Contact Us
Published on June 30th, 2020

Q&A with Jill Morris: Creating Program Excellence and Empowering Employees in Challenging Contexts

Jill Morris has a long history of working with DT Global and its legacy companies, beginning in 2004. An expert in stabilization, transition, conflict management, and countering violent extremism, she has worked on and led several of our USAID/Office of Transition Initiatives programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Since 2018, she’s served as Director of Program Learning for our Stabilization & Transition practice area, and most recently, she moved into the role of Director of Program Excellence within DT Global’s Learning and Innovation Team. Jill has a strong background in mentoring and empowering her staff to grow and lead, and here, we sat down with her to discuss her new role and some of the lessons she’s learned about empowering her teams across a range of challenging conflict and post-conflict environments.


1. As we approach the one year mark of DT Global, how is Learning and Innovation it being implemented at the company?

DT Global highly values evidence-based development and is fostering new cutting-edge approaches to both to our technical areas and operations, in the US and our other geographies. We promote program learning and excellence, foster a culture of responsible risk-taking, and develop new approaches to our technical areas. We help other units to develop or refine new or improved approaches to business development, programming, evaluation, learning, and policy and procedure development, in addition to capturing best practices that are contextually and sectorally appropriate. Whether we are building a mobile-data collection system or facilitating a learning event, our team is committed to discovering new ways to move the needle on global development and to fully integrate learning and innovation into everything that we do.

We offer services and support in a range of areas, including monitoring and evaluation; collaboration, learning, and adaptation; data collection and assessment; mixed-methods research; and continuous learning and adaptive management with comprehensive QA/QC measures. We also offer programmatic support in gender equity and social inclusion, environmental compliance and assessments, and start-up and close-out assistance and audits.


2. In your new role, you work closely with both field and home office teams to ensure program excellence. Tell us about your vision for how this ties into learning and innovation?

There are many tools and approaches L&I uses to help Home and Field Office teams maximize their capabilities and achieve meaningful results. These include process reviews, pause and reflect sessions, and strategic reviews, data visualization, developing mapping surveys, and quality control and quality assurance (QA/QC) reviews.

This is where I come in, in my new role as Director of Program Excellence. I work with the field and home office teams to promote program learning and excellence; I juggle many balls at the same time to help achieve this. I lead the QA/QC process that includes Monthly Financial Reviews (MFR) and Quarterly Project Reviews (QPR), which are essentially comprehensive financial and programmatic quality controls of all projects. The QPR process includes a wide swath of participants from the field and home office teams, operations, and senior management. We take a deep dive into the financial and technical achievements and identify challenges and gaps. The idea is to look back at what we have learned, work together to find unique and appropriate solutions, and take all this valuable information and package it for other teams to use and learn from.


3. Why do you feel it is important to invest in staff development and empowerment while implementing projects?

Investing in staff not only provides them with practical skills, knowledge, and confidence, but it also develops their ability to contribute to and lead on future projects. Staff empowerment also builds their ownership in the process, making sure their points of view are valued and listened to. From a programmatic point of view, higher local staff capacity and involvement helps to more accurately evaluate and observe the country context for a program, focus on the right issues, and run operations efficiently. Training staff well, so that they understand the whole program and not just their individual roles can also minimize silos and fuel program productivity. When staff have the training to analyze programmatic and operational ideas and the freedom to manage their time and decisions, they are able to help the program develop sound activities to meet country challenges. Ultimately, investing in staff empowerment is good for the staff, for their programs, and the communities and countries in which we work.


4. It can be tough to engage in long term staff capacity building when you are managing a fast-moving program—what are some of the best ways you’ve found to keep the momentum going for capacity building while simultaneously overseeing program implementation?

It is often a challenge. Both leadership in the home office and our clients and donors want to see tangible results that are directly linked to what is in the program contract. Because of this, I think it is important that we build capacity building and mentorship directly into proposals. Once this capacity building is integrated into the contract itself, it’s easier to build into the ethos of the program and to demonstrate to everyone—from clients to junior staff—that it is important.

