Applying an Appreciative and Strengths-Based Approach to Institutional Support Contracting

Written by: Beeta Tahmassebi, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

At EnCompass, one of the hallmarks of the way we work is to bring the strengths of a system to bear in support of desired project outcomes. When we were awarded the Technical, Operational, and Program Support for Environment, Energy, and Infrastructure (TOPS) contract in 2021, our team was committed to bringing all of our best practices in talent acquisition and employee support to the institutional support contract (ISC) world. We aimed to create a system that was aligned with our values and that we would be proud to support.

Through TOPS, we have supported the placement of Specialists working at the intersection of climate/environment/energy and gender, agriculture, finance, disaster risk, engineering, knowledge management, monitoring and evaluation, capacity strengthening, and more. We are proud to have had our ISCs embedded within and supporting the Bureau of Democracy, Development, and Innovation, Natural Climate Solutions, GenDev, Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, the Anti-Corruption Task Force, and more. In this blog, we will explore how our team has approached managing and implementing a best-in-class ISC that achieves sustainable and meaningful results.

Start with a vision of success: From the start, we envisioned a different kind of ISC mechanism: one that was committed to best practices in talent acquisition and retention, proper training and support, and plenty of space for communication and feedback. We established detailed operating protocols and processes that laid out the various roles and responsibilities between our team and our USAID counterparts. At times, we knew that what we were proposing was not “the standard approach,” but we advocated for what would be necessary to support success in the long run. Investing the time up front to debate, discuss, and create a “better way” made all the difference.

ISC team leads must be leaders in talent acquisition and development: Appreciative inquiry tells us that what we focus on grows. Too often, qualifications for ISC leads focus more on financial and contract management or even sectoral expertise than expertise in talent acquisition. In our view, the most important experience needed is in recruiting and hiring people. To understand the need and to find strong applicants, the team lead must develop seamless processes for intake/consultation with USAID, job description development, recruitment/sourcing, screening, interviewing, selecting, negotiating, and then onboarding and providing ongoing support. So, if the contract focuses on staffing, find a team lead who can focus on that.

Client Connection, Communication, and Collaboration (the 4 Cs): Regular check-ins with the project’s Contracting Officer Representative (COR) are critical to success. These meetings allow the COR and the ISC management team to discuss progress, resolve challenges, and maintain positive relationships.

In addition to meeting with our COR weekly, we also conduct intake meetings and provide regular updates to any office that buys into our mechanism. Taking the time to ensure that everyone is on the same page about what is necessary for a role and to clearly explain the process and timelines has been a tremendous success. Intake meetings take time up front but help to ensure the Specialist’s fit within their USAID team down the road. Our process for engaging offices has been praised repeatedly as being one that is “super helpful,” “very clarifying,” and “one of the best ISC processes I have seen.” If you ask us, it’s all been about prioritizing the 4 Cs.

Institutional Support Contractors need support: The TOPS Specialists embedded within USAID are the backbone of our institutional support contract; they represent our standards and our commitment to quality. To help them succeed, it is incumbent upon us to support them properly and help them build upon their strengths. When onboarding our staff, we ask that they take the StrengthsFinder assessment and reflect on how they might bring their strengths to bear at work. Once our Specialists are fully engaged on their USAID teams, we continue to help with development and coaching through regular check-ins, connections to additional home office staff and resources, and access to further professional development and growth. Finding great talent is the start, but fostering learning and engagement is what achieves lasting results.

In conclusion, managing an ISC with USAID is a unique opportunity for organizations to leverage their strengths and capabilities. EnCompass has always prided itself on our ability to find the best and brightest staff and consultants to support around the world. So, when we set out to find USAID amazing talent, we knew we could draw upon our own best practices and build a model ISC mechanism that would help USAID achieve its operational goals. If you are interested in applying for one of our TOPS openings or if you are interested in learning how to request support through the TOPS mechanism, please reach out to us at To learn about other opportunities to work with EnCompass, please review our open positions.

Beeta Tahmassebi

Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

Beeta Shadman Tahmassebi, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives, oversees EnCompass' knowledge management and communications teams, manages enterprise risk management, and is Executive Director for the EnCompass Learning Center (ELC). From 2017 to 2020, Ms. Tahmassebi was also Director of Operations for The Evaluators' Institute. She has managed evaluation and development programs for a range of clients, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Institutes of Health, USAID, Save the Children, Lutheran World Relief, IREX, American Library Association, Institute for Museum and Library Services, U.S. Department of Labor, World Food Programme, International Fund for Agricultural Development, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Marriot International, and Daimler AG. With many years of experience designing, managing, and evaluating capacity strengthening and learning programs, Ms. Tahmassebi is excited to provide high-quality professional development in evaluation, management, and international development to a global audience of learners through the ELC. She is a champion for young and emerging evaluators, bringing a strong commitment to lifelong learning to EnCompass' clients. Ms. Tahmassebi serves on the Board of Directors (2020 President-Elect and 2021 President) for Washington Evaluators, the largest local affiliate of the American Evaluation Association (AEA). She is a frequent presenter at special events and conferences, serves on the AEA Working Group for Evaluation Professionalization, and is an active member of the AEA local affiliates collaborative. She has an MBA from Georgetown University’s McDounough School of Business and is proficient in Farsi.

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