A Humanitarian Force Whose Words Matter

By Judy Warner


Online Article Leadership

This is an excerpt of an article published in the March/April 2021 issue of Directorship.

Corporate board members have much to learn from other directors, especially those such as former US ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Samantha J. Power, whose experience in the public sphere collaborating to identify, oversee, and overcome the world’s largest challenges informs her decisions as a private citizen. Power has served on the boards of the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and the Tent Partnership for Refugees, a nonprofit started in 2016 by Hamdi Ulukaya, the founder, chair, and CEO of Chobani.

Politics aside, Power has a voice worth listening to. Her most recent book, The Education of an Idealist (HarperCollins, 2019), traces her personal and professional history in intimate detail, from Power as a nine-year-old immigrant from Ireland, to US citizen, to war correspondent, to an expert on humanitarian issues, to Harvard law school graduate who entered politics by becoming an early foreign policy advisor to then-Sen. Barack Obama. She became part of the Obama-Biden administration as Obama’s human rights advisor during his first term and as UN ambassador during his second term.

In January, President Joseph R. Biden Jr. nominated Power to be the administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the agency’s highest-ranking official. At press time, she was awaiting Senate confirmation. This interview with Directorship‘s editor in chief, Judy Warner, took place in December before Power was nominated to the USAID position.

How, as a private citizen with impressive credentials, did you think about how to prioritize your board service? This is a question that a lot of executives should answer for themselves prior to thinking about board service.

I was on a number of boards before I joined the Obama administration. And my basic board criteria back then were to join if, as a citizen, I could be grateful for the work that the organization does and if [that cause] overlapped with my expertise. Before I was in government, I found it really hard to say no, in the sense that if I rooted for the organization and if I thought I could be a voice at the table, [I thought] it would be useful to take part. I basically said yes a lot, and I was spread very, very thin, very quickly. Once I was out of government, I made a very explicit choice to not do that again and to not go broad, instead only taking on a couple such commitments. The two that I’ve taken on are IRAP and Tent, which both focus on refugees.

I always tell young people that my bias is toward going deep and not wide. The advantage of going deep is that you bring your expertise to bear. The sort of trade-off of going deep and narrow, relatively narrow, is that the systemic backdrop doesn’t really change fundamentally. You’re, for example, focusing on the symptoms of conflict and the victims of conflict, or you’re trying to do individual family reunifications against a backdrop of the Muslim ban.

The Heath brothers’ notion of “shrinking change” is potent. (Chip and Dan Heath authored Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, among other books.) Talk to me about that as it relates to some of the challenges that you have faced both as the US ambassador to the UN and in your other humanitarian-oriented work.

“Shrink the change”—I think that really meets people where they are right now. The Heath brothers basically say, “Look, just because the problems in the world are enormous doesn’t mean the solutions always are.” And, if we set out to solve every problem at once, we may get so disillusioned with ourselves in our contributions that we quit too soon, or we make the best the enemy of the good. I read Switch when I was in government early in Obama’s first term, and I passed it out to different government employees. It’s a great book for business, [nongovernmental organizations], government officials, and citizens. Especially as UN ambassador, I just latched onto that idea of, how do we shrink the change? We’re not going to solve climate change tomorrow, so as a start, how do we get the Paris Agreement to enter into international legal force? I’m not going to solve the global recession in human rights, but maybe I can help get 20 female political prisoners out of jail to begin with. So I think, how do you skinny down the change? You seek something that’s manageable and that may require a stretch, but nonetheless, it’s within your horizon of potentially being able to achieve. I think that’s resonated a lot.

Read the full interview here.

Judy Warner
Judy Warner was editor in chief of NACD Directorship magazine and NACD's Board Talk blog. A journalist for more than 30 years, Warner joined the Directorship team in 2007 as managing editor from ComAve LLC, an independent content management firm she co-founded and operated for eight years. Before that, Warner was New England bureau chief of Adweek magazine for 10 years. She began her journalism career in the newsroom of The Boston Globe as an editorial assistant then contributing reporter to the City Desk covering breaking news. Warner earned a BS in journalism with a minor in political science from Northeastern University.