Leading Innovation in the Public Sector: An Interview with The World Bank’s Elizabeth Petheo
Elizabeth Petheo works for The World Bank in Washington, DC. Throughout her career she has led international development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Central and Eastern Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. She is also a member of the MIT EMBA class of 2014.
Executive Insights: What would you say are the benefits of the MIT Executive MBA (EMBA) to someone coming from the public sector/international development into this program?
Petheo: There are two ways to look at that question: the benefits you get from the breadth of the program and the benefits you get from depth.
The first is the breadth of the general management skill set. Regardless of functional area or industry, or even public or private sectors, working more effectively as a team and managing people, funds and processes more efficiently is of central concern.
The second is the depth of the technical diagnostic tools. We all know that pre-packaged “one size fits all” solutions very rarely work in the long term. Therefore, you need actionable tools to evaluate business challenges and opportunities. Tools like systems dynamics to model decisions in a dynamic environment, or linear optimization to take advantage of data to do scenario analysis. Other classes like marketing give you a model for not only thinking about value creation but also how organizations capture value. Furthermore, courses like competitive strategy give you very useful ways to better understand the nuances of your organizations external landscape, and a disciplined way of thinking about the complex, and often interrelated, challenges that exist.
Beyond this, there is the opportunity to bring it all together. Courses like global strategy and the week-long modules, like leading in a global context, emphasize integration– bringing together the breadth of the general management skill set that you are developing and the specific tools needed to operationalize change.
One of the profound lasting benefits of the Executive MBA experience is that it conditions your thought process to be able to better “connect the dots” to both simultaneously understand unbounded ambiguous problems while responding to the immediate challenges of a narrower operational focus.
Executive Insights: You have worked all over the world. The international dimensions of this program are many. What do you feel like you learned about the global dimension of your work?
Petheo: First, the world is changing so rapidly—every day, all the time. One’s set of experiences, no matter how recent or relevant, need constant re-examination. What you were doing even six months ago may not be the best way to approach something today. In the program you are learning from professors who in many cases have literally “written the book” on their subject area and advise the world’s leading organizations. What is more, these models are not static. They incorporate change, and provide insights into patterns of behavior—such as common pitfalls or indicators of success. You are getting the best frameworks for decision making in an environment of constant change and volatility. This is universally applicable.
Executive Insights: What has been the most rewarding part of the program for you?
Petheo: MIT is about innovation and challenge, and it attracts people who are curious, thoughtful, ambitious, genuine in their intellectual pursuits and want to come together to apply new thinking and approaches to the world’s most challenging problems. Learning with and from such a dedicated and high caliber cohort is inspiring. I find myself looking forward to coming to campus every few weeks to engage my peers and challenge my own mental models around effective management. I was also initially surprised by how many “kindred spirits” I found in this program and how much I had in common with my cohort-regardless of the industry or professional background. Again, public or private sector, at the core of any successful endeavor is people and relationships—and demonstrating results. This is shared and fundamental value at the institute.
Executive Insights: What would you say is one big lesson that you will take away from the program?
Petheo: Process matters. We have always known that to be the case. Yet, processes are more complex, multi-layered, networked, globally dispersed, cross-cultural and cross-functional than they were even five years ago. Against this backdrop, organizations will succeed by how well they manage these different process elements, and often times, competing interests contained therein. The organizations that can deliver results and impact are the ones filled with people who understand this deeply, embrace it daily, and build teams with organizational capabilities for flexibility.
Executive Insights: Do you feel this program has made you a better leader?
Petheo: Yes. Look. There is a very real “boot camp” element to this program. It is rigorous. The 10-15 hours of homework/week can be on the light end depending upon the semester. I also perhaps had it more challenging than some given an international commute. I started the EMBA program when I was Head of Mission in Haiti and also managed an international move back to the US in the middle of it. It has been a lot of hours on the road, but the advantage of that is it can be productive study time as well. You have to be very well organized, focused and disciplined. The message here is that the program is a real commitment—to the education, to your classmates and to yourself.
Additionally, I would say you grow as an individual because so much of the program is engineered so you can take a 360 look at your professional life. You are here because of your strengths. However, you have chosen to be a student again because of the things that you want to learn and areas you want to work on. Understanding and then pushing past what you thought were your limitations is a big part of the learning experience. If you are humble in that process and take on the challenges authentically, the end result is you come out stronger, more confident, more self-aware and better prepared for the next leadership role.
It is inevitable—you will be changed for the better!