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Transcript episode 6 interview with Charles Cisney

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by Impactpool

Intro quote: “Having the ability to work on a global basis, to have an impact on people’s lives is really an amazing thing. If you are hesitant because maybe you don’t have that pure global experience, be persistent.”

UNjobfinder: Hi there and welcome to the sixth episode of the UNjobfinder Career Podcast by INTALMA. My name is Magnus Bucht and, for those of you 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 United Nations, European Union, development banks, intergovernmental or nongovernmental organizations. We are talking to people having a remarkable career in this field. We’re trying to get their stories about how they once entered into this type of field, the choices that they made, the challenges that they have faced, and, not least, to hear the advice they can share with us. So today we’re going to talk to Charles Cisney from Pact. I’m sorry to say that the sound quality in this episode is not the best. We’ve tried our best to improve the sound but haven’t managed to get it perfect. Still, Charles is a very dynamic person, with great stories to share, so I hope that you will bear with us. So let’s get into the interview.

UNjobfinder: Today I’m honored to have a conversation with Charles Cisney. Charles, welcome to the UNjobfinder Career Podcast. Great to have you with us.

Charles Cisney: Magnus, thanks so much for taking a little bit of time to speak with me and for me the opportunity to speak with you and all your listeners out there, so thank you.

UNjobfinder: Great. So one of the things that I think are interesting with you is that you’ve had both an academic career, working as an adjunct professor at the Georgetown University for a number of years, and before that you also had been working both in the private sector for a couple of years. You worked for Chemonics, which is a private company working with international development. And then went back to the international development sector and now working as the global human resources director for Pact, which is an international nongovernmental organization with operations over the world. So Charles, that was a very condensed summary of your career. So please tell us a bit more about yourself.

Charles Cisney: So Magnus I have been working in international development for almost 15 years. It is what I have sought to do from…Life has kind of come to this point where it’s always about service of people in the world and was able to get the opportunity to work in the international space in human resources, my chosen field, working with international organizations which I studied many, many years ago in university. So it was a really nice coming together of my very much academic from university place to my desires to serve people in the world. As you mentioned, I’m also really fortunate to have the opportunity to teach about human resources and specifically issues around global human resources about Georgetown. I’m really in a lucky place that every day I can go to work and look at my wall and my different clocks and it can be x hours in Jakarta and it can be x o’clock in Abuja, it can be x o’clock in Addis or Juba and work my day with places around the world and then lots of times in the evening go and speak kind of about my day and my experiences in HR and really share that with my students. So I’m really in a very fortunate place in that respect.

UNjobfinder: Yeah, great. I can also imagine that your students must have been inspired to hear of your career. You had already been out in the real world or whatever we want to call that and then coming back to teach.

Charles Cisney: No, absolutely. I think that’s one of my real values as HR practitioner and as an academic side, having those daily issues that you are familiar with as well and all my colleagues are familiar with those daily issues that come up, those transactions that we have to ensure are moving for our organization as well as the opportunity to kind of be transformational and strategic and really put programs in place to service our expatriate colleagues or colleagues that are working in country offices. So yeah, it’s really great to be able to share that with folks.

UNjobfinder: Yeah, great. So Charles, could you please tell us a bit more about Pact? I’m sure that lots of people know about you, but it would be interesting to hear more about how many are you, where are you operating on a big scale and what is Pact’s mission.

Charles Cisney: Yeah, absolutely. So Pact is an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. We’re about (unclear) and we do development projects at various places in the development world really with the focus of helping people own their future through establishing local solutions and partnerships with local organizations because the idea of international development is we seek to work ourselves out of jobs, so we really seek to work with local organizations, local partners, to provide sustainable solutions to development issues that affect them in their respective countries. And we do that through kind of a donor funded model. So we work a lot with USAID the Agency for International Development. We do a lot of foundation work, so working with Coca-Cola and Gates Foundation and Chevron who have very kind of corporate social responsibility missions, seeking to provide shared value, so they use Pact as a mechanism to provide access to deliver (unclear) work. And we do that work in over 25 countries, places such as, as I mentioned, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ethiopia. We have really large opportunities in Myanmar for example. We have a large microfinance organization that services people through small business and livelihoods in Myanmar. And we are in other places in the world and, as I mentioned, we’re headquartered in Washington D.C. We employ folks in Washington, expatriates who work out in the projects and the country offices as well as a pretty robust population of our local colleagues who also help do the work that we seek to do and have sustainable development through partnerships.

