Intro quote: “They need to see every challenge as an opportunity. If you apply for a couple of jobs and you are not selected or shortlisted, that is not the end. You just need to keep applying and you will find an opportunity.”
Impactpool: Hi there and welcome to the fifth episode of the Impactpool Career Podcast by INTALMA. My name is Magnus Bucht and, for those of you who are listening to this podcast for the first time, this is a show where we want to increase your chances for having a career with the UN, European Union, development banks, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations, basically in the international development sector. We’re talking to people who are having a remarkable career in this field, trying to get their stories about how they once entered into this field, choices that they made, challenges that they have faced and, not least, to hear what kind of advice they can share with us. So today we’re going to talk to a person who started his career many years ago in Pakistan and has since then spent a number of years in the field of environment and development. His name is Sajid Ali from IUCN. So, without further ado, we’ll get right into the interview.
Impactpool: I’m happy to welcome our guest, Sajid Ali. Welcome to the Impactpool Career Podcast!
Sajid Ali: Thank you.
Impactpool: Sajid has a long and interesting career with IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature. You’ve been with IUCN for a long time and worked in various countries in Asia and then the last couple of years in the US and at the IUCN headquarters in Switzerland. And now you’re the global HR director, human resources director and, as far as I understood, you’re sharing your time between HQ in Gland and Washington DC.
Sajid Ali: That is correct. I share my time. I probably spend around six months in each location every year.
Impactpool: That’s rewarding and challenging I guess.
Sajid Ali: Indeed.
Impactpool: So Sajid, that was a very short description of your career. So please tell us a bit more about who you are.
Sajid Ali: Ok, so I’m from Pakistan. I started my career there with IUCN in 1999. And I joined as an assistant in the organization. I had never ever heard of or worked in the development sector before that. I had worked in the corporate sector for a short while. But I always was very fascinated by this sector and also by mission driven organizations like UNICEF and WWF. To be honest, I didn’t know what IUCN did. It was not a very publicized organization, but I did read a bit about it before I went for an interview and I saw that IUCN had a holistic approach towards environmental conservation and it was the leader in that movement. And that’s what got me into the sector and into IUCN.
Impactpool: Great, so again, coincidence has played a big role in how you started your career. IUCN is one of the largest environmental organizations in the world. You have thousands of staff and offices all around the world and, like you said, IUCN is well-known if you’re working in this field, but for those who might not know so much about IUCN, could you tell us a bit more just about IUCN?
Sajid Ali: IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, started in 1948. It is the oldest environmental organization. It leads the movement on environment. It’s a very unique organization and different to others in the sense that it’s not just the offices of IUCN but we are a union which includes members and members of IUCN are states and government agencies, international INGOs and local NGOs. And we also have around 13,000 volunteers worldwide who are working with us as the commissions of IUCN and they are the ones who provide the expertise and scientific knowledge. So it’s much bigger than just an organization. That’s what makes it very different. So we, as a union, we are able to work with all sectors, with governments, with local NGOs, communities. So that’s what makes us unique.
Impactpool: And about how many offices do you have?
Sajid Ali: So we have offices in 45 countries right now all over the world, but I would say our staff is around 1,000 staff, but we have a big network of volunteers too.
Impactpool: Right, excellent. So you’ve had a very interesting career so far and we’ll talk more about that. When you said that you were interested in UNICEF and similar organizations before you actually knew about IUCN, why were you interested in joining the development sector?
Sajid Ali: More than development, I was more interested in the environmental move, and even at that time, I was 25 when I joined IUCN, there was not much access to the media in Pakistan so we would read a lot of magazines and newspapers and get our information from them and I also did participate in some activities related to conservation whether it was going and helping the turtles lay eggs at the beach in Karachi or plating trees. So that was some kind of a motivation that I had, that I wanted to be in a job which actually contributed something towards not today but the future.
Impactpool: Right, great. So I’m sure you have many, many stories that we could talk about for hours, but to give an example of the kind of experience that you’ve been through, could you share a story of something that you’re proud of, that has been rewarding for you?
