Working in emergency or security contexts is no small feat, especially for our colleagues at the United Nations Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS), one of the vital agencies entrusted with strengthening and unifying the United Nations security management System. UNDSS manages a network of security advisers, analysts, officers and coordinators in more than 100 countries in support of around 180,000 United Nations personnel, 400,000 dependents and 4,500 United Nations premises worldwide.

The agency touts over 10,000 employees globally, and provides strategic management, operational guidance and overall technical supervision of the Security and Safety Services located in New York, offices away from Headquarters, regional commissions, and international tribunals.

Aida Ghazaryan (UNSSC Learning Portfolio Manager) recently sat down with Lihong Shen (Field Security Coordination Officer for the Department of Safety and Security in Addis Ababa), to discuss her learning experience, and leadership development journey on the UNEL-e 2021 spring edition- the largest and most diverse since 2013. 

Aida: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career journey in the UN, Lihong.  

Lihong: I joined the UNDSS in July 2019 as Field Security Coordination Officer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I bring twelve-years of management experience in six post conflict field missions within the Security Management System. Over the years, I’ve assumed an array of important roles in the United Nations Security Management System (UNSMS). They include: Staff Officer of the Chief Security Advisor(CASA) office of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) in Tunis and Libya, Head of the Security Operation Centre of the United Nations Mission In South Sudan (UNMISS) in Juba, South Sudan; Chief Security Officer of the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in Western Sahara; Chief Security Planning and training of United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in Naqoura, Lebanon; Head of Security Training and Development of United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) in Khartoum, Sudan; Field Security Coordination Officer in United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) Sector V in Ed Damazin, Sudan. I brought my son to every UN family duty station so he can see the world. Before the UN, I served as a senior police officer for over 15 years in two Chinese major cities— Harbin and Guangzhou.

“12-years of management experience in six post conflict field missions within the Security Management System

Aida:  You once said that “every detail is important and no achievement is ever too small”. Which aspect of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning did you find most interesting, and how has this contributed to your leadership development milestones?

Lihong: Actually, I was very interested in all the aspects of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning programme. This includes, but is not limited to the way you hosted the online programme, the content, reflective learning, expert webinars, break out rooms with different participants, peer-to-peer exchange, leadership behaviours practice, coaching, 360-degree assessment, and learning methods.

After completing the UNEL-e programme,  ECA Publications and the Conference Management Services (PCMS) invited me to moderate the 3rd UN Chinese Language Day, which the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and the Chinese Mission to the African Union co-hosted on 4 May, 2021. I was very impressed by the way that you hosted the entire UNEL-e online programme, and I wished I could be like you, Aida, when I was moderating the Chinese Language Day. You spoke clearly, and concisely with an elegant and friendly smile all the time. You were so polite and humorous. All the participants and the instructors enjoyed the atmosphere that you created. I applied what I got out of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning in this 3rd online Chinese Language Day celebration event. During the online event, when it was my turn to appreciate the Ambassador’s speech, and introduce the next speaker in the program, suddenly my throat was dry and my voice was hoarse. I could hardly speak! By learning from you and the “Managing Emotion” e-learning module, I kept calm, put a smile on my face, and quickly pressed my clavicle to allow my voice out. This helped me to calm down quickly and introduce the next VIP guest to the audience. The event was conducted very successfully. I received a lot of positive feedback from both the PCMS’ colleagues and the Chinese Mission to the AU. They all commended me as the best moderator for all the Chinese Language Days held in Ethiopia.

By applying the collaborative and communication skills that I learnt on the UNEL-e programme, I have been able to coordinate with internal and external counterparts. I have also successfully facilitated the delivery of a six-batch donation of COVID-19 preventative materials from Chinese colleagues, and Chinese diplomatic missions to United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) in Ethiopia.

