KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Fostering transformational leadership in the UN

with 11 comments

“I don’t work here because if of the way it is, but rather because of what I believe it can be” – A wise former colleague.

A lot of people join the UN and are motivated in their work here by the ideals and mission of the UN. However in our day-to-day work it can be all too easy to lose touch with our higher purpose and get bogged down with bureaucracy, compliance, reporting, process and the rough and tumble of our every day work. In talking to people one thing I often hear, that also seems to apply to the rest of the aid/development world is that while we can see that the world is rapidly changing, we are frustrated and lack confidence that the current system is sufficiently nimble to modernize the way it works and adapt to the changing circumstances, or even overcome some of the internal challenges we face in getting things done efficiently. (Here’s a previous blog post I wrote about this in a moment of frustration – “Working with one hand tied behind your back”).

So what can be done about this? – how can we reconnect with the values of the UN in our everyday work, and how can we transform the UN, or the aid world to be more relevant, adaptable and fulfilling – and of course with the ultimate goal of being more effective?

As it happens there are many UN staffers who both share some of the above frustrations, but believe in the UN and themselves enough to be trying in their own areas of work to change UN for the better. Last year at the social innovation summit I found out about the “UN Transformation Network” which is essentially an informal community of like-minded UN employees and consultants whose aim is to connect people and have them learn from and support one another in transformational change.  I’m now one of the co-facilitators of this group (if you are a UN staffer looking to bring about change then join us!).

But what can we do to help support this kind of change from within, especially given that most members are not senior power brokers within the UN system? As a group we identified two needs and two avenues of action to support them:

1. There is a need for peer support among the network to help share advice and experience, or at least to provide a source of moral support to those struggling to bring about change. To help facilitate this the network has a LinkedIn page for online discussions, organizes regular lunches for New York based members, and also participates in events such as the Social Innovation Summit which this year had a “UN Track” focused on discussions about how to make the UN system more innovative.

2. A common need expressed by members of the group was to develop their skills in leadership, but not in the typical way that management/leadership development programmes do, but one that is more focused around how to bring about change and how to lead at all levels. The aim is to help people maximize what they can achieve from where they sit rather than focusing on developing a standardized set of skills relating to your current level, specific UN organization or expected career path. In response to this a group of us have created and launched a leadership course “Developing Transformative UN Leaders” which has been developed “bottom up” bringing together the leadership learning needs expressed by people in the network and some of the latest thinking in leadership development and innovation from outside the UN.

We had the first few sessions of the course a fortnight ago and the next session will be at the end of this week. In good innovation fashion, the curriculum was developed collaboratively through a series of call as meetings with potential and actual participants. We’re also considering this first version of the course to be a prototype which, if successful, will be further adapted, based on what we learned from doing this the first time around. Our hope is that this experience will create a buzz and an appetite for more of this kind of training, and also that it will get the notice and support of “the powers that be” in the UN (right now various UN agencies have kindly agreed to send people to the course – but we are not at the stage where what we are doing is actively supported by the system).

I’ll write more about the programme, and what I’m learning on the blog as the course unfolds, but a few quick impressions from the start are that:

i) There is a strong appetite for a different kind of leadership training than is currently on offer within the UN, in particular one focused on change management and which fosters leadership at all levels and parts of the organization (not just in “senior” leadership tracks).
ii) The cross agency nature of the course is very valuable in reinforcing the common values which unite the UN system but which we sometimes forget in our agency specific work, and also in learning how different parts of the system have shared challenges but are experimenting with different ways of addressing them
iii) That the most important leadership skills we need to develop are inter-personal in nature rather than technical managerial ones whether in terms of improving communication, or increasing our empathy, or dealing better with office politics, to finding out how to better motivate others – and perhaps most importantly how to better manage ourselves.
iv) There are many highly talented, motivated people within the UN who are trying to do their best to achieve results and to change the way the UN works – the key will be to see how the UN can better tap into that potential (or how we can get the UN to recognize and make better use of it though our own efforts).

A final thought is that one of the greatest potential benefits of these efforts will be in combining the two. As part of the course we will be encouraged to set up change projects within the UN system and to make use of both what we have learned and the network we are building to help bring them about to support and advise one another. For me this will be the most challenging and the most exciting part of the whole enterprise.

Written by Ian Thorpe

June 18, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

11 Responses

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  1. Excellent, Ian. I´ve jus came back from he 17th Conference of the Reputation Institute in Barcelona and the issues of leadership and internal communication are key-drivers for the 21st century organizations. If you have interest, I can share the paper I´ve presented there on internal communication. Best regards, Rachel

    Rachel Mello

    June 18, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    • Good, Rachel. Could you please share your paper to me (tcheeko@un.org). Our organization UNECA is in transformative process with our new Executive Secretary which seems to confuse staff. Thanks to share your views, Lot

      Lot Tcheeko

      June 19, 2013 at 4:08 am

  2. One colleague who took a leadership course told me that the challenge in implementing transformational leadership in the UN is that it is not possible to make major human resource changes (resulting from continuing/permanent contracts). His conclusion was that evolutionary, not transformative, leadership was the best goal for the UN.

    Eric Mullerbeck

    June 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm

    • @Eric – I’d say we need both. It’s true that some issues can only be changed slowly but over time the changes can be significant, but there are others (such as the current work on greater technology enabled transparency) where the changes can be much more rapid but equally significant. I’d also challenge the assumption that transformative change has to rely on major human resource changes – often the transformation is in how people are motivated and given opportunities to take initiative rather than in trying to get different “better” people who will ultimately face the same challenges that the current staff face.

      Ian Thorpe

      June 18, 2013 at 3:54 pm

  3. Ian, how timely! Losing sight of the forest for the trees is an issue that really needs to be addressed. It’s inspirational to know that work is already underway.

  4. Seems like a very interesting course!

    However… I think we all know that there are way too many leaders in the UN system who are incompetent, and who lack willingness to work collaboratively and for the UN principles. Who basically are toxic for their office and their staff. Just as important as asking how we can develop good leadership skills among those who want positive change, is asking how to develop a sound system which gets rid of people who have nothing to do in the UN (and where promotion or re-deployment is NOT an alternative).

    The Gender Observer

    September 7, 2013 at 6:08 pm

  5. […] currently participating in a “UN Transformational Leadership course” which I’ve mentioned in past blogs. One of interesting self-discoveries I’ve made […]

  6. […] mentioned in a previous blog post about the “UN Transformation Network“, an informal community of like-minded UN […]

  7. […] transformational leadership at the UN in a recent blog post, Ian Thorpe quoted a former colleague: ‘I don’t work here because of the way it is, but […]

    Empathy | In the Flow

    December 13, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  8. […] a core member of the UN Transformation Network I’m very happy to see this internal soul searching. I have been marginally involved in some of […]

  9. […] a core member of the UN Transformation Network I’m very happy to see this internal soul searching. I have been marginally involved in some of […]


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