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RUDOLF MESSINGER

Rudolf’s journey into the world of Human Resources (HR) is a testament to the unexpected paths life can take us on. Initially driven by a childhood dream to aid disadvantaged people worldwide, Rudolf’s aspirations seemed to align more with his father’s legal career. Following his father’s footsteps, Rudolf pursued law at Vienna and Salzburg University, culminating in a PhD. However, it was during his tenure at UNRWA’s legal department that a collaboration with the HR department ignited a newfound passion.


RUDOLF, TELL US ABOUT YOUR EARLY LIFE AND HOW YOU FOUND THE PATH TO A CAREER IN HR?  

When I was young, it was always my dream to help disadvantaged people around the world. But on graduating from high school, there was not much in the way of career advice that was even remotely close to my aspirations. Back then, my father was a n accomplished lawyer and so I decided to go into law and I went on to Vienna and Salzburg University to study and graduated with a PhD. Then, when I finally entered the world of work, it was at UNRWA, in the legal department. One day, I was asked to do a project – together with the HR department – and, in the course of my collaboration, I really felt that HR had a magnetic attraction to me. In fact, I was so absorbed that my colleagues in the legal department started complaining that I was never at my desk! It was exhilarating and I was sure that I had found my calling, because in contrast to the legal work, this was dynamic, creative and required a compassionate, caring and humane mindset. I was much more interested and focused than usual and time was flying when I went to HR, not knowing that those were clear signs of innate talents. This then was a real dilemma, because after all the time and effort I had put into my PhD, I was now determined to change track to pursue a career in HR. But there was no going back, as my bosses gave me the greenlight to move to the HR department for an 18-month assignment. During this time, I studied all accessible HR literature and when an opportunity to go to Syria as the Deputy HR Head turned up, I volunteered for it. Of course, my family was surprised and somewhat concerned, but this was my childhood dream come true and nothing was going to hold me back. I’ve often thought about why this was always a big ambition of mine and I think it boils down to the fact that I’ve always considered myself primarily a world citizen, attracted equally to all cultures and humans of our planet.



WHAT ARE YOUR MEMORIES OF YOUR FIRST EXPERIENCES ON THE GROUND IN SYRIA?  

I must say that what I experienced exceeded my expectations in a very positive way. I was working in a complex environment, helping to build the culture of an international organisation and that really energised me. I was often on field missions – visiting refugee camps, schools and health facilities – and interacting with refugees that had in some cases lost everything. The stress and the humanity was palpable, but my overriding memories are that I felt incredibly grateful to be with an organisation that was supporting people in a desperate state and great need, rather than watching events on TV from the safety of my home. It was demanding and consuming, but also compelling and I knew I had made the right decision and that this was my chosen vocation. Suddenly, the law studies looked nothing more than a steppingstone to a life’s ambition.



OUR READERS - YOUR PEERS - WILL MOSTLY BE MORE FAMILIAR WITH SANITISED HUMAN MANAGEMENT SCENARIOS. HOW DO YOU GAIN A GRIP IN SUCH DANGEROUS AND CHAOTIC ENVIRONMENTS?  

What is extremely important from day one is, you really have to understand the programme and comprehend the mission. You don’t approach issues primarily from an HR perspective, but from a programmatic one and, if you lose sight of decisions, always bring it back to, ‘what is best for the refugees’, as they are always your primary concern. That is incredibly important and equally, when you work for such an organisation, you have to be ready for anything, as an emergency could happen anytime, day or night. Assessing the situation and scaling up humanitarian response has to happen now, because in a state of emergency, the primary objective is to save lives there and then. It’s not something you can drop in the in-tray for after the weekend! Of course, building trust – between your colleagues and partner agencies – is essential and you have to constantly make sure that you have the right people in the right places at the right times and a team with complementary strengths. That knowledge of particular strengths of your staff is critical in an emergency – whether it be earthquake, f lood or conflict situation – and teams have to be agile, which is one of the big advantages of having a strengths-based organisation. You also have to contextualise your actions and be mindful that you can become accustomed to very volatile and dangerous situations and that can be tragic. In the course of my career, I have lost colleagues and of course, that is very painful. In those situations, although you feel like crying all the time, you have to be strong and be there for your team. When you’re in the field, colleagues across the various groups are truly international, but what is a very humbling experience is to work with colleagues for whom the situation is in their back yard – where they were born – and naturally, their local knowledge and influence is hugely important. Access to communities is not always easy and trying to convince people to take a certain course of action is hard. For example, in some places, they will stand between you and the children you need to vaccinate, who could potentially die if you do not. You have to negotiate and you need patience and fortitude to overcome the countless difficulties of delivering humanitarian supplies and support. It’s hard work, but with honesty, humility and perseverance, you gain real mutual respect and trust from the local staff and refugees.



