"Raise your gaze and find your North Star!"
Interview with Francesco Pisano, Director of the UN Library & Archives Geneva
In our editorial committee, we felt that the interview series about inspiring women leaders was ready to graduate into a “gender champions” series, to also include some male perspectives. Francesco Pisano has been Director of the UN Library & Archives Geneva, at the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), since 2016. He has more than 30 years of international experience, including more than 25 in the UN system, where he has worked on humanitarian issues, policy development, research and training. In addition to UNOG, his positions also included OCHA (UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and UNITAR (UN Institute for Training and Research), where he was responsible for UNOSAT (the Operational Satellite Applications Program), among others. He spoke to VDBIO about gender as a topic in his work, as a factor in his career and has some advice about life planning to share with today's middle and younger generations. The interview was held in English.
Let’s talk about gender. It is a cross-cutting issue in the 2030 Agenda. What role does it play in your work?
It’s very important that it’s a cross-cutting issue in the Agenda 2030. But when you look at it – the way I see it – there is a good side and a bad side. The bad side is that we are still stuck talking about gender so much. Ideally, we should be striving for a situation in which gender is not an issue. It can be anything you want, but not an issue, and we treat it like an issue, so I think that is a bad thing. The good side is that the fact that the discussion is there, is a reminder for leaders, managers and employees that this is an issue we must work on. In this the international civil servants are ahead of the pack, compared to many other industries, and especially the private sector.
What does gender parity mean to me daily? I see it as a positive thing, the strife to bring gender balance is nothing but the struggle to get the most value out of women who work in an organization. Research has proven time and again that the right gender mix is an asset for an organization and that group work improves with gender diversity. Every time I put up a new project or initiative, I pay absolute intentional attention that there is gender-balance. I have been heard saying that 80:20 is the new 50:50. So far, we have had a male dominated organizational world, not only at the UN, and when you look at the track record and all the externalities we have produced, there is nothing to prove that men do better than women, quite to the contrary. So, I think we should go 80:20 for a couple of centuries to see what happens.
Now let’s talk about you. Do you remember what you wanted to become when you were little, and did you realize your dreams?
When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer or a journalist, someone who would write things after assessing facts and uncovering the truth. I think of life as made up of days, not years, so I believe one’s dreams are realized daily. In my professional career it has always been a question of putting myself in the right direction rather than dreaming of being an astronaut or a pilot, and my direction was being interested in things that were beyond my small world. And this is how I became interested in international relations. I understood early in my life that the international sphere affects all the rest and not the other way around. I was drawn to international studies and then to working in international relations.
How then did you go about crafting your career and finding the place that was a good fit for you?
I think it’s rather the place that finds you, if you put yourself out there. There is no such thing as the absolute perfect place, but there can be a perfect place in each phase of your professional growth. And I am making the distinction between professional growth and career growth. In the past, the term career had a completely different meaning. It was linked to one entity, one industry, one firm, one Ministry, one international organization. This has changed and I am adamant that today, we should look at professional growth rather than career. Growth is a coherent path that builds you as a professional in a certain domain, whether you are in an NGO, the UN or a national Ministry. I never planned the next move. I always let the place find me, in a way. I became interested in certain things, that lead to something else. In the end, there is a coherence in what I’ve done professionally. It is more my professional experience that crafted me than the opposite.
My next question would have been about roadblocks on your journey. Did you encounter roadblocks? Or is that a concept more for someone trying to get somewhere in particular?
I don’t think in terms of roadblocks, because I see professional growth more like a river in which sometimes, we swim to influence our direction and some other times we go with the flow. I think that a person who is intent only on building a career, reaching a certain position and has a certain type of image of herself or himself as a professional would inevitably see many things as obstacles rather than growth opportunities. This has a lot to do with what psychologists call “ego”. I work with my professional persona more than I do with my ego. If you focus more on your persona, for example by being intentionally true to yourself, you are less often prey of your ego. The more your ego is present, the more you will experience road blocks. I think that the trick is to be aware of your ego and dial it up or down according to the situation.
Of course, you can have bad surprises in your life. This never happened to me, so I was lucky. I think luck is a fat one third of professional success, to say the least. As per the ups and downs, the shortest contract I had with the UN as a temporary staff was two working weeks which is 10 working days. It was very telling as an experience, but I didn’t find it outrageous. I wanted to continue contributing to international affairs, so I took that contract. Whatever you are experiencing is a phase and will soon be the past. You just want to accumulate a past that is conducive to building your professional persona.
Do you think gender played a role in your career? Might your career have been different had you been a woman?
Remember, I am over 50, so when I started working, the discussion around gender was different. But when I joined the UN, I realized that gender and gender parity were important parts of the equation. Earlier, I had worked for a couple of years in the private sector, in a multinational firm, actually bigger than the UN, that in hindsight was absolutely machist. I see it now, but I wouldn’t see it then. So, yes, my career would have been different had I been a woman, especially in the beginning. When I started working, it was darker an age for gender.
