Leadership BITES

Joel Nielson, Chief of Section (Leadership Development) at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

May 23, 2021 Guy Bloom Season 1 Episode 53
Leadership BITES
Joel Nielson, Chief of Section (Leadership Development) at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency
Show Notes Transcript

Joel is an experienced adult educator, organizational development consultant and project manager with 20 years of progressive international experience from the UN, NGO and consulting sectors.

His role is the oversight, delviery and instigation of leadership development. This was a great episode to hear his approach, midset and focus.

The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for people forced to flee their homes because of conflict and persecution.

They lead international action to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.

Delivering life-saving assistance, helping safeguard fundamental human rights, and develop solutions that ensure people have a safe place called home where they can build a better future. Working to ensure that stateless people are granted a nationality.

They are active in 130 countries, using their expertise to protect and care for millions.

The UNHCR recognises that its greatest asset is their workforce.

These are passionate, talented and creative individuals who want to use their skills for good. Thanks to people like this, they can develop solutions that enable people who have been forced to flee to restart their lives and build better futures.

To make contact with Guy Bloom directly: Click Here

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joel it is fantastic to have you on this episode of leadership bites welcome thank you very much and it's very nice to be here guys well i've really been looking forward to having you on so i've i say this now with everybody i came across you through the wondrousness of the internet and um you know we had a chat and you know absolutely fascinated by what you do and where you operate so um so glad that you're here and with that in mind it would be fantastic just to hear from you who you are and the role that you inhabit so yeah where am i it's a bigger question but in terms of let's stick to the role initially at least but uh so i'm sitting with the unhcr so the refugee agency i'm sitting in budapest and i'm in charge of leadership development across the globe for unhcr we are actually part of a learning center so i'm as i said sitting with the leadership development piece but that also includes everything we do to support managers i have a peer looking at talent and performance and then another peer looking at what we call functional learning which would be everything to do with you know program finance admin all of all of that kind of stuff and in total we are actually close to 140 people delivering designing uh learning to unhcr colleagues across the world of which there are roughly 18 000 at the moment and just for anybody that doesn't know what un hcr is just bring that to uh to some meaning for people yeah so we have a mandate and we are very proud of that mandate and that mandate is to protect refugees across across the world so we are the ones that provide food shelter support you know whenever there is a refugee and a refugee is a person that have crossed an international border so we run the camps we provide support in for refugees in cities across the world but we also work closely with governments in terms of making sure the governments actually stick to the the global principles that they've signed up to in terms of letting people cross borders and and stuff like that we are very we are we are a proud uh and an old u.n uh organization i'm always um alert that when people say and stuff like that what that really means is guy it's really very very complex and if i even start talking about it it becomes quite a big conversation so uh every role has their um you know and stuff like that so so uh you know and that's what really attracted me to you i think a uh the unhcr as an organization and the role that you inhabit in it because this is um a podcast called leadership bites so leadership's in the title so within the the role um [Music] what is what is that roles output how if when you think you know what when i'm done at the end of the year and i look back on it and go right you know there might be the job and then there's the role they're almost sometimes two different things but in terms of a tick in the box for what this role has achieved and what it's about what does that look like for you i mean so maybe maybe if i take a step back so i mean initially when i started with unhcr so some 10 years ago which was in a slightly different role but but that doesn't really matter it was within the same area management and leadership development the role was very much about providing a traditional workshop you know one day two day three day four day five day training to our senior managers so i mean how do i describe this being a massive international bureaucracy we are very hierarchical as well so you have sort of middle middle managers age-wise between 35 and 50 and then you have senior managers eight wise 45 55. so we had lots of traditional face-to-face face training for middle managers and for for senior managers bringing people together for workshops i think doing a lot of a lot of the usual things you do in terms of leadership training introduction to true strategy being strategic strategic thinking polarities team effectiveness team development you know how do you work with your team how do you work with your senior team that that was sort of what we did a lot of i think what has been super super interesting in the past past three or four years has actually been the journey from from much more of a training-based role to a role where we emphasize more and more the support on the job so how do we actually support managers not by providing traditional management or leadership content but how do we provide a space where managers where senior managers and leaders can actually have conversations