Member Profile: Marsha Moulton, ACDI/VOCA

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October 05, 2016

Member Profile: Marsha Moulton, ACDI/VOCA

Moses Musikanga, Deputy Chief of Party on ACDI/VOCA’s Profit+ project in Zambia, helps directors at Jasadon Investment Limited Group weigh grain to sell to customers.

By Elizabeth Walsh

Director, Communications and Marketing InsideNGO

Member Profile is a series on our blog that features InsideNGO members talking about the work they do and how they manage the operational challenges within their organizations. Here, we talk to Marsha Moulton, the Executive Vice President of Human Resources and Administration at ACDI/VOCA. Based in Washington, DC, and currently working in 33 countries, ACDI/VOCA is an economic development organization that fosters broad-based economic growth, raises living standards, and creates vibrant communities.

Marsha Moulton

Q: Tell us a little bit about your current job responsibilities.

A: I spend a significant amount of time helping managers and departments think through the consequences of decisions on staff and how to best deploy human resources to achieve objectives. I manage a committed and talented group of professionals, and I maintain close communication with all my team members because I believe that in order to make the best decisions, they need to be informed about events, issues, and opportunities throughout the organization. They also provide critical information to me about what is going on in the projects and at headquarters. This helps me identify areas where we need to improve, and that which we should reinforce.

I also regularly scan for external workplace trends, and employees are a great resource for that. Many of the changes we have implemented have come from employee expectations that have changed over time. I schedule time every day to take some action that is proactive. It is easy in a 24/7 environment to become mired in “reactive” mode. In order for us to continue to move forward, I believe an important part of my role is to actively contribute to improvement.

What are some of the specific operational challenges/issues you face in your role?

Balancing creativity in carrying out our mission with consistency/compliance is an ever-present tension in our work. We operate within a strict compliance environment in which we have to ensure that we are following the regulations of our government and the local governments where we operate, as well as meet the rigorous requirements of our donors. We also strive to maintain an environment that is open and consistent in our treatment of employees. At the same time, we need to be creative and innovative in our approach with employee matters that allows for flexibility that is vital for our continued success. There is a tug-of-war between pushing authority and responsibility to the project offices in the field and ensuring best practices and compliance in a holistic manner. As an organization, we strive to maintain a level of consistency, but that can diverge when we have multiple heads of projects working side-by-side in the same country who may have different strategies or preferences regarding employees. Our challenge is to help all parties reach consensus in areas where consistency within a country is critical, for example compensation, benefits, and policies, and in ways that also conform to our stated operational goals and values while still pushing for necessary change and growth. With today’s level of transparency and communication, decisions made in one project affect others and need to be coordinated. My challenge is to gather perspectives from all relevant areas in the organization and suggest solutions that consider all of these perspectives.

What strategies/tactics do you use to respond to these challenges?

We have a strong onboarding process for both headquarters and employees deployed in the field in which we communicate and reinforce our values as an organization. This includes the objective that anyone should be able to walk into an ACDI/VOCA office anywhere in the world and recognize it as such. Our cohesive character and culture is the umbrella under which we operate, and we are committed to respect, consistency, and fairness in our treatment of employees; opportunity for growth and development; compliance with donor and government regulations; and diversity as an advantage. Different opinions in how accomplish our objectives are abundant, but building on these shared values helps us work together and focus on our mission.

Communication can be a challenge even among employees in the same building. When you add the complexities of communicating across multiple time zones in several languages with technological challenges, it becomes even more important for employees to have the context around decisions made that affect them. I take opportunities to explain the reasons for the decisions we make. We have had more success this year with linking human resource managers across projects; so that they share information and resources with us and each other, and we all can make more informed decisions.

We are focusing this year on a more formalized approach to onboarding local employees in project offices. Communicating a consistent message about who we are and how we work is vital to maintaining our success and provides employees the necessary context to make good decisions.

Your career in HR for non-profits and NGOs has spanned nearly two decades. What are the biggest changes you have seen in the area of international human resources across this time?

