In the follow up to International Women’s Day 2022, UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager Aida Ghazaryan sat with Miroslava Vavrecanova for a special UN Emerging Leaders Experience (UNELE) spotlight interview. Vavrecanova, Chief, Human Resources Section at United Nations Volunteers (UNV), shares insights from her leadership journey, and elaborates on how UNELE helped her prepare for leadership challenges, and move towards more impactful leadership. She takes note of different elements such as role transitions, defining moments, and developing a unique leadership style.
Aida: Mirka, it is a pleasure to have you on this special edition. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey at the United Nations.
Mirka: I’m currently the Chief of the Human Resources Section at UNV headquarters in Bonn, Germany. I’ve always believed in equal opportunity and giving everyone the chance to work and develop their potential, so I came to support UNV’s mandate – which I love! – in 2019. I had a great boss who inspired my career at the UN, when I first started as a National Staff Administrative Assistant in 2000, at UNDP Bratislava. I was really fortunate, that was my first job after university.
When I left the Slovak Republic in 2005, I travelled the world with UNDP and new dreams to pursue HR – first as a HR Specialist in New York until 2007, then as a Special Assistant to the Director of Staff Administrative Services (currently GSSU) in Denmark. My next roles were also incredibly rewarding. From 2011, I was UNFPA’s HR Specialist supporting the Regions of Asia and the Pacific and the, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But my big career break came in 2015 when UNFPA made me Chief of HR Services, and all the pieces of my career slotted into place. My team and I shared such a special bond that I smile just thinking about them, even now, although I left for UNV in 2019.
Aida: In 2017, you joined UNELE at a time when you had just stepped into your new leadership role at UNFPA and the UN System Leadership Framework (UNLSF) was endorsed. What resonated with you in the UNLSF? Has the framework contributed to making you a better leader?
Mirka: It echoed what I already knew to be true and I found that very reassuring and empowering. At the time, I was establishing a new UNFPA branch. Our mandate was ‘Because everyone matters and the framework validated this very strongly by calling for UN leaders to be inclusive and mutually accountable in enabling transformation of the system. Of course, this inspired me. It renewed my determination to stand-up for non-discrimination, diversity and giving everyone a chance. The framework also encouraged me to be more active in the prevention of misconduct, such as fraud and the abuse of authority, which I’ve witnessed in my time at the UN. And last but not least, it inspired me to implement an initiative building critical skills and competencies of staff to improve organizational excellence. It is essential that we have transformational leaders at all levels to support the achievement of the 2030 Agenda. These ideas can only have had a positive impact on me and my team. We worked great together.
"… stand-up for non-discrimination, diversity and giving everyone a chance.”
Aida: You have professionals coming to you for career advice. Did the learning and leadership skills you gained from UNELE help you move up in your career? Are you a better learner and leader because of the programme?
Mirka: I’m certainly more sensitive to how my staff are feeling and this makes us a stronger, more productive team. We trust each other. I now regularly check on everyone’s wellbeing. I try to imagine being in their shoes and how motivated or demotivated I’d be by my actions. And I include my staff in decisions which, before the course, I might’ve made on my own. For example, when I realized that my UNFPA team were uncomfortable about switching to an open plan workspace, I let them work together on the seating plan and rules they wanted so that they felt comfortable and in control. These were all ideas that I took from the UNELE. Without a doubt, the programme was responsible for much of my early success as UNFPA’s Chief of HR Services. I’d gone from supervising one HR Assistant to managing a staff of nine, overnight, and I needed much more confidence and practical leadership skills to cope. The programme taught me how to plan leave and absence, manage overtime, resolve conflict, and much more. Plus, I was reassured that everyone, even the boss, makes mistakes. And it’s ok to make mistakes and learn and progress. So now, if something goes wrong, I’m much better at helping my team to accept it and introduce standard operating procedures so we can all learn and move on, positively.
"Without a doubt, the programme was responsible for much of my early success as UNFPA’s Chief of HR Services.”
Aida: You are currently working with UNV, an organization where about 6,500 UN volunteers and more than 11,000 UN online volunteers contribute to the effective delivery of the peace and development interventions of UN system partners. What was extraordinary about the UN Emerging Leaders Experience? Has it had an impact on your current role at UNV?