IT SOUNDS TOUGH GOING! WHAT IS THE MAIN DRIVER MOTIVATING IN SUCH A STRESSFUL AND DANGEROUS WORK LIFE?  

Working in emergencies is challenging. T here are moments of overwhelm, times when you achieve things and others when you don’t, but if you’re drawn to helping vulnerable people, the objective overrides the negatives and setbacks. As HR practitioners, it is a rewarding responsibility to help attract, nurture and develop teams of people that have the complementary strengths to succeed in such unique circumstances. I see helping people turn their talents into strengths as incredibly important, transformational and empowering. Whatever your job and field, if a job is just a job, then that is plainly transactional. But when it is a vocation, the drive and engagement achieve so much more, people are more productive and resilient and you have a better quality of life, even in difficult circumstances. The thing is, people sometimes think strengths are about boasting, but it’s the very opposite. but what is a very humbling experience is to work with colleagues for whom the situation is in their back yard – where they were born – and naturally, their local knowledge and influence is hugely important. Access to communities is not always easy and trying to convince people to take a certain course of action is hard. For example, in some places, they will stand between you and the children you need to vaccinate, who could potentially die if you do not. You have to negotiate and you need patience and fortitude to overcome the countless difficulties of delivering humanitarian supplies and support. It’s hard work, but with honesty, humility and perseverance, you gain real mutual respect and trust from the local staff and refugees. “IF A JOB IS JUST A JOB, THEN THAT IS PLAINLY TRANSACTIONAL. BUT WHEN IT IS A VOCATION, THE DRIVE AND ENGAGEMENT ACHIEVES SO MUCH MORE, PEOPLE ARE MORE PRODUCTIVE AND RESILIENT” IT SOUNDS TOUGH GOING! WHAT IS THE MAIN DRIVER MOTIVATING IN SUCH A STRESSFUL AND DANGEROUS WORK LIFE? Working in emergencies is challenging. T here are moments of overwhelm, times when you achieve things and others when you don’t, but if you’re drawn to helping vulnerable people, the objective overrides the negatives and setbacks. As HR practitioners, it is a rewarding responsibility to help attract, nurture and develop teams of people that have the complementary strengths to succeed in such unique circumstances. I see helping people turn their talents into strengths as incredibly important, transformational and empowering. Whatever your job and field, if a job is just a job, then that is plainly transactional. But when it is a vocation, the drive and engagement Knowing that you can strengthen not only yourself, but others, is a wonderful gift you can give to your teammates, particularly in emergencies. It is an essential part of HR and when I know I can strengthen somebody with my strengths, it is not boasting, on the contrary, it is selfish not to do it. Of course, this is all about teams and the best teams are like a fabulous philharmonic orchestra consisting of musicians with complementary skills. Another example is in football, where you would not win a game with all Pelés, Bobby Charltons or Maradonas, you need players with distinct contributing strengths who complement each other. It is fascinating to help achieve that and now we have much more scientific evidence to show the importance of strengths. At the end of the day, that is what HR really is about… isn’t it?



WHAT HAPPENED NEXT IN YOUR LIFE AND CAREER?  

After Syria, I went to Jordan as Head of HR and during this field experience, I felt more confident and that enabled me to become more innovative and risk-taking. I increased my coaching qualifications and skills through training managers, senior leaders and teams and the positive results of my endeavours filtered back to HQ and I was asked to come back, which was something I really did not want to do, but they were insistent. Of course, the advantage when you go to HQ, after having served in the field is that you see everything through a field lens and office bound colleagues give you the platform to tell them the reality. The bureaucracy can be heavy, but I realised that in relating experiences, that was qualitative information that would go on to help others in the field in future. So, based at HQ for the interim, I was in charge of developing HR policies for field staff, which are still being used today, covering everything from onboarding, through the whole work experience to offboarding.  But I felt the increasing urge to go back to the field again and was eventually appointed Head of HR in Lebanon.