 “By applying the collaborative and communication skills that I learnt on the UNEL-e programme, I have been able to coordinate with internal and external counterparts. I have also successfully facilitated the delivery of a six batch of donation of COVID-19 preventative materials”

Aida: You describe yourself as someone who has been “learning throughout her life”. How has your learning on the UNEL-e helped you become a better leader, and how is this reflected in your day to day work? Please elaborate on any new leadership behaviours or practices that you learnt on the programme.

Lihong: Having worked in seven UN field security managerial positions for 13 years, I found it necessary to sharpen my leadership skills to better cope with the new challenges that UNSMS faces globally. The UNEL-e programme provided comprehensive and up-to-date, systematic content, and it helped me to identify certain areas that I either never noticed or still needed to improve.

Furthermore, the UNEL-e somehow changed my mindset. I learnt some new leadership behaviours and practices, like managing your defensiveness, rethinking and understanding your supervisor, managing up, communication skills, and managing emotions. All these new behaviours/practices helped me to build a better rapport and working relationship with my supervisors, direct reports, peers and external counterparts within and outside UN. I now work happily in a more harmonious environment than ever before in my UN career.

Lastly, I must add, this programme has contributed a great deal to my recent achievements. In addition to facilitating a six-batch donation of COVID-19 preventative materials to UNECA, and moderating the 3rd UN Chinese Language Day in Ethiopia, I also assisted the recent vaccination to all thirty-seven UN Agencies Funds and Programmes and International Non-Governmental Organizations in Ethiopia. In May and June this year, I participated in a tabletop exercise hosted by the Division of Headquarters Security and Safety Services (DHSSS), and the Business Continuity Tabletop Exercise of the UN in Ethiopia. What I learnt from the UNEL-e programme, particularly the communication skills for public speaking, has enabled me take on the role of being a spokesperson at the group sessions of these initiatives. 

“The UNEL-e provided comprehensive and up-to-date, systematic content and it helped me to identify certain areas that I either never noticed or still needed to improve.”

Aida: The UN System Leadership Framework calls for us to be agents of change irrespective of our level, duty station and function. How has the UNEL-e helped you change your mindset, advance your leadership skills and other competencies? Please share experiences from your organizational context.

Lihong: My police and security background both in China and the UN has instilled in me the discipline to respect hierarchy and obey orders. I had always thought my behaviour should match my position and my level. That meant that I needed to always think about my position before speaking out. If I was the Chief Security Officer, then I spoke on behalf of the team. If I was a supervisor of a security unit then I only spoke on behalf of that unit. After the UNEL-e programme, I now realize the importance of thinking outside the box, and being an agent of change irrespective of my level, duty station and function. I would always wait for my supervisor to recognize and appreciate my performance. I never considered that my supervisor also needed to be recognized and appreciated. Never had I thought about the supervisor’s expectations when he or she gave me an assignment.

On one occasion after the regular virtual Security Management Team meeting, I went to my supervisor, the Chief Security Advisor, and told him that I really liked his presentation particularly how well he elaborated on ideas, and how polite and firm he was. I told him that his presentation would be very helpful for my security preparedness briefing for the Ethiopian President's election in the coming United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) townhall meeting. It was the first time I had appreciated my supervisor in my UN career. To my surprise, he immediately forwarded his presentation to me so that I could use it as a reference for my presentation during the UNDP townhall meeting. This made me realize the power of appreciation, and a key point I took during the UNEL-e programme- it is important to understand your supervisor and manage up. I just used one of the tactical skills I learnt on the programme, and received a completely different result. 

It also made me realize that I had focused too much on assignments and work challenges but far less on communication with my team. At times, I overlooked the importance of appreciating the efforts of my supervisor, direct reports and peers. So, I decided to apply the technique of leading through communication in my workplace. I listened carefully to understand. I am now keen to know more about my colleagues, details about their families, their interests and social life. By doing this I have built a good rapport with supervisors, direct reports, peers and the external counterparts.

