Starting Strong: Top 10 Tips for Chiefs of Party in Their First 90 Days

Man in red and gold patterned shirt looks at a school paper with a young girl wearing a pink headscarf.USAID PRIORITAS Chief of Party Stuart Weston with a student in grade I in Wajo, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. (Photo credit: Anwar Holil)

“If you want to know the end, look at the beginning.” This African proverb applies to the importance of setting up a solid framework for success at the beginning of a project. 

In international development and humanitarian response, passionate leaders can sometimes be so eager to begin making an impact in their communities that they fail to focus on establishing a healthy, functioning project at the outset. This can lead to management difficulties later in implementation. 

The Chief of Party (COP)—sometimes referred to as the Project Director—is responsible for guiding their project to success, and the first 90 days are critical. What can you learn and put in place to help your project get off to a good start? The 10 tips we collected below will help you set your project up for success.

  1. Do your homework. “Learn as much as you can about the local context, including social, economic, political, and cultural factors. This will help you design interventions that are appropriate and effective,” states Dr. Patricia Gonde on LinkedIn. This research on the local context can be done informally as a listening tour or can be a more formal study, such as a Political Economy Analysis, as recommended by Eduardo Flores-Trejo, also on LinkedIn.
  2. Read the proposal and award documents. It may seem obvious, but an important early task for a new COP is simply to read the project proposal and award documents to understand what your organization promised to the donor/USAID. Begin mapping what you see in the proposal to what you learn in your local research. At the same time, stay flexible, and remember that the best project outcomes may not be planned, at least initially.
  3. Understand what success looks like, to local communities, to your organization, and to USAID. Often, the best way to ascertain this is simply to ask. If these expectations are out of alignment with each other, you will need to come up with a plan to prioritize, compromise, or realign
  4. Assess risks. “Draft a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis that identifies potential risks, and develop mitigation strategies to address them,” notes Moreblessing N. Panganai on LinkedIn.
  5. Begin to assemble and get to know your team. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? Where are there gaps, and can you make a plan to address those gaps? “The COP needs to know the dynamics [and] the strengths of critical members of the team. These are going to be the team [members] that will make or mar the achievements of the project. It's important to identify the potential of the team, harness it, and put it to good use,” notes Dr. Julie Yemi Jonathan on LinkedIn.
  6. Focus on stress management and mental health. Working in the development and humanitarian sector can take an emotional toll. Cultivate an empathetic leadership style and prioritize your staff’s needs, as well as your own. By adopting this approach from the beginning of your project, you set up a culture of mutual understanding and support. 
  7. Build trust with key stakeholders. Relationships underpin the success of your project. This includes everyone who has a stake in the outcome of the project, from communities to local government entities to subcontractors/subawardees and, of course, USAID. Set a precedent of being hyper-responsive, proactive, and communicative with all stakeholders. Put a special focus on building trust with your Contracting Officer's Representative (COR)/Agreement Officer’s Representative (AOR), as they are your primary contact at the Agency.
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and express needs. For example, one COP found it difficult to discuss and share details about their new award with their local staff due to language barriers. They expressed this concern to their AOR, and the Mission provided an informal translation of the award document. Assume that Mission staff want you to succeed, and advocate on behalf of your project and staff.
  9. Remember these three magic words: “Tell me more.” You can use these three words, says Project Director Dr. Donna Vincent Roa, who leads USAID’s Partnerships Incubator, to invite new and innovative ideas, to signal curiosity, and to indicate an openness to hearing ideas from team members at all levels.
  10. Set a culture of inclusivity, respect, and gratitude. More than anything, a respectful team culture will benefit the work you have ahead of you. A tension-free work setting will enable the best results for the community and for USAID. As Dr. Roa writes, “Gratitude is the new currency.”

Remember, it is much easier to manage a project that has been set up with purpose and intentionality. Taking time at the beginning of your project to lay a strong foundation of knowledge and relationships will make your job as COP easier in the long run. 

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