From a tactical standpoint, it is important to think strategically about how to fit capacity building into the programming cycle and country context, and to use this to create a staff development plan. For instance, in some countries outreach needs to be concentrated in the dry season to ensure community access, which means you can plan to do more extensive staff capacity building during the rainy season when activities slow down. Another option is to stagger training in multiple stages with different staff participating at different times. It can also be helpful to build training into existing programming processes. Training programs should not be developed at the last minute—they need to be integrated into programming from the start.


5. Working cultures can vary a great deal across countries. Have you ever found yourself ‘speaking a different language’ when it comes to staff capacity and empowerment, and what are some of the ways you’ve bridged these gaps?

Capacity building and leadership needs differ greatly, and context should be to be taken into account. That said, we can agree on a broad definition of empowerment: that team members have the tools and resources necessary to make confident and informed decisions more independently. As a practical matter, taking the time to understand the culture, context, faiths, gender dynamics, and do no harm considerations, among other things, is key to an effective capacity building strategy. To help with this, I like to have open door policy so that staff—who are the real experts—can help me to understand the local context and cultures.

At the same time, we cannot be afraid to introduce new things into a particular culture. This needs to be done carefully; adapt new concepts to a culture and provide clear examples (sometimes in the form of anecdotes) that team members can relate to. For some sensitive areas, such as gender and social inclusion, trainings tailored to certain groups can be helpful—for instance, training female and male staff separately on gender inclusion before introducing training to the whole team.


6. We know that good ideas for programming can come from any staff member. What are some of the best ways you’ve seen to get all staff to bring forward their ideas?

Effective leadership is important so that all staff feel comfortable sharing their ideas. To do this well, you need to be able to move between leadership styles—from coaching to democratic to visionary leadership—and not use a one-size-fits-all approach. Tailoring your leadership approach ensures that all staff feel comfortable bringing forward ideas and, ultimately, helps create the best programming.

One of the ways I like to generate new ideas is to host all staff meetings during which activities are discussed, as opposed to only including program staff. I like to open up the floor to the whole team for suggestions, asking staff: “What did you think of that idea? Did it resonate with you? Is it something you could do in your community? Would you add anything else to the activity?” Some of the strongest contextual insight I have ever gotten has been from drivers—they are often out sitting with community members as program staff are working on an activity, or they may come from a different part of town that is impacted differently by the current socio-economic-political situation or activity. With this unique perspective, they can offer up ideas that are not only important but outside of what you might regularly encounter from program staff, government officials, or civil society. There is a hierarchy to managing a program, but in terms of ideas, there is no hierarchy—everyone’s points of view are on common ground and all ideas should be valued.


7. As a female leader, what are some of the most effective methods to empower local female staff on your teams, especially in countries with low levels of female leadership?

The best way to do this is to lead by example. As a female in a senior leadership position, being firm, fair, and inclusive shows both men and women that females can be strong and effective leaders. Being a female leader has not always been easy—I have been told in official meetings in the past that women should not be leaders or executives. Sometimes I have had to work doubly as hard to prove my worth as a leader and contributor. But it’s important to impress upon both women and men that there are as many capable women as there are men who can be strong effective leaders and excel in their fields.

Through example and mentorship, you can help the women on your team to build their confidence and begin to feel comfortable doing things they were not necessarily taught or encouraged to do from a young age. By leading by example, men and women can see that strength is a positive thing, and that giving your opinion is not being pushy, but rather it is showing that women can be part of the debate and decision-making.

It’s also important to facilitate discussions, whether internal or external, that include or are led by women. Tailored trainings can also help build confidence and the skills needed for a woman to succeed in a challenging environment. In some regions of some countries, it may be hard to find women who have the training, education, or requisite number of years of work experience required by scopes of work. In this case, it is important to look at the scopes of work to make sure women are not being excluded and that the qualifications are not unnecessarily high. Programs always benefit when staff take these considerations into account at the beginning, look for creative ways to include women in candidate searches, and then provide training for women once they are hired in order to groom even better female leaders for the future.