Don’t be afraid to lead – with Dr Danielle Malek Roosa
Danielle represented the General Sir John Monash Foundation as an inaugural John Monash Scholar at the Commonwealth Bank’s Associate Director’s networking event, held in Melbourne on Wednesday 11 May. Danielle’s education and career experience is a great example of leadership and a source of inspiration for those who are wanting to take on higher duties of citizenship and work in areas where positive change can have widespread impact. Her speech was delivered to a captive audience and you can read it below.
Dr Danielle Malek Roosa, 2004 John Monash Scholar
Masters of International Law, Harvard University
Senior Legal Counsel, World Bank
I work for a Bank though it’s something of a unique Bank. Our clients are our shareholders, with 189 member countries. We provide financing for our members’ projects, we also design those projects with them and monitor the outcomes. Not because we’re concerned with the financial viability of the proposals we finance, but because we are a development bank and what matters to us at the end of the day is development impact.
It’s been a unique experience working for the Bank. I have had the opportunity to work across almost all the regions of the globe, with middle income countries such as Turkey and Russia, to the very poorest recipients, like Tajikistan and Yemen, for which we don’t even seek repayment, let alone profit, on our financing. Right now, I’m the Bank’s advisor on legal institutional governance matters; these issues are always politically sensitive, complex and urgent, something that can be challenging at the best of times, let alone at 2 AM when I’m up taking meetings in Washington DC time from Sydney.
Let me share with you a few of the things I’ve learned -
Don’t be afraid to lead: I’ve been fortunate to be given leadership opportunities early in my career. My first assignment as an operational lawyer was as country lawyer for Bosnia Herzegovina. This was a country that had only emerged from civil war not long before. Here I was a fairly young lawyer sent to negotiate loans with not one but three governments. There was the Republika Srpbska, representing the eastern entity of the country, and the Federation of Bosnia for the west, as well as a new federal government with no revenue raising capacity so essentially a political lame duck. My counterparts spoke the same language but used different script for their legal agreements (one the roman alphabet, one Cyrillic) and could barely look at each other across the table. Now I’m not there to negotiate peace; but I do need each of the governments to agree to the financing that was proposed and the arrangements for implementing the project. At the end of the day those arrangements would be in the legal agreement I drafted and would have the force of an international treaty.
What I learned there was the importance of finding ways to come to agreement. The most productive negotiation didn’t take place at the table in the negotiating room; it happened in the stairwell as the Ministers of Finance of the two entities, the Federation and Republika Srpbska, dragged on their cigarettes and could come to agreement in a haze of smoke away from the set piece of their formal delegations.
At that time, I was a new lawyer; in another context, say a law firm, at a similar point in my career I may have been assigned to making coffee for a more senior attorney, but my management trusted that I’d be successful and handed me the challenge.
The lesson there is to remain alive to the contexts in which you deal with your clients. There’s more than one way to do things. It’s also an important lesson in having the confidence to take on leadership challenges whenever they arrive. Don’t be afraid to take up the challenges offered to you. Someone has to do it. Why not you?
Don’t be afraid to think outside the box: I’ve had numerous examples in my career where I have had to come up with a solution that is, as we lawyers like to say, sui generis, unique. In one case we had a member country in Central Asia; the Swiss authorities had frozen over $100 million in assets that belonged to the sitting President of that country but had been siphoned out of the national treasury and briefly passed through the account of a US businessman, attracting the jurisdiction of the US authorities. The Bank’s role, my role, was to broker a deal between the President, the Swiss and the US and to come up with a way to repatriate those funds back to the poorest citizens of that country without them ending up in the hands of the President or his cronies. That wasn’t an easy feat given that most of the financial institutions and government bodies were controlled by the President or his family or by individuals closely linked to him. I remember having to take quite a few brisk walks in that chilly climate to escape our hotel rooms which we very much suspected were bugged.
Let me also implore you to learn broadly: My education has been anything but linear. I have a PhD in medieval Irish literature as well as degrees in arts and law but I have also studied and worked in a broad range of roles- I’ve been a member of the Australian Army Reserves; I have worked as an EMT in a private ambulance company; I have studied Latin, horticulture, blacksmithing. Now I’m not advocating everyone undertake such an eclectic mix of studies but what has stood me in good stead is always ensuring I don’t become too specialised in my role. Business needs change; even a single business line will change over time. Just look at how the COVID pandemic affected the we do business - who could have seen that coming?
Though I hate the word ‘agile’ as a buzz word, I will say this- learning broadly, reading widely and being able to draw on interdisciplinary skills sets and knowledge helps to keep you ‘agile’. You never know how those skills and knowledge can directly or indirectly help you out in a future role.
The constitutive documents of the World Bank are over 70 years old; amendments to them are rare; and yet we have been able to find ways to adapt to some unique governance challenges that would otherwise have crippled our Board of Directors, Board of Governors and our operations in a newly virtual world. The COVID pandemic was when our members needed our financing and knowledge the most, so it was vital that we find ways to continue to do business. Who knows where the next unexpected challenge will come from?
Don’t forget the basics: Due diligence remains important in any financial dealings. Here I’m reminded of a $1billion development policy project I was to negotiate with Egypt following the Arab Spring. At the time, I was learning some basic Arabic since I was also the lawyer for Yemen and Syria. The Egyptians had revoked their earlier constitution and substituted it with a new interim version. Naturally the Arabic version was definitive though they released an English language version. With my very very rudimentary language skills I did a quick cross-comparison of the two documents and noticed that the word ‘and’ was missing from one particular sentence in the Arabic version that was not missing in the English. Anyone who’s studied constitutional law can tell you a single word can change the meaning. What it meant for us was that the policy actions we were asking the Egyptian Ministers to undertake were unconstitutional under the interim constitution.
I called my counterparts at the Islamic Development Bank and the Africa Development Bank about it. After all, they’d both just lent Egypt $1 billion for similar policy actions. And it turns out none of my counterparts at those two IFIs had bothered to review the interim constitution. They simply hadn’t done their due diligence. In the end, I travelled to Cairo to meet with the new Minister of Justice and hear his views of the text- after all, it’s not up to me to interpret their constitution and he confirmed that my understanding was correct. At the end of the day, we didn’t proceed with the loan, although there were also other political factors that came into play.
These same factors apply to the work you do. Take the opportunities as they come; don’t be afraid to innovate; learn broadly and don’t forget the importance of due diligence.