An exceptional CEO: Bob Zeigler, IRRI Director General, 2005-2015

When the Director General of one of the world’s premier agricultural research institutes talks about poverty and food security, and what has to change, the global development community better take note. The Director General of IRRI—the International Rice Research Institute, located in Los Baños, the Philippines—has a unique perspective on these issues, since rice is the most important staple crop on the planet, and the basis of food security for more than half the world’s population who eat rice at least once a day. And rice agriculture is also the livelihood for millions of farmers and their families worldwide. When rice prospers, so do they. They feed their families, they send their children to school. The converse, alas, is also true.

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For the past decade, IRRI has been led by a remarkable scientist, someone I am honored to call a friend, and a close colleague for many years. In mid-December, however, Dr Robert ‘Bob’ Zeigler will step down as CEO and Director General of IRRI, a position he has held since March 2005. Bob is IRRI’s ninth Director General. And of all those who have held this position, he perhaps has been uniquely qualified, because of his practical experience of working in many developing countries, his in-depth understanding of international agricultural research funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and his profound knowledge of rice agriculture.

A passion for science
Bob hails from the USA, and completed his BS degree in biological sciences at the University of Illinois in 1972, followed by an MS from the University of Oregon in forest ecology in 1978. He joined the Peace Corps and spent a couple of years in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and it was there that his passion for plant pathology was ignited. He returned to Cornell University to work for his PhD in 1982 on cassava diseases under the guidance of renowned plant pathologist Dr H David Thurston. For his PhD research, Bob also spent time at a sister center, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia that has an important global cassava research program, and germplasm collection. After his PhD Bob returned to Africa, working in the national maize program in Burundi.

After three years, he joined CIAT as a senior plant pathologist and then became head of the rice program. IRRI recruited Bob in December 1991 to lead the Rainfed Lowland Rice Research Program, and I first met Bob around September of that year when he came for interview. I was also a newbie, having joined IRRI as head of the Genetic Resources Center just three months earlier. After a couple of years or so, he became leader of the Irrigated Rice Research Program. Much of his own research focused on the rice blast pathogen, Magnaporthe grisea, and I know he is particularly proud of the work he and his colleagues did on the population genetic structure of the pathogen.

As a program leader Bob visited all of the rice-growing countries in Asia, and with his experience in Latin America at CIAT, as well as working in Africa, he had a broad perspective on the challenges facing rice agriculture. And of all his eight predecessors as Director General of IRRI, Bob is the only one who made rice his career. This has given him the edge, I believe, to speak authoritatively about this important crop and rice research. His scientific credentials and passion for ‘doing the right science, and doing the science right‘ ensured that Bob was the candidate recruited as the next Director General when Ron Cantrell stepped down in 2004.

First departure from IRRI
Bob first left IRRI in 1998, and became professor and head of the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University. But he couldn’t stay away from international agriculture for long, and by 2004 he became Director of the CGIAR’s cross-cutting Generation Challenge Program (GCP). I like to think my colleagues and I in the System-wide Genetic Resources Program (SGRP) had something to do with the founding of the GCP, since we held an interdisciplinary workshop in The Hague in September 1999 assessing the role of comparative genetics to study germplasm diversity. I invited Bob as one of the participants. Comparative genetics and its applications became one of the pillars of the GCP. And its was from the GCP that Bob returned to IRRI in March 2005 as the institute’s ninth Director General.

Back ‘home’ again
strategic_plan_cover_4a1f1e1b122f0c53ab77464b73eb40cbAnd it wasn’t long before his presence was felt. It’s not inappropriate to comment that IRRI had lost its way during the previous decade for various reasons. There was no clear research strategy nor direction. Strong leadership was in short supply. Bob soon put an end to that, convening an international expert group of stakeholders (rice researchers, rice research leaders from national programs, and donors) to help the institute chart a perspective for the next decade or so. In 2006 IRRI’s Strategic Plan (2007-2015), Bringing Hope, Improving Lives, was rolled out.

Bob wasn’t averse to tackling a number of staffing issues, even among the senior management team. And although the changes were uncomfortable for the individuals involved (and Bob himself), Bob built a strong team to support the finance, administration, and research challenges that he knew IRRI would face if it was to achieve its goals.

A born leader
Not every good scientist can become a good manager or research leader, but I do think that Bob was an exception. His major strength, as I see it, was to have a clear vision of what he wanted the institute to achieve, and to be able to explain to all stakeholders why this was important, what needed to be done or put in place, and how everyone could contribute. He nurtured an environment at IRRI where research flourished. Rice research was once again at the center of the international agricultural research agenda. Many visitors to the institute commented on the ‘science buzz’ around the institute. And if Bob felt he wasn’t equipped to tackle a particular situation, he sought—and took—advice. Perhaps uniquely among many of the Directors General of the CGIAR centers, Bob has this ability to listen, to argue fiercely if he thinks you are wrong or misguided. But once convinced of an argument, he accepts the alternatives and moves forward. However, he also admits when he gets something wrong, a very important attribute for any CEO.

