Passing the Baton of Leadership

By Alex Counts

As the conversation unfolded, I began pacing faster and faster. It was November 2015 and I was in the courtyard of a hotel in Cape Town, South Africa while attending a conference there. The phone connection to India was remarkably clear, but that wasn’t what had me so excited. During one of my final interviews as a candidate to become the CEO of American India Foundation, I was struck by the practical intellect of the person on the other end of the line: AIF Country Director Nishant Pandey. His questions for me, and his responses to my own queries, were both stimulating and confidence-inspiring. Not long after that call, I was offered the job and accepted.

It didn’t take long, after I formally joined AIF in March 2016, to see that Nishant was a natural leader and my logical successor. From his base in Gurgaon leading our team in India, his strengths shined brightly. He is a terrific spokesperson for the organization. He believes deeply in AIF’s approach to public-private partnerships. He actively guides his senior team without stepping over the line to being a micro-manager. He writes beautifully. Perhaps most important, Nishant is open to input and feedback, which I believe is one of the hallmarks of a strong leader committed to continuous improvement and learning. He has already brought to AIF some of the best ideas he was exposed to and applied during his impressive tenure at Oxfam, one of the world’s great humanitarian organizations.

Moreover, Nishant interacts with senior government officials, implementation partners, and people living in deep poverty with great diplomacy and empathy, always with an eye on the best outcome for AIF’s mission. But it was when I saw him present our progress and plans to the AIF Board of Directors over the course of two meetings in 2016 that I decided that he was the person whom I should pass the leadership baton to one day. (Previously it had not been typical to have the country director present to the AIF board in person, but that was one of the first changes I made after coming on board.)

A combination of personal, professional and organizational opportunities came together late this year to make the timing right to put this succession plan in motion. As hoped, Nishant has stepped up to the challenge with great energy and some impressive early results. It has been encouraging to see how well he is already leading the staff team in the U.S., many of whom have blossomed as professionals during the last two years. His nose for talent has enabled him to leave in place a very capable team in India which is being led during this interim period by Sajit Menon with support from the India Leadership Team that Nishant formed three years ago.

I am and will remain supportive of his leadership of AIF from whatever formal or informal roles I have in the organization, including as a financial supporter. I will join with thousands of other friends of AIF to observe and assist Nishant as he works his magic on AIF.

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