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Transcript of UNjobfinder Career Podcast episode 2 with Michael Emery

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by Impactpool

Intro quote: "The whole idea of how other people see you is a tremendously powerful career driver. Often when I say that, people say well that’s not really fair is it and I say no, often it’s not fair, but it is reality."

UNjobfinder: Hi there and welcome to the second episode of the UNjobfinder Career Podcast. This podcast is brought to you by INTALMA. So for those of you who haven’t heard the first introduction episode, this show is about having a career within the international development sector. Following this show, you’re going to hear interviews with people who have had or are having a remarkable career within this field, to hear their stories. In this episode, we’re going to talk to an inspiring person who’s started out his career as a teacher in Australia and who, since then, has made a really astonishing career within different UN organizations. So, without further ado, we’ll get right into the interview.

UNjobfinder: I am very happy and honored to have Michael Emery as a guest here at UNjobfinder Career Podcast. Michael, welcome!

Michael Emery: Thank you, Magnus, and I’m delighted to be on the podcast.

UNjobfinder: Thanks, Michael. I know that you’ve had an extraordinary career with different UN organizations and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about that. I know that in your most recent positions you’ve been with UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme, as their chief of recruitment. And then you were the director of human resources management for the International Organization for Migration, IOM, in Geneva. And now, you’re the HR director for the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, and you’re back in New York. That was a very, very short description of recent years but, Michael, please tell us a bit more about who you are.

Michael Emery: About who I am? Well, I’m actually a bit of a Human Resources tragic if you like. I am one of the people in the UN system that, from an early time, saw the real benefit that a strong HR team can make in terms of organizational effectiveness. After an initial time doing some emergencies, I actually gravitated towards mainstream human resources, and it’s a decision that I have never regretted. I still very much believe that having a strong HR in any organization makes for a strong organization. If you look at where we have problems in the multilateral sector, often it’s because we have the wrong people in place at times. So it’s still a profession, a discipline that I think is vitally important in the multilateral sector.

UNjobfinder: Yeah, you know that I fully agree with that. It would be interesting to hear a bit more. Could say a few words about those emergencies that you were involved with? What’s that with UNDPKO or…?

Michael Emery: The answer to that is it’s complicated. My first job was a UNV funded by UNDRO, the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, which was the precursor to OCHA. And I was administered by UNDP and sent to Guinea to work with Liberian refugees half time for the World Food Programme and half time for UNHCR. So that was my first position. It certainly gave me a good exposure to the different organizational cultural elements of those different bodies. And then, from there, I went to former Yugoslavia with peacekeeping and also to East Timor for three years with peacekeeping in the missions in East Timor. So that’s kind of the humanitarian/post-conflict experience that I’ve had in my career.

UNjobfinder: Right. Very interesting. So tell me, what was your entry point? I mean, you said that was basically as a UNV into this sector, but why did you want to start working in this field? If you remember, if you go back to that time?

Michael Emery: Well, it’s interesting because I’m one of these guys that never sort of set out to work for the UN. I just sort of fell into it. And it all started one day when I was a schoolteacher in Australia. And the principal of the school said, what do you want to do next year? I’d been teaching the same stuff for four years and I said, look I’d like to volunteer and go and teach in the mission schools. Now, it’s interesting the message sent was not the message received, because what I was thinking was the aboriginal mission schools in northern Australia. So the next week, I got a letter saying that we got a teaching position for you in central Liberia. I fully admit I had to get an atlas from the library and look up where Liberia was. I thought, well why not? In for a penny, in for a pound. Sold up everything and went as a volunteer teacher to Liberia. The day I got there, the civil war started. And it was all a bit sort of casual initially. Then the whole thing started to get some momentum. So within about six weeks, all of my students were refugees in neighboring Guinea. And I didn’t have anybody to teach. So I drove down to Monrovia, I walked into the UN office, the UNDP office in Monrovia and said, have you got a job, and there was a guy there from UNDRO and he said, sure can you start today? So that’s how I joined the UN. I literally walked into the office and asked for a job. Now, that is very rare that that happens anymore like that. And I almost feel embarrassed when I talk at universities saying that because it’s a lot harder these days finding an entry point for young professionals in particular. But that’s how I got started. 

