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Maize and wheat science for improved livelihoods - Meet Michelle Guertin from CIMMYT

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by Miguel Poñe
Senior Global Key Account Manager

As a part of the Impactpool Virtual Career Fair for the LAC region, we caught up with the Director of Project Management and Regional Coordination at The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), a Mexican-based, non-profit research-for-development organization. 

Name – Michelle Guertin
Job Title – Director, Project Management and Regional Coordination
Nationality - Canadian

Please could you tell us a little about yourself and your professional background?

I am Canadian with a strong passion for international development cooperation. I have worked for over 18 years in both the public sphere with the Government of Canada, including Global Affairs Canada, and with an international non-profit organization, CGIAR-CIMMYT. I have had the opportunity to gain experience in negotiating international agreements and the implementation of sustainable development and environmental protection (including climate change) projects. Furthermore, I have directed evaluations of international development programs and reviews of the development effectiveness of multilateral organizations. I undertook my undergraduate studies in Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at McGill University and my graduate studies in Environmental Sciences at Sherbrooke University.

When and why did you choose to work for CIMMYT?

While working with Global Affairs Canada, where I gained broad and strategic international development cooperation experience, I was eager to expand my experience in the field to broaden my skill set. CGIAR-CIMMYT was one of several organizations that I had identified as employers of choice. CGIAR-CIMMYT appealed to me given its global mandate to improve livelihoods through maize and wheat science, the opportunity to collaborate with dedicated scientists, and the scope for making a significant contribution to an organization.

What do you believe is/are the most important skill(s) needed to work at a researched-based NPO such as CIMMYT?

I believe several skills are essential when working for a research-based not-for-profit organization such as CGIAR-CIMMYT.  The first one is “Teamwork.” CGIAR-CIMMYT, as a project-based organization, manages an extensive portfolio of projects under the leadership of scientific teams and supported by corporate services. Working collaboratively with colleagues to achieve project goals is essential for ensuring organizational success. The second skill is “Initiative.” There are fantastic opportunities to take the initiative and bring forward bold, innovative and creative ideas to the table, allowing staff members to gain valuable experience and contribute to the organization. My final skill to note is “Respect for diversity.” Given that CGIAR-CIMMYT has operations across Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East and North Africa, staff members need to work effectively with people from all backgrounds and treat all people with dignity and respect. 

What are the main benefits/challenges of working in an organization that is working towards more resilient agri-food systems?

As a project-based organization working towards more resilient agri-food systems, several challenges must be considered. Two noteworthy ones include: the continued need to leverage funding for projects in line with CGIAR-CIMMYT’s Strategic Plan and the use of effective and efficient monitoring and evaluation systems to support the organization in demonstrating short- and long-term impacts. In terms of a benefit, CGIAR-CIMMYT has the opportunity to work closely with developing countries and strives to help the world’s poorest in a concrete way.

What according to you, is the most effective way to empower female farmers?

CGIAR-CIMMYT considers various mechanisms to empower female farmers in the projects we lead. A critical way is by providing female farmers access to modern technologies and associated training. Furthermore, the organization considers the needs and preferences of female farmers when developing improved varieties of maize and wheat. To ensure strong adoption of such technologies by female farmers, it is crucial to understand the pathways by which women receive information and the external dynamics that affect access and reflecting those pathways in the project implementation.

Do you have a personal habit or trait that has been critical for your success?

Three words come to mind: drive, integrity and communication. I always strive to deliver on my commitments, from my annual performance objectives to daily promises to my clients. Integrity and honesty are the foundational elements that I use in building relationships. I also pay significant attention to my communication approach, adjusting as needed depending on the audience.


What is the best piece of career advice you have ever received?

While working with Global Affairs Canada, I had the opportunity to attend an interesting and valuable career and coaching course. During this course, we discussed different ways for women leaders to grow their careers. A particular one, which I have found extremely useful, is “sit at the table.” As noted by Sheryl Sandberg in her Ted Talk, women are not only facing institutional obstacles but are also creating obstacles for themselves. We are sabotaging our careers by not trusting our worth and underestimating our abilities. Since then, I have taken and continue to take steps to ensure that I “sit at the table.” This includes negotiating my salary, recognizing and applying my abilities, reaching for opportunities and new challenges, and physically sitting at the table and sharing my views and ideas.

We know that many of our audience would like to hear some advice on how to peruse a career with an NPO like CIMMYT, do you have any good tips to share?

When planning your five-year career plan, it is important to examine various job posters for positions similar to your goals and identify potential gaps in your experience and skills. Once you have recognized these gaps, discuss with your supervisor to determine opportunities to gain these missing experiences and skills. Also, be on the lookout for new challenges and take the initiative where possible to advance towards your goals. Take your career planning seriously and make an action plan towards your goals.

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