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Setting goals: An interview with the head of the Millennium Challenge Corporation

Daniel W. Yohannes is the CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. foreign aid agency that works to promote poverty reduction in developing countries through economic growth. Prior to this role, Yohannes worked in banking and economic development for more than thirty years. A native of Ethiopia, Yohannes is also an active philanthropist and environmental advocate.

What do you consider to be a critical event to your becoming the leader you are today?

I came here with absolutely nothing [when] I was 17 years old. And when you come by yourself, you develop self confidence and begin to look at things differently. Even when times are extremely challenging, you have to be very confident and determined. You also learn that not only do you have to be determined, but also in order to succeed you have to show results.

When I went to college, I did not have any money so I went to school through a scholarship program, which meant you had to maintain at least a minimum 3.5 [grade point average] in order to continue to receive funding. You learn early that you better show results otherwise you are not going to be very successful. That lesson was the same in corporate America. I look at every opportunity as a challenge. I tell young people today that in order to succeed they need to be determined and have the ability to recognize and take advantage of all opportunities. That's shaped my leadership skills to help me be who I am today.

How do you keep your employees motivated and engaged in their work?

MCC is a bit different from most agencies because it has one mandate, one mission: poverty reduction through economic growth. We have extremely committed employees; they are committed to the mission, and they are here because they want to make a big difference in people's lives, especially with our partner countries. They are motivated by success and they see it on the ground in our partner countries and are driven by a shared vision. With such self-motivated staff, my role has been a supportive one. I listen to their concerns, consider recommendations and work with them on solutions. I see my role as supporting many of our employees and creating the best atmosphere so they'll be very successful.

What are your biggest day-to-day challenges leading MCC and how are you overcoming them?

I come from the financial community, so I'm committed to helping countries replace aid dollars with those from the private sector to help make the aid that we deliver to developing nations more efficient and deliver maximum returns to the American taxpayer. The MCC model is making significant inroads in economic growth in many parts of the world, and I want to ensure that people are aware of the results being generated by this agency. The education process is something you have to do on almost a daily basis.

I recently participated in a bipartisan event at the American Enterprise Institute with the Center for American Progress where we discussed the importance of private-sector engagement in the fight against global poverty. MCC works with our partner countries to create enabling environments for the private sector. My staff and I are focused on sharing the economic and social benefits that result from our projects or the policy changes that many countries make as they seek to become MCC eligible. The only way they can bring long-term economic sustainability is through major policy reform, whether it is setting aside funds so that they have sufficient resources to repair the roads we build or reform an energy or utility company so that they can become more sustainable.

When you think about your vision as CEO, what is it you hope to achieve during your tenure?

When President Obama delivered his recent State of the Union Address to the nation, he outlined his vision for winning the future by enhancing our international competitiveness and strengthening the economy. His call for bipartisan cooperation to enhance American competitiveness, provide accountability and efficiency to the way we do business, and create a more stable and secure world have been at the heart of the MCC's mission since its creation seven years ago. We want to show real results both quantitatively and qualitatively, both to our partner countries as well as the American taxpayer. Our goal is not only to help poor countries rise out of poverty, but also to create stable trading and investment partners for the United States, which will strengthen the American economy and keep our nation more secure.

Who are your leadership role models and what lessons have they taught you?

There have been a lot of role models in my professional life and personal development in the last fifty years. My parents, teachers and college professors and people I worked with in the private sector have all played a major role and have helped me become who I am, but I do have a couple of people that I consider to be extremely critical. One is Nelson Mandela, who shows remarkable grace in the face of adversity. I [also] really admire Ted Turner and Bill Gates. Both were very successful in their business endeavors, and both decided to give away what they had to help humanity. People are seeing the fruits of their investments with many, many poor people around the world. It is truly remarkable.

Government leaders, nominate your outstanding federal employees for the tenth annual Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies)! Considered the "Oscars of Washington," the Sammies are the most prestigious awards honoring our nation's public servants. Nominations are accepted at servicetoamericamedals.org through February 7, 2011.

By Tom Fox

 |  February 2, 2011; 12:03 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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