UNjobfinder: All right. Great. So in your local work that you do on a country level, most people working for you, are they locally recruited or are they expats that you hire from Washington?

Charles Cisney: Yeah, it’s going to be a little bit of a combination of that. More so in our projects they are locally recruited, so we have South Africans who deliver unique technical expertise. We have an anticipated project or a new project and we come into the country and place job adverts and recruit and hire people in the normal fashion and seek to kind of orient them to our Pact ways and Pact approaches. And at the same time we do have a mix of expatriates that work in those country offices. There are some offices that we have that don’t have any expatriates and then some offices that we have that do have expatriates. So really it’s depending on a lot of times the needs and demands of the donors. So USAID, (unclear), DFID, Gates Foundation, because there are some donor specific demands that we have to be mindful of but oftentimes we can have some flexibility too to kind of hire the right person regardless of that nationality.

UNjobfinder: Ok. Great, thanks. We will come back to talking more about Pact, but now I want to get back to talking about you. I mean you’ve had a very interesting career so far. But could you tell us or bring us back to that time when you actually joined this sector, working with international development and what was it that led you into that? You talked about that a bit earlier. What was your entry point? That was Chemonics, right?

Charles Cisney: It was actually right before that, Magnus. It was a global company, anti-corruption firm called Casals & Associates. And really I wanted to be at Casals & Associates or some company in the international space or the global space because in my desire to use my language skills. I have proficiency in Spanish and I did not want those Spanish language skills to be sitting on a shelf. So that was one motivation. To find an organization where I could speak Spanish all day, on a regular or semi-regular basis. Where you find those companies? International types of organizations. So I began to work in that type of arena. At the same time, I’ve always had this, and it still drives me today, this really appreciation for cultures and variety. And as anybody that’s spent any time in Washington D.C. knows that it’s a very culturally diverse place. People all over the world. My personal life has a lot of culture around it with a wife from Ghana, so Ghanaian family all around me. So I was also seeking to have more kind of cultural exposure in my daily basis, but I was not going to get, no fault of anybody, but I was not going to get in kind of the world that I was in. So those two things were really the key motivators for me to try to seek to get into the international space. And it took a lot of persistence. It took some time, but with that kind of persistence, persistence does pay off and really just kind of looking for different opportunities in different places and landing in a place where Casals also works with USAID in this donor funded model so I made my home there.

UNjobfinder: All right. Great. So you had also been working then a couple of years in the private sector and then when you then started working with development issues or companies working in that sector, was there something that surprised you or that you didn’t expect that you would find as sort of characteristic for the business?

Charles Cisney: Sure. Yeah, that’s a great question. There’s probably a couple of things and maybe one would be complexity. I maybe took it for granted. Again, you think about anybody and all of us that work with people from different cultures there or cultural communication issues. Maybe in theory the recent complexity around working in different cultures, but once that practice comes to be, it really can catch you off guard a little bit. So maybe some of the complexity a little bit, I’ve come to thrive off of that. And at the same time, I think also resourcefulness is a really unique thing about our world and working in international human resources in a global environment. Really need to be resourceful and I don’t think I was fully prepared to be at those early years to be as resourceful as I ultimately needed to be. I like to think, and my colleagues would maybe say otherwise but maybe they wouldn’t, that’s one of the things that’s made me successful as I am quite resourceful. And so, knowing the questions to ask and people to go to and working with your colleagues in your respective worlds, that resourcefulness really goes a long way. It helps you solve really unique issues sometimes that come up from a human resources standpoint and your engagement and approaches in working in different countries and different laws is really a combination of complexity and resourceful I wasn’t quite prepared for, but today I very much thrive off of.

UNjobfinder: All right. Great. So tell me a bit more. What do you mean with being resourceful?

Charles Cisney: I think being resourceful 12-13 years ago, understanding labor laws. So where do you go to find information about labor laws, knowing where to look. The internet was…many years ago so it’s different but knowing where to look for things like the IO and understanding when you begin to engage attorneys in different countries and the different questions that you have to ask and really that also feeds into the organization. If you’re coming into a country new, how do you register as an organization affects how you can employ workers and employees and different severance considerations and local labor laws that regulate. The culture manifests itself often in a labor law. So nowadays that must be prescribed by labor law. So understanding those issues and knowing people that you can go to and ask those questions, I think that’s what I mean by resourcefulness. And also the importance of networking made much easier today by things like LinkedIn, Glassdoor, and all other types of sites that you can utilize. Networking, asking people and trying not to reinvent the wheel as best you can. Every organization is different but oftentimes we go through the same problems, so understanding your opportunities and who you can ask these questions goes a long way.

