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How The Red Cross Has Survived In Crisis Mode For 150 Years

Working at the International Committee of the Red Cross can be like a tech company, but also not. There are no free bars, for one. Two: lots of war zones.

How The Red Cross Has Survived In Crisis Mode For 150 Years
A volunteer for the South Sudan Red Cross Society takes care of one of three siblings injured by gunshots. They are being evacuated by the ICRC by plane, together with their mother, in Eastern Equatoria, Torit County. [Photo: Mari Aftret Mortvedt/ICRC]

Working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—trying to save lives in war zones in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, and many other countries—is one of the hardest jobs on earth. Yet it is still a job, in a large enterprise with a $2 billion annual budget. The ICRC has had to develop a management structure, policies, staff benefits, and all the other mechanics of a large company, with the added demand of operating in constant crisis mode.

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One key asset, says the organization’s president, Peter Maurer, is its flat management structure, with bottom-up initiatives and a good deal of autonomy for workers in the field. It’s a management philosophy familiar to many cutting-edge tech firms, yet the humanitarian organization has functioned that way since its founding in 1863, says Maurer.

ICRC president Peter Maurer. [Photo: Mari Aftret Mortvedt/ICRC]
Fast Company spoke with Maurer, who is Swiss, during his recent trip to the U.S. West Coast where he met with tech companies like Facebook and Salesforce to enlist their help in ICRC’s humanitarian work, including strategies to limit cyberwarfare. He expressed admiration for the flexible work hours in tech firms, something he’d like to adopt at the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva. It’s these desk employees, not the aid workers on the front line, who are most prone to burnout, says Maurer. They suffer from frustration at being far from the action, dealing with bureaucratic matters instead of directly helping people.

Of course, field workers have their own special stresses—jobs that can literally kill them. The ICRC has lost seven aid workers in Afghanistan this year, and four workers of the affiliated Somali Red Crescent Society died in the massive Mogadishu bombing on October 14. Despite, or perhaps because of all these stresses, it’s important for employees to take time off whenever they can, says Maurer and the ICRC’s director of communication, Charlotte Lindsey-Curtet, who joined the conversation. Both admit that they struggle to provide good examples of work/life balance.

The following are highlights from a longer conversation.

Fast Company: I was looking through news headlines today, and about half the things I saw could keep you occupied permanently. As a manager, how do you balance all that?

Peter Maurer: I delegate a lot . . . We are much more bottom-up and decentralized than many other organizations. Extremely flat hierarchy, a lot of competence for people in the field, for the heads of delegations in the field, to manage, to design critical parts of what in any other organization is centralized . . . [For example,] we have a centralized security information system, but we have decentralized security decision making. And this is something, which is absolutely critical for a humanitarian organization, which makes us work much more effectively.

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FC: What does that mean for your staff?

PM: You have kind of a double identity of an organization. On the one side, there are people who have deep commitment [to field work] on humanitarian issues, and I think what makes us go and what motivates us is this enormous amount of commitment that people have to work for . . . a humanitarian organization doing good stuff.

And then at the same time, we are too big just to have committed people. We have 17,000 employees and a $2 billion [annual] budget. You need to manage this like any other big institution. And you have to have management capacities, top-down decisions, discipline, and effective and efficient organization, which doesn’t come from the bottom up.


Related: The Red Cross Presses Silicon Valley To Fight Cyberwarfare


FC: So some kind of a centralized structure to support all the mechanics of things, but with initiative from the bottom up in terms of . . .

PM: Of substance, of negotiation. And that’s the uneasy marriage that you try to constantly find, and the delicate balance that you try to find. So you have to have managers, but you can’t make a good international negotiation without having people with commitment, instincts, sixth sense, and all the necessary soft skills. If you have motivated people, if you have some backbone structures in place, then a lot of things are happening.

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Maurer visits a school under frozen destruction order in Beit Skaria village, near Bethlehem. [Photo: Alyona Synenko/ICRC]
FC: What about time off? You literally have the lives of thousands or millions of people on the line. But can you also have a hobby or read a book or see a movie?

PM: I think you have to be, to a certain extent, schizophrenic. You can’t really run such an organization and think 24 hours [a day] about all the things happening in the world. You have to have the ability to rest, to do something different. I run every morning and climb mountains when I can. I like to take some time off once, twice, three times a year to go above 4,000 meters and look at the world from above. And I read things that have nothing to do with humanitarian matters. I like to read philosophy and tech stuff. Sometimes I try to read math books. I find math fascinating.

FC: As a manager, how do you help your employees prevent burnout?

PM: I’m a bad example because I’m a workaholic. The only thing I’m basically hoping to message is that when I send out emails in the middle of the night, I don’t think that people have to respond to me.

I think that everybody should have [their] rhythm of work. I’m very attracted to what I saw here this week in California, this high-tech, flat hierarchy. Work when you like and when you have an idea—a mentality that is all over [companies like] Twitter and Facebook. I’m basically trying to find my rhythm and encourage everybody to do so.

But it’s difficult because when you are president of an institution, people don’t believe you when you say that. And when you are a bad example, as I am, they believe you even less.

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Maurer walks with ICRC staff members in Jonglei State, South Sudan. [Photo: Albert González Farran/ICRC]
FC: Is burnout an issue for a lot of your staff?

PM: Well, it is an issue, but it’s more complex. You see, when you work in the field in particular, you are exposed to really outrageous realities. I think of enormous motivation and difficulties, the isolation that many people in the field [experience]. You are there with a lot of responsibility, and you are not necessarily in an embracing community. You are in a hostile environment.

And then the more complicated part of the problem is headquarters. I never know why people are stressed at headquarters. Do you know, Charlotte?

Charlotte Lindsey-Curtet: As you grow as an organization to the size that we are, the more you are removed from the direct delivery to beneficiary. You’re balancing what is about task [in the field] and what is about people management. And I think a lot of people don’t join the organization for the people management bit. They do it for the task. Everybody wants to be on the direct [aid work], but some people have to manage.

PM: I think we have two issues, and by the way, it also comes out clearly from staff surveys that we do. The closer to the field and the more difficult the circumstances that people work in, the happier people are. The farther away from the field and the more in the sort of back [office] management issues they are, the unhappier they are.

FC: The more active they are, the happier they are?

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PM: Yes, because they are on purpose. And the problem for them in the field is that they are exposed to sometimes outrageous violations, to violence and terrible experiences.

One of the big problems in a frontline organization like this is you come back to your [home] that is [usually] a relatively normal place in a relatively peaceful society. Then you are suddenly isolated with an experience that is very unique, that nobody else has. And so you have to help staff reintegrate into normal life.

Burnout is more the phenomena of . . . this size [of the organization]. You have to have these management processes, and then you are no longer directly linked to the mandate and mission.

CL-C: When you walk around these big tech companies here, the hairdresser is in the building; the dry cleaning is in the building. They keep people . . . happy in the workplace. We cannot provide that environment, and so people are going about their lives and the extreme pressures of work, but with none of these free bars and rooftop gardens.

PM: That’s important because it’s an ascetic environment, the humanitarian environment. A lot of people—for them it’s not necessarily important to have those things, and nevertheless if they don’t have those things, it’s also problematic.

About the author

Sean Captain is a technology journalist and editor. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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