The highs and lows of mobility
New experiences gained from a career shift bring much to our personal growth
1 Feb 2023

When I left for my first United Nations job at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs in New York, I had no idea where destiny would take me next; I was ready for a life that would involve travelling around the world. That had not been my first job abroad and, I hoped, not the last one either. Over the next few years I moved with my daughter to UN offices in Montreal, Canada, and then Bonn, Germany, before landing in Geneva. Mobility was not really a requirement then, but more a way to find jobs and promotions in a career that, by definition, was international.

Each time, it was not only the new job that was attractive to me, but also the idea of living in a new city, with new opportunities, landscapes, cultures and people. The pain of packing for the move was always compensated by the thrill of having a new place to move to. The financial investments required for the move and resettling and the commitment and efforts of my family to ease my transitions were always compensated by a rewarding life and an interesting job. Uprooting my daughter from her environment, her school and friends paid off later, as I believe they contributed to her adaptability, curiosity, love for diversity and change, languages spoken and a mature and open-minded personality. Overall, I was a fan of mobility when mobility requirements were not even a “thing” at the UN.

From a purely professional perspective, that is, looking at the results for the organisation, changing offices and positions allowed me to learn new skills and enhance my knowledge and competence. Of course, changing jobs exposed me to new challenges, as arriving in a new office often implies starting from scratch, learning new procedures, topics, work modalities and connecting with new colleagues. Changing profession and location forces us outside of our comfort zone, testing our ability to reinvent ourselves in a different professional context. This also brings to the organisation a staff that has gained experience in different fields, has developed a wider network of contacts and topics and has enhanced its ability to adapt and cope with different challenges.

My experience, it has to be said, was facilitated by many of my supervisors and some great mentors. They had been in the organisation for a long time, and were able to share information on a daily basis that would increase my knowledge. What I found most valuable was the institutional memory they possessed, allowing them to quickly convey the information, stories, references and precedents and allowing me to build a solid basis based on their advice. I found this knowledge essential to avoid making the same mistake twice, or go down avenues that were previously ineffective. Overall, having been around for a while in the same organisation not only gave them authority in their work areas, but also recognition and trust from delegates who knew they could rely on their expertise, knowledge and institutional memory.

When I first arrived in Geneva I never expected to be around for longer than a few years; yet now I have been in the UNECE for about 15 years. However, I have changed roles and capacity within that organizsation, so my recent mobility has been more internal than geographical. Over this period, while learning more about the history and processes of UNECE, I came to appreciate the wealth of information and experience one can gain by being part of the same organisation for a while.

In particular, I realized how crucial it is to remain in the same organisation for a long period while delegations keep changing. In my current work, the knowledge of processes and the institutional memory are a crucial element of success, not only to provide context to negotiations and dialogues, but also to avoid repeating mistakes or ineffective solutions tried in the past. Moreover, not only can I be of assistance for the intergovernmental processes but I can also coach younger or new staff by sharing some of my gained knowledge, as my previous supervisors did with me. Mind you, knowing some of the precedents does not mean avoiding change: on the contrary, it means building change based on new solutions, avoiding those that have not worked and replicating only those that actually have proven effective.

Changing organisations and jobs is essential to changing perspective and having a better knowledge of the UN as a whole, while staying in the same organisation for a long time provides a deep understanding of it. Trying to reach this balance, in my opinion, is the real challenge. How can the need for mobility and building institutional memory be reconciled?

I believe this is what human resources and any mobility proposals at the UN should really address, maybe even with ad-hoc solutions. Certainly, geographical mobility should be better compensated, even vis-à-vis promotions. Incentives are the first, key steps – something we can borrow from the private sector. Changing locations is a professional and personal effort that should be rewarded both economically and professionally. If mobility is part of an overall strategy to improve the organisation, and it will improve the organisation, – the costs should be borne entirely by the organisation; staff should be motivated towards mobility with at least step increments. This should hold true at least for geographical mobility, as internal mobility certainly does not require the same effort and has a very limited impact on family life.

I personally believe geographical mobility should be incentivised for younger staff, as there is more need and gain for them from experience acquired by changing workplaces. Once that experience is consolidated, then a more senior role could be played in one organisation only, without the need to change location and build, in that case, the related knowledge and institutional memory.

While this view is based on my personal experience, I hope the reader will find the rationale behind my thinking. Over my long service with the UN, I have observed many attempts to require mobility, attempts that often penalise staff more than motivate them. Those attempts have also set rules for all staff, creating resistance to the idea; on the contrary, mobility should become an enticing incentive and an opportunity to reward the willing. 

* Paola Deda is the Director of the Forests, Land and Housing Division at The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
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