serving to build and strengthen the concept of team management.

Creating an internal communications web using Lotus Notes. When complete, this program will provide a technology platform for more internal sharing within the organization. TechnoServe associates in different countries around the world will have access to affiliates of other locations, increasing their ability to learn from their colleagues' experience.

Creating external and internal dialogue between historically isolated international development fields-like micro-enterprise and the environment-through the establishment of TechnoServe's product lines. These product lines cross conventional boundaries and create new possibilities through the development of product and process hybrids that were not thought possible before.

Overall, Peter is pleased with the unfolding of the leadership transition:

PR: There are basic changes going on in the organization. As I've already said, it's just taking a little bit longer than I, in my impatience, had hoped. I'm especially pleased to see some interesting strategic alliances developing with other organizations. And this whole move toward internal accountability for results - what we call "quality assurance" - within the organization is, I believe, generally viewed as a healthy one. Yeah, I see a lot of good things happening and, you know, I think Ed would be proud.

However, the transition is far from complete, as change will be the constant within TechnoServe for the foreseeable future.

Epilogue

After Ed Bullard's death, TNS launched the Ed Bullard Leadership Award Fund and raised over $100 thousand to establish the Ed Bullard Award for Leadership. Managed by a committee of staff and board members, and led by Ed's wife, Carol, the intent of this award is to recognize someone in every country in which TNS works who personifies the spirit of Ed-commitment to family, community, and a better future. Award recipients will be chosen in two categories: community leaders with a strong sense of self-help and helping their neighbors, and people who display a talent for bringing others together in a common cause to create wealth. Of those receiving the award, one will travel to the United States to be honored at TechnoServe's Annual Meeting each May. In addition, this individual will visit and make presentations to local schools, something Ed always felt was highly important.

While this award will certainly help preserve the leadership and spirit of Ed Bullard, there is no question that his legacy will also live on through the growth of the organization he founded. Ed's tremendous impact upon the international nonprofit sector was best stated by Peter Reiling during his 1996 Annual Meeting Address:

As all of us who know Ed can attest, he set a course for this organization in 1968 and, from that time on, he single-mindedly steered it through the choppy seas and changing winds of development theory and practice without straying even a degree from his course. As a result, today TechnoServe is widely recognized as a serious, focused, professional, and highly effective development organization. More important, because of Ed's vision and focus, the lives of literally millions of entrepreneurial men and women in rural Africa, Latin America, and Central Europe have been changed for the better. As owners and managers of the community-based enterprises which they established under Ed's guiding hand, today these men and women can - and do - point proudly to the fruits of their labors: jobs, income, schools, health clinics, and, most importantly, a sense of dignity, self-worth, and self-sufficiency that no package of food aid could ever provide.

And now, having successfully passed through the harshest danger-a transition in leadership between TechnoServe's founder, Edward P. Bullard, and his successor, Peter A. Reiling-the great work and contribution made to the world by this organization is sure to endure.

1 Quote from a personal interview with Ed Bullard. November 29, 1995.
2 Address at TechnoServe's Annual Meeting Luncheon by Peter Reiling, president and chief Executive Officer. May 15, 1996.

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