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Robert Zoellick: "Getting Stuff Done" at the World Bank and Beyond

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Last Friday was Robert B. Zoellick's last day as president of the World Bank Group. And while he may leave many legacies behind, perhaps the one that he will be most remembered for is embodied in the title his commencement address at the RAND Graduate School: "Getting Stuff Done."

In a recent speech in California, Zoellick imparted his wisdom and advice to a future generation of public policy professionals. And while congratulating the graduates for their "world-class training in quantitative skills," he warned that, "what is really exciting about making public policy isn't evaluating and analyzing and predicting" -- rather -- according to one of the most accomplished public servants of his generation -- "it's getting stuff done."

To anyone who has observed Zoellick's career -- and to anyone who has worked for him -- this commandment to "get stuff done" will come as no surprise.

Zoellick's drive for results -- and indeed -- his drive to make a difference in every organization he leads -- permeates from his office -- down to every step of the chain of command.

But what may be a surprise to those that only know him as a bespectacled technocrat at the helm of the world's premier development bank, is his further advice at RAND: "If you really want to get stuff done outside the classroom, quantitative analysis needs to be to be complemented by qualitative analysis -- the political, bureaucratic, behavioral, social, cultural and ethical skills."

In illustrating the importance of the softer side of leadership, Zoellick outlined five lessons that he's learned in his decades of public service.

First, noting that "history is important," Zoellick opined that "history offers perspectives on problems." Illustrating his modest Mid-Western roots, he cited "that great student of humankind" Mark Twain, who said: "History may not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes."

Second, Zoellick called on the students to "look at the whole elephant" -- that is, to solve problems, "one needs to consider multiple dimensions."

In his words: "When I consider a problem, it is now instinctive for me to think about the institutions involved, the authorizing environment, possible coalitions, likely opposition, implementation, legal issues, resource dimensions, communications - and how the problem fits into a stream of other issues. The whole elephant. Because if you look only at the foot," Zoellick added, "you are likely to miss the toothache that prompts the kick."

Third, the World Bank president added a challenge: "Don't just analyze a problem -- solve it."

In calling on the students to be "problem-solvers" -- not just analysts -- he recalled his service as U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), a time that resulted in an impressive number of
completed free trade agreements, noting that, "We had a team that knew the objective was to consult, yes; analyze, yes; work with Congress, yes -- but most of all to close the deal. Decide."

Fourth, he reminded the future policymakers, "Don't forget the public in public policy," adding that, "After all, the policies we work on belong to the public." He explained the importance of working with legislatures -- "the representatives of the public" -- adding that, "The most effective executive branch officials try to help legislators develop explanations for the votes they are being asked to take."

Fifth, Zoellick suggested that the students "build in feedback loops" and recalled the Air Force's "OODA loop" -- "Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act" -- suggesting that policy professionals should continually reorient and act more quickly, all while being honest -- with yourself and others -- to ensure results are really being achieved, and that mistakes are not being continued.

According to Zoellick, "All of us make mistakes. The key is to acknowledge them, learn and move on. The real sin is ignoring mistakes, or worse, seeking to hide them."

In his closing comments, Zoellick opined that much of public policy is "about the art of the possible" -- adding that "compromise is not necessarily a dirty word" - and in doing so, he offered a challenge that could apply to more than just his student audience in California:

"Many public officials seem content to hold posts, be part of the flow of events, analyze and comment, attend the meetings. Be a doer. Keep your eye on achieving results. On accomplishing things. This is what's exciting about your future careers."

Indeed, when one reflects on Zoellick's public service legacy, from helping reunite Germany while at the State Department, to racking-up free trade agreements while at USTR, to helping modernize the World Bank through his Access to Information policy and Open Data Initiative, as well as his pro-active anti-corruption programs, such as the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, there is little doubt that Zoellick is a "doer." And indeed, perhaps here, there is a tribute to a man who advised Zoellick, just as Zoellick advised the students at RAND.

In a interview with David Rubenstein at the Economic Club of Washington, Zoellick noted that he was fortunate to have a number of very good bosses -- those that he learned from -- but there was one he highlighted for special mention: former secretary of treasury and state James Baker III. "I started with Secretary Baker at Treasury," Zoellick said. "I have enormous respect for him. He understands government and politics" -- but what he really admired from Baker was his work ethic: "Every day was, 'What can we do to get something done?'"

Thus, decades later, it seems the student has become the teacher. Let us hope that this trend continues, and a new generation of public policy professionals focuses on getting stuff done, from the World Bank and beyond.

Mark V. Vlasic, an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown's Institute for Law, Science & Global Security, previously served as the first head of operations of the World Bank's Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative. He now leads the international practice at Madison Law & Strategy Group.