In this edition of the UNEL-e spotlight interview series, Aida Ghazaryan (UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager) speaks to Devina Ahluwalia, Learning Solutions Specialist at the International Organization for Migration (IOM), to discuss her learning experience, and leadership development journey on the UNEL-e 2021 spring edition.

In the interview, she explores “Leadership from where you sit”, a core message of the UNEL-e programme. You can learn more about it on this short video.



Aida: Devina, tell us a little bit about yourself and your career journey in IOM.

Devina: I have been working in the United Nations (UN) System for over twelve years now, having initially started as an intern. My work has largely spanned the Learning and Development (L&D) field, and while some of it was focused on external capacity building — I found my real passion when my career direction moved towards employee development. I joined IOM in 2016 for a consultancy project that included the largescale change initiative of implementing a global learning portal. Thereafter, my role evolved significantly and expanded to cover all facets of the professional development journey for IOM staff.

Aida: Could you tell us what you found extraordinary about your learning experience on the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning Programme?

Devina: A highly memorable part of the learning journey was the fact that I could connect virtually with nearly one hundred peers from across the UN who had diverse thematic backgrounds. They also came from a variety of duty stations and brought an exceptional amount of experience with them. This made me feel that I had a trustworthy network around me that I could confide in, exchange openly with, and learn from. I believe that one of the core unifying threads was that all of us  as emerging leaders were participating in the UNEL-e with an open mind and desire to grow. Despite the compact schedule of the programme, the activities were structured in a thoughtful way that provided ample opportunities for us to test new approaches in our daily work and managerial practice.

“A highly memorable part of the learning journey was the fact that I could connect virtually with nearly one hundred peers from across the UN who had diverse thematic backgrounds.”

Aida: In your position as a Learning and Development professional at IOM, which aspect of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning did you find most helpful? How has this contributed to your leadership development milestones?

Devina: The UNEL-e programme was extremely well designed, practical and hands-on with thought-provoking content, a mix of learning formats and innovative techniques. In selecting the most helpful aspects in relation to my line of work, I would choose the expert webinars and 360° assessment. The webinars exposed me to several topic experts and thought leaders who were bold and outspoken. These discussions were a valuable reminder that to be innovative, learn from missteps or disappointments, and encourage positive changes in the workplace, we need to exercise professional courage. The 360° assessment allowed me to both reflect deeply on what leadership behaviours I should continue exhibiting and where I have room for growth. In this way, the UNEL-e has inspired and equipped me to approach leadership as a continuous journey with both self-development opportunities and moments of celebration.

Aida: In your bio, you mention that leaders can be more inclusive by embodying and modelling positive behaviours. How has the UNEL-e helped you embrace new leadership behaviours that you would like to model?

Devina: While the UNEL-e programme has been very inspirational in its entirety, it has particularly encouraged me to work on developing habits and strengthening behaviours in relation to the self-applied characteristic of the UN System Leadership Framework. One of the biggest lessons I learnt from the programme was that each of us can lead from where we sit regardless of our position in the organisational structure or our job title. As a result, I am being increasingly mindful and persistent in demonstrating certain behaviours like creating opportunities to have honest conversations to understand my supervisees’ needs and aspirations; advocating for them; and recognising their contributions and achievements often and in multiple ways. I am excited to maintain the momentum and embrace other leadership behaviours on my journey ahead.

Aida: How has UNEL-e given you the confidence to become a transformational, emotionally intelligent UN leader that one can relate to?

Devina: The importance that the UNEL-e placed on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and authentic relationships was extremely reassuring for me. At times in my career, I have faced situations where task achievement or delivering results was valued over being considerate of others and building true connections. Despite this, I have never attempted to minimise my focus on the human side of professional interactions even in situations where I felt unsure about it being perceived as a strength. The UNEL-e has offered me a valuable lesson in this regard and has furthered my belief about leading with emotional consideration and kindness. Furthermore, I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of job titles, grades or contract categories defining who assumes a leadership role within a team. Therefore, the focus of the UN System Leadership Framework on bottom-up and horizontal leadership is another aspect that gives me the courage and confidence to lead in a way that is egalitarian, collaborative and representative. 

Aida: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in leadership, and how has this training changed your perspective?

Devina: One of the challenges I have faced as a woman leader is that demonstrating empathy is sometimes mistaken as a sign of weakness. I particularly struggled with this earlier in my career but even in recent times, I have been advised to be more tough or firm. I have also consistently worked towards maintaining humility in my interactions, without promoting my individual contributions and instead highlighting team achievements. However, this created challenges for me as a woman leader because sometimes male counterparts would be more vocal and outspoken about their work, therefore receiving greater acknowledgment or opportunities. The UNEL-e has been extremely helpful in shifting my perspective to see these two aspects less as barriers and more as positive enablers in my journey as a woman leader. I recall how one of the expert speakers in the programme encouraged us to “lead from the heart”. This message had a profound impact on me, and I no longer doubt the way in which I support my supervisees.

Aida: What were the most memorable lessons from the UNEL-e programme?

Devina: While there were many memorable moments throughout the programme, what I remember very fondly is the experience sharing opportunity with the UN leaders from the field during the last webinar. It was so inspiring to hear about their journeys and which leadership behaviours have particularly served them in supporting their teams and delivering on their organisational mandates. I refer frequently to their wise words, particularly the insight that the courage we demonstrate as emerging leaders gives strength to others around us.

Aida: Would you recommend this training programme to other emerging leaders and why?

Devina: I would recommend this programme to other emerging leaders without hesitation! During the five-weeks, I had an incredible opportunity to learn, reflect, exchange, and grow in a thought-provoking, forward-looking, and stimulating environment. The programme design also facilitated the continuation of the rich learning journey beyond the formal schedule. The UNEL-e has most certainly been one of the most effective and memorable professional development opportunities I have pursued. It has left me feeling positive and hopeful that each of us can indeed lead from where we sit, thereby contributing towards an enabling and inclusive leadership culture at our organisations.

Stay tuned for upcoming UNEL-e Spotlight interviews from UN organizations and alumni that benefited from the UNEL-e programme. If you are keen to step up your leadership in the UN, and align your leadership behaviours to the principled and visionary leadership in the UN, we are happy to welcome you to our 2021 edition of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning (6 October-12 November 2021). For testimonials from UNEL-e alumni please watch the trailers and testimonials here or search for #UNELE2020, #UNELE2021, #UNELEeca across social media.

You are welcome to have a look at the open house webinar recording, presentation and programme e-book. For any inquiries on UNEL-e and customized programmes for emerging leaders or to reserve a seat on the upcoming editions in 2022, please email