Former CD Says What Is Right & Wrong About Step # 9

I received an email today that I’d like to share with you. Dave Berlew, the Peace Corps CD in Ethiopia (1965-68), was in his professional life a PhD from Harvard in behavioral science and a management consultant in his career. He wrote to say what he thought of my Step #9 for the Peace Corps. Take a look.

John, your list qualities for CD (Country Director) candidates, while on the one hand humorous, is also pretty close to the mark if you look at it as a Gestalt rather than item by item.  But there are more systematic ways of approaching the CD assessment problem. 

In late 1964 I traveled to Washington to interview with Shriver for the Director of Selection position.  When I got there he told me had filled the position the day before with the head selection guy at Exxon Corporation.  When he offered me the job as Deputy Director of Selection, being young and full of oats (or something else), I told him I wasn’t interested in being a number two.  A few months later he called and offered me a CD job.  I concluded that Shriver was a genius at recognizing talent and didn’t need a new approach for selecting CDs.  But he is no longer head of the PC, and now we do.

The Country Director Job

When I was a CD I found most of my time taken up by three core challenges or tasks.  The first was engaging PC values in volunteers and trying to keep them salient.  In the Sixties, we had PCVs who joined the PC to avoid Vietnam, many of whom were openly cynical.  Bringing to the surface their latent values related to serving the less fortunate was the primary leadership task.  This task requires leadership and communication skills. Even today, I’m sure there are many PC recruits whose primary motivation isn’t service

A second focus was creating a culture where PCVs felt reasonably secure, recognized as individuals, and above all, challenged.   As a CD I spent 50% of my time doing the work of a dean of students, a job requiring interpersonal skills such as listening, guiding and occasionally tough love.  Perhaps with older volunteers now, that isn’t as important, but I somehow doubt it. 

The third core task was dealing with Ministries, the US Embassy and PC/Washington.  This can’t be done effectively by someone who is either intimidated by authority or whose first impulse is to push back.

Some may wonder why I didn’t list management as a core task.  I didn’t find managing a 600 volunteer program particularly challenging; it’s a relatively simple organization and you don’t have to make a profit.  And with a Deputy Director and Administrative Officer, I had lots of help.

A Systematic Selection Process

What I have described above is only a cursory analysis of a CD’s job requirements over 40 years ago.  I believe the importance of the CD position requires a more scientific approach to selection.  Such an approach would involve three key tasks.

Job Analysis:  The first step is to identify the demands of the CD job.  What kind of environment will a CD be operating in?  What problem and issues will he or she confront?  What kind of experience, skills, and personal skills will the CD need to excel?  When, in the early 1950s, AT&T realized it had to dramatically change its corporate culture to continue to be successful,  a high level task force spent a year visualizing the business and social climate 20 years hence, and then identifying the skills, values and other personal attributes required to lead and manage successfully in that environment.   Example: No bias against women or minorities.

Selecting/Designing Assessment Tools:  The second step, best done by psychologists, consists of identifying the best way to measure the critical skills, values and other attributes a CD will need to excel at the challenges and key tasks identified in the first step.  This should include a variety of assessment tools, such as personality tests, individual and group tasks, individual and small group simulations and carefully structured interviews.  Example:  A simulation in which a candidate must influence someone they believe to be a high level Foreign Embassy and/or Peace Corps official.

Candidate Assessment: The third step is the actual assessment of CD candidates. This is best done using an assessment center approach where a group of 8-10 CD (or APCD) candidates and a trained cadre of PC Staff and assessment psychologists are brought together for three or four days in a residential setting.  This arrangement makes possible the use of realistic small group tasks and simulations, with or without competition, as well as the opportunity for the staff to interact informally with the candidates and watch them interact with each other.  Using the assessment tools selected in Step 2, the staff develops a profile of each candidate’s attributes which can then be compared with the profile of job challenges and tasks developed in Step 1.  The best assessment centers spend the last half day giving extensive feedback to each candidates so those who are successful can see where they will have to focus extra effort to succeed in one or more aspects of their new  job, and unsuccessful candidates will come away viewing it as a valuable learning experience.  Example: Candidate depends too heavily on logical persuasion as an influence technique.  Is uncomfortable being assertive, is not good at drawing other people out, and lacks charisma.                                                                                                                           

The methodology I have described was first used to select Professional Luftwaffe Officers, and in WWII was adapted by the OSS to select agents.  A modification of this approach is now used by many US and international corporations.  My oldest son went through a selection process before becoming a Foreign Service Officer which, according to him, included a number of simulations and group tasks. 

In the past, the PC has spent much more effort and money selecting PCVs than CDs.  I think it’s time to reverse that ratio.


Leave a comment
  • This is great stuff but I[m waiting for the famous step ten that will solve all the problems. A few of the points probably don’t belong in the top ten, so here it comes. I don’t know what it’s going to be, Drugs and rock ‘n roll. Vows of celibacy. Mandatory marriage with host nationals. But feel the pressure. The whole future of the bold new Peace Corps rests on number ten.

  • Berlew is obviously still the same clear, penetrating thinker and mensch that he was when I was with PC staff in Ethiopia during his years. I was never more comfortable with a boss, never felt managed but always knew which direction we wanted to go in. And it was always ‘we’. I hope his counsel will reach the right ears in PC/Washington.

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