Voices: Empowerment and creative leadership

“I believe that I am a creative leader. A leader is somebody who can say ‘this is very good, but let's do better.’ A leader can inspire people to do things differently. I hope that’s how I will be remembered.” - Maria-Noel Vaeza, former Director, Global Portfolio Services Office

At the end of this month, our colleague and friend, Maria-Noel Vaeza will be leaving UNOPS to begin her exciting new role as Director of the Programme Division at UN Women – a role that will put her in charge of six regional offices, 45 country offices, a team of 75 and two trust funds. Talented, enthusiastic and never afraid to speak her own mind, Maria-Noel has given the UNOPS and United Nations her all for the past 24 years. But before she embarks on her latest adventure, she spoke with us about her time at UNOPS.

Even after all of these years working here, I still have so much motivation. Our work has meaning and it is truly benefiting people who need it most. UNOPS strength comes from our ability to work well as a team. I firmly believe in the importance of teamwork and that is why I have loved working at UNOPS.

I joined the United Nations family in 1991. I held various roles with the World Bank and at the United Nations Development Programme, where I spent most of time in Guatemala and Paraguay, in addition to more than four years as a Senior Advisor in Brussels. It wasn't until 2007 that I joined UNOPS as Regional Director for the Latin America and ​​Caribbean Office in Panama City.

When I arrived there, people were afraid to talk to the client. One of my greatest strengths is my ability to communicate to a client, and be honest and sincere – even when you have to say 'I can't do that.'

I remember one of my first visits was to Lima, Peru. At that time, our flagship project was the construction of a huge fountain in one of the richest neighbourhoods – it cost $22 million and was paid for by the Mayor's office.

I was not interested in doing these types of projects. I asked 'what about building houses, improving sanitation, improving the health system, the real challenges of development?' So, I went to speak with the Peruvian authorities and asked them to trust UNOPS with difficult projects that will improve the life of the most vulnerable people living in the country. Those are projects worth doing! After that, we were trusted with close to $1 billion dollars to support the government to build hospitals, roads, sanitation, and the procurement of medical equipment, ambulances and police vehicles. Then, I was happy.

Shortly after this, the Ministry of Housing invited us to get involved with a project called "La calle de mi barrio". It was a great project that focused on rehabilitating some of Lima's most poor and challenging neighbourhoods.

It was amazing to see that with a small change, such as repaving a road or improving local sanitation, people started taking more pride in their homes and in their communities. You could see that they had regained their dignity. It was an incredible experience.

We are all very lucky to work in this fantastic organization. The work we do here everyday benefits so many people around the world. But UNOPS cannot just stop there; we have to continue to raise the bar. The most important thing is to keep ourselves challenged, while working towards a common goal.

I have really enjoyed the position of Director of Global Portfolio Services. It is something I am really proud of. It is a part of the maturity of the Organization; to treat each of our partners uniquely and tailor our approach to best suit our shared objectives. It has been great to manage such a wonderful team and improve the partnership we have with our main clients.

I know I have quite a particular style of management. I hope everyone will remember the good times we have had to together, but also the empowerment I have brought to my team. To me, empowerment is essential. Everybody needs to be empowered. That's how people become more engaged and more creative and much more productive.

I believe I am a creative leader. A leader is somebody who can say 'this is very good, but let's do better.' A leader can inspire people to do things differently. I hope that's how I will be remembered.

Although I will miss UNOPS, I am very excited to be joining UN Women. This will be my third UN agency and I believe that the more you grow in your career, the more you have to offer different to organizations. I can't wait to see what we can all achieve together at UN Women.

I am so proud to have been a part of UNOPS, because I know it has such a bright future. It is a very unique Organization. It may be small, but we know each other well and share a common sense of service. And who knows, maybe UN Women and UNOPS will find ways to work closely together in the future. You might not have seen the last of me yet – although, I'll be on the other side of the table next time!