either in smaller groups or with coaches that can help them grow their leadership repertoire so when you ask me what what does it look like you know at the end of the year i would say what makes what makes this really really interesting is is that journey and the fact that that journey is not yet finished but the fact that we deliver that we spend more and more of our resources actually creating those spaces where senior leaders can have conversations about what it means to be a senior leader and that we spend less and less of our resources on providing traditional standalone leadership training that's really interesting so there's in all elements of training in my mind there's the how to do a thing so there's the process so for example if you just don't know how to give feedback classically then you know then we may need to show you or here's a framework just to help guide you then there's the competence of that process so okay you know it but now do you have some skill around it so which often for leaders is something that may know how to give feedback but do they have a skill around it and then i'm hearing this you know which i very much believe in if i just want to calibrate my thinking to yours that there's this level that says okay so we have people that know what feedback is and if they don't we'll show them and they know how to use it because we'll coach them or enable them to do it but then there's this space of conversation that might be well actually i do know how to do it i can do it well but there might be times when i hesitate to or there might be situations where it didn't work as i wanted it to or whatever that might be and when somebody senior hesitates or it doesn't quite work it might be working 95 percent of the time but let's have the conversation about the five percent of the time and they can do that in a kind of a peer support or with coaches so actually it's the conversation that is the enabler because i want to hear from the room i want the the nuances of reflection from others and that's beyond the model it's beyond the oh it might be useful if you try it like this but this is the the growth of conversation if i've heard you correctly yeah i i think you have heard me correctly i think i think the another element is also the the self-awareness that comes with the conversation the realization that maybe i thought i was good at this but maybe i'm not as good as i hear some of my i mean in terms of the feedback i get from the peers in the conversation or in terms of the examples i hear from my peers in terms of how they provide feedback or what they do in terms of supporting staff development for example and learning on the job and maybe there is stuff there i can i can pick up and actually apply when i go back to my everyday practice as as a senior leader i think it it has also to do with the fact that i mean as we work with you know with relatively senior managers i mean there is little i mean it's not because people can't learn to provide feedback better so there is also a space for actually you know going through the the motions of training questions of you know providing feedback on listening skills and and these things but i think it's the i think the real growth potential actually lies in the in in the conversation with peers and in in the realizations of you know what am i good at what am i not so good at and where do i myself see a potential for growth that that that simply doesn't take place when you have your standard trainings and we tended very much to be in love with you know the standard trainings uh so this is a massive shift for us as an organization there's real maturity in a kind of reflective practice that's happening in real time there's something very for some people quite quite a scary thing because i'm going to have to demonstrate or offer maybe demonstrate might be the wrong word i'm going to have to offer an element of vulnerability perhaps exactly into that second space and sometimes i find that the first thing people have to become comfortable with is that my vulnerability doesn't make me vulnerable and actually if i see you doing it it almost takes somebody's got to go first so actually the nuance of nuances is a word here which i think is quite valuable the nuance of the level that senior people are operating at that turn of phrase is very useful or that word would really help me it's not some i mean sometimes they fundamentally don't know what to do okay that's that's something else but very often it is the subtlety of the finesse the elegance or this word i use a lot which is the craft yes so i think i'm hearing there that this is the nuancing this is the hearing from your peers this is the maybe that collective recognition that oh we i'm not doing this as much as i should do or we're not really doing this as much as we should do or so there's almost like a consensus sometimes that can come out of that am i kind of is that resonating when i'm saying that completely i think yes i think you're completely right i think vulnerability is a key key part of this and i think in in our in my context of unhcr i think that the vulnerability is is important because there has been an expectation that because you you were a senior manager you knew everything and i think today you actually need senior managers that are able to step back and say i mean i'm sorry i don't know you know i'm i'm not the expert here i'm here to to manage i'm here to lead but i'm not the content expert that's why you know i have you and you and you and you and you working with me so i have to trust that you know what what you're talking about i can ask questions uh to explore but i mean you are the the content expert and and and showing that vulnerability and being able to talk about it i think is is critical i think another really powerful insight in terms of these conversations that we try to move across the organization is also the realization that you're not alone a lot of our senior managers are sitting as the equivalent of of ambassadors or you know the deputy or the assistant ambassador so so you don't