Sajid Ali: I’m going to say that working in human resources you are not really on the technical side of the job but you are the ones who help the organization run. There have been very challenging times in this job. I would say the reward comes from achieving something out of a challenging situation and making it an opportunity. We had an instance where it was in Asia, it was a big project working in four countries and we had our own 70 staff working on that and that suddenly came to an end when the donor pulled out so we were talking about the livelihoods of 70 people. And an effort that was made from our side was to ensure that all those 70 people had an opportunity after IUCN, whether it was within the organization as consultants or in other organizations, and we had a very active exit strategy on looking for jobs for those people, writing to other organizations, contacting them, getting different packages in place, getting them to leave early if they found opportunities, giving them time to interview. So for me that was very rewarding in terms of the human part of the job. In terms of what IUCN does, I’ve been lucky to travel to many of our field sites where we actually run projects and it’s not just headquarters where policies are made. So that part has been very rewarding, to go and actually see the difference the organization makes, something which in corporate jobs you don’t really get the opportunity.
Impactpool: That’s a great example I think with making sure that you take the responsibility as an employer. I’m sure that was a stressful period for you, to make sure that all your staff are well taken care of.
Sajid Ali: But that stress was rewarded at the end, which made it good.
Impactpool: So you said that you had been working for some time in the corporate sector before you joined IUCN. Was there anything that surprised you when you joined IUCN, working in a more of a value driven organization and mission driven? Was there anything there that you didn’t expect when starting?
Sajid Ali: I didn’t expect how big this sector was, how influential it was. I mean it didn’t only think about its own business or its own profits but it was thinking about something much bigger than itself. So that’s what I was very surprised about, how mission driven the employees were and the whole objective of the organization was. What actually on the funny side, what surprised me was, when I was interviewed and the HR person told me look we are a non-profit and you know this is how we work and stuff. So she gave me the feeling that they’re not going to pay me a salary. When they actually offered me the job I said okay this sector doesn’t pay too bad. So that was a surprise.
Impactpool: That’s great. Now you have been working in IUCN for many years and you have a great understanding of what people need to be able to pursue a career in this sector. What are the most important lessons that you would like to share with our listeners?
Sajid Ali: I think what is very important is that attitude counts much more than your expertise or your experience. So the attitude that you come in to an organization like IUCN on the work that you’re going to do, on the interactions you will have, makes a big difference. And accepting and adapting to change because you do come into a very different environment. At the end of the day, if your attitude is that this is just a job, there will be temporary setbacks, it may upset you, but to have the ability to bounce back and move on, I think in any job that would be very critical, but in mission driven organizations you are dealing with people who may be very egoistic sometimes or may be very scientific and lacking a bit on the human interaction side. So I would say adaptability and attitude is very important.
Impactpool: Great advice. Attitude. On your side, do you have a personal habit or trait that has been critical for your success or maybe that is the same?
Sajid Ali: For me, I think being positive. I’m a very positive person and my peers would tell you that. I always see an opportunity and the best in everything. I’m very open and transparent. I’ve tried to bring that into our HR practices also, to be open and transparent. Again, I have adapted wherever I moved. Every move has been a challenge, but if the attitude is good, it works. And also, again, dealing with people, you need different strategies of dealing with different people and you need to make sure that at the end of the day you are working for the betterment of the organization.
Impactpool: Something that I forgot to ask about, this setup of your staff. I presume that you are extremely multicultural.
Sajid Ali: Yes, IUCN is very diverse. We have around 19 nationalities represented in our staff. So that makes it very diverse.
Impactpool: What would you say that that makes to an organization?
Sajid Ali: I think it’s very important, especially at a regional office level and headquarters level, you need to have the diversity. If it’s an international organization, the staffing has to represent that and that brings in opinions from different sectors, from different cultures and that’s something which builds and moves an organization forward and it doesn’t become stale or one-dimensional.
Impactpool: Great. So looking again at IUCN, why would you say that people should come and work for you?
Sajid Ali: IUCN is a professional organization but is has a very casual environment. So that gives space for people to be creative, space for a lot of joint activities, team efforts. We have a culture of trust, so we are flexible with our staff. We are not clocking them when they come in the office or when they leave the office but I trust that everybody delivers at the end of the day. Something that has not been abused. We haven’t had to resort to strict measures. It’s a very flat management structure. Everybody has access to senior management. And financially, a very secure organization. We’re 67 years old and we still, with all the economic crisis and stuff coming in this part of the world, we have managed to be afloat. We are very stable in terms of our staffing. We have around 1,000 staff for many years now and we think very closely about rapid expansion and its consequences. So it’s a very secure place and a very welcoming place to come and work.
Impactpool: Great. So flexibility but still a lot of expectation I presume.
Sajid Ali: Yes.
Impactpool: So working for IUCN or maybe also for any international organization, what do you believe are the most important skills that people need?
