MCC's Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Cynthia Huger's Remarks at White House Symposium on Resiliency in Leadership
October 4, 2018, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Washington DC
It is an honor to be here today with all of the White House fellows and other distinguished guests.
About 10 years ago, I got off a plane in Afghanistan to take a new job with the U.S. Agency for International Development, better known as USAID. I was met by the Regional Security Officer. He gave me a flak jacket and helmet, two items that would be a daily part of my outfit for the next several years. The officer then drove me to the U.S. embassy. There, I would be briefed on my new assignment.
Task Number One: I hammered out a clear, easy-to-communicate vision of what we needed to accomplish and how we would accomplish it.
Task Number Two: I began putting together the team I would need to bring that vision to fruition.
Task Number Three: I put my flak jacket and helmet on, jumped into a heavily up-armored vehicle with the security detail, and traveled to the Afghan Ministry of Finance. There, we began discussions around On-Budget Assistance and how to proceed to receive U.S. funding.
Over the next several months, I earned and built trust with my Ministry of Finance colleagues. I explained that to pursue On-Budget Assistance, USAID needed to know more about each major line ministry, including the Ministry of Finance.
Here’s where I get to the point of this particular story as it pertains to today’s topic.
Resilience requires flexibility. In Afghanistan, my ultimate goal to track each taxpayer dollar was absolutely inflexible and could not change. But, I had to remain flexible in the programs and methods I used to achieve that goal.
Fortunately, the solution was simple.
First, I met with my counterparts in the Ministry of Finance and agreed to pursue “assessments” of each major line ministry. Assessments were a grade below audits and saying assessments was far more friendly and acceptable. However, an assessment is still basically an audit.
Second, I assuaged my Ministry of Finance counterpart to accompany me as we met with each line ministry and minister to explain the scope of the assessment.
With the help of my Afghan counterpart, my team and I were able to meet with each major line ministry and its minister and persuade them to buy in to the idea of an “assessment.” More specifically, they agreed to a review of their books and procedures so USAID could determine how to proceed to provide On-Budget Assistance for each specific program with each targeted line ministry.
When our assessments were finally done, my team and I developed a two-page Implementation Letter. It was a contract between 3 parties: the Ministry of Finance, each Line Ministry and USAID. Then, we created the processes and procedures for channeling and managing U.S. funds within the line ministry and the Ministry of Finance.
And, the story didn’t end there. USAID headquarters adopted the On-Budget Assistance program from Afghanistan and rolled it out nation-wide. That two-page “USAID Afghanistan Mission Order” expanded into a 76 page regulation to implement direct assistance throughout all USAID missions.
I like to tell this particular story because this experience reinforced my own belief that taking a deep breath, digging in, and applying a combination of optimism, preparedness, creativity and drive can help you address even the most daunting challenges.
This story also illustrates that, in a leadership context, resilience requires the participation of multiple individuals. The audit initiative would have failed without the buy-in, cooperation and collaboration of many individuals. Yes, as the point person, I provided the spark and oversight. But, the flexible solution to an inflexible goal was a team effort built on trust and determination.
The moral here is that even as we work to adopt resilient behaviors in order to strengthen our leadership ability and advance our careers, we must remain committed to bringing others along with us on the journey as part of the resilience equation. Good leaders leverage their personal and professional experiences to help others become resilient and effective problem-solvers.
Most of my career has been about propagating resilience, particularly in less-developed or war-torn regions of the world. It is that mission that drew me to the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the international development organization where I currently serve as chief financial officer and Vice President for Administration and Finance.
Created by Congress in 2004, MCC is an independent U.S. Government agency with a very different approach to international economic assistance, one which seeks to reduce global poverty through economic growth.
We use an evidence-based selection process to choose developing but well-governed countries to partner with. We then provide large-scale grants to fund projects we believe will lead to private-sector economic growth and encourage country-ownership.
MCC learned early on that one of the most critical elements to building a more resilient society is the economic empowerment of women. It is a fact that when women have equal access to employment and income-generating activities, economies are healthier, household incomes increase, and businesses earn higher profits. And, there is greater investment in our children’s health, nutrition and education.