have you're not embedded in a big day-to-day network of of peers so simply bringing people together for these conversations also help them to realize and as you say fitness language realize where they may have a growth potential but also you know just affirming that what they do is actually okay i mean they are it's good enough you know this is what most others are actually doing to also throw in the i think it has been very interesting also with the with the pandemic and how the pandemic have also changed dynamics so we and have actually sort of accelerated this this process because we've there was a lot of resistance in march of last year to actually do senior management learning virtually but we we pushed very hard for for these small group conversations facilitated by expert coaches or expert facilitators and i think it has really really taken off now i mean it has been helped a lot by corey um and and and the pandemic and i i mean i have listened into many many incredible intimate conversations and been part of very many intimate conversations because the the space is just intimate even though we are on a screen and i think in many ways it's it's actually better conversations that i that i participate in and that i hear today than it was when we did uh something similar but face to face i'm fascinated by this because um i've just put a video out on my website and linkedin about this you know my studio setup for example and one of the things i talk about in it for it's a very brief video but i almost go i wondered how it would work so it's not just hey look at my lovely studio which it is it's also actually me recognizing you know i was thinking gosh is my craft going to translate into this digital medium because i always believe that you know for that one-to-one work in particular you know i really need to see the whites of the eyes and i need to be face-to-face and all those lovely phrases and uh i'm finding the same thing there's there's something about it that as long as that person's sitting in the screen and we can see each other and if all the mechanics are in place and i have a couple of thoughts on why that might be but i just wondered what your you know why you think the mechanic of it is enabling to be as good as if not sometimes greater than being face to face i think there are there are fewer disruptions [Music] so i mean so there is in a way there is more concentration in terms of i mean me interacting with with you in in this instance what we have done that i think have helped as well is to have an external coach so i mean i mean a trained coach to actually coach the conversation so you also have a higher quality conversation it's not just you know the usual conversation that takes place within the culture of of of the organization in this case you and atr but it's it's actually a sort of a methodology being almost superimposed on the conversation that also delivers a different a different quality but i think it's also simply i mean it's because we are very close you know you are sitting literally you know 30 centimeters away from me which is amazing i think my mental picture in a way is very much of american movies and driving at night and listening to radio i mean that's the kind of sense i have when i i'm in these conversations so it's it's being in that closed space listening intently to your questions and and trying to respond to those questions so that yeah and that's the best way i can describe it so it's that you know midnight drives where you drive at night there are stars and you listen to you know some some dude on the radio yeah and you know i i you put that really better than i was going to so thank you for that and i i think there is that um because i've always said you know there's the everything is has mechanics everything has a process and if you've got good sound and you've got the lighting on and you're sat centrally in the screen so it's very much your head rather than just you know you're in a sometimes i've gone on to meetings and somebody's using a video camera in a meeting room and they're at the end of a long table and i'm like my friend i can't even see your face moving so i said you've got to come closer uh so there's the mechanics of it but i think what i'm hearing from you is and you're quite right that camera is you know what 12 inches or whatever it is from my face and the picture of you now if you've got 10 people on a screen it's a slightly different mechanic but actually in a room they'd be a lot further away and if i'm wearing headphones or my sound is good as well and you know as you say it becomes much more resonant um so there's something about it that might be exhausting for daily meetings all day so when people talk about zoom vitae video fatigue it's because actually this level of intimacy actually is exhausting but actually for the work that we might want to do it's it's actually you know what this is really rather useful it actually helps i think i'm what what is zoom fatigue for one is actually the reason it works maybe for for us i think i've just i think i've just resonated with that more than i thought i had yeah i i agree i agree so uh you know so thank you that that actually just that helps me so thank you for that and you know joel as you as you look at the um the i suppose the the focus of learning that you bring to the role in the context of what you can talk about where is the what are the the main learning that you're looking for the the things that say you know what to succeed for leaders to succeed in this role i have to enable either knowledge of or reflection to or a craft around what are those ones that go that that's that's my role to ensure that if you come in or you're here that's where i'm aiming where my effort goes to your craft i mean so well i think the bigger the biggest shift that we have that we're doing in terms of learning is is really to help build the competencies and i mean the competency skills and and also to some extent the experiences around a much more people-centric culture so i mean your role as a manager as a leader in terms of