Nº 3 2013 > ITU women pioneers
Interview with Julia Watt
Chief of Human Resources Management Department, ITU
Julia Watt joined ITU in September 2010 as Chief of Human Resources Management. Before that, she was Chief of Emergency Preparedness and Response, and then Chief of Recruitment and Postings in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Prior to her Geneva postings, Ms Watt held programme management and human resources positions in the field — including in Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia and Senegal — as well as undertaking field missions, principally in Africa. She started her 22-year career in the United Nations system as a young professional officer in Dakar, Senegal, with the United Nations Development Programme. Ms Watt holds a Master of Arts in Political Sciences and Environment Studies, a Bachelor of Education, and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and French from the University of Toronto, Canada. She is a national of both Canada and Senegal, speaks English, French and Russian, and is married with three children.
What sparked your interest in human resources management?
Julia Watt: I started out working mostly on health-related projects, HIV and maternal mortality, things like that. Then I moved into refugee programme officer work. But throughout the first five to ten years of my career, I was always interested in the staffing aspects. What sparked this interest was the impact that personnel administration was having on me and my work — and on my family development, because in the process I got married and had children. So I could see the way that human resources management was making a difference in my life as a staff member and as a person.
I also felt that I had the right personality for it. People would come to me spontaneously, even though I wasn’t in human resources at the time, and ask me: How do I apply for this? How do I get home leave? I was able to share my experiences with them. That was very gratifying, and it reinforced my interest in human resources management.
Then there were two human resources gurus, who were colleagues of mine in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees — Alejandro Henning and Duncan Barclay. I admired and looked up to them, and wanted to be like them. I was absolutely thrilled when I got the opportunity to work with them. They are both retired now but are still consulting, and they have been guiding lights in my human resources quest. They really inspired me a lot.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job, especially in the male-dominated field of technology?
JW: Human resources work doesn’t change, whether it is for men or women — it involves the same application of the rules and how that affects staff. The most challenging part is finding a balance between what works best for the staff member, what works best at the same time for the organization, and what works best for management — taking that triangle and bringing the corners together somehow in a win-win situation. Throughout that, there’s managing expectations, managing personalities, managing conflicts. It is all extremely challenging — and satisfying when you find the right approach and a solution.
How did you juggle family life and a career?
JW: In my mind, it was never an option to quit working to raise my family. Both my mother and my father worked. Everybody in our family worked. I grew up with that and that was the way things were. We didn’t take time off, except for statutory maternity leave. You just organize yourself accordingly. You put in place the necessary mechanisms — the nannies, the crèche, the family, the extended family. My husband is also with the United Nations, so that added a degree of difficulty because we were not posted in the same locations. He was in Guinea while I was in Côte d’Ivoire. Then he was in Côte d’Ivoire while I was in Dakar. He stayed in Côte d’Ivoire when I came to Geneva, and then he joined me in Geneva. We had to juggle visits, our relationship and parenting. But that was our conscious choice. It was not a compromise or something we ever regretted. We knew how it was going to be, and we managed it. We didn’t have a traditional family like my parents, who have lived together for the past 52 years without spending any time apart. It certainly is nicer now that my husband is here in Geneva, and for the past 8 years, since 2005, we have lived a more or less traditional life. But that’s 8 out of 19 years. So it is okay, it works.
Which was your favourite posting?
JW: All of my postings have been great, but if I really have to choose my favourite, I would have to say Côte d’Ivoire. It was very interesting for me because it was my first human resources regional position, covering all of West and Central Africa. I headed a fantastic team in a brand new decentralized regional directorate. We had great support from headquarters, but we were out in the field and we had the latitude to be innovative. So, with the authority of headquarters and regional decentralized control, we had the best of both worlds. The human resources work in itself was my first autonomous exposure, and it was just great and I really thoroughly enjoyed it.
And then the other aspect — I was there from 2000 to 2003 — we had maybe nine or ten attempted coup d’états, and before that we had elections. We had all kinds of political excitement — security, politics, refugees, militias, some ugly stuff. I am a political scientist by training, so for me watching that unfold was like watching a PhD dissertation write itself on the streets. It was a phenomenally interesting place and time.
Keeping my family safe and happy was an additional challenge — I had three children under the age of 7, and my youngest was just one and a half years old then. But we had the best three years there, in terms of family life and in terms of their schools, activities and friends. My son and daughter are still friends with kids they were at primary school with at the time.
How did you deal with it as a woman, and did you feel insecure?
JW: It didn’t occur to me that there was a way to deal with it as a woman or a man. My husband wasn’t there — he was in Guinea at the time — so I kind of ran the show. That was good. I didn’t live an ostentatious expatriate lifestyle. My husband is from West Africa, so I felt very much at home. And I had a very good support network of friends, colleagues and household staff. My nanny from there is still with me 13 years later.
How has your previous experience prepared you for your work here at ITU?
JW: Everything that I have done in my life has prepared me. I have learnt a lot as I progressed through the various responsible jobs that I have had. Competing for my job at ITU, I was able to show that I could offer something that the Union was looking for — and I am confident that I have done so. And this is preparing me for whatever comes next in my life. It is really just a journey — a process.
How do you to maintain the confidence of ITU staff while implementing policies that they may perceive as harsh?
JW: You have to manage expectations. You have to be very clear — and explain again and again and again. You have to be extremely patient, tactful and calm. You have to speak the truth from the beginning — if you don’t, people lose trust and your job becomes impossible. You have to have compassion and empathy — yet you still have to balance the needs of the organization, because after all that’s what we are all here for. We are here in our own personal capacity, but we are working for an organization. That’s the common driver — the common goal — for everyone.
What political scientist or philosopher has most influenced your way of seeing the world?
JW: The philosopher John Locke, who wrote “The mind is furnished with ideas by experience alone”. That really rings true for me. I believe that our experience defines us, and that we in turn shape our experiences. This encourages me to continue learning and seeking out new experiences in order to shape new ideas. Because running out of ideas and innovation would be very sad indeed.
What advice would you give to a young woman starting out today to build a career similar to your own?
JW: I would say study, study and study. Today this is even more important than yesterday. Professional certification is essential, and a Master’s degree is an absolute minimum. So any young woman that I come across, any interns that I talk to, any new recruits, if I see that they don’t have a Master’s degree, I tell them to go back to school and get one. Work a little bit, put money aside and go and get it, or do it online by correspondence, but somehow do it.
Perseverance is extremely important — I must have applied for a thousand jobs. You can’t let yourself be defeated by a negative response or a thousand negative responses. You have to keep going. What else are you going to do? I would say that there is no such thing as failure in my mind. Failure only happens when you quit trying. Get lots of advice — talk to lots of people. Go to people who have succeeded, and see how they did it. Learn from the steps they took, because everyone has a different journey. My daughter is going to university next year, and I tell her to talk to everyone, her teachers, her colleagues. Everyone has something to contribute, and then you take the best from all of that and build your own path.
But don’t dwell too much on the woman stuff. I would give the same advice to young men as to young women. I think women face a disadvantage to some extent, but I refuse to accept it. The more we celebrate the differences and refuse to accept the disadvantages, the more we are strengthened and can move forward with our capacities. Everybody has different capacities, and they are not gender-based as far as I am concerned.
Any final thoughts on your life in general?
JW: I have had a really great time so far, and I have been lucky in many ways. I am looking forward to the next 100 years!