 “I now realize the importance of thinking outside the box, and being an agent of change irrespective of my level, duty station and function.”

Aida: Over the last two decades, women have made important strides towards inclusion, but gender equality remains a challenge, particularly for women leaders in the peace and security field. Given your immense experience in the peacekeeping and security sectors, what are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in leadership? How has this training changed your perspective and helped to grow as a woman leader?

Lihong: As a woman who has held various security managerial positions in six peacekeeping duty stations, I have encountered some challenges of bias.  People often think that security is not for women, particularly at the beginning of every reassignment.  I have sometimes found it difficult to get support from my direct reports, most of whom were more senior to me. I have overcome this by putting my best foot forward, focussing on supporting my direct reports and delivering exceptional work. UNEL-e has provided me with new competencies that will stand me in good stead.

After completing the UNEL-e training, I learnt how to listen to understand, how to manage up, and how to lead through communication. I started to change my perspective and think like a UN leader. As part of the programme, I got access to two sessions with a very good coach Ms. Jill Saville.She advised that I search for a book titled, “How Women Rise”, this book elaborates on twelve habits that keep women from reaching their goals. The book made me realize that I liked to please everyone, that I was reluctant to claim my achievements, that I expected others to spontaneously notice and reward my contributions, and that I didn’t make much effort to build connections and leverage relationships. So, I started to change these “bad” habits in my daily work.

 “I started to change my perspective and think like a UN leader.”

Aida: What were the most memorable and relevant learnings from the UNEL-e programme? How do you plan to apply them to your work?

Lihong: Listen to understand. I have always had a challenge when it comes to effective communication. People who engage with me say that I tend to speak more than I listen. I failed to change this, despite many efforts and training initiatives. After the UNEL-e programme, I applied the "listen to understand" principle in my work. It has helped me to improve my communication and interpersonal skills.

 “I applied the "listen to understand" principle in my work. It has helped me to improve my communication and interpersonal skills.”

Aida: After the programme you stated that “All UN staff with supervisory or managerial functions, should (regardless of their posts' grade and age), complete this important UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning programme”. As a seasoned UN mid-level manager with extensive experience in the most challenging humanitarian contexts of emergency operations, why would you recommend this training programme to other emerging leaders?

Lihong: I paid a hefty 3000 US dollars to attend the UNEL-e programme, because I could not wait for the long process which involves being nominated for the training.

I found this programme to be worth much more than what I paid. I would recommend the programme for all the reasons listed in my responses to you. Over and above this I found the material very interesting. The way it was delivered helped me understand how to apply it to my day-to-day work.

I sincerely believe that the supervisors/managers at FS5, FS6, P3 level working in the global integrated security workforce (irrespective of their posts’ grade and age) can benefit from this important training. The programme has the potential to eventually benefit the entire organization and staff at all levels.

 “I found this programme worth much more than what I paid.”

Aida: Thank you for sharing your learning trajectory on a leadership journey that still continues. It demonstrates your motivation to improve your leadership skills and, knowledge. I have enjoyed hearing how UNEL-e has created an optimal and successful learning experience for you, one that you could apply immediately. Wishing you the best of luck as you contribute to the good cause of peace and security!

We hope Lihong’s learning experience on the UNEL-e 2021 edition inspires other emerging leaders, especially those working in emergency or security contexts.

Stay tuned for upcoming UNEL-e Spotlight interviews from UN organizations and Alumni that benefited from the UNEL-e programme. If you are keen to step up your leadership in the UN, and align your leadership behaviours to the principled and visionary leadership in the UN, we are happy to welcome you to our 2021 edition of the UN Emerging Leaders e-Learning (6 October-12 November 2021). For testimonials from  UNEL-e alumni please watch the trailers and testimonials here or search for #UNELE2020, #UNELE2021, #UNELEeca across social media.

You are welcome to 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.



The opinions expressed in our blog posts are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the opinions or views of UNSSC, the United Nations or its members.