That’s why MCC works to integrate gender and youth into everything we do. Our Compacts often include programs that improve the education and health of women and youth, and train them for careers in these sectors.
But we also help women find employment in non-traditional fields. We have helped train women plumbers in Jordan, provided incentives for construction firms to employ women in Zambia, and encouraged the recruitment of women into engineering and other important technical fields in Ghana.
But we can only help to open the door to opportunity.
That’s why it is so important to develop and implement programs that plant seeds for the future, a future in which women and youth are equipped to create new opportunities that will allow them and others to prosper and better support a more resilient society.
I recently traveled to the nation of Georgia where MCC has an active $140 million compact in education. I was there to see one of our programs at work first hand and address a group of high school girls from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and the United States.
The young women I spoke to, 100 leaders of tomorrow, were participating in a Women in Science camp designed to build skills in leadership and science, technology, engineering, and math, better known as STEM.
The camp was co-sponsored by MCC, the American Society for Microbiology, the State Department, the United Nations, Google, Microsoft and Intel. It was created to help bridge the gender imbalance in STEM fields by providing access to education, mentorship opportunities, tools, equipment and leadership training.
These campers learned coding and app development, engineering and robotics, microbiology and molecular biology, and satellite mapping. They then used those skills and tools to present ideas for addressing a social or development challenge.
I met with several of the girls and asked them about their experience at the WiSci camp. One young girl said, “I was so unsure of myself when I arrived, but now I know I want to pursue coding.” Another said, “I was so afraid when I left home and my parents, but I now know I’m in the right place at the right time.”
It was inspiring to meet those young girls and see how inspired they were by the WiSci camp. And, it was inspiring to see them apply their new knowledge to tackling the challenges before them. It felt as though I were looking through a window into the future.
And, all of us must ensure that future through working to create a resilient world characterized by partnership and innovation. That world will depend on sound leadership founded on trust, knowledge, and the ability to adapt to fast-changing conditions and circumstances.
I will leave you with two final thoughts:
The first—Leadership is not a job for the faint-hearted.
The second—I am certain all of you are up to the task before you.
Until that point, I had little idea what my new job was supposed to be. All I knew was that it was new to USAID and had never been done before.
Sitting at the embassy in Kabul, I finally found out: half of the $4 billion in U.S. economic assistance to Afghanistan was going to be channeled directly through the Afghan government, and it was my job to create a thorough and transparent program for tracking $2 billion in US taxpayer funds while creating a new budget program called On-Budget Assistance.
Basically, I had to find a way for the United States to track every one of the $2 billion taxpayer dollars around the clock to ensure our funds were being used as intended. And, I would have to do it from a nearly empty room at the US Embassy compound designated as my office.
Then, to add to the pressure, I was informed that I would also have Congress looking over one shoulder and the inspector general looking over the other.
I will admit I had an anxious feeling, but it was a good nervousness, a desire to get started and lean into the new challenges before me.
I was not a newbie to budget issues nor development programs. By 2009, I’d already tackled other challenging assignments. I’d worked in Iraq coordinating civil-military activities in support of the Coalition Provisional Authority’s efforts to reconstruct and repair civilian infrastructure across several sectors like schools, hospitals, bridges, and IT facilities.
Before Iraq, I had served in Ukraine, coordinating efforts to restructure the military doctrine of that nation’s armed forces and its budget.
Prior to that, I’d held a variety of leadership positions at a number of major U.S. organizations, such as the American Red Cross, the U.S. Department of the Army, and the U.S. Mint Denver.
All of these assignments, and others, taught me the value of remaining resilient under pressure and looking beyond conventional approaches when attacking complex challenges.
Resilience is a vital component of leadership. I define resiliency as the ability to successfully adapt to stressors in the face of adversity. In Afghanistan, I certainly had adversity. Now, I had to develop the means to find solutions to adapt to the challenges.
So, I did the only thing I knew to do: break the main challenge down into three smaller, manageable tasks.