Mirka: UNELE said that staff have diverse needs which should be accommodated and for this, I credit the programme with our success during the pandemic in 2020 and onwards. For the first time in UNV history, we opened a UNLPE for all volunteers and put 97 percent of our staff training budget to great use. Well, I never expected that. In the first months of lockdown, colleagues were exhausted and many suffered anxiety due to working from home, unable to interact with peers. What changed was that I recalled UNELE’s lessons about diversity, I moved to value-based leadership and I appreciated the personal challenges my staff had – small children, health concerns, aging parents. I concentrated on improving their work–life balance.
We had regular one-to-ones online so I could check in and try to keep us motivated. Were they sticking to a healthy routine? Are they dealing with burnout? Do they need help managing their workload? We really got to know each other in those sessions and about how we were coping and navigating work–life challenges. I also partnered up with eCoachPro and launched a wellbeing programme. I’m told that helped. And, hoping to inspire others to be open about their feelings, I shared mine by writing “It’s Fine Not to Be Fine”. The UNELE programme covered all the essential leadership topics in an extraordinarily memorable way. It was really well-designed.
Aida: Did the programme help you to tap into your potential as a female leader? Have you had greater impact since?
Mirka: It was validating to hear that being kind and caring and having a less self-focussed leadership style can, in fact, turn a group of people into a high-performing team. I’m glad I was told this as a first-time leader. Since the programme, I’ve come to realize how important it is to have an emotional connection with the team you’re leading to help teams work better by creating an enabling safe space to share concerns and challenges, and find solutions together. Also, I’m a single mother. So, imagine how encouraging it felt when the UN Women’s Assistant Secretary-General told us to keep the faith. Ms Lakshmi Puri shared how she made sacrifices and it wasn’t easy, but she balanced her family life with her demanding career by investing her time and emotional energy equally.
Aida: After the UNELE, you grew into your leadership role at UNFPA. Did the programme help you build a vision for your career and prepare for your next role?
Mirka: I knew what I wanted to do next, yes – spend the next 21 years tackling exciting UN challenges. UNELE made me proud to work below our UN flag so I checked the UN Common System afterwards for new opportunities, feeling very prepared. At the workshop, I’d reflected on my strengths and opportunities for improvement. At both one-on-one coaching sessions, I was given useful takeaways and strategies for my professional development. For one thing, I realized that my staff and I needed to be open with each other. Teams create harmony, trust and partnership by sharing feedback both ways. I was ready to listen to them. To top it all off, UNELE added a real diverse mix of field and headquarters representatives to my network. There were 32 of us from UNFPA and UN Women and, as a group, we shared certain challenges and career experiences we’ve had so far –turns out that all leaders face similar obstacles and setbacks, we were reassured that we weren’t the only ones. We put our heads together afterwards and suggested ways of overcoming these types of problems. I found the diversity of opinions and advice really interesting.
Aida: Would you recommend this training programme to emerging leaders and why?
Mirka: Oh, without thinking about it. Certainly. For the sake of your team, your career, dare I say our planet, you need to please grab this opportunity when it comes to you. And by that, I mean to remind you about our 2030 Agenda. For our children to inherit a world that’s fair, functioning and healthy – where everyone has the opportunity to develop their potential and establish a family – all UN leaders are needed to perform. The UNELE programme will guide you through all the essential leadership topics and give you the skills that you need, so you can inspire and support rapid, positive, transformational change. Because that’s what it takes to achieve our Agenda.
I’ve seen many wonderful professionals struggle to lead teams without this programme and the fundamentals of people management and emotional intelligence that it gives you. If you’re technically brilliant, you’re likely to be promoted to a managerial position at the UN. Congratulations. But you will need to develop this whole other leadership skillset. The good news: you can enjoy this and it’s less scary than it might sound. I was very fortunate to have excellent supervisors at UNDP in Rwanda and Sudan and Iraq and beyond. I learnt from their example. And yet, this formal leadership programme sparked self-reflection and understanding in ways you wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Stay tuned for upcoming UNEL-e Spotlight interviews. If you are keen to step up your leadership in the UN, we would be happy to welcome you for the next 2022 edition of the UNEL-e programme happening from 19 OCT 2022 - 01 DEC 2022. Enroll today to join our vibrant community of mid-level UN managers. Learn more about what our alumni have to say by clicking here or searching for #UNELE2020, #UNELE2021, #UNELE2022 #UNELEeca across social media.
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