Task Force at 40: How our work and culture continue to shape each other

Task Force employees celebrated The Task Force's 40th anniversary on March 14, 2024. Photo credit: Kue Allen for The Task Force for Global Health

The Task Force of 2024 is in some ways very different from the original organization, established in 1984 to protect children from preventable diseases like polio and measles, by making sure they could be vaccinated. Our work now spans across 150 countries, with a wide-ranging portfolio that encompasses programs as diverse as vaccine safety protocols to epidemiology to supply chains reaching remote communities to public health data systems – all intended to protect people and eliminate diseases. We have nearly 200 full-time employees and an annual operations budget of roughly $100 million.

In contrast, the initial Task Force had just three people and a budget of $500,000. Those three – Dr. Bill Foege, Mr. Bill Watson and Ms. Carol Walters, all former CDC employees – gathered initially around Watson’s kitchen table.

Former CDC Director Foege had helped lead the successful effort to eradicate smallpox. His CDC deputy, Bill Watson, had contributed to the establishment of the CDC, mass access to immunizations, and eradicating smallpox in India. Walters, Foege’s assistant, had worked in the front office of the CDC for many years and knew how to get things accomplished.

“The fact that we had worked together for years made it possible to make even major decisions on the fly, even on the way to lunch sometimes,” Foege wrote in his 2018 book on the history of the organization, The Task Force for Child Survival: Secrets of Successful Coalitions. “Carol would later write the decisions up and we would approve.”

Foege noted that Walters’ contacts proved invaluable in identifying people who could assist The Task Force. And that Watson loved the challenge of solving impossible managerial problems and had great social skills (including the adage “There is never an excuse for bad manners”).

Dr. Alan Hinman, 87, one of the founders of The Task Force’s Center for Vaccine Equity (in 2012) and now a senior advisor, played an important role in the success of the U.S. immunization program in the 1970s and 80s and knew The Task Force founding trio well. He joined The Task Force in 1996 after an illustrious career in the CDC.

While “Be a great place to work where everyone is valued” does not appear in the mission statement, Hinman said creating a workplace where every employee is valued for their contributions and everyone is treated with respect and compassion was an explicit top priority of Foege, Watson and Walters.

“The way the two Bills and Carol treated others really set the tone from the beginning,” said Hinman. “It has always been a positive, loving place.”

Task Force Founders from left to right: Mr. Bill Watson, Dr. Bill Foege, and Ms. Carol Walters. Photo credit: The Task Force for Global Health.

Hinman knew Watson for nearly 50 years, until Watson’s death in 2013, and can’t recall him ever showing anger at a colleague.

“Praise in public. Criticize in private. That was his approach,” said Hinman. “When someone needed to improve in one way or another, he addressed them in private and never in a way that diminished them. And he’d recognize people’s contributions in public.”

Another former CDC staffer, Dr. Walter Dowdle, joined The Task Force in 1994 to work on polio eradication efforts after retiring from CDC. He said the culture of mutual respect and professional autonomy came in part because of the expertise and experience levels of early staff.

“Most of us were truly adults. We’d had careers at CDC and didn’t need a lot of guidance,” he said. “But being treated like adults wasn’t just because we were older. It was the Bills’ philosophy. You were expected to run your program and behave responsibly. And you could collaborate and exchange ideas without competing in a hierarchy.

Long-time employee Dr. Kris Sarlaas, director of The Task Force’s Health Campaign Effectiveness Coalition, has a unique perspective. Like Dowdle, she joined in 1994. After 13 years, she left in 2007 to work for the Peace Corps and USAID, and then returned to The Task Force in 2019. Asked how the culture changed during her 12-year absence, she didn’t hesitate.

“It’s the same from 1994 to now. Collaboration and partnership are still core values of our programs,” she said.

The Task Force’s programmatic emphasis on facilitating cooperation and partnership, sometimes serving as the catalyst for work led by others, promotes a workplace environment that venerates those same traits, she said.

“We were founded to bring different partners together, and our organizational culture is really a microcosm of that,”she said.

From left to right: Task Force Board Member Dr. Walt Orenstein, Task Force Founder Dr. Bill Foege, Task Force Second President & CEO Dr. Mark Rosenberg, Dr. Alan Hinman, Mr. Bill Watson, and Task Force Third President & CEO Dr. Dave Ross. Photo courtesy of Kris Saarlas.
Long-time employees at The Task Force gathered together for a reunion photo in front of 750 Commerce Drive, former location of The Task Force for Global Health building. Front row left to right: James Nguyen, Ellen Wild, Irfan Momin, Dan Martins, Eric Ottesen. Back row from left to right: Kris Saarlas, Anita Renahan-White, Nikita McCage, and Patricia Richmond. Photo credit: Sumon Ray for The Task Force for Global Health.

Chief Operating Officer Ellen Wild, a 27-year Task Force employee, said she tries to carry on the legacy of the early founders. 

“Carol made people feel valued and supported them so they could be successful,” she said. “When I first joined The Task Force, Bill Watson was my direct supervisor. Bill was an inspirational leader that truly valued every member on his team and made us all feel special. This extended to the field where our grantees would report that they worked harder because of him.”

The Task Force is a place that’s serious about the work, Wild said, but also a fun environment where people respect each other.

More recent employees have picked up on the unique, positive aspects of the culture, even though they never met the founders.

Claudia Moya, a project manager for TEPHINET (Training Programs in Epidemiology and Public Health Interventions Network), said The Task Force’s reputation as a place where employees had responsibility and agency was a big reason she sought work here in 2020. 

“I feel trusted and that has definitely allowed me to grow as a professional,” Moya said. “We problem-solve together, but for the most part I have the reins of my projects, and can do my job well.”

Moya said that even though the culture  was something she sought, there was a process of unlearning behaviors from prior work experiences.

“That first taste of independence was a little scary,” she said. “I was hesitant at first but I was repeatedly encouraged by my supervisor, who told me ‘I’m not here to hold you back. I know what you’re capable of.’”

Members of the Regional Network of South America FETPs (REDSUR), CDC, and TEPHINET Project Manager, Claudia Moya (second person sitting down from the left), support an informational booth at the 11th TEPHINET Global Scientific Conference in Panama City, Panama, September 2022.

Najwa Sampson, a senior supply chain specialist for The Task Force’s International Trachoma Initiative, who joined in 2017, said that many workplaces, including her former employers, want to promote a favorable workplace culture, but The Task Force is unique for how much effort is actually made toward fostering a positive culture.

“The Task Force values different views, because working with people who have different views allows you to innovate,” she said. “Your thoughts matter. Your input matters.”

Born and raised in Liberia, Sampson believes The Task Force’s workplace culture is directly linked to its mission. She said The Task Force is the first place she’s worked in the United States where she has felt she could be fully herself at work. 

“This is the first place I’ve felt comfortable wearing African attire at work. I’d never seen a place where I can wear the clothes I grew up in and no one would look at me,” she said.

Sampson thinks The Task Force’s mission attracts the type of people who perpetuate its culture of mutual respect and compassion.

“The people who work here have a heart for helping others,” she said. “When you have that heart, it’s easy to show it to your colleagues.”

Najwa Sampson rocking her International Trachoma Initiative shirt and African skirt. Photo courtesy of Amanda Bradica.

To learn more about Bill Watson, “the other Bill,” read here

Learn more about Dr. Walter Dowdle’s public health contributions here.

For more on Alan Hinman’s storied career, read here and here

 

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