UNjobfinder: Wonderful! What an amazing story! So talking about stories, I’m sure you have tons of stories that we could talk about for hours, but could you give an example of the kind of experience that you’ve gone through and maybe something that you’re specifically proud of or that has been rewarding for you as a person?

Michael Emery: That’s hard to narrow that down. Certainly in the early days I was exposed to the whole gamut of the work of the UN from sort of wet feeding centers, mass feeding, feeding in Monrovia, even digging mass graves, which was part of the job in Liberia. But, you know, more recently on the learning and stuff and development side than on the human resources side etc. I think probably if I was to reflect back on the 25 years in and out of the UN, I think probably the time that I was most proud of, or that was most exciting was seeing East Timor go literally from ashes and then go and become an independent country. And that was, that evening, the independence day celebrations in East Timor, was just a fantastic feeling and the feeling of optimism and of success and of relevance of the UN in that evening was just amazing. So that’s probably been one of the highlights. There’s been many highlights and I think I almost have daily highlights because you meet people daily that are inspiring, wonderful, catalytic people that are making incredible difference in the world and that’s kind of fun.

UNjobfinder: Absolutely. Thank you Michael for sharing that. When you joined, was there something, I mean, you’ve been a teacher for a couple of years and suddenly you found yourself in Liberia. Was there something about working in this field that you didn’t expect but then sort of appeared to you?

Michael Emery: Well just about all of it I didn’t expect. I think I was quite young then and when you’re young you sort of tend to feel that you are immortal. And towards the end of my time in Liberia, I had a number of colleagues that were killed either through targeted assassinations or disease or accidents. There was a spate of about three months when 12 people I knew quite well lost their lives. And that’s something that you don’t really expect and you’re not really equipped with as a young professional to deal with. Most people when they go to work don’t expect to lose their colleagues. So I think that was an interesting time and certainly one that was a real learning experience for me as a young professional about the importance of safety and security of staff, of not taking risks, of putting staff safety first etc. So I think that’s the sort of thing that I hadn’t anticipated when I started out in the multilateral sector.

UNjobfinder: Yeah, no, I can only imagine how that must have affected you. Would you say that people who join now, maybe especially graduates and young professionals are more prepared for those kinds of experiences?

Michael Emery: Not necessarily. In some ways, they may be even less prepared. I mean gen x and gen y have been a fairly protected generation and that’s a huge generalization I know, but I don’t think you can ever really prepare for those sorts of situations unless you’ve actually gone through it and have experienced it. So I don’t think they’re better prepared. What I do think though is that the system is better prepared to mitigate against those sorts of things. When I was working in Liberia, we didn’t have R&R cycles, we didn’t have UNDSS, we didn’t have armored vehicles and that sort of stuff. There’s been a lot of learning, particularly after the Canal Hotel bombing in 2003. I think there’s been a lot of positive developments in terms of staff safety and welfare since then. But of course, we are also working in environments now where the UN is considered a legitimate target. So it’s a more complicated environment to be working in for sure as well.

UNjobfinder: Absolutely. Obviously, it’s gone really well for you. So would you say that you have a personal habit or trait that has been critical for your success that also made you manage and deal with all these situations that you’ve been with or been through?

Michael Emery: I think a couple of things. One is you have to maintain a sense of humor even when the chips are really down, to keep a perspective on things I think is very much important. To draw on the resources of the people around you, friendships and networks etc. is also important. I’m a big believer in what I call connectors in life and that is maintaining your connections with family, with friends back home, with the people around you when you’re on mission or when you’re working in another country. They’re the sort of things that are important in terms of coping strategies etc.

UNjobfinder: Excellent advice, Michael. We’ve mentioned a number of tips already but what are the most important lessons that you would like to share with our listeners who want to pursue a career in international development?

