Women in leadership


On May 8th the Geneva Shapers met with two leaders of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): Helen Alderson - Director of financial resources and logistics - and Carla Mardini – Head of External Resources.

Over the past months, growing humanitarian needs (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Israel and the Occupied Territories, South Sudan, Central African Republic, just to name a few) have led the ICRC to set operational objectives of an unprecedented magnitude. The ICRC faces operational challenges in conducting humanitarian action that it cannot address on its own. It must look across sectors to tackle some of these crucial issues, particularly in the corporate, entrepreneurship and innovation communities. At the heart of these rapid changes are two women, Helen Alderson and Carla Mardini, who are leading the institution in uncharted waters. Geneva Shapers, together with visiting shapers from Jeddah and Erbil hubs, discussed how to better #ShapeTheWorld with these two inspiring leaders. As Helen Alderson suggested “We need more young people to lead and take important decisions”.

We also took the opportunity to conduct a short interview (transcript below) with them on taking up leadership positions, their role models, and advice they would give to the younger generations.

What advice would you give to someone going into a leadership position for the first time?

Helen Alderson: “When you take up a leadership role for the first time my advice is to spend most of your time listening to be able to diagnose the situation. The first 90 days (Sic. Reference to the best-seller ‘The First 90 days’, on transitions into leadership positions by Harvard professor Michael Watkins) in your new position are crucial and will very much determine your overall success. You need to understand what type of leadership role you are taking, are you in a startup situation, a turnaround, or is it about sustaining success?  Based on that assessment you need to identify a few clear measures that have to be taken.”

Carla Mardini: “Based on my own professional experience having led teams of 25 to 40 people, one of the key issues is knowing who is “on the bus”, i.e., who is on your team. Before you embark on setting out a strategy and making a plan of action, the people you have on your team should be your first priority. Choosing the right people and having people on your team who have competencies you don’t have is crucial.”

Who has inspired you the most and why?

Helen Alderson: “I didn’t have a professional role model until late, but on a personal level it was my father. He was very successful in his professional life as an executive, but also very present in the family as a father. He managed this balance very well and had a great level of integrity in the way he conducted his work. He was also very inspiring to us. On the professional level my first role model was my boss at the World Heart Federation. She was also someone who balanced her personal and professional life very well, managing dual careers and her family. She was also a great motivator and very inspiring to her team. Moreover, she always brought her team, rather than herself, to the front giving them the credit for achievements.”

Carla Mardini: “I have discovered Sheryl Sandberg (sic: COO Facebook), quite late, but am very impressed by her. She has done so much for the younger generation. Her book ‘Lean In’ and the simple things she explains in there are crucial. Women should dare stay in the workforce and not drop out before the question really poses itself. Nowadays women are leaving before they reach the top because they have difficulties managing work life imbalance: we need to make sure they stay longer!”

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?

Helen Alderson: “I would do a lot of the things I did, I have very few regrets luckily. However, I would be more aware of the choices I am making and decision I am taking. I would also be more deliberate into taking a stand rather than getting pushed into situations.”

Carla Mardini: “One of the things I would advise is to learn several languages when you are young. I recently hired someone who told me that if you don’t speak 3 or 4 languages, it is hard to survive in the world we live in today. I am Lebanese and we often speak several languages, but I should have learned Chinese when I was younger. Now that I am 39 years old, it is a little late. Languages open up opportunities that are invaluable, and also give you access to a new culture, a new world and that in-itself is very enriching.”

Thanks a lot to Helen and Carla for inspiring the Shapers at the Geneva Hub and beyond. Special thanks to our Shapers Alessandra La Vaccara and Yannick Heiniger for organizing this great #MeetTheLeaders event.