UNjobfinder: Great. Thanks for sharing that. Charles, I’m sure you have stories that we could talk about for hours, but could you give us an example of the kind of experiences that you’ve gone through and maybe share a story in your career that you were specifically proud of or that you feel has been rewarding for you?

Charles Cisney: Oh, there’s a lot. Yeah, I think I’ll reference a period of time when I was at…I got a couple. So when I was at Chemonics I was really fortunate to be in the crisis management team when the Haiti earthquake happened. And we had a lot of staff there on temporary duty, expatriate staff on temporary duty in Haiti when that earthquake happened. And so being on that crisis management team… Human resources and security are really unique deals that I have interest in and really kind of the idea of duty and care because it’s about your staff and it’s about your people, your responsibility as an organization to try and help your people. So they fit real nicely. So the opportunity on that crisis management team to help work through the logistical evacuation of our staff and really seeking to kind of put, I wouldn’t be so bold as to call it a full program, but kind of immediate steps that were taken once we got those ten or so staff out of Haiti to support them through this very traumatic event and working with vendors and partners on those to support those staff members who have just been through this traumatic event, who needed psycho-social support, who needed money when we moved them out of Haiti into the Dominican Republic and then into the south of the United States and then finally back up to Washington D.C. So that was really…You get so much in support of people and that was a really rewarding opportunity. I had to kind of work in service of people and at the same time that we were moving our expatriates who were traveling there, the opportunity to work with our local staff to really support them who had just lost so much in that earthquake. So that twofold opportunity to kind of work with your expatriates, get them out, bring them home. But then also work to kind of establish more firm, clear structures to support your local staff, your Haitians who are going to have to be working through this really tough disaster. And some of the responsibilities that we thought of as an organization and employer that we should do for them to kind of help them have some degree of normalcy after that just really challenging time.

UNjobfinder: Great. I can really see that. Working with human resources management, so often you work with setting up those support systems of course hoping that you never really have to use them but once you come into a situation like you’re describing, it’s also of course really rewarding to see that they work and you are able to support staff in a way that you planned for and that you should of course.

Charles Cisney: Yeah, absolutely. It’s great to see that in action. Absolutely.

UNjobfinder: Going from a rewarding story, I want to take a shift and move into to hear more about some challenges that you’ve had. You already described a challenge in a way but something that has been a challenge for you personally in your career or for the organization that you were working for, that you had to deal with, something that really sort of kept you awake at night. I think that’s also interesting to hear so that we can hear all the different aspects of what a career like yours can mean.

Charles Cisney: I think one challenge…This may answer your question a little bit differently. One challenge that I have that I think about constantly, as long as I’m in this world I’ll probably constantly grapple with, is really kind of the headquarters and field office, country office divide. It is a natural disconnect that happens because of proximity and location, but it’s one from a headquarters’ perspective. I think it’s really important because we want to work with a global operational approach and so we want to be working a general same framework but those challenges sometimes of the framework and the cultural considerations and the legal considerations that come in, sometimes they’ll allow that kind of consistency of approach. And sometimes that can cause disconnect in things of that nature. And so I think the real challenge of that we constantly face, the problem we will always face would be developing and working with our colleagues in human resources in my country offices that I work with to working collaboratively to develop the right framework so to speak. So if I look up on the wall and see this picture that I have of a tractor. I’m from Kentucky here in the southern part of the United States. I would see this tractor but this framework, there’s a frame around this picture, but the freedom within that framework for people to operate and people to work through within. And so you need to establish appropriate rules and appropriate framework that supports the staff. At the same time, we from the headquarters can’t be too rigorous around that framework and have to have flexibility around it. And conversely, that same framework, our country offices and our local colleagues, working within that, because at the end of the day we’re all working towards the same thing which is in the service of the people in the world and helping them live better lives. So that’s something I really think a lot about and if someone has a tip or a key to that, I’d love to hear, but that’s something I constantly think about from my macro strategic level about the work I do.

UNjobfinder: And what does that mean in reality? Is that more looking at making sure that you’re not giving too many headquarters policies that they have to implement without really understanding the value down in the field operations or those types of questions that you’re struggling with?

