“Success is Making a Positive Difference Along the Road”

Helen Alderson, Head of the ICRC Mission in UK & Ireland, highlights the imperative of working with other people, with opinion leaders, with opinion formers from very different walks of life in order to solve global and regional issues.

Q: Helen, what’s your professional background?

A: I am currently a member of the Executive Board of the International Committee of the Red Cross. I have worked in the not for profit world practically my entire career – in humanitarian work and in public health.  

Q: Who is your role model in life, if you have one, and why?

A: My most important role model was my father. He had two daughters and there was never any question that our career prospects would be different from those of men. 

He was very successful in his professional life as an executive yet also very present in the family as a father. He was also so enthusiastic about life and about his work. He saw possibilities and opportunities in everything and encouraged my sister and me to “go for it”. He was someone who was driven by strong values, had real curiosity and took an interest in other people. 

Q: Tell me about a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career!

A: This is always a tough question especially as I get older because, thankfully, there are a number of significant moments. As a fundraiser, I still remember how I felt when I landed my first million – it felt amazing. More recently the most significant project was probably the successful deployment of our new ERP. This was also one of the toughest projects in my career and lived up to the reputation of ERPs creating blood, sweat and tears. And then of course when I look at my two sons growing into confident young men, I certainly feel a sense of accomplishment…

Q: Talk to me about your mentoring experience as Mentor with Global Thinkers Mentors.

A: It has been a most inspiring experience. My mentee is a very talented young woman called Hanne Vrebos, a Belgian architect specializing in urban resilience who is now working in Haiti. She had a clear idea of what she wanted to get out of the programme and I really saw her develop and gain in assurance over our 9 months of conversations. We “met” over Skype due to the distance so my only regret was that we never managed to meet in person.

The structure that the GTF provides was very helpful.

Be authentic, be yourself and above all, be confident!

Helen Alderson Head, ICRC Mission UK & Ireland

Q: You are mentoring a young person. Do you feel you have learned something from her?

A: Definitely. One of the things that most impresses me about Hanne is the way she has managed her career choices - continually building on her experiences and travelling the world to do so. Her decisions and choices are deliberate and she is highly aware of her environment and of the issues (and battles) still to be fought as a woman building her career.

Q: How do you define success?

A: There are multiple ways to define success... I think that success is having accomplished (or being on the way to accomplishing) your aspirations and making a positive difference along the road. 

During an airdrop operation in South Sudan

Q: What advice would you give to younger women who want to succeed in the workplace?

A: Be authentic, be yourself and above all, be confident! Know your strengths and then play to them while continually seeking to learn and develop your soft as well as your hard skills. And remember that work-life balance is absolutely fundamental.

Q: Can you share with us a couple of stories that have either inspired you or transformed the way you think/ act?

A: It is people who have inspired me. My earliest inspiration was teacher at school. After school, she had to go straight to work and was only able to afford university a few years later. In her final year she was diagnosed with a severe degenerative disease and had to take her final exams dictating while lying in a hospital bed. She then got a PhD, became a professor at the Open University and also taught political studies for our A’ level class. She treated us like adults, had an amazing sense of humour and made the most of everything in life. She was a humbling lesson in resilience.

Q: It seems that trust and confidence are waning in our societies and its thought leaders. What is your view?

A: Unfortunately I tend to agree but, like with most things, there are two sides the picture.

On the one hand, the world has become more polarized and we are witnessing a resurgence of extremism and a lack of willingness to see the other side’s point of view. Conflict is on the rise and the world has never seen so many people displaced because of war and violence since WWII.

However, on the other hand, there are thought leaders and role models out there who do inspire trust and who are endeavoring to build trust against all odds.  I also believe that in many places, we have a younger generation who is more tolerant of other peoples’ differences than we were at their age. 

Patrick Gasser, Helen Alderson in Barcelona getting a check from Carles Puyol

Q: What is a major challenge for our world?

A: Intolerance and bigotry. Climate change.

Q: Anything else you may wish to add?

A: Being part of the mentoring programme of GTF has been a privilege and wonderful opportunity for me to get to know Hanne and to exchange with her on a wide variety of fascinating issues as well as to push my own thinking further. I will definitely stay in touch with her and follow her career progression.

Helen Alderson

Head, ICRC Mission UK & Ireland

Helen Alderson, born in 1960, has a degree in political sciences and international relations as well as an MBA. She began her career at UNICEF in the field before joining the ICRC in 1985. 

At the ICRC, she held a number of posts at headquarters and in the field including delegate, deputy head of delegation, head of project and head of unit. She left the ICRC in 2000 to join the Ethos Foundation and then, in 2002, joined the World Heart Federation where she held the posts of director of development, chief operating officer and then CEO. She returned to the ICRC to take up the position of the Director of Financial Resources and Logistics in 2010 and recently became Head of ICRC’s Mission in UK and Ireland.

Published: 21/11/2017