Michael Emery: I was given a piece of advice very early in my career by a very wise man called Douglas Manson and he said it’s really, really important to maintain roots in your life. And still now, I see this in the UN where people are reaching retirement and they’re very nervous about that because they don’t really have anywhere to go. They’ve almost become stateless. They don’t want to go back to their home country etc. I think a piece of advice I often give young professionals is as soon as you’re in the position to do it, is to buy a piece of property, a block of land or whatever somewhere where you feel comfortable to call home. You’ve always got that in the back of your mind as a place to go if it all goes pear-shaped. And that’s a very good piece of advice. I mean that’s something I did early and it’s always been comforting to know even though I haven’t had to exercise it that, if need be, I can just walk home or fly home back to Australia and I’ve got a house there set up and I’m good to go. So maintaining those roots, both physical and also in terms of the relationship roots as well with family and stuff. Advice I often give to my staff is particularly those working in stressful contexts is never to miss a wedding or a funeral or a birth. Always be home for those important events because you can’t replace those, and the work will always be there, but if you’ve missed those events, you’ve missed them forever. So keeping alive your networks and family contacts and school friends etc, that’s just so important so that you’ve got that sense of connection.

UNjobfinder: Excellent advice, Michael. Maintain your roots and make sure that you sort of keep understanding that your own role, also for your family of course. Looking at UNFPA where you currently work, it would be nice to hear a few words about UNFPA. I mean, it’s a truly global organization with a mission to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, that every childbirth is safe and that every young person’s potential is fulfilled. That’s a very strong mission. Could you tell us a bit more about what is it that actually UNFPA do?

Michael Emery: You know, I’ll start by saying UNFPA is just an incredible organization with a phenomenal mandate. If you really break down the three elements of that mandate where every pregnancy is wanted, so universal access to family planning, where every childbirth is safe, so reducing maternal mortality, and where every young person’s potential is fulfilled, so really sort of leveraging that youth dividend. That’s a staggeringly powerful mandate. And if you look at the heart of the development of gender, we often like to say it’s the ten year old girl. If you keep her not married, in school, not bearing children until she’s 18, then it opens up an incredible world of possibility. And if you get that part of the development agenda right, then you’ve probably cracked the whole developmental gender in many ways. I actually think UNFPA should actually be a monstrous UN organization given its mandate, I mean we work with mothers that are about to give birth but also we work with adolescents which is, as we know, 1.8 billion of the world’s population, but we also have a large component of our mandate is to work with aging, which is an interesting dynamic in terms of population. Our mandate certainly touches every country on Earth, it’s not just the developing world and I think UNFPA is positioning itself at the moment to be a much more important player in the whole development landscape, which I think is probably long overdue.

UNjobfinder: Wonderful, Michael. I mean, who would not like to come and work for you in UNFPA if you’ve put it this way? Even though, what kind of people or staff, what sort of type of competence are you looking for?

Michael Emery: That’s interesting. Apart from the functional skillset that we’re after, which we have demographers and reproductive health specialists, gender etc. In terms of the qualities that we’re after, one of the values that we value most highly is that of courage. I mean, the reality is you have to be pretty courageous to tackle some of the issues that we work with in some countries, particularly around things like female genital mutilation and cutting, gender based violence etc. These are controversial and tough issues to deal with. So the value of courage is one that we look for. In terms of our leadership, the next generation of leadership that we’re looking for, those with very strong advocacy skills, those that can do sort of upstream policy advice, those that have an understanding and are good at resource mobilization in the much broader context, not just leveraging traditional donors for more money, but looking at the whole idea of partnerships, not just resource mobilization. Certainly we’re looking for people that are agile, that have a certain professional agility, that can move from one country to another, understand the nuances of that country and be agile enough to change track if need be. If you look at, for example, the staff that we needed in Syria five years ago it’s very, very different context there now. The same with the Central African Republic. Same with Libya. I mean, these are all countries that have gone through dramatic transformations, so you need that agility in how you approach situations. These are kind of the underlying qualities that we’re looking for and one final competency which I personally feel is very, very important and that’s the competency of humility. Recognizing that arrogance is one of the significant derailment aspects of senior leadership, I think when you have a degree of humility, when you approach the development context, then I think you’re already starting on the right foot and walking into a new country office context where you’re there to listen and to learn rather than to dictate what to happen. So I think these are the qualities that we’re kind of looking for at the moment in UNFPA.

UNjobfinder: Great, Michael. I presume that many of our listeners are now maybe thinking I have courage, I’m agile and I fairly see myself as someone who has that humility, but how can I make sure that you understand that? What kind of an experience are you looking for, so that you can see that they have these qualities?

Michael Emery: A lot of people ask me that question. They’re looking for the silver bullet in how to get a job in the UN. That’s a difficult question to answer.

