5 reasons UN staff should consider working outside the “system” for learning

5 reasons UN staff should consider working outside the “system” for learning

Yes, I was born in the so-called “system” of the UN! As an idealist student of international relations, I had decided to be part of the great and noble organization that the UN is. But it was not an easy ride at all; getting a rare unpaid internship position with the UN, without any inside connections, was just a matter of luck for me. I was barely 25 when I got my first international UN assignment in Tanzania. This proved to be a big break for me leading to what I would call one-of-a-kind positions later in Sudan, New York, Bonn and Stockholm. I left the UN in July 2012 and relocated to Stockholm, Sweden. Since then I have been working for a modest, and relatively young international inter-governmental organization with a unique mandate to support democracy building worldwide. I have had no significant experience of working in a non-UN environment before and this experience in Stockholm opened up my mind as well as challenged me in ways I was not before. It turned out to be an extraordinary opportunity for professional and personal growth in an excellent team and in a genuinely conducive workplace environment.

They say, you should always stay inside the “system”. So why did I choose to leave the system and why you might also consider doing so? I remember that hardly any of my peers encouraged me to take this perceived “risk” and some even thought I was very “brave”. I knew despite all that rhetoric about building a creative, dynamic and talented workforce, a large majority of the old-school recruitment officers and hiring managers would not understand and appreciate my perspective; but I also knew that there would always be a small minority who would and they indeed did. I had an excellent recruitment experience with my new employer; and I am quite thrilled about my next UN assignment. So here is what I have learned through my experience and I am sharing this with my peers with the view of inspiring and learning from others. For me personally, working for the UN is more than just a good job – it is a noble and purposeful international public service for the whole humanity and our world.

1. You share past learning to help develop other organisations: Working in the UN system exposes one to a range of sophisticated and advance organizational systems, policies and practises. A job in a non-UN organisation can give one a meaningful opportunity to contribute to and shape the development of another organisation by using and building on the past learning and experiences.

2. You become better at building and valuing external partnerships: Working with the UN over a longer period can make one unknowingly feel self-important and special, at least from the perspective of external partners and counterparts. By experiencing an outside world, you would probable become more humble, empathetic and responsive – all key ingredients for building sound external partnerships.

3. You learn more and grow quicker than your peers: The potential for learning and using new skills is limited in a linear career path shaped over an extended period of time i.e. same kind of job, same team, same organization, and same location. Working in different organizational contexts will provide you with many opportunities to learn about new systems, policies and organizational cultures. You are better prepared for bringing in and applying new and fresh ideas, approaches and perspectives that might be needed for taking on more responsible positions in the future.

4. You feel healthier and productive: Work-life balance and flexible working arrangements are still relatively new to the UN system. It is not merely the favourable organisational policies that ensure healthy and productive workforce; it is the organisational culture that does. You would appreciate the value of work-life balance and periodic vacations more than what you probably do now because everyone around you follows the key principles of work-life balance.

5. You contribute to building a progressive and vibrant UN system: Yes, it can be extremely frightening to break the norm and pursue a non-linear career path in the system. At the same time, as young and idealist staff members of the UN, we equally have a responsibility to take chances and shape a future UN that is truly dynamic, enterprising, and forward-looking.


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