In celebration of Women’s History month we are proud to “put the spotlight” on Ms. Asya Varbanova (Country Director at UN Women Turkey) in the second edition of our UN Emerging Leaders E-learning programme (UNEL-e) spotlight interview series. Asya is an alumna of the first UN Emerging Leaders Experience programme, which took place back in 2013. She spoke to Aida Ghazaryan (UNSSC Portfolio Learning Manager) regarding her learning experiences on the UNELE programme and her path after that.

Asya shares insights on how UNELE became a career altering learning experience that has helped her achieve her personal development goals, and embrace the UN’s leadership culture.

Aida: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, Asya? How did you get to where you are today and how did UNELE prepare you for your current role?

Asya: I started my journey with the UN 16 years ago, when I became an intern at the UNIFEM Sub-regional Office for Europe and Central Asia in Slovakia. Since then, I have continued working for UNIFEM, which in 2010 got merged into UN Women, and held positions in a number of countries in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and South East Asia. For the past two years, I have been the UN Women Country Director for Turkey, based in Ankara.

The UNELE course was an important stop in this journey. This one week in Turin back in 2013 was a remarkable one - packed with inspiration, learning, some “eye-opening” realizations, and connections with amazing people, some of which remain till today.

UNELE was a remarkable- packed with inspiration, learning, some “eye-opening” realizations.”

Aida: What  key accomplishments are you proud of since taking up the UNELE programme? What do you enjoy and find meaningful about leading in the UN today?

Asya: I have dedicated my career to advancing the rights of women and girls, and working in partnerships with many others – from within and from outside the UN system – to accelerate change towards achieving gender equality.  I emphasize partnerships because nurturing, sustaining and expanding them is the only way towards solving the complex and inter-linked challenges of our world, and creating a better one. I am proud that in the different positions I’ve had, I have managed to foster collaborative spaces, and to convene and mobilize different constituencies, to come together and push for change, under the leadership of women and girls from different groups. 

I am also proud of the teams I have been part of over the years in UNIFEM and UN Women – an incredible group of women and men – that I have greatly enjoyed working with, and I believe we have mutually supported and challenged each other to grow as individuals and teams, and to contribute to societal change. I am particularly glad that various results and initiatives I have worked on during these years, have remained, continued, and grown, and others have taken over and build them further with their own vision.

Aida: We know from the UN System Leadership Framework, that we are all called to lead and that leadership is intrinsically linked to specific behaviours and actions. What leadership behaviours have you employed since taking part in the UNELE?  How has this helped you lead regardless of your position?

Asya:   I think all of the behaviours and actions in the UN leadership framework are important. They are also mutually connected and reinforcing. But if I have to pick one, considering how fast the world is changing and what we have gone through in the past year with the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d emphasize agility, flexibility, adaptability to change and always re-examining our assumptions about “what works” and “what’s best”. Keeping an open mind, being reflective, co-creating with others, and not thinking in boxes has always been important, but especially in the past years, I think it’s become a matter of survival for the UN.

Also, in UN Women, we are much preoccupied with questions of power and privilege and we try to practice feminist transformational leadership – moving away from top-down approaches and practicing shared and inclusive leadership, uncovering and challenging visible and invisible power dynamics, and paying attention how what we do daily is influenced by power, politics and principles. This requires constant self-examination, and not to get complacent that we got it all right. It is really a journey, rather than a destination and a means towards the end, we should never forget the “why” of what we are doing – to achieve social transformation towards gender equality and human rights for all.

It is really a journey, rather than a destination and a means towards the end, we should never forget the “why” of what we are doing.”

Aida: How has UNELE helped you evolve and grow? What advice would you give to your younger self at the time when you were on the UNELE programme back in 2013?

Asya:   If the course was available before, my advice to myself would have been – do it even earlier! It was the first time I attended a course of this kind, which not only gave me a lot of knowledge and confidence, but helped create lasting connections with colleagues from other parts of the UN system. I wish I had kept more in touch with some of them. Through UNELE, I took a much-needed break from a busy routine and gave myself the time and space to reflect. The course gave me the structure, the tools, even the language, to think about the way I communicate, advocate, deal with challenges and stress, and what I need to change to grow. These are still useful today. 

The course gave me the structure, the tools, even the language, to think about the way I communicate, advocate, deal with challenges…and what I need to change to grow.”

Aida: What are the most valuable skills that you learned on the UNELE  programme and how have you  transferred them to the work that you do now? What is an important trait to have for the leadership work that you do?

