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How to become a leader at UNFPA - Justine Coulson, Deputy Regional Director for the East and Southern Africa Office

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by Impactpool

United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Leadership Pool is a great and innovative initiative to find the next generation of leaders. UNjobfinder have interviewed Justine Coulson who last year was accepted to UNFPA Leadership Pool as an external candidate and then secured a leadership position. Read this interview and get great insights into what it takes to become a UN leader.
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Interview with Justine Coulson, UNFPA Deputy Regional Director for the East and Southern Africa Office

Justine Coulson has over 20 years’ experience in the international development sector in Africa, Asia and Latin America and for the last 10 years has specialized in the field of Sexual and Reproductive Health. Prior to joining UNFPA as the Deputy Regional Director for East and Southern Africa, she was the Regional Director for South Asia for Marie Stopes International (MSI), an international NGO focusing on Reproductive Health. She has also held country leadership positions with MSI in Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda. Justine holds a PhD from the University of Newcastle in the UK and began her professional life as the Gender and Social Development Advisor at the Global Urban Research Unit at the University of Newcastle where she conducted research in Africa and Asia on a wide range of topics including crime prevention, access for people with disabilities, home-based enterprise development and non-traditional export industries. In 2015 she applied to the UNFPA Leadership Pool and were accepted. Now she works as Deputy Regional Director for the East and Southern Africa Office.


Hi Justine, what made you apply for the UNFPA leadership pool?

- I wasn’t looking for jobs but my husband saw an ad about the Leadership Pool and sent it to me because he thought it would be a perfect opportunity for me. At that time, I had worked alongside UNFPA colleagues in three different countries whilst I was with my previous organisation, so I already liked what they did and their mandate was very clear and closely aligned with my personal values and the professional work I had done. So that was what really attracted me. Also, I obviously knew quite a lot of people in UNFPA that I had met in country. I chatted to them about what they knew about the Leadership Pool process and whether they thought I could be a good fit and that’s how I came to apply.

I’m not a technical specialist in a specific area, although I have done a lot of work in Family Planning. My strength is really around team and programme management, with a lot of change management. I’d always thought you had to enter UNFPA through a technical route but with the Leadership Pool they are really looking at your aptitude, experience and potential as a leader, as opposed to specific technical areas, so that was what drew me to it.


What’s your experience of the application process?

- It’s a very thorough, high quality recruitment process, but it’s a long process. If you are an external candidate who is used to applying for a job where you hear relatively quickly whether you are successful or not, you need to bear this in mind. You just need to recognize that it’s not going to move at the same speed. I applied to the Leadership Pool in October 2014, started the assessment in February the next year. I was accepted into the Pool in July 2015 and was offered my current job in December.  So over a year from start to finish. But it was worth it.


Why do you think that your application was successful and you were accepted to the Pool?

- I had been in both country and regional leadership positions within my previous organization and some aspects of the work and the mandate were very similar to UNFPA. I have quite a varied CV having worked in research, policy and advocacy, innovation development and SRH programming, as well as business management – and I have worked in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  So I think that variety of experience, all of which I seem to draw on in my current role, as well as my specific skillset as a manager and leader come out very strongly through my CV.


UNFPA Leadership Pool Assessment process

As a candidate to the UNFPA Leadership Pool you can apply for one or more job types. You will be competing for each pool and if your profile application is among the top candidates you will participate in a comprehensive assessment process (Assessment Center).

At the Assessment Center you will be evaluated in a series of observable exercises and scenarios. The purpose of the assessment is to replicate real situations that an individual would encounter in a specific leadership role, and where the solution requires both technical knowledge and managerial judgment in a multicultural context. If successful in that assessment you will become a member of UNFPA’s Leadership Pool.

Justine, what’s your views about the assessment process?

 - What really stands out with the leadership pool assessment is that it’s so comprehensive. It really makes you think that UNFPA is an organization which is committed to investing in finding the best leaders. It’s very different to just going into an interview. There’s psychometric testing, there are some very detailed interviews with external consultants that work with UNFPA, where you really dig down into the choices you have made in your career and things that motivate you in your work and demonstrate your leadership style and ability. So before I even went through to the Assessment Centre in Bonn I felt I had been through a very in-depth process.

The two-day Assessment Centre when everybody comes together was phenomenally well–organized, coordinated and focused. It’s very fast paced, engaging and stimulating, and you really come away from it feeling that this is an organization you want to work for.


When you are accepted to the pool how do you land a leadership position at UNFPA? What was the process like for you?

- Once you are in the Pool, UNFPA puts time into finding the right fit for you as an individual. As a successful external candidate from the Pool, one thing I feel you need to be aware of is that you don't just apply for a job and suddenly you get it because you are in the Pool. It can take time of finding the right fit.

As an external candidate, you obviously don’t have the same understanding as an internal candidate of what different jobs are like. But the good thing about the Leadership Pool is that once you are accepted, you are able to have an open conversation with the HR team at HQ about what you’re looking for in a role, what’s coming up and what might be good fit for you from UNFPA’s perspective. I appreciated this aspect of the Pool and I’d recommend external candidates to make the most of this resource. I benefited from it. I was very clear that I like big, challenging diverse roles as this motivates me but I hadn't really thought about regional jobs for UNFPA, I was thinking more about Country Representative positions. But when the Deputy Director Regional Southern Africa position came up, they suggested it might be a good fit as I’d worked in regional positions and I know this part of the world well.


