In this Virtual Leadership Series, SRI Executive is speaking to leaders in global development who have stepped into their position as the head of their organisation virtually in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We ask these leaders to share the challenges they experience, lessons learned, and how they are facing the future with resilience while met with unprecedented circumstances and change.
In April 2020 as the number of COVID-19 cases worldwide climbed toward 3 million and most countries had implemented social distancing measures and travel restrictions, Dr Jacqueline d’Arros Hughes assumed her position of Director General of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT). She did so during an online event from her location in the Philippines, and she has been leading the institution virtually since.
Dr Hughes is a plant health expert and leader in international agricultural research. Having spent much of her life overseas, growing up in countries including Seychelles and Malaysia, and later working in the UK, Ghana, Nigeria, Taiwan and the Philippines, she recognised inequities on global, national and regional levels when it came to health, education and wealth.
For Dr Hughes, her work in the areas she is most passionate about, including nutrition, food security and climate change, is important to her because of people. “It’s about respecting everybody at all levels, learning from everybody, from what the individuals know, and then using that information to help others.” This, along with her love for South Asian and African cultures, and the challenge of leading ICRISAT during a key transition to One CGIAR, led her to the Director General position.
Before the pandemic, Dr Hughes expected to assume her role at ICRISAT’s Headquarters in Hyderabad, India where she could meet staff in person, visit ICRISAT’s regional operations spend time observing and understanding the institute’s research and opportunities, get a sense of the culture and passion, and meet partners and donors first-hand.
“The pandemic turned things around,” explained Dr Hughes. “Instead of building on the successes, I’ve had to manage health and safety, not only in the sense of keeping people safe from illness, but also the mental wellbeing and the physical infrastructure.”
“I didn’t expect to have to do a ‘Back to Workplace’ plan,” she added.
Leading virtually: the many challenges
Perhaps the most challenging thing about taking up her position with ICRISAT has been understanding the research and opportunities for the institute.
“ICRISAT is a research institution above all, and I’ve had to understand the research virtually,” said Dr Hughes. “I’m listening to leaders while they’re working from home, and they can’t show me what they’re doing. They show me pictures, but they would have wanted to go out and show everything on video, but they’re not allowed on campus.”
The shutdown of research campuses has allowed ICRISAT’s researchers to pull together data to look at results and complete more publications, however, Dr Hughes noted that there will be a gap in delivery when labs and the farm open again.
Dr Hughes has also managed communication across cultures and time zones in the face of uncertainty across the organisation. She says many staff are feeling isolated and frustrated with not knowing when they will go back to work, which is also compounded by difficulties balancing family and working from home.
Emails and digital communication have caused “misunderstandings in all directions.” In a similar vein, communicating virtually has meant adapting to build relationships and establish trust, even when key aspects of communication such as body language are lost on screen.
“You’re relying on people telling you about a situation, and they may not want to tell you everything. It’s hard to ensure that you trust people if you only hear half the story. I don’t know why they didn’t tell me the other half. You have to keep remembering that it could be simply a miscommunication,” Dr Hughes said.
Dr Hughes has held virtual chats with the institution’s wider team, as well as in smaller groups.
“It’s really important to be seen,” Dr Hughes said. “Normally you’d do this by walking around and having conversations. I’ve had several ‘DG Dialogues’ where as many of our staff as possible call in. The problem is that leaves out the over two thousand daily labourers, who are valuable members of our workforce, and staff in many locations who won’t have access to the internet from their homes.
“People are having to learn the technologies. If you’re communicating and you know the other person, it works. If you know their culture a little it works. We’ve been using emojis. I’ve noticed people who wouldn’t normally use them are using them to make their tone or emotions clearer.”
From her first day, Dr Hughes kept up regular communication with ICRISAT’s Governing Board through written, weekly updates to instil confidence that she is managing and advancing key projects from her remote location, including managing the transition process for ICRISAT to the One CGIAR system.
“Things are moving and we have already had a virtual board meeting so they could see things are happening. They are now fairly comfortable although they are wondering when I’m going to get [to India],” she said.
For Dr Hughes, implementing institutional change is a key hurdle while leading remotely. “Everybody wants change,” she said. “They were looking at a woman coming in for the first time and making changes with a very deep and complex, almost 50-year-old institutional culture. It’s really difficult from a distance. My aim is to encourage minds to be engaged in the right direction through delegation, contribution, participation, and commitment.”
The successes: ‘it can be done’
Despite the countless challenges posed by leading virtually and from a distance, Dr Hughes has demonstrated that “it can be done.”
As ICRISAT prepares to join One CGIAR, Dr Hughes has worked toward the institute’s future transition. The process includes changes to ICRISAT’s governing documents. She has put in place a review of the organisation’s policies and procedures to update them for the future all while working within the institution’s long-held culture. She has also worked with ICRISAT’s leadership team to create a visual planner, showing their various workstreams, timelines and deliverables.
“It lets other leadership teams see where people are up to, and where they might need to participate in order to deliver,” she said.
Dr Hughes pointed out that starting out as a ‘Virtual DG’ has had its benefits. “You have time to reflect on a vision and dream, because once you get there, everyone is on top of you.”
Working remotely has shielded her from being caught up in minutiae, and allowed her to identify when tasks appear that she can delegate. “Nobody catches you in the corridor only to ask to you about the time of day the floor was cleaned or something. None of that gets to me, or when it does, I can see it and hand it to somebody else because it’s all coming electronically.”
Overall, Dr Hughes explained, working remotely has led people to be “forgiving in all directions.”
“When you have a call and have some technical difficulties, it’s okay. If somebody suddenly says, ‘oh my gosh, I forgot about the cooking,’ you just say ‘go ahead,’ and talk about something else until they come back. And they might come back and say ‘I burned the rice.’ ‘Well did you turn the gas off?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Okay, we’ll carry on.’ People are more human, generally.”
The learnings from leading virtually
Learning to use technology has been a common experience for many of us who have made the change to remote work. However, Dr Hughes has taken away some less obvious lessons from her experience as a virtual Director General.
“If you’re trying to motivate your team to deliver, you usually use rewards—or carrots—and persuasion—or sticks. But the rewards are not very obvious to someone working from home, and so when you use the sticks they’re seen as overly harsh, because people don’t get the carrots as well. Now, when you say ‘could you do that a little differently next time’ it’s taken as ‘oh my god, I’ve just been told off.’ It’s hard to get the balance right.”
Given that ICRISAT is a global organisation and working around One CGIAR, Dr Hughes has also found time differences and time management to be wearing.
“I’m starting two-and-a-half hours ahead of Hyderabad. At about three o’clock in the afternoon their time, I try to go offline, otherwise my day becomes 15 hours long. I am the CGIAR DG furthest away from the US or Europe, so they have morning calls, and I have a lot of 10, 11, or 12 o’clock at night calls. I’m a morning person, so that doesn’t suit me very well. We aren’t kind to ourselves in terms of giving time to recover from late nights and early mornings,” Dr Hughes explained.
Overall, Dr Hughes has found that having some familiarity with ICRISAT before taking up her position has served her well. She can visualise and understand the challenges that COVID-19 has created for the institution well enough to manage from her remote location.
“I think the totality is really positive,” said Dr Hughes. “You can make changes. It’s difficult, I’m not sure I would recommend it, but it can work.”
ICRISAT is an international organization which conducts agricultural research for development in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. SRI Executive had the honour to collaborate with ICRISAT on the search and selection of Dr Hughes as their Director General.