I see three big changes over time. First, finding and retaining talent has always been a challenge and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. I have observed a shift away from importing talent that leaves after a project is complete to a heavier reliance on talent within the countries in which we operate. This approach has exacerbated the shortage of talent, and sometimes creates major competition among NGOs for a smaller pool of qualified candidates, but it has also raised the awareness on the part of both donors and implementers that we must have tools and resources for ensuring that we are cultivating our employees. Developing talent within the countries we operate has been occurring all along, but there now seems to be a broader recognition that our obligations reach beyond our beneficiaries. Developing our local employees reaps benefits long after our projects end and our deployed employees return home.

Second, we live in a new world in regards to keeping employees safe. The spread of disease, political instability, and natural disasters have always been present. Perhaps due to access to immediate information, they seem to happen at an accelerated pace and have potential to spread farther faster. The increased mobility of people resulted in a faster and greater spread of Ebola. The use of technology fueled Arab Spring, where an uprising in one country spread across the Middle East. We have observed changes in our planet that seem to contribute to an increase in natural disasters. A connected world gives us access to information quicker, but it has also increased the expectation that we can and should respond more quickly. We need to ensure that we have properly prepared to respond immediately in order to keep employees safe and continue providing assistance.

Finally, the use of technology has given access to vast amounts of information to larger numbers than ever before. Technology provides us the means to give opportunity to people in ways never dreamed. There are thousands of examples of how technology has helped improve the lives of the people we serve. Farmers can track the price of commodities from their fields in order to time the selling of their crops, people have electronic access to move money and pay for goods and services in isolated areas are only two examples. From a human resources viewpoint, this access can create more connectedness and a quicker response to employees. It is not without its challenges, as we try to make good decisions regarding what information is important as opposed to just “noise,” attempt to discern context from the vast amounts of information available, and to continue to recognize the benefit of face-to-face interactions. I cannot identify any aspect of our work in general or HR specifically that has not been impacted by technology.

What issues do you see on the horizon that InsideNGO members should be paying attention to?

Learning to better navigate the accelerated pace of change is the biggest challenge I see. As leaders, we have to be adept in this area, and we have to help our employees understand and put context to the changes we are all experiencing. The current volatility is not something that will eventually stabilize, in my opinion. Some things will resolve, only to be replaced by new challenges. If we present change to our employees as something that is finite, we do a disservice because we raise the expectation that it has a beginning and end. Not every aspect of what we do will be in a constant state of flux, but the increase in availability of data and a connectedness through technology forces us to constantly react to changing situations and a re-examination of our assumptions and methods. This can be stressful for us and our employees, but it brings great promise. We need to continue to find ways to help develop flexibility, critical thinking skills, and a comfort level with ambiguity.

What advice would you have for those working in the NGO or nonprofit sectors who are trying to foster a learning culture within their organizations?

A learning culture is vital to an organization’s success and long-term survival. While it is widely accepted as a concept by most leaders, organizations sometimes struggle with how to operationalize it. My advice in regards to fostering growth and development of the organization starts with moving away from the concept that it is a one-time task to be implemented. It must be embedded in everything we do and continually reinforced. It starts with a commitment to the mission that is evident throughout the organization coupled with a well-defined set of values and behaviors that are identified, communicated, and measured. The environment needs to foster open communication and information sharing, which means that leaders have to be actively working to break down silos and create context for information. To this end I offer some practical tips:

  1. Define a set of behaviors that exemplify your organization’s values (including “learning”) and incorporate them into your performance management system.
  2. Develop a robust onboarding process to shorten the learning curve of new employees and start them on the right track.
  3. Help your managers and leaders learn to accept failure as a risk. Create a space where employees are safe to try new things and talk openly about what has and hasn’t worked and why.
  4. Start every new process improvement and problem solving exercise with “What do we know?” It is easy to start the process with solutions, but avoid the temptation in order to arrive at a better solution.
  5. Celebrate what the organization has learned from its failures. As individuals, we learn best by trying and failing until we get it right—so do organizations.
  6. Invest in employees. Traditional training plays a role in development, but most learning is experiential. Regardless of the budget, organizations can set up processes that help employees learn more quickly through peer coaching, online resources, and cross-training, to name a few.
  7. Commit to diversity. It drives innovation and fosters creativity.

In the work that we do as non-profits and NGOs, our success translates to helping the world become a better place. What greater motivation would any organization need?

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