Today, I can still see a big difference between us and the private sector. In the UN, we almost have gender balance. In the Library that I lead, we have balance, and at the senior level we have more women than men. As I said before, that’s useful and we ought to try other models than the male dominated model that permeates everything we do in terms of management and leadership. I have seen women emulating male traits to be seen as leaders. Leadership has commonly been associated with male traits, but this has begun to change.
Did you have mentors and role models that have influenced you on your path?
I haven’t had many mentors because I moved a lot from job to job and mentoring requires a reasonable span of time to develop. For me, the only way to achieve professional growth is to devote yourself to different jobs and let jobs shape you. I have had role models, more from outside the UN rather than within, men and women who I admired for their foresight, their wisdom and ability to understand how things would develop in time.
My top role model from within the UN is Kofi Annan. I was impressed by his thoughts already before meeting him in person and when that happened there was a complete match between the man standing before me and what I had imagined. The way he apprehended the world and our work was a perfect match with my ideas, so for me he was the greatest inspiration and he still is today. As you can see, I keep his photo in my office and I consider him a sort of spiritual guide for international civil servants, a bit like Dag Hammarskjöld who had this civil courage, this inner integrity that I admire a lot.
How did you go about work-life balance and combining work life with the life outside work? Can you give any advice?
This is another thing that has changed a lot during my professional life. When I began working, both men and women experienced more pressure to deliver in the workplace, no matter what. There was no mercy whether you were a young mom or a single parent like I happen to be. This has changed a lot and, here again, the UN is ahead of the pack.
Today’s challenge for work-life balance is that, with technology, work follows you everywhere. In the last 30 years, we have gone from using machines to do work faster, to being used by machines. Today a normal professional would tend to take the pace of machines. It’s your email inbox that dictates your day, it’s your outlook diary that dictates the way you use your time. My first advice is to be aware of that and to counter it as much as you can. The second, is to create spaces where you are sure to switch off. People who are married or in a couple, young people who both work, should really sit down and talk rationally about how they want to take on these challenges together. People realize themselves mainly at work, when they recognize that it would be better to have a better balance, it is generally too late. My advice is to talk it out earlier on.
Another advice is that, in your professional life, everything is a phase. If you take long-term decisions just to react to the phase you are going through at the present moment, your choices will probably turn out to be suboptimal later on. Always let yourself be guided by what may come in the next phase and, possibly, in the phase after the next.
Can you give an example?
For example, I have met colleagues who would choose or reject their next professional move based on their current family situation only to find themselves in a completely different situation just two years later. They had made fundamental choices based only on circumstantial data, but their decision affected their professional growth for a long time. Conversely, I have seen good examples of people focusing on what they wanted to do and taking the challenge of new experiences head on. It’s challenge that keeps you going. These people had comparatively more success.
Speaking about career decisions across continents - how did you go about planning mobility into your career?
When I started with the UN, there was no mobility as such. I came from a job that was much more mobile than what I found at the UN. Then I worked at OCHA which is a humanitarian organization. There you get thrown around the world, basically every week and I did that for ten years. So, my mobility may have been different because I experienced it before the current mobility model and in the humanitarian sector, which is very peculiar. Based on what I see now in the Secretariat, I think that mobility should be embraced in the early part of the career, when it is easier for someone to accept positions in different countries. Those with more experience in various duty stations will be rewarded by higher responsibilities because they have a better overview of how the UN operates in different scenarios. When they arrive to the top, they have a bird’s eye view of the organization. Even if staff decide to move out of the UN and into the private sector, for example, they would find out that the experience of moving around and taking up jobs in Africa, Asia and the Americas would be considered as outstanding asset.
Looking at the changing world of work, can you give an advice to our mid-career and younger women and men on how to go about their careers and life planning?
The future has never been as unpredictable as in our times. For the past few centuries it was quite predictable – we would travel faster, more often, we would have more money and better health. In the next 15 years there will be more changes than in the past few decades. Things are accelerating. There is a lot of confusion just because things are happening very fast and we are observing everything with excessive granularity. We constantly fall prey of the latest technology and if it’s not “new” technology, it’s almost as if it’s less of a technology. What you want to do in a situation like this is to raise your gaze and find your North Star, a point of reference above the horizon. In times of uncertainty, you want to look further away from the present. When the context is unpredictable, I keep looking at my North Star, hoping that it’s the right direction for me and that gives me a sense of progress and growth because I navigate towards that star. That is something I can share as good advice.
Any final message to our members?
I have two final messages – one is that in our jobs as international civil servants I believe we have a duty of remaining positive. There is a lot of negativity around, carried by fear. Fear is normal in humans, we survived because we fear, but our job as international civil servants is to conceive and believe in a world that is intrinsically better – not only for humans but also for the other species.
My second message is addressed to women – I think the time of women is coming soon. I know there are many who say the time is now, but if the time was now, we would all get paid the same and we would have the same opportunities. This is far from being true, but I think women will soon have a huge responsibility to lead, because men tried and didn’t succeed, if I want to be polite. The turn of women is coming, and they will have to show what they are capable of.
Interview: Dr. Viviane Brunne, President, VDBIO
(published on March 8th 2020)