Jose Maria Figueres,Carbon War Room, ex-President Costa Rica @ THNK

At the Forum session on January 10th at THNK we interviewed Jose Maria Figueres in groups. He is the past president of Costa Rica, and the current president of the Carbon War Room. The theme was Break-through results & Orchestrating creative teams. Read more about Jose Maria here.
We have our 5 questions prepared in advance, Our first question, is a challenging one:

Q: What do you deal with leaders who are corrupt?

A: That is indeed a tough question, the answer is zero tolerance, weed them out, you cannot have corruption in your cabinet. Its a tremendously disruptive force, corruption, and gives all the wrong messages to those under you, if ministers or leaders are doing any corruption.
He had to take some heart-wrenching decisions on this because it can be a slip on the part of someone you care about and have worked with for a few years, but the decision has to be taken.
A related issue is to work on succession planning, also see both yourself and your peers as replaceable even though it is uncomfortable. Every leader knows when they are still adding value. 

Q: How did you make your cabinet a high performing team after taking office as President?

A: It was very difficult, you have to walk into a large company with no leader and take over, you have to appoint the equivalent of the CFO, the CTO, the COO and more in one go, they have to work together not necessarily  knowing the company or even each other and they have to quickly assume responsibility and work together. It took one year to get the team operating as a whole. He organised the team into thematic groups, with ministers and ngo’s, and businesses as members for each main theme (eg education, health.) He also forced them to rotate, to get out of their comfort zone.


Sharing a glass of wine after the questioning. Jose Maria on the most right.
LtoR: Isabel, Lynn, Emer, Jillian, Elly, Jose Maria, Menno.

Q: What was your biggest failure?

A: I had so many!

Q: Ok so maybe what was your favorite failure?

A: In the the whole issue of communicating, he says he failed abysimally, so many times he thought it was clear because it was clear in his head and even thought they shared his ideas, however the other could understand the idea in a very different way. As a leader you can never over communicate. That was a key lesson: Over-communicate.

Another big failure, was not taking some hard decisions with respect to people he had appointed with whom it quickly was apparent that they were not suited to the job. Very good people, but they lacked some skills that were required for the appointed position, and he took too long to move and change that, he spend another year trying to work with them. If he would do it again he would remove them quicker.

Q: How did you get people on board specifically in relation to investing in education?

A. I didn’t always have people on board, sometimes just sheer pushing with strength. To get the change, we put forward a constitutional amendment, that there would be 6% of GDP always invested in education, every year, even in years of shortage. In this way the education investment remains steady. That was a fight but a good fight.

Another fight which was a bad fight, was around the teachers pension reform. There was a system of paying teachers a low salary when they worked and then compensating them with a high pension upon retirement. He wanted to bring this into line with the salaries in the rest of the country. It became the longest strike in Costa Rica, after 5 weeks of the teachers striking the country was in enormous turmoil and it was very difficult,

Q: Globally, what is the biggest challenge to education?

A: The education model is based in the industrial revolution. Repetitive, memorization, it kills creativity by high school graduation. Today education needs to be relaxed around not knowing anything but knowing where to find it.

Q: Many leaders have failed to get through sustainability changes, yet you succeeded in Costa Rica, how?

A: A lot of work! and  more importantly only having one term in office. We passed a carbon tax in 1995, we could never have passed that if we had bene up for re-election, it was very unpopular. In Costa Rica accoording to the constitution, you can only spend one term in office and then you cannot come back. You spend 4 years in office, 5 years would be better, 6 is too long, Now the constitution is changed and you can get re-elected after two terms of not being in office. This rule makes it a lot easier to lead for the good of the country and not be influenced about concerns of getting re-elected.

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