Where innovation meets learning and development
MissionBox speaks to Zsuzsanna Ujhelyi, organisational development manager at Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) — an international development organisation that aims to end poverty through volunteering — about the highlights and challenges of her role.
What does your job entail?
As the name suggests, my role aims to develop the organisation. Right now we’re going through a transformational shift to become more of a “people-first” organisation, so my job is to help VSO get there.
Our so-called People First strategy means that in everything we do — from communications to HR — we keep our beneficiaries front of mind. We have some principles that help us to work that way: things like being evidence-based, collaborating, being reflective. Last year my role was more about introducing these concepts to people, helping them understand how they already relate to their work and exploring how they could go deeper. This year it’s been more about ensuring our leaders are reporting on these issues and setting a good example.
Is this a typical role in large charities?
There are similar types of job in many charities. Sometimes it will be called 'learning and development', with a focus that's more transactional — running workshops on request.
In other organisations there’s an innovation team, which does similar things to what I do. My job is not to run the everyday things, but to work with others and help them to come up with innovative pieces of work. That could be helping them to see their goals in a different way, talk to others, or come up with their own solutions.
Who do you mainly work with?
My direct team is just two, myself and another organisational development manager based in Nairobi. But we work across nearly all areas of VSO. It’s quite fluid, which makes it interesting and quite strategic in some ways. And we work on all levels, so sometimes I’m supporting our directors and sometimes working with teams in a country office.
What are the challenges of working across continents?
Historically we are a UK-centric organisation — most of our funding has come from the UK and a lot of our decision makers are still here. But we’re moving away from that to become more context-specific. It’s not easy. My challenge is to help others to be more aware that just because it’s easier to work with the person sitting right next to you (in a country office in Asia or Africa, or here in the UK), this isn’t always the best way to do it.
Working with colleagues in country offices I can also see why there are some tensions between country offices and global teams. My job involves bridging some of those, for example by facilitating conversations or helping people from different functions come together.
How much of your job is face-to-face and how much is behind a desk?
On average, 20 or 30 percent of my time is spent running an actual workshop (which could be a webinar, so not just face-to-face). About 30-40 percent is having the conversations, preparing for workshops, often through online meetings. When I design any workshop, I never work on my own, and the design of any intervention is always tailored — we never just pick up something that exists already and deliver it.
The rest will be a mix of admin and other bits and pieces. For example, encouraging others to have a conversation even if I’m not part of it.
What kind of person does it take to do this job?
You’ve got to be quite open-minded to accept that you don't have all the answers. You’ve got to be curious, and able to listen and then take away whatever you’ve heard in conversations — sometimes high-level strategic ones, sometimes much less formal — and collate all of that into something that makes sense. Then you need to be able to pass that on to others, so strong communication skills as well.
And because you’re running workshops you’ve got to have those facilitation skills, and always be ready to adapt to the people you’re working with. Rather than 'I’m going to give you some training', it’s more like another exploration that we do together.
What has been the most useful experience in your career before VSO that’s led you here?
One is my international experience, including with AIESEC back in Hungary. We had to create stuff ourselves and no-one would follow up, so we had to really drive it ourselves. That’s what I need to do now — be really proactive, reach out to people, create my own area.
Another, perhaps, is volunteering in camps for seriously ill kids at Barretstown and Over The Wall. You really have to be open and accept that you just have no idea what it’s like to go through what they’re experiencing, so the best you can do is just be there and listen, and remember that they’ll know the answers most of the time.
This is what I do in my job as well. I expect and assume that people will have the answers for their own questions, it’s just how you help them get to those answers. It’s kind of a coaching method. I will often listen and just say, 'Ok, tell me your story', or 'What is challenging in your situation?'. What’s been helpful, what’s been positive, what are your strengths, and then how can we make something better that’s already there and build on it. That’s the approach, rather than saying, 'What you need is X, Y, Z'.
What’s the one thing you really like — and really dislike — about the role?
It might be the same thing! I like that it’s quite strategic and diverse and you’ve got to work across teams and levels. VSO aims to work in a very inclusive and engaging way — there is shared ownership over many areas and projects. That can become a huge challenge because accountability can become unclear. It’s really difficult sometimes to move things onwards, but once you get moving, the result is often better as ownership really is shared.
There’s probably no such thing as a typical day, so can you tell us what’s on your agenda for tomorrow?
I have a 7 a.m. online meeting, because I’m working with colleagues in Bangkok and Cambodia to prepare a workshop in Phnom Penh. This meeting is to get to the bottom of their learning needs, so: what is it that people already do and what do they need, how can we shift people along? And what’s the most effective use of our time when we’re there for a week?
Then I have to write up what I learned from an external event last week. I want to share it with my colleagues on Chatter (the internal social network).
Then I have a meeting with my line manager to look at some of the areas we work on as a team, making some decisions on who is the best person to go to a workshop in southern Africa. And there are other ongoing pieces of work. We’re starting a new leadership development project — last week I met an external coach who is going to work with us on a pro bono basis and I’ll need to write up some of the ideas from that meeting.
Where do you see your career taking you next?
I’m always asking myself, am I still learning in my job? I could see myself maybe moving back to the private sector at some point, though I think my heart and my passion is still in the nonprofit world. Within VSO I could see myself taking a step up — parts of my role are already on that strategic level, but my aspiration would be leading an organisational development team and being more involved in decision-making.