Asya:   UNELE taught me not to be afraid to get out of my comfort zone and take risks – rip of the bandage and go for those things that are difficult or challenging. I learnt about the importance of leading by example, the need for continuous and structured self-reflection and for building support systems, including with peers and mentors who are invaluable at every stage of your personal and professional journey. Empathy is also very important – putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, to find a way to reach common ground.

UNELE taught me not to be afraid to get out of my comfort zone and take risks.”

Aida: What were the most memorable lessons from the UNELE?  How have you changed following the programme?  

Asya:   It was almost eight years ago, but I still remember the 360-degree assessment and the “peer-to-peer” dialogue I had on it with fellow participants (which whom I still keep in touch). I remember being challenged and re-examining some of my past behaviours and attitudes through the lenses of the leadership framework that was presented to us by seasoned speakers and trainers. I discovered that some of my dilemmas, fears and insecurities were shared by others, and that there are approaches and ‘tips and tricks’ for handling them.

Aida: As a colleague working at the country level in the agency, Asya, what value do you see in the UN Emerging Leaders programme and how do you think it will help shape UN leaders?

Asya:   In every journey, you need to take stops from time to time – to check your map, rest and recharge your batteries, get water and food. Stopping, reflecting, re-assessing, and getting “fuel” in terms of new knowledge, confidence, motivation and inspiration is what the UNELE programme did for me. I think such introspective “deep dive” stops need to happen on a regular basis in our career progressions, and we should build them in deliberately and with care. Organized courses such as the UNELE are a very good way to do that, and you can always go back and refresh some of the things you learnt and use the tools provided.

Stopping, reflecting, re-assessing, and getting “fuel” in terms of new knowledge, confidence, motivation and inspiration is what the UNELE programme did for me.”

Aida:  How do you stay connected to your fellows on the programme and to UNSSC? What value do you gain from this? 

Asya:   I keep contact with some of my fellow participants in the UNELE programme via LinkedIn, and I also get regular alumni updates from UNSSC from this and another very useful UNSSC programme I attended few years ago - Leadership, Women and the UN. It is very interesting to see what happens over the years with your fellows. These connections are precious and we don’t really have that many other opportunities to meet and exchange across UN agency and departmental lines and across countries.

UNSSC gives a unique opportunity to stay connected and feel part of a bigger UN community.”

Aida: Year 2020 was an unusual year. What have you learnt and what would you do differently, given the benefit of hindsight in the context of leadership? And just to wrap up the conversation, are there any important bites of wisdom that you'd like to leave for our emerging leaders? 

Asya:   The pandemic has disrupted our lives in unprecedented ways and led to tragic losses and huge challenges for people across the world. We are also facing the global climate crisis. These are the two biggest challenges of our generation and in both, women and girls are disproportionately negatively affected. In addressing neither, are they appropriately represented as decision-makers. For example, women hold 3.5% of positions in COVID-19 task forces around the globe. And yet, the power of women’s leadership has been on display – some of the most effective national responses to COVID-19 were led by women.

We have just started the 65th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) – the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment, which this year is focused on women’s leadership. It is our hope that member states at the CSW will make bold and strong commitments towards decreasing the gender gaps in representation in public, political and economic life, and in this way ensuring that the world we build after COVID-19 is more equitable, greener and more resilient.

So I’d like to address my last words to the UN women leaders of today and tomorrow. Take every chance to realize your vision, be bold, fearless, claim your space, speak up, disrupt the status quo, do not hold back and do not wait, reach out to others for support and give support to others. The UN, the world, needs you, and it needs you now!

I’d like to address my last words to the UN women leaders of today and tomorrow. Take every chance to realize your vision, be bold, fearless, claim your space, speak up, disrupt the status quo, do not hold back… reach out to others for support and give support to others. The UN, the world, needs you, and it needs you now!”

Aida: Thank you for kindly sharing the story of your career trajectory, I think it demonstrates boldness, fearlessness and leading by example. Significantly I have enjoyed hearing how UNELE has contributed to the development of your skillset, network, leadership and career path. Wishing you the best of luck, may you also have a sense of joy in the work that you do!

Stay tuned for upcoming UNEL-e Spotlight interviews.  If you are keen to step up your leadership in the UN, we will be happy to welcome you for our 2021 edition of the UN Emerging Leaders Experience blended programme (8 October-12 November 2021). Enroll today to join our vibrant community of alumni. For testimonials from the UNEL-e  alumni please watch the trailers and testimonials here or search for #UNELE2020, #UNELE2021, #UNELEeca  across social media. Please have a look at the Open house webinar recording, presentation and programme e-book.  For any inquiries on the upcoming editions and customized programmes for emerging leaders, please email leadershipandmanagement@unssc.org.



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