UNjobfinder: It is indeed.

Michael Emery: One of the things that we look for, for example on a CV, is volunteer experience. UNFPA introduced a leadership pool concept a few years ago, and we actually give a certain weighting in terms of food to assess if they’ve got volunteer experience because we see that as having a valued proposition. So I think volunteer experience is very useful. Apart from sort of the formal application which everybody has to go through, there’s a number of complimentary aspects in terms of managing career that also people need to give some thought to as well. I’ve always been a strong advocate of people doing effective networking, apart from grotesque networking, which sometimes it can get a little bit grotesque. But effective networking. We define networking as building long-term professional reciprocal relationships where you’re sharing knowledge, resources and information. I think the key word there is reciprocal actually. Networking is a two-way street and certainly the people that are interested in working in the multilateral sector, or the banks, or the UN, even though they are not already working, they’ve scored a lot to offer, and it’s a matter of finding where you can be of benefit even if you’re not already working in those areas. So building those effective networks with people and maintaining those networks, nurturing them, very, very important. Obviously, there’s been a lot of study on networking. There’s one metric out there that as much as 90% of jobs are secured through some form of formal or informal networking. So it’s a necessarily complimentary component to a formal application. Another area that I think is perhaps quite misunderstood, and this also includes people that are working already in the multilateral sector, is that of reputation. The whole idea of how other people see you is a tremendously powerful career driver. Often when I say that, people say, well that’s not really fair is it, and I say, no often it’s not fair but it is reality. Mostly, people I work with, they have a one line expression that’s associated with them. It might be he’s fantastic, he’s a great team player, very analytical, I’d love to have him working in my team. Something like that. So most of us have a one-liner associated with us or multiple one-liners depending on who’s looking at your reputation and I think young people today have to very cognizant of that. I remember, even with the uses of such things like social media, e-mail, etc, we’ve all seen the nightmare stories of somebody putting something on social media and then it coming back to haunt them afterwards. So that’s something I particularly tell undergraduate students is be so careful of what you put on there because once you’ve put something out there, it’s there. Use of e-mail is another one. That’s another sort of aspect of reputation where you can destroy your career in one dumb e-mail. So these are the things that I think people need to be cognizant of. And the final thing I talk about is persistence. I freely admit that the UN doesn’t have the easiest mechanisms for applying for jobs. You have to fill out these forms and they take a whole weekend to do it etc., and people go through that and then they put in an application for a job, and they don’t hear anything back, and they think the UN is not serious. You have to be persistent and start building that momentum because in a lot of positions we’re advertising, we’re getting applicants in the thousands. But also in a lot of positions that we’re advertising, we’re getting zero applicants. I’ve just advertised the position of country representative in Yemen and I got nobody who applied because nobody wanted to go there. You have to be persistent, keep building that momentum and sometimes it takes months, sometimes it takes years, but eventually people get there if they’re still motivated to join the UN.

UNjobfinder: Absolutely. I think that persistence is something that we’ll hear over and over again in these interviews. But Michael, this is really a valuable bomb and I’m sure that people will listen to this interview repeated times, over and over again, to hear your advice: networking, making sure that they’re thinking about rumor, it’s really excellent.

Michael Emery: Magnus, if I could just add one more thing. Just about every part of the UN system, the multilateral system, uses competency based interviewing for the final part of the selection process. Sometimes this is called situational interviewing, sometimes behavioral interviewing. Now, this is an art form. And I obviously in my role sit in on a lot of interviews and you can tell the people that have really prepared for an interview and you can tell the ones that are just winging it. My strong advice, particularly for the young professionals out there, is if the university offers courses in competency interviewing or behavioral interviewing, take the course. Even if it’s not offered, go to an external provider, spend a couple of hundred dollars, take the course because it makes all the difference. I often say to people invest a couple of hundred dollars and become really good at that skill because that means you will crack a job for maybe for life by doing a good interview or getting an entry point into an organization. It’s so important because a lot of people just let themselves down with really poor interviews.