creating a safe environment where it's it's okay to speak up i mean it's actually encouraged you know you have it's not about it's not about fighting it's not about conflict but it's about having conflicting uh points of view to and have fruitful conversations around you know have we identified the right problem and once we've agreed yes this is the problem oh and or maybe there is a problem below the problem that that's the actual problem then what are the kinds of solutions that that we need to be looking at and let's explore those different solutions together so that whole people-centric culture which is also about well-being uh taking care i mean in particular with corbit of course taking more care of staff making being more aware of the stresses of staff i mean i just am off a call with with a colleague who whose child is now at home because the child was a close contact to another child with a couple cases so so what what do i tell her i tell her of course you need to balance out you need to be you have your kid at home now i mean i won't ask you to do you know 120 but but i will have to ask you to do listen you have to tell me if i'm asking too much for the next 10 days when you're when your child is home so making sure that there is that environment uh also where it's okay to tell me you know my kid is at home sick or not for different reasons so we need to work out you know different different arrangements i mean fundamentally it's yeah people-centric uh it's about people management it's about linking uh perform linking development to performance conversations it's about managers that support uh staff in terms of developing for performance and it's about managers having a really good eye for what's the learning we can we can have as we work so how can i help you with stretch assignments how can we actually have a conversation around what have what have you learned managing this project for example so one of the examples i use with my colleagues is that i was managing actually with a british provider or a uk provider hang on a minute sorry i just had my wife and somebody else you know walking through the room talking very loudly sorry normally i get a postman at the door so that's that's that's okay okay any moment so don't worry oh so where did we leave off uh no i was telling you talk about in essence i translated it uh because it helps me kind of play it back to you to make sure i've understood it which is that psychological safety within conversations that also drive buffers yes and that's an interesting one isn't it because these are easy things to say you know it's an interview you know what kind of a manager are you what kind of a leader well i provide psychological safety but also i drive performance and you go wow you know and uh you know we've all got that capability with a few buzz words to say but i think manifesting what i'm hearing from you is he's fine but turning that into a a tangible skill something that um he's we're all using maybe a lot more um than we used to that that's that's almost your where you got to yeah yeah yeah yeah so and it brings us back to the to conversation value of the conversations and why conversations are so important and the art of conversations and the art of asking the right questions because that in a way is what the manager and you know also the the leader and i mean so i use the two interchangeably almost but you know you need to be good at the conversations in terms of driving performance and linking performance to development and also understanding you know what what are the career aspirations of staff and having i mean the hard conversations but also having the good conversation so how can i help to give you this kind of experience if you want to go you know from a to b so how can i get you onto projects how can i get you on to stretch assignments how can i maybe lend you out to a different department for a bit so you can get that kind of exposure and experience that will help you because as a manager my role is really also to provide a good experience it doesn't mean that i have to be you know really really nice always but but i have to think about what i do with the employee experience in mind so how can i facilitate that that you get as good an experience with unhcr you know from your point of entry to you know when you depart the organization and that that's a huge shift for us because i mean frankly we haven't really considered management as important we've been very task and are very task focused which i think is really really good but we also need to take the i mean the the management side of the equation equally uh to heart and i i i mean personally i've really i've learned it's been it's it's been kind of an uh sort of not epiphany but an aha moment you know trying to think about what i do as a manager from the perspective of what does this what's what kind of experience does this actually deliver for the for the individual because that that's a complete reconfiguration of yeah you know i was just thinking of uh the way i often put it is you know those um kinetic balls on a the toys that sit on a desk and you pick one up and you click the side yes yes and then it goes through eight balls and picks out the other okay so when you you know for every action an equal and opposite reaction right you let that when you say a thing in a certain way at a certain time and you let that ball you know as a metaphor drop boom it may impact on the person that you're talking to but then it may impact on the person that they go and talk to and then but then you know six balls down the line that that may come at you with your habitualized behavior has now meant that they're a little bit more submissive so that ball that pops out the other end could be you know those other balls in between that could be if each one was a month or a day it could be six hours later six days later six months later six years that's a very nice yeah very nice it pops out the other end and it's the historic tapping that you've been doing uh and i think well you know when i kind of thought about it like