Interview with Joel Nielsen

Chief of Leadership Development at UNHCR

By Maya Plentz

Geneva, 08 June 2020 — Created in 1950, in the aftermath of World War II, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UN Refugee Agency — UNHCR) helped millions of Europeans who had lost their homes and livelihoods. The agency was supposed to close after three years, but in 2020 it still continues to take care of refugees that are displaced by extreme weather events, war, or civil conflict.

UNHCR today has a staff of more than 16,803, working in 134 countries, and as of 4 June 2020, budgetary requirements of USD 9.15 billion. In its 70 years of existence, it has helped over 50 million refugees to either integrate in host countries or return to their places of origin.

But what does it take to develop the professionals that deliver UNHCR aid on the field and run things smoothly at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland?

I interviewed Joel Nielsen, Chief of Leadership Development at UNHCR, where he conducts training for P level staff and above, “Our leadership training is mostly for the P4 — D2, at the moment, but also for other levels, including national staff. We are intentionally opening up and expanding our offer for lower grades and national staff.” The program aims to further develop UNHCR staff’s innovation mindset, among other competencies.

Innovation awareness is critical for managers to respond to the complex challenges in logistics, where new technologies play an increased role, and to support staff in their divisions, in order to create an enabling environment for staff to develop their own innovation skills.

Inclusion and diversity are also top of the mind, he tells me, with changes envisioned to make the hiring process more inclusive, perhaps by blind recruitment techniques. What are blind recruitment techniques? Basically, “eliminating key data from resumes”.

Much like requirements in hiring forms in the US, and in other EU countries where anti-discrimination labour legislation requires that the candidate remove, or make it only optional in the application form provided by HR, applicant’s data related to age, race, and sex.

Theses identifiers pose a myriad of corollary issues for international organizations regarding data privacy — and security, in light of regulatory frameworks that are part of the conversation on data sharing, as well.

Mr. Nielsen also mentioned the question of creating conditions for women managers to mentor and support the professional development of other women in the workplace. We spoke about how UNHCR is adapting its leadership programs to the virtual world, his career in the private sector as well as within the UN, and the Innovation Lab that he started a few years ago.

What about 360 degree performance reviews? Another area we discussed, among many others, so go ahead and watch the whole interview if you are interested in HR, professional development, and what the future of hiring looks like at international organizations.

Joel Nielsen, Chief, Leadership Development Programs, UNHCR

To know more:

The Art of Leadership in the United Nations: Framing What’s Blue

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