The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the lives of millions of people causing far-reaching damage to economies, healthcare systems, businesses and normal day-to-day life as we know it. In the face of future challenges, UN leaders are spearheading efforts to build back better to ensure an equal future for all.

For this edition of the UN Emerging Leaders E-Learning (UNEL-e) spotlight series, Aida Ghazaryan (UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager) spoke to Simon van Woerden, Risk Communication Officer at the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Department in the Regional Office for Europe. He explores his takeaways from UNSSCs UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning Programme (UNEL-e).

Aida: Simon, tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey at the United Nations.

Simon: My first role in the UN system was as a social media intern working with UNDP in New York. The internship programme was an amazing opportunity for me to combine my strong interest in the power of communication, storytelling and social justice

After the internship I was fortunate enough to continue working for UNDP and later the World Health Organization (WHO). I started with a focus on corporate communication and later transitioned to Risk Communication and Community Engagement (RCCE).

Working in RCCE was an amazing opportunity to combine the creative power of communication with the rigour of behavioural sciences and the technical area within WHO.

Aida:  How has the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning experience contributed to helping you unleash your leadership  potential?

Simon: I’d say UNEL-e has given me the space to consciously reflect on my strengths and weaknesses as an emerging leader. It has provided me with concrete tools, a community, and the incentive to develop my strengths and manage or improve my weaknesses. For example, by learning more about different leadership styles, I now know that ‘servant leadership’ is one of several styles – and each have their pros and cons, and should be applied in a context-specific way.

Programmes like UNEL-e help in two main ways. First, they create the time and space for this kind of reflection, practice, and growth to happen. We  all know this is not easy given our busy schedules and long to-do lists. Secondly, it provides all the conditions for growth within that space: expert lecturers bringing cutting-edge leadership models, skills and theories, an interactive and supportive community of peers, and concrete tools and exercises to immediately start testing those new skills.

"UNEL-e has given me the space to consciously reflect on my strengths and weaknesses as an emerging leader.”

Aida: In your opinion what is the value of the UN System Leadership Framework and the leadership values outlined in it? How has the programme changed the way you look at leadership in the UN? What new leadership behaviors have you learned from UNEL-e and how do these apply to your work?

Simon: I think one of my main takeaways from the framework is that leadership is an attitude, not a position. You can behave like a leader in any role by applying emotional intelligence, proactively identifying challenges and solutions, by knowing and playing your role in the team, and by effectively supporting leadership or “managing up”. This also means that sometimes being an effective leader means being an effective follower!

I would say a concrete leadership behaviour I’ve taken from UNEL-e includes varying my leadership style more. For example, I now try to actively limit how often I resort to the “do as I say” or “do as I do” styles, and more often try to focus on asking open questions, listening, striking a balance between challenging and supporting my (small) team, and overall providing an inspiring vision rather than a list of instructions.

Knowing how to create the space to allow that transformative style to kick in (for example with better planning, more foresight and team communication), as well as honing one’s emotional intelligence and relying on intuition when an emergency requires a temporary switch back to more directive styles, are two other great takeaways from the programme.

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

Simon: Besides the inspiring and energizing speakers and the great peer-to-peer interactions, I would say the coaching sessions towards the end really stood out. As part of UNEL-e you’re invited to complete a 360-degree assessment which gives you a lot of new insights about how your professional environment sees you; and then in two coaching sessions you’re invited to really dig into that report. I found it super powerful and interesting to read my own report and then have the support of a professional to interpret the results and use them to improve as a professional and emerging leader.

UNEL-e gave me the opportunity to connect to the WHY of my career choice, and offered me a space for deep thinking and discussion about motivation and on how it shows in very practical ways. It also showed me how to keep that motivation alive to sustain a career.

"UNEL-e gave the opportunity to connect to the WHY of my career choice.”

Aida:  What was your experience interacting with different mid-level managers from across the UN system?

Simon: It was super interesting to see that despite that we worked for different agencies in different countries, there was still so much similarity. In the broadest sense, the UNEL-e community in my experience shares a deep dedication to the UN charter and values and the value of leadership. In the more practical sense we all shared our frustrations and challenges about trying to make the a big impact in an imperfect world. All the while dealing with the time pressures and other barriers that often get in our way. Our shared humanity in that regard really was a stark and beautiful reminder of what makes any organization – the people inside.

"Our shared humanity in that regard really was a stark and beautiful reminder of what makes any organization – the people inside.”

Aida: If you had a time machine that could take you back to the beginning of the programme what would you do differently?  

Simon: I’d probably try to reflect more deeply before starting on some practical leadership challenges that I saw in my own work and in my surroundings. UNEL-e’s model of practicing the learning from day one is a great way of bringing the learnings to life. In the first few weeks I struggled to find the right connections between practical realities and more abstract documents like the United Nations System Leadership Framework. Once they clicked, it really felt like a little light turned on and I started to see lots of new ways to improve and grow!

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

Simon: A resounding yes!  Again the training asks for time and energy, as well as the tuition fees, but if you’re able to dedicate those resources, the programme is more than worth the investment. For what it’s worth, I’ve also heard from a number of my team members that they have noted a marked positive change in how I supervise their work since starting the training.

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 2022 edition of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning (19 October-1 December, 2022). Should you wish to see the testimonials of our alumni please have a lookat the trailersand testimonialshere, the graduation speeches from the last cohort here, read spotlight interviews here or search for#UNELE2020,#UNELE2021, #UNELE2022, #UNELEecaacross social media.

You are welcome to have a look at our latest Open house webinar recordingpresentation and programme e-book. For any inquiries on the upcoming editions and customized programmes for emerging leaders, please email