I GUESS FROM A CAREER PROGRESS PERSPECTIVE, WHEN OUT IN THE FIELD, IT’S VERY MUCH OUT-OF-SIGHT, OUT-OF MIND WHEN IT COMES TO PROMOTIONS.  

That’s a very good point, but it really depends on your ambition and motivation. For me, it was about being closer to reality and the refugees that needed help. I have never been focused on promotion, but on my continuous learning and development as HR leader. Anyway, I believe that if you make a positive impact wherever you are, you will be noticed. The fact is, when you are out dealing with the nitty-gritty, the best way to learn and develop is not through the traditional classroom, but by field experience and interactions. In Lebanon, we introduced a coaching culture in which we empowered all staff to coach each other in a non-hierarchical manner. One of my best coaches ever was a driver, with whom I spent a lot of time on field visits and he would ask me questions in a simple and straightforward language that always forced me to reflect and think before I answered. Often, the smarter you are with all the degrees to your name, the more likely you are to over-intellectualise things and make problems more complicated and confusing. I learnt that it’s best not to overthink, but to simplify and declutter. That driver sure made me reflect on things and act on a lot of important lessons.



TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.  

After Lebanon, I had the opportunity to change organisations and so the next assignment was UNICEF Bangladesh. T hat was my first posting with UNICEF and once again, I landed in a place affected by emergencies – flooding everywhere and thousands displaced and dispossessed – literally with nothing more than the drenched clothes on their backs. I had a highly emotionally intelligent leader at the time (UNICEF Representative Shahida Azfar) who inspired me to design and carry out emotional intelligence campaigns across all offices, notably combined with appreciative inquiry. That was so well received and I was eventually requested to train colleagues in the region on how we can increase our emotional intelligence at the workplace. The popular belief is, a high IQ, technical expertise and incredible cognitive skills are essential and sure, of course they are to some extent. But the higher you move up in an organisation, the more crucial emotional intelligence becomes. What was also very much appreciated by staff was our campaign on self-esteem, because it can influence a wide range of personal and social behaviours, including our ability to achieve goals, cope with unexpected difficulties like emergencies and help us to maintain healthy and trusting relationships with teammates. Additionally, we baked into the teams the capacity for personal development, focusing on identifying and building on the positive aspects of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole. Looking back again to Bangladesh, what we had achieved was to combine emotional intelligence, self-esteem and positive psychology at the workplace. We were subsequently asked to roll out these programmes in other UNICEF offices in South Asia and Far East.



TELL US ABOUT UNICEF AS AN ORGANISATION.  

While UNRWA is focused on and limited to the Middle East, UNICEF operates in 190 countries, with over 15,000 staff, both in humanitarian crisis and development settings. The organisation’s noble mission to serve the world’s most vulnerable and disadvantaged children is exemplary. Then from a personal point of view, it felt like an incredible opportunity to work at a more strategic level on a global scale and my role was Chief of Recruitment and Career Development in UNICEF HQ in New York. Once again, I was able to capitalise on my field experience, which allowed me to be more pragmatic and field-oriented in my approach to HR interventions, opportunities and challenges.



TELL ME ABOUT SOME OF THE HR INITIATIVES YOU WERE DEVELOPING.  

In 2023 we started designing a global career development programme, tailor made for the organisation, which we call P2D – meaning “Personal Times Professional Development” – which links to both the professional and personal development of all UNICEF staff. This is because people are whole human beings with complex lives beyond their work responsibilities and we cannot be divided – there’s not a work Rudolf and a home Rudolf, it is the same Rudolf with the same potential and strengths for both situations. Let us say that you are doing very well in your job and you’re scoring eight-or-nine on a scale of one-to-ten. However, to reach that level, you are so focused on the work, that you are neglecting your family and your personal life is zero. When you square those two equations, you’re really scoring zero. So P2D is about the whole person. Younger people, like my artistic daughter Nadja grasped this concept very fast and she wrote an inspiring P2D rap as a teenager, which was highly appreciated by the staff during our roll-out in India. P2D – anchored in a three-partner approach of staff, manager and organisation – has five branches, in a sort of tree diagram and those branches are: Self-awareness – helping staff to ascertain their strengths, talents, preferences, interests, passions, but also to know about their weaknesses. Next, it’s Development Exploration, which supports them to learn, draw upon the lessons learned in their past and explore all future personal and professional development options. The third branch is Development Opportunities, because in an organisation that is as global, diverse and dynamic as UNICEF, there are many – but not limitless opportunities – to which staff must be alerted to and given access to in real-time, around the world, to make sure they have all the information they need. Next up is Individual Action, whereby having explored their personal and professional opportunities, staff need to be supported with options and tools to take action on how to make their and the organisation’s desired progress and growth happen, with a focus on results and impact. The last branch is Development Coaching, as it would be unreasonable and unfair to expect staff to manage their professional and personal growth without help from others. Therefore, P2D empowers all staff how to coach and be coached, thus enabling a feedback and feedforward culture, irrespective of rank. So this was integrated globally, with staff at all levels and, to gain momentum, we trained colleagues around the world to become P2D champions, to help staff take primary responsibility for driving their own personal and professional development. After all, it’s their career and their life. Well, it was a huge success for which UNICEF won the Leading the Global Workforce Award in 2004. This coherent life/work approach was quite pioneering and it’s only recently that this connection has been made more widely.