Science at the heart of IRRI’s agenda
With Bob at the helm, IRRI’s research agenda expanded, as did the funding base, with significant funding coming from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for submergence tolerant rice, for C4 rice, and stressed rice environments. Under Bob’s guidance IRRI developed the first of the CGIAR research programs, GRiSP—the Global Rice Science Partnership. I think that name is instructive. Science and partnership are the key elements. Bob has vigorously defended IRRI’s research for development focus in the face of quite hostile criticism from some of his colleagues and peers among the CGIAR Center Directors. As Bob has rightly rebutted their ‘anti-science’ attacks, by explaining that submergence tolerant rice varieties for example (that are now benefiting millions of farmers in Asia) didn’t materialize as if by magic. There had been an 18 year intensive research program to identify the genetic base of submergence tolerance, and several years to transfer the genes into widely-adapted rice varieties before farmers even had the first seeds.

These are just a few of the research innovations that have taken place with Bob at IRRI’s helm. No doubt there will be much more appearing in print in due course that will fill in many more of the details. I’ll let Bob tell us a few things in his own words, just published in the latest issue of Rice Today.

Public recognition
Over the past 10 years Bob has been invited to speak at many international meetings, including the World Economic Forum held each year in Davos. He’s appeared on numerous television broadcasts and news programs. His contributions to rice science have been recognized with numerous awards and honorary doctorates. Just last week he received from the Government of the Philippines its highest honour awarded to a foreign national—the Order of Sikatuna, Grand Cross (Rank of Datu), Gold Distinction (Katangiang Ginto).

A downturn . . . but continuing strength
It must be rather disappointing for Bob to leave IRRI just as the funding support for the centers has once again hit the buffers, and led to a trimming of IRRI’s research and staff. But even with these setbacks, Bob leaves a strong institute that can and will withstand such setbacks. Incoming Director General Matthew Morell, the current Deputy Director General for Research, has big shoes to fill. Nevertheless, I’m sure that the underlying strength of IRRI will enable Matthew to move IRRI once again towards the important goals of supporting rice farmers, enhancing food security, and reducing poverty. Rice research is closely aligned with the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, as it will be with the recently-agreed Sustainable Development Goals. In fact it’s hard to contemplate the successful delivery of these goals without rice being part of the equation.

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Bob Zeigler and Mike Jackson after the unveiling of one of two historical markers at IRRI, on 14 April 2010, IRRI’s 50th anniversary.

Thank you
So let me take this opportunity of thanking Bob for his friendship and collegiality over many years, and to wish him and Crissan many years of happy retirement back in Portland, OR. However, I’m sure it won’t be long before he is lured out of retirement in some capacity or other to continue contributing his intellect, experience, and broad perspectives to the global development agenda.

A few anecdotes
But I can’t end this blog post without telling a ‘tale’ or two.

Bob has a great sense of humor, often self-deprecating. Unfortunately this is not always understood by everyone. But I certainly appreciated it, as I’m much the same.

Not long after Bob joined IRRI he took up scuba diving, as did I. And we have, over the years, made some great dives together at Anilao, Batangas. Here are a few memorable photos from a great dive we made at the ‘coral garden’ site, to the south of Sombrero Island in April 2005.

In the 1990s, Bob rode the IRRI Staff bus to and from Staff Housing each day. The ten or so minute drive down to the research center was a good opportunity to catch up on gossip, check a few things with colleagues before everyone disappeared into their offices, or simply to exchange some friendly banter. On two occasions, Bob was the ‘victim’ of some leg-pulling from his colleagues, me included.

I don’t remember which year it was, but Bob had been asked to chair the committee organizing the biennial International Rice Research Conference that would be held at IRRI HQ. The guest speaker was President of the Philippines, Fidel Ramos, and it was Bob’s responsibility to introduce him. For several weeks Bob would be greeted with the sound advice from his colleagues each time he took the bus: “Remember“, they exhorted him, “It’s President Marcos. Marcos!” In the event, Bob cleverly avoided any embarrassment, simply introducing him as ‘Mr President’.

On a couple of occasions, Bob and I were members of the ‘IRRI Strolling Players’, taking part in a pantomime (usually three performances) in the institute’s auditorium. In 1995 the theme was Robin Hood and His Merry Men. I played a rather camp Prince John; Bob was Friar Tuck.

Bob had the awkward line at some point in the play: “My, that’s a cunning stunt“. And you can imagine the bus banter around that. “Remember Bob, you say it’s a ‘cunning stunt’!” Fortunately Bob was not susceptible to Spoonerisms.

Both Bob and I have contributed over the years to the Christmas festivities at Staff Housing by taking on the role of Santa (hush, don’t tell anyone).

It was fun working with Bob. He set a challenging agenda that staff responded to. It’s not for nothing that IRRI has continued to retain its high reputation for science and scientific impact. And for the past decade IRRI has indeed been fortunate to have Bob in charge.

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