Charles Cisney: Yeah, because it does come back to the value of policies and whatnot but also it’s an age old question that you can relate to kind of the centralization decentralization. Oftentimes, we see too much on the news and we get quick to arrive at things, but extreme polar opposites, being on one far in on the left-hand or one far in on the right-hand of kind of the centralization of approach. You must do it this way. That’s not good. And so it’s that balance, it’s that balance of organizational history. It’s that balance of compensation, benefits approaches, performance management approaches. So that middle balance of those approaches at the same time taking it to real cultural consideration of the environment which our country offices work within. I think I hope that explains a little more what I’m talking about.

UNjobfinder: Yeah, great. That leads me into a question about the type of people that you are looking for, that you want to join or recruit to Pact. What would you say are the key competences that you’re looking for?

Charles Cisney: I mean I think one of the first competency, it shouldn’t go without saying, but it’s important to say is the importance of cross-culture communication, cross-culture awareness that you’re working in a global world. You need to be mindful and appreciative of cultures. I think that is certainly one thing. That’s a huge, important competency. I think also, again, as I mentioned the idea of the complexity. So someone that handles complexity and ambiguity well because, as we know, when we’re working in our country offices and things aren’t always black and white, so we need individuals that can work within that complexity and ambiguity that often exists. And I think something that is more and more that I see is data. We all hear a lot about data in our world and we see and work with it every day, with our metrics, trying to move from metrics to analytics, kind of being a little more predictive. But individual from my view, I don’t necessarily…It’s a personal view. I don’t subscribe to the idea of kind of data driven. I don’t want the data to drive me. I want individuals that are dependent on data. And so they understand that and they can make good decisions with that data. I think there is a distinction between being driven by data and being dependent on data are very different and so I look for individuals that have those attributes as well as really being kind of driven for something bigger in the world. And that’s important in the nonprofit sector, being very kind of service driven is a way to give back in a much larger way to people in the world. Those are some of the key things that I’m always working for and try to probe on when I’m talking with people for positions.

UNjobfinder: Great. Excellent, Charles. I want to just follow up a bit on that because I think that many people who are listening to this, who want to get in with Pact or many other international organizations. So if you’re looking for people who have that cultural awareness, they can deal with complexity, they are driven for something bigger, but what are you then looking for, for example in an application, because once you get to an interview of course it’s easy to show that, but what kind of advice can you give to people who are now applying? How can they give examples that they have what you’re looking for?

Charles Cisney: I think there’s ways to show that you have the international experience directly or not. I think opportunities through volunteerism, so that kind of gives a sense of a mission and the sense of something bigger and giving yourself. I think volunteering really can be the predictor of how someone does that service. They have experience within them, so volunteerism. One of the standard… Have you done international travel, you worked in Peace Corps, you have studied abroad. There’s many ways that you can demonstrate your international exposure and experience through travel and things of that nature. Even coursework. So for people that are fresh out of school, if you studied international affairs, you could cite research papers that you’ve done, cite the coursework that you’ve done. That also shows an interest and kind of culture and appreciation. That interest in culture and that mindfulness in culture, but it’s really… I think that one of the bigger things for me is that volunteerism because oftentimes people… It is a very difficult field to get into, but you can show through volunteerism and other ways like that volunteerism, that show that kind of service for something bigger. That’s really what we all do in international world. We serve something bigger in some way, shape or form.

UNjobfinder: Great. Thank you. So looking at Pact, we’ve talked about this a bit earlier, but why would you say that people should come and work for Pact?

Charles Cisney: I think people should want to work at Pact because we have a unique approach. From our approach to development, we have a really unique approach that seeks to be sustainable, that seeks to be able to capacitate our local partners, develop those solutions locally. And so with the combination of work with local partners, work to develop local solutions, you really can have a more sustainable type of development. And I think within that kind of sustainability and approach, we integrate. You cannot do health work for example without being mindful and appreciative of livelihoods. So income generation, livelihoods goes a long way to predict health possibilities and access to health services. So that type of integrated approach is really important in our work and that’s a nice thing about our work. Then one reason I think to work at Pact is we’re an organization that seeks to be more than just kind of your transactional development organization, that we really seek to be transformational in the work that we do and that transformation comes through our approach to local solutions but we try to be a little bit bigger organization than we really are and sometimes that can get us in trouble as an organization. We are only 100 or so people headquartered, a lot more else out in the world. We try to be bigger than the 100 people and that’s a great thing about the organization. We always strive to do more with less from time to time.

UNjobfinder: Right. Great. So the people that you hire internationally, are your positions open for all nationalities or are you mainly looking for US citizens or how do you work?

