Nathalie Ndongo-Seh: How I built my career in the United Nations (UNOAU)

Do you have any mentors?

 

Yes, I do but they may not know that I consider them as mentors. Indeed, with mentorship comes a set of obligations and responsibilities (including feeling compelled to always be a role model) that can be overwhelming.

I regularly talk to them, listen carefully to their work and life experiences, and try to make the best of these exceptional moments, including while drawing a few lessons learned, and getting the strength, wisdom, and motivation necessary to carry on in the right direction.

Who influenced you the most in your professional life?

 

My father certainly influenced me a lot with his strong interest in my professional life (be it as a young lawyer or as a UN civil servant) and his strong belief that I can do, and I can obtain whatever I set my mind to.

My children also significantly influence my professional life: I am their hero; they view me as a type of Wonder Woman or Rambo woman. I try to live up to their expectations and lead by example, so that they may follow the right path in their academic studies, as well as their personal and professional lives.

Finally, I learn a lot from my mentors about leadership (including the empowerment of others, resilience, integrity at the workplace, and how to make and stand by difficult/unpopular but fully justified decisions).

I have also learned about the history of crisis and conflicts on my continent, its movements of independence and their leaders, Pan-Africanism, multilateralism, etc. The latter means a lot to me, particularly the fields of peace and security, institution-building, sustainable development, governance, the rule-of-law and transitional justice.

What have you learned in your career about women in leadership? Any advice for women who aspire to leadership positions?

 

I have learned that women will always be held to higher standards than men and will need to constantly prove themselves; be informed (or better still, be knowledgeable in their area of expertise), be well-prepared, show resilience, focus and strength in all circumstances; inspire and motivate others; be genuine and align their actions with their words. Since there is no one type of leadership.

I also believe that, when necessary, there is nothing wrong in showing the caring and compassionate nature of a mother or a sister. As Mandela said, “A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination.

I recently attended a UN senior leadership course on leadership, and I wish to use this quote from Douglas MacArthur, which applies to men and women leaders alike and has been a great source of inspiration to me.

“A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent.”

Women will always be held to higher standards than men and will need to constantly prove themselves Click To Tweet

Have you in the past undertaken any measures to support women in the professional workplace? If not, do you have any plans to and what would they be?

 

I have always supported male and female colleagues at my workplace. Regarding women, that support has taken the form of flexible hours being granted to those who have young children or family issues to attend to.

We have an open door policy and the setting up of an environment in which issues such as sexual harassment or abuse at the workplace can be discussed in confidence and with no fear of retaliation, guidance and advice on possible career paths, tips and confidence-building ahead of interviews with other entities and recommendations to others, where feasible, for short-term assignments that could enhance their knowledge, exposure and career.

I fully support the UN Secretary-General’s gender parity policy and enforce it at my workplace where, through concerted efforts, the representation of females at the senior level has significantly and very visibly increased. However, this is work in progress at all levels.

Do you have any advice for fresh graduates – where should they start? Which courses of study and what kind of professional experiences should they pursue?

 

I believe that, ideally, one should be passionate about something in life and thus, be interested in learning, studying or researching about that passion that may subsequently become a career.

I would advise young people/fresh graduates to first think about what they are passionate about. This will, in a way, help in setting the first goal of what course of study to pursue.

Additionally, in this global world, one should strive to learn from other cultures, others’ positive experiences and this can be achieved through the smart use of internet/social media, travel, student exchanges, internships, volunteerism, and short-term assignments, which could shape the professional goals and ambitions of fresh graduates.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment, both personal and professional?

 

I would say that the mere fact that I am privileged to enjoy the international career that I dreamt of and which continues to meet my aspirations.

In addition to remaining a source of both motivation and excitement is my biggest personal and professional accomplishment.

If you weren’t the UNAOU chief of staff, what other career paths would you have taken?

 

I would be in court or preparing for a court hearing.

How do you stay motivated?

 

I pray, listen to motivational speakers, I talk to my family and very close friends, and I spend time with my children.

Other times, I sleep, I go to the gym, I like spas, I read, I listen to music and watch TV, and I spend lots of time over the phone and on WhatsApp.

I have also started doing some research in order to resume and complete my Ph.D.

What do you think will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?

 

Women will enjoy a wealth of opportunities, possibly more than my generation was afforded. They will (rightfully so) want it all and will need to make tough decisions between home/work, and the how/where/with/who/when.

Also, they will navigate in a global and culturally diverse environment, one in which the perceived roles of women in society will constantly evolve and where identity may be an issue.


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