In this guest blog LSE alumni, Andres Gomez de la Torre, Director of Confederation Development at CARE International, shares his reflections and insights for building a career in the sector during times of change and uncertainty.
- Values come first – COVID-19, while unique in many ways, is exposing some of the same issues the international development sector have been fighting against for a very long time: poverty, inequality, gender-based violence, discrimination and abuse of power. Recent anti-racist protests have rightly brought back old calls for structural change in the international development and humanitarian sector. In this context -maybe more than ever- while skills and experience are important (and are usually the first to be listed in pieces like this), many of us are looking for something more important when recruiting: demonstrating that you truly embrace core values such as humility, equality and inclusion – as these will shape the way you think and behave when working in the sector. For far too long, our sector has been dominated by traditional powers and a view of ‘givers’ or ‘knights in shining armour’ (white saviours) on one side, and helpless ‘recipients of aid’ on the other. This attitude needs to change, and we need you to believe in and embrace that change.
- Make sure you follow recent debates and educate yourselves -as we all need to do- on far more important issues than the log-frames and planning tools: racism, gender inequality and power imbalances in the sector. Reading, listening to podcasts, following roles models and people that inspire you, as well as organisations you are interested in, are all great ways to raise awareness. More than ever, thought-provoking pieces are written and shared via several channels – short, to the point and self-critical are the most useful in my view. Doing this will definitively help you know what to expect during these times, what organisations are looking for, and how you can add value.
- The only certain thing in our times is uncertainty, and this won’t go away. Invest time in learning about yourselves (particularly developing your emotional intelligence and self-awareness), understand your preferred ways of working and how best you can engage with people from different cultures, sectors and professions, and reflect on how you behave differently under stress. These are key investments that will help you to better understand what you need to further develop and will pay off during interviews (and once you land that job). The “whole brain” is a practical tool I suggest you investigate.
- It is perfectly fine (and, preferable in my view) not to have a “clear life or career plan”. It is amazing that only some years ago, interviewers were still asking “where do you see yourself in 5 or even 10 years”. With the pace of current change, plans exist only to be changed, and the key is to learn, adapt and have a top line vision (instead of fully detailed step-by-step plans).
- Stay flexible and open minded when looking for that first job. In my experience, the first job is far from being the dream one. And if by chance it is, your views will probably change significantly along the way, with the more you learn, fail, recover and achieve. I am saying this as I have seen students putting so much pressure on themselves searching for the perfect job. Mobility is now the norm so don’t run away from that “entry point” job that may not be in your preferred area of the organisation – you don’t need to stay there forever. Be pragmatic and explore all options available to enter the sector, including private sector, think tanks, consultancies, start-ups, small NGOs -maybe less known as the usual suspects, but effective, relevant and inspirational too.
- ‘Failing’ is a good thing. Accept that in a very competitive sector the chances of landing the first job quickly are limited so instead ensure you learn the most from each application experience. Identify what you could have done better, seek feedback, and make sure you use what you learnt in the next application or interview. Get ready to the key question: what would you have done differently?
- A concise application, clearly addressing each (or most) of the requirements in the person specification (not only with experience but transferrable knowledge/skills and your potential) is critical. Don’t shy away from explaining how you meet the criteria in a different way than the job description may be expecting. Help the recruiter realise that there could be another way to meet their needs/requirements.
- Experience is overrated. Controversial? I can’t remember the number of times students have come to me disappointed as in their view, their lack of experience was the main limitation for them landing their first job. I was a true believer that experience was key, but in a sector that needs such structural change, I am starting to believe that “the more experience you have, the more the bad habits you have to undo.” Keep this in mind when these concerns come back to you.
More than ever, our sector needs fresh and different voices to challenge traditional power dynamics and change the sector from within. We need the passion and energy to join and/or take over the mission to decolonise the sector, truly embracing gender equality and inclusion.
Note: the post gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Careers, nor of the London School of Economics.