Charles Cisney: No, they’re open for all nationalities. So if we have a project office that’s opening hypothetically in, I’ll use Nigeria for example, and we have positions open for local Nigerians who live in Nigeria. There may be expatriates who work out in the world. And I use expatriate very broadly, not just US expatriate but an expatriate from the UK or an expatriate from (unclear) or somewhere else in Europe or maybe somewhere in Asia for example, expatriates who bring unique technical expertise and have kind of a similar approach to development that we have. We are broad from time to time but as positions dictate we are a little more specific but we really seek to have a worldwide reach with the type of people that we bring on and the solutions that we offer.

UNjobfinder: Great. Perfect. And is that the same for the positions in Washington D.C.?

Charles Cisney: Washington D.C. can be a little bit different. Some of those visa considerations here in the US as there are everywhere in the world, but depending on the nature of the individual, we take steps to provide opportunities for sponsorship from time to time. It’s not something that we can always have but again depending on the nature of the position we would have some sponsorship opportunities, outside expertise to come into the US as well.

UNjobfinder: Ok, great. So coming back to giving some advice to people who want to join or have an international career, what do you believe are the most important skills that are needed for such a career?

Charles Cisney: I think the skill of…Again, I go back to the kind of cross-cultural skills. I think different technical expertise that an individual may offer, so appreciation and understanding in having worked with civil society or skills that people bring to the table. Again, the data dependency types of skills, resourcefulness and things of that nature. I may not be fully answering your question correctly.

UNjobfinder: That’s fine, yeah.

Charles Cisney: Ok. So those types of skills that we are looking for as well. I should also mention people that are good people managers, so good supervisors and good capacity builders and really good at enhancing the work of others. So good managers of people is also important skills to have.

UNjobfinder: Great. If you were to give advice to someone who wanted to come into this sector, what kind of tips can you give to our listeners on how they actually can enter into this market?

Charles Cisney: That’s again a great question. It’s not easy. I’ll be honest. It is not easy, but that said, we as individuals are no different than anybody else. We all are persistent. I think persistent is a good attribute and a good trait when trying to get into the field. And don’t always think, and I’ll relate this back to the volunteerism statement, don’t always think it’s just about your work experience because you may have… Again, work experience is very, very important, do not get me wrong. But the idea of coming from one sector, those skills can often translate and the challenge that you would maybe have coming from one sector to another would be showing your skills and showing how they would translate. At the same time, you can demonstrate some cross-cultural competencies and global awareness. Why you might have an added value to a particular position. So don’t always think that it’s impossible coming from outside, kind of the global sector to get into the global sector. It’s possible as all of us, myself, you, and many colleagues that we know, we’ve all done it at one point and another, whether it was intentional or we stumbled into it. So it’s possible. It’s not an impossible task.

UNjobfinder: Great, Charles. Thank you so much. Anything else that you want to add to our listeners, final comments?

Charles Cisney: No. I don’t think so. I would just like to say thank you to yourself and your listeners for taking a little bit of time and as well as, again, just a kind of a plug for the work that I do and that we do in the world, having the ability to work on the global basis, to have an impact on people’s lives is really an amazing thing and so it’s really a rewarding sector, rewarding opportunities from a human resources perspective to work in a global and international focus. If you are hesitant because maybe you don’t have that pure global experience, then be persistent because it’s really one of the best places to be in the world because you are so much bigger than where you currently sit in life. So it’s well worth the time and effort to be in this world. So that’s what I would say.

UNjobfinder: Excellent, wonderful, Charles. I think that comes back to what you also said earlier. Being persistent like you have been, be resourceful, be open to different opportunities and, like you also said, networking.

Charles Cisney: Absolutely.

UNjobfinder: Great. Well Charles thank you so much for being with us today and for being willing to share all your insights and experiences. It’s been really inspiring for me and I’m sure that it has been for our listeners as well, so thank you so much.

Charles Cisney: Magnus, thanks to you. I really appreciate the time and thanks again for the opportunity.

UNjobfinder: I hope you enjoyed that interview with Charles Cisney from Pact. Charles, again, thank you so much for joining the show. And to all you great people out there, continue to send us feedback. You can also send us tips on questions that you would like us to ask our guests or anything else. As always, you can reach us via Twitter @UNjobfinder, via, or via the contact form that you can find at To ensure that you will get all new episodes, we advise you to subscribe on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. Showing what you think about this show by leaving an honest review on iTunes is something we really appreciate. At you can always find shownotes of the episodes and full transcript. So, thank you so much for listening, bye for now, and see you in the next episode.

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