How to change your career and your life

Kaye Bentley’s career has spanned project management roles with big city law firms, to study and teaching abroad. Then, seven years ago, after raising a family, she embarked on a new career in humanitarian aid, using her professional skills to support the delivery of emergency medical care with the international aid organisation Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders.

How did you begin your career?
My career in management began a long time ago as I was promoted quite early on. After I completed the [then] NZIM Diploma in Management I went on to hold management positions in accountancy and law firms. Then – after bringing up my family – I had an opportunity to work in a foreign country teaching HR and financial management at a university in China. This experience inspired me to do a Masters in Development Studies when I returned to New Zealand.

Why did you decide to work with an international humanitarian aid organisation?
I first saw the ad for recruitment of non-medical people for an organisation called Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders while I was studying for my Masters. To be honest, I wasn’t overly familiar with their work, and had always assumed they were only interested in medical people. However, the skills they wanted seemed to fit well with my experience and it was at the right time of my life.  So in 2009 I joined.

Describe your work
My first role with MSF was as finance and human resource coordinator in China, based in the capital Beijing and managing an HIV/Aids project in the south of the country. The second placement was in Ethiopia, based in the capital of Addis Ababa, but travelling regularly to the field on the South Sudan border, where refugees cross to escape the ongoing civil war. Most recently I was in Liberia, where we were operating a hospital in a post-Ebola context. I was part of the coordination team, working closely with our teams in Paris and New York on financial and HR matters.    

What does the role involve?
Although each project has been very different the role has been the same. As a coordinator with responsibilities for both finance and HR management, my job was to support the projects from the capital as part of the coordination team.  

Financial management included having a pivotal role in the preparation of the budget, submitting it for approval and then maintaining the budget follow-up throughout the year and ensuring sufficient funds were requested from the headquarters to the field every month to enable the mission to operate. 

And human resources required the assessment of HR needs (both in terms of international and national staff) required to run the mission, then ensuring that all the policies and processes were consistent with the country labour laws as well as MSF policy and regulations. It also involved having working relationships with local people such as the bank manager, local lawyer, suppliers and other INGOs working in the country. 

What do you do in between postings overseas?
In between assignments I have alternatively returned to work in order to upskill, travelled and taken some time to rest.

What helped you in the performance of these tasks?
I found my professional experience and training in accountancy, financial and human resource management, together with a calm Kiwi attitude and professional approach no matter the context, was extremely useful.

How has the experience developed you professionally and personally?
I was at the end of my career so this has been a great new focus for me. It hasn’t prevented me getting work back in New Zealand as MSF has such a wonderful reputation.  For me personally, working with MSF has given me the opportunity to apply my skills in very different contexts where our problems seem small compared with those of the communities we are trying to help. 

What would you say to other managers considering humanitarian work?
Go for it. You can be of any background, work experience, age, career stage as long as you are resilient and flexible, and are willing to learn as much from others as you give yourself. You will be well trained and well supported and whatever you decide to do in the future, it will be an enlightening experience that could lead to a whole new career.

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