UNjobfinder: Again, really good advice and actually Michael what you haven’t maybe seen yet is that we have a blog post specifically about competency based interviewing where we also link to a YouTube video with yourself, where you are presenting that concept. So for those that haven’t seen that, I encourage you to have a look at that blog post as well. And like Michael says, invest in yourself, make sure that you are prepared for those interviews. Michael, I also know that you’ve been very engaged in promoting mentoring for young professionals and that you were also involved in the establishment of the JPO mentoring program in UNDP. In a way, we are with this podcast also providing a similar type of mentorship or guidance. Could you say a few words about mentorship, what that means for you and how do you see that as a driver for career and knowledge transfer?

Michael Emery: Look, I think everybody in life benefits from some form of mentoring, whether it be a significant parent or a trusted colleague or friend etc. I certainly think there’s significant scope for it in international organizations. We tend to think about two types of mentor. For those that are already in an organization, they’re familiar with the organization, we like to have career mentors. And for those that are new to an organization, often we like to have more of a focus on an organizational mentor, sort of understanding the unwritten rules in the organization and how to navigate the political complexities, which is often very difficult for someone coming in cold to an organization. Now, if we look at what makes for a successful mentoring relationship, there’s a number of components, and if the people who are listening to this might want to give this some thought, it doesn’t mean that you have to hit all of them, but certainly if you hit a lot of them. Firstly, it’s very important I think to establish a good mentor relationship. It’s important to get something out of the relationship, but also what’s in it for the mentor. There’s actually a lot of evidence to suggest that mentors get more out of mentoring than the mentees often. So that’s important. We also like to say when we’re doing a formal mentoring process to have what’s called a no fault termination clause, that is if it’s not working then we can stop the relationship without anybody being at fault. Another success factor is to have the mentor that is not at the next level in the organization but two levels up, so two up as we say. And that’s because if the person is at the next level, they can sometimes feel threatened by a younger person coming up. Regular communication, sort of set up a regular time to talk, best face to face. Working globally, that’s not always possible, but with Skype and stuff, that can still happen. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that having the same gender makes for a success as well and also the same racial group. So not nationality, but racial group, so that you have a better understanding of those sort of nine elements of culture that affect people. These are the things that sort of make for a successful mentoring relationship, having clarity of what you want out of it, a defined period so that’s not threatening, and understanding gender and race so that you’re setting yourself up for success in that relationship. But it’s an incredibly powerful tool that all of us should be looking at, even the people in very, very senior leadership. They benefit greatly from mentoring as well. I think if I was a young professional starting out again now, that’s certainly something that I would be looking for. If it is not being offered formally in an organization, then to perhaps approach someone informally to start something up.

UNjobfinder: Exactly. If you are not provided one, make sure you can find one. And, likewise, I would repeat what you say and to encourage also those who are more senior or those who have experience to actually take on someone and mentor them, because, as you said, it can be even more rewarding for them. 

Michael Emery: Yeah.

UNjobfinder: Great, Michael. I really want to respect your time. You provided us with tons of value here. Before we end, any final tips that you would like to share with our listeners, even though you have given us already so many?

Michael Emery: Not really. Just to say that if you do have that passion to work for the UN or for the multilaterals, don’t let that passion die. I’ve been in and out as I’ve said for 25 years and I get up and go to work every morning and I still feel utterly privileged to go to work every day, particularly working for an organization like UNFPA. And, of course, the UN has all sorts of problems as every organization, but it’s still a great organization. Personally, I feel it’s probably more relevant now than it was in 1945. And it’s still the only organization that can really tackle some of the big global issues that are facing us at the moment. So if you are interested, keep that passion alive, keep putting the pieces in place to make sure that you crack a job eventually. Don’t be afraid to take a short-term job. Most people start in the UN system through some sort of short-term position and, hopefully, I’ll see some of the listeners in the corridors of the UN at some point soon.

UNjobfinder: Excellent. Thank you so much, Michael. It’s been wonderful to talk to you and I hope we’ll have you on the podcast soon again.

Michael Emery: Okay. Thanks, Magnus. Delighted to speak and good luck to the listeners.

UNjobfinder: I hope you enjoyed that episode with Michael Emery at UNFPA. Again, thanks to Michael for joining. Thank you also to all of you who have been sending us feedback on the first episode. Keep that feedback coming! I also want to remind you that if you find this podcast, as we hope you do, valuable, then please subscribe on iTunes and leave an honest review at unjobfinder.org/podcast. You will also find show notes and a transcript of the whole episode. So, until next time, have a great week!

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