that i thought that helped me go am i prepared to take on board both the short game but also the long game and the understanding that well i just need it done now you know and i i just you know but actually yeah how what what might that mean to this organization if collectively we're all doing that over a two year period or a three year this is why i like your conversations focused because i get to hear what's going on outside of my own truth and do i connect to my responsibility as a contributor to the environment and the culture of this organization rather than just my own output and i'm that's a that's very interesting for me and i think when leaders really buy into that contribution outside of their own need that's um that's when i think you get shift and i i think i'm here i'm i'm hearing you have your own recognition and that's indicative of that and and i mean i i really like that picture with the you know with the small balls i think it's so right and it yeah and it speaks to the it speaks to the systemic nature of organizations i think i mean to you i mean and that's also your point in a way isn't it guy that you know you cannot just look at your own little piece of the puzzle i mean you have to be mindful that there is a bigger piece and what you do in your piece may impact on what goes on in other parts of of the organization and just to go back to the conversational point i think it's also when you at least for me so maybe i'm just making some assumptions here but i think for many people it's a lot easier also to reflect on where their own practice doesn't work or works well when they listen in on on on on experiences from from other peers so it's when you're sort of slightly removed you have a bird's eye perspective on the conversation you actually realize that ah this is where joel keeps you know doing the wrong thing but he can't see it but i can see that that's what what's happening yeah but also yeah i think you see yourself reflected back out in the action yes yeah oh gosh i do that yes now exactly now i realize what we're right that sounds awesome and i don't do anything like that yeah i think some of the greatest revelations are when people see excellence in others and then realize ah i i don't do that or in all that that is fascinating yeah but but there is there is also something about the nature of the conversation that actually helps to bring it out in a way that i could not bring out by by teaching you know like i can't stand i mean i i mean sometimes you if you are really really good of course at facilitating teaching you can bring it out but it's difficult well i i kind of i i think you're one person and even in your crafted excellence if i thought i was one of the best facilitators around i'm only one person i can only talk for so long in a room and i've made that mistake whereby trying to bring learning and insight to all i've spent a lot of time talking whereas actually if there's 10 other or five other people who have bought into and are playing not playing the game but they're contributing appropriately then you're facilitating them facilitating yes because then for there's not just you trying to make it happen there's five challenges there's five curiosities there's five offerings of story and you could be the best facilitator in the room but if you just keep talking there's no room for everybody else and i i learned that um because i love the sound of my own voice joel that may be appropriate but the craft is if i shut up and let others speak and good so joel how how did you you know how does one get to your your that role that you inhabit uh i i can see some roles being quite obvious you know the commercially driven environments and you're in that space but the un and a role within that um what was what was your journey yeah thank you thank you for asking it's i mean it's kind of uh i mean obviously it's always interesting when it's your own own journey but i mean in there is um at least the danish i mean so i'm danish and the danish government have a scheme where they actually fund uh fresh graduates entry into the u.n for one or two or three years so i was fortunate enough to get into one of those jobs when when i finished university back in in the 90s so i had three years with undp which is a united nations development program and actually i was back i was in kenya where i am back now so that's sort of kind of a full circle so i started with undp then we in kenya then we went back my wife and i to to copenhagen and spend a little bit of time there then then she got a job i followed i went into consulting so spent almost 10 years in in management consulting and at some point realized that i hadn't had a conversation about the quality of what we do as a you know as consulting as consultants uh so i thought maybe it's time that i go back to uh to the un and i saw at a job opening with unhcr and the only reason i applied was really because it was opening this new learning center in budapest and i thought okay that that's kind of an interesting opportunity because it's a it's a new entity within it's a new location so it's not going to be sort of hardcore you and it's not stepping into an old dusty office it's actually being part of shaping something new uh so that took us to budapest and then i've been sort of out of unhcr and done some there is small staff college uh staff college in torino i've spent a couple of years there and then i you know i came back so i've been yeah i started with you and i'm now back with the un but done lots of management consulting in between and i think it's a and what pulls you back to the u.n well i mean i know there's that opportunity but the u.n itself is there something about that it's a it's a yes there is also something about you and i think there is something about the in a way the convening power of the u.n and the ability to attract uh a very very interesting individual so you know i mean like now i have this conversation with you i mean there are lots of these kinds of moments that i really really appreciate a lot another example i mean i met another