WHAT ARE THE SIGNS THAT THE FLATTER FRAMEWORK, MERITOCRACY AND EMPLOYEE VOICE ARE POSITIVELY CHANGING CULTURES?  

I think one important consequence is that people realise that ‘up’ is not the only way in one’s career. Career success should not be judged by just being promoted upwards, otherwise there’s no career diversity and development. The focus should always be on development and while there’s nothing wrong with being promoted, it’s only one of many ways to move forward. Other ways forward are enriching your present job and increasing your strengths activities, upskilling & re-skilling, shadowing others and development assignments – maybe in a different department or field – so you can try it out first for four or six months. This is because people often dream about a certain jobs and if they land in the desired role and it’s a huge disappointment, then that’s a setback. Of course, moving jobs laterally is often a good idea, because people don’t expose themselves to a situation above their capability. The other very important consideration with any job change, is to think carefully and realistically about the possible implications for family and your personal desires. In this instance, it’s even f ine to move temporarily to a lower graded position – providing it doesn’t decrease income too much of course and create other pressures – to build skillsets and, if needed, to re-build bridges again with family that have paid a price for your ambition. The bottom line with career choice is, it’s personal. In terms of culture, HR leaders must drive an enabling and psychologically safe environment in which we truly live our diversity and the voice of every employee counts. Often, junior colleagues in organisations know the solution even for managerial issues, but they do not always feel safe or free to speak up.



YOU HAVE SEEN HUMAN SUFFERING AT ITS MOST ACUTE - WHAT IS THE OVERRIDING LEARNING OF THESE EXPERIENCES?  

When you see lots of tragedy – suffering and desperation and close colleagues and friends dying – as I did in my six-year assignment in Pakistan as Head of HR – it makes you more acutely aware and re-evaluate everything in your life. The loud bell or truth that humanity is better together than apart and any human suffering is everyone’s suffering and we are all affected in one way or another. Again, it’s the context of complementary strengths insomuch as, each organisation can offer specific strengths and capability to an overall combined and cohesive operation.



TELL US OF YOUR VISION FOR YOURSELF AT THIS STAGE OF YOUR CAREER.  

From an HR perspective, the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical wellbeing of staff needs to be taken seriously. We need to have organisations in which not only managers but all staff genuinely care about the wellbeing of their colleagues. A culture of ‘staff-supporting-staff’ is invigorating and energising to the entire workforce. For me personally, I am continuing with my focus on strengths, teams and leadership development. The older I become, the more I’m convinced that we have to really help colleagues to activate their inner talents, because that makes powerful teams. For example, what we did in the Supply Division is, we hired two Gallup strengths coaches to train 12 of our colleagues. It’s very important that it’s not seen as an HR initiative and so we had three from HR, but all the others were from other Centers. We offered the StrengthsFinder to every UNICEF staff member in the division and some field offices and we started with individual strengths coaching – carried out by our own staff coaches. Then we moved into team strengths coaching and from my perspective, that is even more effective than individual coaching, because we cannot achieve results without effective teamwork. This works best when there is a culture where people feel confident and equipped to help themselves, as well as others. What is just as important is empathy – not the sort that is talked about constantly – but that which is actually lived and the more we know each other’s strengths, the more we know each other also as human beings and the more effective we are at helping people in delivering results across the globe. T hat brings me to vulnerabilities or “weaknesses” and there are people convinced that to improve, be stronger and more effective, they have to only fix their weaknesses. This is seen as a corrective, but it merely masks the truth. What is more likely is, things are covered up and that is certain to lead to mental anguish. Of course, weaknesses should not be ignored. They need to be managed such as by rearranging the tasks in the team on the basis of the complementary strengths of teammates or by deliberately using our strengths to manage a weakness. For example colleagues with strong empathy will want to act on their poor time management when they realise that they may hurt people who keep waiting for them. Our biggest area of development is in our innate talents and strengths and not in our weaknesses. The big wins and developmental jumps for people are within those innate potentials. As HR, what we’ve to do is help people discover those sleeping talents and help turn them into strengths in order to strengthen themselves and others, including their families and friends. As for the future, I see generations that are coming through evidencing a greater understanding of continuous growth and humanity. Sure, young people may change jobs several times, but largely, pay is not the primary consideration. They want diversity of experience and help in increasing their self-awareness and leveraging of their talents and passions and they want to be involved with organizations that share their sense of right and wrong, what the mission brand and product represent. That to me is incredibly encouraging for the future.



