How to Select the Next UN Secretary-General

OXFORD – When the United Nations elects a new secretary-general next year, the world will face a crucial choice. With crises erupting in every region of the world, the need for strong, decisive leadership is self-evident. And yet the selection process for filling important international posts has often been characterized more by political horse-trading than a meritocratic search for the best candidate.

The tools to improve the process are available, and the time is right to ensure their adoption by the UN and other international organizations. A new report by the World Economic Forum and Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government lays out a series of best practices – each one of which has already been implemented by at least one international agency – that can guarantee that leaders are drawn from the most qualified candidates, and that the organizations for which they work are vested with the best possible management practices.

For starters, it is important to professionalize the selection process. For too long, backroom deals among governments have taken precedence over searching for a candidate with the relevant skills and experience. When Pascal Lamy, one of the authors of the report, was chosen to become head of the World Trade Organization, there was not even a description of the job against which his qualifications could be measured.

Once a candidate has been chosen, it is important to set clear performance expectations that can be evaluated annually. Groups like the World Health Organization – which came under fierce criticism during the Ebola crisis – can learn from the 80% of American non-profit boards that have a formal process in place for a yearly evaluation of their CEO.