gentleman also from the uk by the way who who reached out uh maybe a year ago and asked me whether i would want to be part of conversations that he is convening and then we now meet virtually you know once every two months three months there are you know a gentleman from fifa but everybody you know very different feels but involved in learning and just having conversations i mean and this is what i really really appreciate about the un there is something about the diversity of the u.n as well the fact that you have colleagues from literally every country of the world when i walk down the corridor uh i mean not that i have done that for a while but when when i used to record the corridors i mean you would hear you know hungarian english spanish italian french i mean it's just very very rich which is uh you know it's just fascinating and we just you know so that we have these conversations also about uh words and concepts and because you know they mean something different to different people in different cultures so you have to constantly be alert and adjust and i mean are we actually if we talk about uh accountability you know what what what part of it is it actually we're talking about does that mean the same to me as a dane you know as opposed to the hungarian colleague or the italian colleague or the you know colleague from mali so we you know but that's it's part of you know it's deeply frustrating at times but it's also incredibly fascinating i have to say that would be um if i think about being in a relatively static group of people i'm in one country most of the time there's a relatively uniform demographic etc and even then of course you know when you say accountability what do you mean but of course when you then go into your complexity um i imagine you have to find it a beautiful thing because otherwise you'd literally go go bonkers i have to go this is this is awesome because yeah though those cultural dynamics and etc would would be a part that i understand to a greater or lesser degree because obviously doing this for 20 odd years i've come across different cultures but that's the inherent part of the role i imagine would be absolutely fascinating yeah and when you go home and say to the people in your life we're going to budapest what um how do you what's the reaction when you say that no i i think what's interesting you know honestly i mean but it's a it's a it's a very good question i think what is uh incredibly frustrating when we go home and probably also part of the reason why we keep getting back out is that people don't understand you know family friends very few understand and are really interested because it's simply it's too far away from from their reality so you know so we've yeah so so whenever when we have been back and when we've agreed you know now we go back to settle in copenhagen again then six months later we look at each other and say no we need to get out because they it's the store you know you have the longer you away the sort of the bigger the black hole is where you you have experiences you have uh you have friends that that that you know your old friends can't connect with or don't understand or so you have it's like living a life where you there is a big chunk of it that that's simply not part of the conversations that you have when you're back home so this is what i'm hearing from you there is there's a sense of you know it comes with its own weight it comes with its own kind of uh things that need to be worked through but if i walk a walk away from it might be the wrong word but if i if i move away from it i i feel that that pull yeah it's it's uh call it the curiosity of people's stories or the adrenaline of the situation or just the sheer kind of scope and scale of some of the things if there's a there's something there that's got its um in the nicest possible way it's it's got its hook in you yes completely completely following you i mean the way we i mean so when i discuss it with my wife i mean i think the way we try to to verbalize it a little bit is that it's it it so whenever you are in a new country in the new context like now we are back in kenya even though we've been here 23 years ago it's i mean it's completely changed it's like being in a new country and and it requires sort of an additional level of alertness of attention to you know trying to understand what are people saying uh trying to understand you know why they're doing what they're doing uh just trying to navigate you know how do i get a phone how do i get you know a new tax number how do i get water how do we pay it on i mean it's that additional level of alertness that that at least for us is addictive so so you become sort of hypersensitive whereas sometimes you know when you are when you've been living in the same city for 10 years 20 years maybe your whole life i mean then you have a depth of you're anchored in in a completely different and very solid way but maybe you also just go through most of your days and don't really see you know the streets around you or the road so don't think about the bank or you know whatever you need to think about you take it for granted in a way that you can't do when you're out because there is so much you don't understand so there's a kind of enhanced quality of living for you there's an almost uh a sensitivity that it brings when you put yourself into that that's that space yes yeah that's very nicely put guy well listen um we we were alert time when we started so i'm just going to say this has been fascinating just to hear you talk and just to like with all roles of course you know we've only touched the surface but it's a lovely insight just into you and your thinking and the space that you uh work in and i could get into the whole dynamics of delivering globally and there might be a secondary conversation that i pick up with you on but just thank you for your input thank you for your time and um it's been very very much appreciated thank you guy and thank you very much for the questions and for the conversation absolutely it's been great i'll press the stop button thanks