[This interview was undertaken in September 2019 by Andrea Baertl and the article written by Cristina Ramos.]
Santiago Cueto is the executive director of Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE) in Peru. Santiago holds a PhD in educational psychology from Indiana University in the United States and also teaches in the Department of Psychology at the Catholic University in Peru. Established in 1980, GRADE is a research centre that develops applied research with the goal of contributing to the debate, design and implementation of public policy. In this interview, Santiago discusses his trajectory within the organisation, how the director is elected and what his main functions and challenges as director have been.
Andrea Baertl: Can you tell us about your trajectory and how you became GRADE’s executive director?
Santiago Cueto: I have been in GRADE for 23 years, but during this time I have also been a professor at the Catholic University teaching a course and advising a few theses every year. Before working at GRADE, I worked at the university for a long time. When I was studying at the University of Indiana, I was a research assistant and I later collaborated as a researcher affiliated with the University of California at Davis. Then I came back and worked on a research project at the Institute for Nutritional Research and in 1996 I entered GRADE for a project. Another project came up and then another, and that is how we continue to this day.
AB: And was there a structured process? E.g. did you start as an affiliate research assistant and then there was an upward move through different levels?
SC: At that time, there were no levels as clear as there are today. About two or three years after I joined GRADE, they asked me to be on the first executive committee. We were five people at that time.
Then at the beginning of the 2000s we made a big change in the bylaws in the career of a GRADE researcher. We started having three people on the committee. In that committee in 2000, I was director of research. In 2003 the executive director left for the World Bank, we had an election, and I was elected as executive director. I was executive director for five years, from 2003 to 2008. And last year, the assembly asked me again to take on the role executive director, and according to the tradition, an executive director should serve two terms.
To elect the executive committee there is an assembly. The executive committee that meets every week and makes decisions, and there is also a board of directors that is proposed in the statutes as a kind of balance mechanism that can call assemblies and could ask for our resignation (the EDs) and this should be voted in an assembly, but apart from that it does not have many functions, it is nothing like an internal control body.
Actually, the job of executive director and research director is not a job that people particularly want because it involves a lot of administrative and coordination work and so asking someone to do it for two years has always seemed good to us. We have never considered a longer tenure.
AB: And what are the functions of the executive director?
SC: There are many day-to-day tasks that have to do with administrative issues, from signing cheques to overseeing personnel or building maintenance issues or authorising the proper use of the budget, etc. But the work is more complicated. I guess the most complicated thing in my case, the most tedious part, is coordinating with the researchers and the administrative staff. I meet with the secretariats and we discuss functions and sometimes there may be some friction, just as in any institution.
The administrative part, coordinating with the staff and maintenance, takes the most of my time.
AB: And which you think is the most important?
SC: Without a doubt, setting GRADE’s vision for the future and funding it.
The world and the market are changing so we have to delve into issues that are not necessarily the ones we have worked on in the past, such as corruption or migration, to look for opportunities.
Also I have to be looking at the calls for proposals from different sectors to do them with GRADE researchers, but also with the support of outsiders. On the one hand, we are trying not to let opportunities pass us by. On the other, in terms of professional development we are developing courses aimed at practising professionals on different topics.
AB: And why do you think you have been chosen for the director position so many times? What makes you a good director?
SC: I guess I am less reluctant than others, I am willing to take charge, and I have ideas of how to move forwards. On a personal level, I am patient, I get along well with people. In terms of the institution, I have some ideas of where to take it and how to get funding, and, well, an important thing is that I am willing to do it.
Others do not want the administrative work or the institutional responsibility of thinking about what must be done. It may also have to do with the age of the people in GRADE. Some are considering retirement. So I’m trying to bring in younger people, but at the moment we don’t really have two or three names of people who want to be directors.
AB: What are the main challenges you face as director on a personal level?
SC: I don’t know whether to call it burnout, but the stress levels of everything you have to do with executive management and projects is sometimes complicated because it involves conversations and listening to people.
I have a certain executive way of acting: ‘this is the agenda, these are the points, how do we reach a solution more quickly?’ But I have to remember that if people want to talk, you have to let them talk and not try to find the solution right away.
In this specific period, what has been hardest is that the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) was something great for GRADE because it allowed us to have our own research agenda and strengthen the institution, but once the TTI was over, GRADE had to be adapted to the times. A part of me said ‘don’t get involved in the management, stay with your projects’, but another part of me said ‘you have to try to take the institution to the next stage’, and I ended up doing that.
I feel a very strong institutional commitment. Over the years I have had some offers to go elsewhere, but I have never gotten to the point where they made me a financial offer because I did not want to be tempted in case it was more than what I make here. I have never found something that professionally appealed to me more than this. This is an institution that accompanies my interests very well.
AB: And what are the main challenges at the organisational level?
SC: Putting together the projects and professional development unit, although we have a person working there, we have to assemble this unit in such a way that it meets several requirements. The main one is not to go against the academic or independent spirit of GRADE. Of course, it also has to be profitable, because GRADE is investing money from its savings into bringing this unit forwards. And the researchers have to be the ones managing it.
So you have to maintain a balance between generating projects and at the same time providing services to researchers, for example, support with preparing proposals and projects.
AB: How is your team management style? Or your leadership style, how could you describe it?
SC: I try to have a rather participatory leadership style. I have no major problem in consulting a lot of decisions and saying that what someone raises is better than what I raise. I like to set specific goals and for people to meet them more or less on time, but if you can’t for some reason, I like to rethink this. It’s a style that I hope empowers people and is tolerant and constructive, but demanding at the same time.
AB: Is there anything else you’d like to comment or that you find interesting about the role of director?
SC: I think institutions have to be in constant motion, that is what I think for GRADE. I’m always trying to think about how we can do more and better. Not necessarily growing, although growing is always a possibility, but certainly not decreasing, trying to use the facilities to the maximum. I ask our administration staff to tell me not only how we are in terms of income and expenses of the projects, but also how much of the GRADE offices are being occupied so that I can have an idea of how we are doing. Because researchers, as I said before, it is not that I can go and tell them, there is a project here and you are going to do it and it is your responsibility, but rather that each researcher gets involved in the projects they want, that is the tradition of GRADE.