WHEN YOU LOOK AT THE HR PROFESSION, HOW RELEVANT AND EFFECTIVE IS IT AS A PRACTICE IN THE TOUGH ENVIRONMENTS THAT YOU HAVE DESCRIBED TODAY?  

COVID has taught all organisations the critical role HR plays in crisis situations. I am grateful for the word “human” in my profession as HR literally represents humanity. Practitioners in the sector need to understand and listen to all colleagues and they need to work together towards improving the world of work. As for UNICEF, HR’s role in helping to alleviate the suffering of the most disadvantaged children and the need to advocate for them becomes more and more important. The geopolitical developments across the world, the conflicts and the seemingly increasing occurrences of natural disasters, means the future is completely dependent on how ready and effective emergency responses are, but also equally how humane they are. Internally, within UNICEF’s operations, because of the dynamic and unpredictable nature of the situations we are called to support, we have a lot of challenges in the field that may impact staff health and wellbeing. The simple reality is, the better HR is at looking after our staff, the more we can safeguard and support the children. The process, preparedness and rigour really does start at home. But above all else, it is extremely important that we live and practice humanity first in our organisations and that energy is transferred to the cause we serve. A manager has to be humane, a manager has to be loving – and sometimes people are afraid of using the term “love” in the workplace – but love is absolutely necessary if you want to make a difference. It cannot be sustainable if you rely upon a once-a-year performance discussion, you have to have regular check-in performance support discussions and through mutual understanding and agree upon projects that play to strengths and build diversity of experience. Of course, not everyone is cut out for management. Managers need to be in constant dialogue with their staff and ask questions such as: “What tasks would you like to be steered away because they drain you? How can I help you to increase the number of daily activities that strengthen you? How can I help you to succeed in your job?” The levels of engagement, productivity and resilience will go up tremendously and of course, those that will benefit, are not only the staff at large but those most in need whom we have the privilege to serve.



WHAT ONE PIECE OF ADVICE OR WISDOM DO YOU RECALL THAT HAS REALLY BEEN YOUR NORTH STAR?  

Back when I was a student, the late Peter Drucker from my hometown Vienna – the father of modern management – was quoted as saying: “A person can only perform from strengths. One cannot build excellence on weakness.” If HR leaders want to help their organisations to attract, develop and retain talent to deliver excellence, we really have to make sure that we help staff, teams and leaders to perform from their strengths. That is absolutely necessary, otherwise we would say, “it’s good enough to be average, it’s fine just to survive.” You cannot compromise on excellence, when you have such a noble mission as serving the most excluded and vulnerable children of the world. To quote another person, the late Don Clifton – creator of the StrengthsFinder – who said: “What will happen when we think about what is right with people, rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?” The key is to fully understand how we can apply our greatest talents and strengths in our everyday professional life as well as personal life. For sure, it has never been a more important time than now to lead and live with empathy, no matter your profession or level. It’s completely wrong to call a skill like empathy, a soft skill, when it is one of the most needed skills at the workplace. This is not nice to have, it’s an absolute necessity. If we don’t have this ambition to be humane, we have nothing. As HR leaders, we need to advocate for limitless love for our people and in a world that thinks caring is a weakness and that we shouldn’t care so much, I say, “no, no, no… there is no upper limit to compassion!”

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