People Champion Spotlight: Elvira Sheikhova
People for 2030 is fortunate to have some very talented People Champions who embody and inspire change in their respective Country Offices. The Spotlight series aims to highlight them and their efforts. With each Bulletin, we will be featuring an interview with the hope that reading their story motivates you as much as collaborating with them energizes us.
For the first People Champion Spotlight, we spoke to Elvira Sheikhova, who began her UNDP career in 1999. Today, she is an HR Associate at the Kazakhstan Country Office.
It is difficult to summarize in just a few words the breadth and depth of Elvira’s extensive experience. But we have tried our best to capture Elvira’s positive outlook and commitment to driving change with these five questions.
Q1. What motivates you to be a People Champion?
Frankly, when People for 2030 was launched, I was asked if I would be interested in being a People Champion. At the time, I just said yes, but over time I have realized that what keeps me motivated is to see all these ideas come to life!
It all began with the first office retreat, where we hosted a team building exercise around People for 2030. I gave a brief presentation on the strategy and divided our staff into 9 groups in accordance with the 9 strategic focus areas. This exercise was positioned as a competition, and everyone was encouraged to brainstorm ideas for their designated focus area with ‘the sky as the limit’. As a result, people came up with some really extraordinary suggestions, many of which could lead to tangible results.
While I offered to summarize these rich inputs on behalf of everyone, I noticed the exercise had energized many of my colleagues who were now keen to help me implement these ideas. Over time, I am pleased to share that we have been able to facilitate some of these ideas. For example, we started inviting inspiring speakers to share their stories with us, and also hosted many brown bag lunches!
So, overall, I think being trusted with the implementation of meaningful ideas that have the potential to drive change motivates me to continue being a People Champion.
Q2. How has your career evolved since starting at UNDP?
UNDP actually happened to me by accident! After finishing my studies in Egypt, I was looking for a job where I could improve my language skills. One day, my closest friend told me that she had sent my CV to the UN Representative Office in Kazakhstan. Shortly after, I was invited to an interview, which turned into a short-term contract as a receptionist. In this role, I realized that the job involved more than answering phone calls and taking up additional responsibilities in the office, which equipped me with skills that enabled me to be promoted within just a few months.
Then I started as an Operations Associate with the UN Volunteers (UNV) programme. The programme office was being set up, and they needed all hands-on deck. During this time, I had the opportunity to work with a small team to set up everything from scratch! Our team was also tasked with expanding the number of UNVs, and eventually we became the first office to be trusted to carry out the International Year of Volunteers in 2001, with 150 participants from 50 countries! In this process, I not only learned a lot, but also made many good friends across geographies.
After that, I was offered the position of Support Officer in East Timor. I was only 26 years old at the time, but my learnings in the previous role had been unprecedented. I accepted this offer with open arms, and here also I took on additional responsibilities, such as supporting the administrative, financial and recruitment aspects of the programme. Thereafter, I also went on a few assignments to different countries. In 2012, after joining the SURGE roster for immediate deployments and undergoing the relevant training, I supported the UNDP Afghanistan project in the capacity of HR advisor for a few months.
In a nutshell, I would say that UNDP has given me many diverse and exciting opportunities over the years. Today, as HR Associate, I head the HR unit in the Kazakhstan office and will complete 22 years with UNDP soon!
Q3. What has been your favourite project so far, and why?
In April 2017, I was invited as a specialist to help the HR department of the Ukraine Country Office. It was a great experience — apart from learning a lot from the project itself and the different approaches in the region, I learned a lot from my supervisor. I think she’s a brilliant person, and of all my supervisors, she’s the one I remember most fondly. In addition to trusting me with the work I was assigned, she also supported me in many aspects. In general, she was a very dynamic person who was always full of energy and thought out of the box.
I continue to draw inspiration from her and try to incorporate the things I learned from her into my own working style. The experience of working with her made me believe that it is extremely important that we as managers foster supportive working environments, because only then will we be able to ensure that employees bring their best self to work every day.
Q4. What is the best career lesson you’ve learned so far?
I think that what I have learned and truly believe in is to embrace opportunities! Whenever something exciting knocks on your door, be open-minded and at least consider it. I have been fortunate to have had many opportunities at UNDP — from different roles to additional responsibilities, international assignments, immediate deployments, and what not! Every time I was presented with a project which I could learn from, I embraced it and made the most of it. This has been one of the most fulfilling parts of my career to date.
Q5. What is your personal mantra?
I would say that my personal mantra is an extension of my career lesson:
“Even when you see negative things, try to find a silver lining and see how something positive can be extracted from it!”
Difficult situations will continue, and opportunities may sometimes seem risky. But never say no in the first instance. Always think through opportunities and ask yourself what it could mean in the long run. In complicated situations, think of alternatives, think of how the situation in question can be changed to better meet your needs. So, keep a positive frame of mind and work towards turning negatives around.