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Talking to the Front Line

Jim WolfensohnWhile writing my bestseller, Getting Change Right,
I had a conversation with my former boss, Jim Wolfensohn. Jim 
began his work as president of the World Bank with an ambitious change

When he arrived, he found an organization that was considered
by many heads of state to be a necessary but bothersome bureaucracy
that was almost irrelevant. He wanted to change that image and
establish the World Bank as the preeminent source of knowledge and
experience, the first choice a country would turn to when it needed
help with its development.

He knew the expertise, know-how, and experience of World Bank staff
were exemplary. He also recognized that knowledge was not proprietary
to the World Bank. It resided everywhere, including among the poor, the
World Bank’s beneficiaries. He made it a point to listen to people
inside and outside the organization: up, down, and outside the
hierarchy. His willingness to include people outside the formal
channels sometimes created consternation. Nonetheless, he was highly

JW: I visited about 120 countries
where I did not just go to the
palaces. I spent the first couple of days in the field before I would
ever see the president. That was my usual request: “Get me out in the
field first, and then I’ll go see the president.”

I was not going to
say, “Mr. President, I have just come from
Washington.” Instead I wanted to say, “I have just come from
Washington, and I’ve been out to see the schools in your countryside.
This is what is happening there. What do you think of that?”

SK: What did you get from your meetings with local people?

JW: Meeting ordinary people was
powerful. I would have illiterate
parents come up to me and tell me that they were keeping their child,
boy or girl, in the school so he could get his qualifications and the
tools to improve his life. That cannot help but move you. That is what
gave me the passion for this job and this work.

My job was not just
an administrative job. It was about people in
poverty whose main vision was to give their children an opportunity.
That is what gave me the understanding and passion I have for my work.
I have had hundreds, if not thousands, of conversations like that. It
changes you. You learn what is happening on the ground.

S: You made a concerted effort to learn directly from people on the

JW: To bring about change, you
cannot just speak with leaders. You have to
speak with people at all levels. They have to feel you understand them.
And you have to understand the different levels of change that they are