And what is your role as a Deputy Director? What does your job description entail?

 - My job’s so varied it difficult to sum it up. I oversee the work of three of our key teams in the office – the Integrated Sexual Reproductive Health Team, our Evidence, Knowledge and Innovation team and the Programme Coordination Unit. Then we have three big regional programmes covering Youth, HIV, family planning and innovation where I have a lot of input. And also working with the 23 countries in the region on what technical support they need from us as a regional office, and then a lot of external advocacy and engagement with regional economic commissions, for example. It’s never dull!


Have the Leadership Pool met your expectations? Do you feel that the pool gave you an honest and realistic view of what it takes to be leader at UNFPA?

 - It was an extremely thorough and high quality assessment process. If I hadn't been successful at the end, then it would have been very clear to me that it was because I wasn’t the right match for UNFPA. I think you can have a lot of faith in the outcome of the process.

When I did I did the assessment centre session, it was very fast moving and really kept you intellectually on your toes. In some ways, that intense, fast paced environment has actually translated into what my job can be like, at least 80% of the time. What we did in the assessment is a condensed version of the varied demands that are placed on leaders when you come into UNFPA.


What was it like to be an external candidate at UNFPA?

 - One of the things that really struck me when I walked into the room at the Assessment Centre was that I was the only candidate who was not already in the UN system. A lot of people knew each other already and everyone was using UN terminology that I didn’t understand, and a lot of people seemed to have jobs with long titles that sounded important. But once the assessment actually started, all of that was irrelevant. Everyone is being assessed on their leadership potential – not want they know about the UN system. And the atmosphere amongst the candidates was a supportive one. Once I joined UNFPA, I was struck by how welcoming the organization is to people from outside the UN system who might come in with slightly different ideas and ways of doing things. I found it very easy to fit into the organization quickly.  


What has been the best thing for you personally about joining the leadership pool?

- I love my new job and I love my new organization!  I was very lucky in the past to have worked for an organization that I was very passionate about. I knew I needed to move on to develop professionally but I wasn’t sure I was going to have that same passion for future jobs. It’s been great to come to UNFPA where I feel as much passion for the work as I’ve ever had. And I work with a lot of colleagues that have that same level of passion and energy for what we do. The leadership pool has allowed me to find a new professional home and I feel very comfortable here.


Can you tell us about some of the challenges you have faced since joining UNFPA?

- I have only been here seven months, so I am still new to the organization and every month there is something new or something different that I need to learn about. I underestimated how steep the learning curve can be when you switch from one organization to another in a relatively senior job. But I did my ‘100-day plan’ which always helps you to focus and ensure you’re bringing added value to an organization as quickly as possible. And you eventually come out of that ‘beginner’ phase.  I no longer need my crib sheet of UNFPA acronyms when I go into a meeting!

The big shift for me has been that I came from an organization that whilst it was global, was probably about the same size as my current region. Now I am part of this much bigger global organization with thousands of employees spread across the world, so sometimes finding your way through the complexity of that and knowing who you need to talk to takes a while. But I purposely set out to build connections across the organization beyond our region when I started and my new colleagues have been generous with their time and knowledge. So I now feel able to pick up the phone with anyone across the organization – there’s a strong sense of commitment to the mandate within the organization that unites people and makes UNFPA feel smaller than it actually is.

People have the perception that UNFPA, and the UN generally, has lots of very bureaucratic and burdensome systems. I hear my own UNFPA colleagues refer to this. And colleagues from my previous job thought I would struggle with this. But my experience, having worked in academia, in the public sector, the NGO sector, is that I don’t find it any more bureaucratic than anywhere else I have worked. Big organisations need big systems.


In terms of personal development what can the leadership pool do for you?

- The Leadership Pool can obviously open up a new career track for those from more technical backgrounds. But for someone like me, who’s already held a series of leadership positions, the power of the Pool lies more in the variety of leadership positions that open up to you within UNFPA as you develop your career. There are so many different types of leadership roles across the organization and so many countries where we have a presence.  But I am not thinking about that right now. Sometimes you just need to enjoy where you are. The Deputy Director Regional post is a great entry role for someone like me, because you really get to understand the organization and how it works. So I am very happy where I am for now.


For someone interested in applying for the leadership pool what advice would you give them?

- I would definitely recommend that external candidates apply – but you should use your contacts to try and get as much information about UNFPA and the Leadership Pool process as possible. I have been through leadership assessments and development programmes before, but I still got a lot out of the process. For someone who has never had that opportunity, it will be a particularly enriching process. Even if you are not successful at the end of it, you will have benefitted from a comprehensive leadership assessment with very detailed feedback at the end of the process. Anyone who comes to the end of the assessment would want to work for UNFPA because it’s such a great process. I came out of the Assessment Centre saying ‘When can I start?’

Thank you so much Justine Coulson for taking the time to answer our questions and to provide these great personal insights into the UNFPA Leadership Pool. We advise the readers who are interested to learn more about UNFPA and the Leadership Pool to also read the below section. 

Interested in applying for UNFPA Leadership Pool 2016?

Don't miss to apply for the unique UNFPA Leadership Pool initiative 2016. Last day to apply: 2016-11-09. You have 6 different leadership pools to apply for dependent on your career level. The successful candidates will be offered to join UNFPA's global leadership team. Read all about it at UNjobfinder - where we also provide you with expert tips how to succeed with your application.

Photo: Justine Coulson, UNFPA Deputy Regional Director for the East and Southern Africa Office

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