Sajid Ali: So we have the normal corporate jobs and then we have some very technical jobs. So you do bring in some technical skills for those jobs, but at the end of the day we value people who are very hands-on, we value people who are mission driven and also who can rise above the bureaucracy and concentrate on the work and deliver. So it all comes down again to the attitude and the combination of that and your skills.
Impactpool: Great. I’m sure that many of our listeners would like to hear some advice on actually how to get a job with IUCN. Do you have any good tips to share there?
Sajid Ali: We are always going to advertise our jobs and it’s going to be on the IUCN website and other platforms. So we try to circulate it as widely as possible. People applying for the job need to be very careful how they draft their cover letter. You need to highlight just strengths relevant to the job and your CV should not be more than four pages because it needs to be easy to read and we have around two minutes to screen each candidate and if you have not made an impression within these two minutes, we’re going to move on to the next candidate. So it’s very important that you make an impression in your CV or in your cover letter. And, once you get past that, definitely interviewing skills. People need to prepare for interviews because you can be really good on paper but you can really mess it up in an interview by being nervous or by trying to oversell yourself or undersell yourself. So you just need to be normal, relaxed and we try to make the candidates very relaxed in interviews because we know that the best out of a candidate can be achieved if the person is relaxed. So you need to do a bit of your homework before coming for interviews when you get to that point. But work hard in terms of your application to get to be shortlisted.
Impactpool: Yeah, great advice Sajid. And for those who haven’t seen that, we have great advice I would say also on the impactpool.org blog where we also give advice on how to prepare for that interview and how to write your cover letter and your CV. So are there any specific areas that you are recruiting, key areas or regions, specifically now within the coming period?
Sajid Ali: We have a lot of recruitment going on in the region especially in Asia, in Oceania, which is our office in Fiji, in South America and in Africa. So a lot of the field offices, there’s constant recruitment going on because of new projects coming in. Our turnover is not very high, which means a lot of the more permanent jobs stay stable but there’s more turnover on the projects side with your employment link to projects. But I would say we also, in terms of kind of jobs we are recruiting, a lot of experts, we recruit a lot of field staff which could be program officers or project managers. We have focused a lot on climate change work now, so experts on climate change and policy experts with all these big conventions set up in the world. We have a lot of our staff going to these policy events and influencing those events. So those are the kinds we’re looking at and this is all in addition to the corporate roles that we have, which is in HR, finance, admin, legal, and also some technical roles on forest experts or water experts, species experts. These are the kinds of jobs that we’re continuously looking for.
Impactpool: Perfect. And if we look at sort of the level, do you have lots of interns as well?
Sajid Ali: Yes. We have a lot of interns and interns also can be of two categories. We can have the volunteer interns and we have then the paid interns. And depending on the location and the laws in those countries, we have different arrangements. It’s getting more and more difficult in places like Switzerland to get interns from outside and we are working with the authorities to make sure our internship program is very diverse. But in other locations like Bangkok or in D.C. we have more flexibility in getting interns from anywhere in the world and that’s what we focus on, the diversity, even in our internship programs. That has led to a lot of interns getting jobs in IUCN. It’s a very good window into IUCN.
Impactpool: And I’m sure also that if you get an internship with IUCN that can also be a really good valuable experience also if you’re applying for other jobs afterwards.
Sajid Ali: That’s true.
Impactpool: Great, Sajid. Very good advice. Before we end, do you have any final tips that you would like to share with our listeners?
Sajid Ali: When I hear the word listeners I would be addressing more people who are looking to work for IUCN or looking for employment in this sector. For them I would say that they need to see every challenge as an opportunity. If you apply for a couple of jobs and you are not selected or shortlisted, that is not the end. You need to keep applying. The job market is tough these days but if you’re confident about your own capabilities, you just need to keep applying and you will find an opportunity. And more and more people prefer now working in this sector. There’s a sense of responsibility in people now that they want to give back to the environment or to the world and I would say that makes it a bit tougher but more and more jobs are being created because of that opportunity.
Impactpool: Very good. Great advice again. Sajid, thank you so much for being part of the Impactpool Career Podcast. It really was an honor to have you on and I wish you all the best.
Sajid Ali: It was a real pleasure and thank you a lot Magnus for this initiative.
Impactpool: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Sajid Ali from IUCN. Again, Sajid, thank you so much for joining the show. I also want to thank all of you who has been sending us feedback. Please continue to do that. You can also send us tips or questions that you would like us to ask our guests. You can reach us via Twitter, via Facebook or Instagram. Bye for now and see you at the next episode!