The United Nations system has been a rewarding and inspirational career choice for decades, and for the right reasons — it enables you to engage with people from all over the globe, work in a respected and safe atmosphere and, most importantly, create a lasting impact on the world. However, given the size and significance of the organization, it’s also tough to drive change and reconcile personal career advancement with professional purpose. Based on my years of experience in the system and talks with colleagues who are enthusiastic about bettering the organization, here are some points that, I believe, would drive the next era of UN careers.
Breaking the mold
Often in our professional lives, we tend to create rigid molds. For instance, if you are working in finance you are always seen as a finance person, even though you may have skills in project management, people development, or innovation. This is true for the UN system as well, where career prospects are approached in a conventional pyramid model, P1 to P5, D1 to D2, and so on.
Being a large intergovernmental organization, the UN does need specialization and experience, there’s no denying that. But in order to move from a fixed mindset where people are categorized based on their dominant skills, the system has a lot to gain from adopting a growth mindset where people get to learn and apply diverse skills, and not just grow by ranks.
While much of this has to do with individual motivations, a lot can be changed via internal effort. Some of the ways in which this can be achieved are:
● Internal stretch assignments
● Cross-department movement within the UN agency
● Brainstorming sessions involving the entire team
● Creating a wall of thoughts that anyone can contribute to
● Encouraging people to spend a fixed amount of time, say 10%, on something outside of their job
Taking an unconventional path might be difficult and might require constant persuasion. However, it is possible, and having done it myself working at UN agencies, I can say that the efforts are worth it compared to the enriching lessons you learn. In my view, growth is not always about moving up the Ps, it’s also about the contribution to the mission, experience, and learnings which fuel the intrinsic motivation.
Managers play an interlocutor role in any workplace, since they have close understanding of staff aspirations, skillsets, and career goals. In my experience within the larger organization, managers are just at the receiving end of decisions rather than being an active part in the thought process. However, if empowered, managers can take on the roles of mentors, coaches, or sometimes even sponsors, advocating for the success of the team, helping advance talent mapping and opportunity monitoring.
There is also scope for increasing the accountability of the management team. Leadership performance can be evaluated based on the time and resources it has spent on building future talent. When the senior management team has to report on how it helped each member of the team grow beyond just promotions, and feedback is sought from staff, this creates a cycle of accountability for growth.
Onboarding and micro-mentoring
The UN is a prestigious career destination, but can be equally daunting to ‘decode.’ To make the newly onboarded feel at home and ensure that they’re on the path to realizing their true potential, onboarding programs can play a key role.
Seeing the gap in the current onboarding program, I devised a homegrown program during my time in Unitaid which combined both onboarding and micro-mentoring, focusing on three levels of impact: Organization, Team, and Individual. Even though the conceptualization was done pre-COVID, I witnessed the incredible value of the program in bringing people together when work went remote and new people were joining virtually.
One of the hugely underutilized learning tools of the UN is its people: we have experienced professionals from different countries, professions, and backgrounds. Through engaging talks, panels, and skill development programs, these diverse professionals can further empower others. This would also open an opportunity for greater collaboration, networking and skill-sharing across departments and levels.
In my experience, leadership needs to ‘intentionally’ commit to support these innovative approaches, which will bring people together, create a sense of purpose, and foster an environment of learning and growth.