Maggie Nicholson

maggie nicholson

It was an honour to speak with Maggie Nicholson, who retired from the United Nations in March 2012, from the post of Deputy Director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, after having served four years as Chief of the Europe and Central Asia Section in OHCHR’s Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division.  Before joining the United Nations in 2006, Ms Nicholson worked for 14 years with the Council of Europe, for several years within the Directorate General for Human Rights devoted to human rights cooperation programmes, before eventually heading the Division of Field and Information Offices.  From 1988 to 1992, Ms Nicholson served as Director of Operations of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (now Human Rights First), in New York.  Ms Nicholson, who is from the UK, studied law at the London School of Economics and Political Science and began her career in international human rights in 1975 in Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, London.  Since retiring, Maggie has drafted human rights-related reports for the United Nations and Council of Europe, undertaken a number of election observation missions and worked with the Government of Georgia on the country’s National Plan for the Protection of Human Rights.  


What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?

Given most:

All the James Rebanks books.  He writes with feeling about farming the land in the Lake District through the generations.  Touches a lot of areas I’m interested in.  He writes beautifully and historically.

La Peste (The Plague) by Albert Camus.  Resonates even more today.  The character that made the greatest impression on me was Joseph Grand, who struggled to perfect the first sentence of the book he was trying to write.  

Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada. Inspired by a true story, it’s about one ordinary man’s determination in his own small way to defy Nazi tyranny. It’s heart-warming.

Another book I’ve shared was one given to me by a boss in the 80s:  Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury. It’s about negotiating agreements without giving in. Step one is to separate the problem from the person and step two is to focus on the interests not the position. A revelation for me.


What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)? (Brand and model, where you found it?)

A Ninja Air Fryer. I subscribe to Which? Magazine as I like to get value for money. It reviewed well so I bought it and I’m very impressed. It’s more fuel efficient than my range cooker and since retiring I’m cooking more. Throughout my life I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot and spent a lot of time eating out.


How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours? 

I did not do well at my A levels. I was a year ahead and bright, but I was easily distracted by other things. I feel if I had been successful then,  I’d have taken a more regular route and had a more ordinary life. But instead, because I was faced with different challenges, I’ve had an extraordinary life, much more than I could ever have imagined.


If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it —metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph. (If helpful, it can be someone else’s quote: Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?)

We only have one life.   “Don’t throw away your shot”.  Make it count.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and in rights.” 


What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made? (Could be an investment of money, time, energy, etc.)

I grew up in a family that believed keenly in justice and fairness. Paying for my Law Degree at the LSE was my best investment. Back in the early 1970s it wasn’t easy for women to get jobs.  So I did a secretarial course learning shorthand amongst other things, to get in the back door to more interesting work. 


What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love? 

I love the New York Mets baseball team.  (Absurd?)  I used to write to them and follow them since before they won the World Series in the 80s. 


In the last five years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life? 

I have an 18-month-old Labrador. So walking every day for miles is a new thing. Also writing a diary every day. I use it as a to-do list, as well as writing down what I’ve done. My memory isn’t all  it used to be and it’s reassuring to be able to look back over what I’ve done.


What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore?”

A lot of students ask me for advice. Always do your homework and it will pay off. Listen carefully, have faith in yourself and never pretend to know something you don’t know.


What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise? 

Well, that’s the way we always do it.

No, that’s not good enough.


What frustrates you the most about your industry and the way companies are run in it?

I still think women often need to work twice as hard (or at least one and a half times) to get the same recognition. Especially in the international arena.  I also used to sense there was an assumption that ‘clever’ ‘exciting’ work was for the men, while management was women’s work. Women need to learn how to speak with conviction, something men seem to do more often. I had to learn. 

International organisations have intricate systems of appraisals and not many managers appear to have the courage to be critical when it is needed, which has a direct, negative impact on promotions and on team morale.  Added to this, if there had been some wrongdoing, the response tended to be directed at the collective, rather than resolving the problem with the individual(s) directly concerned.  Again, not good for team morale.


In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to (distractions, invitations, etc.)? What new realisations and/or approaches helped? Any other tips? 

I’m not good at saying no.  – Although I do often have to remind myself that I’m not indispensable.


What does a balanced life look like to you? Has a work or a project you have been focused on caused you to neglect other areas of your life?

I need to maintain my relationships. There are so many wonderful people in my life. I’m close with my family, I spend lots of time with my sisters and I have a large group of friends all around the world. Facebook for all its drawbacks has helped me keep in contact with many of these. It’s an important support network. 

When I was working, I used to go to the gym regularly. Now I walk my dog for two or three miles every day; he gets me up at a sensible time and gets me out amongst nature.

It’s always been important to me to have a nice home to come back to, even when I didn’t get much time to spend in it.  One of my favourites was along the Hudson River when I was working in New York. I now live in the English countryside. I love the extremes, the countryside or a major city; the suburbs aren’t for me.

There have been times in my  life when I was so focused on work that it contributed to the end of a couple of important relationships, but I don’t have any regrets. I’ve been so fortunate with everything that’s happened in my life.


When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do? (If helpful: What questions do you ask yourself?)

I make a list of things to be done, which I then prioritise. Then a list of pros and cons. If I need to switch off, and let my mind wander, sometimes I go for a walk, or I do a jigsaw, or I even might wash the kitchen floor.  Failing all of that, I sleep on it.


What does leadership mean to you?

It’s one of those things that you can’t easily define, but you know it when you see it.

Leaders have to provide clear vision, clarity, so they need excellent communication skills. They must be reliable and dependable, then they build trust and respect. They also have to have the courage to confront difficult issues. They need to surround themselves with good people, who will challenge them, not just ‘yes men’.


Which people have most inspired you in your life and why?

One previous boss stands out in this respect., He was extremely empathetic and listened carefully to people. He more than anyone I’d known could confront someone in power that had done something bad, without antagonising them.  Because of this he could deal with difficult situations and create change, where others would create conflict. We achieved some good things when we worked together.

In my career I tried my best to emulate him, but didn’t always succeed. Sometimes I’d get frustrated and short with people. I am human after all. 


What do the words principles and values mean to you? 

This is a critical issue for me, central to all the human rights issues I’ve worked on in my career. At the core of what matters is integrity and honesty. 

In the UK, if you take the Nolan principles, the seven principles of public life, they are supposed to be adhered to, but so many politicians spend their time trying to work out how to get around them. We want better than that from our leaders.


If you had a forum to speak to 50 leaders, what question would you pose to them, to get them thinking about and being better leaders?

Can you put yourself into the other person’s shoes?


What one thing could you do that you aren’t doing now, that if you did on a regular basis, would make a tremendous positive difference in your personal life?  What one thing in your business or professional life would bring similar results?

Deal with things immediately, when they arrive on my desk. Now that I’ve retired, I don’t have any staff, so I have to do everything myself. I had been told before that you are just as busy when you retire as before, and I‘m experiencing that.

I used to have a practice that at the end of my work day I’d have my desk cleared and ready for the next day. Perhaps I need to instigate that again.


Have you ever engaged with self-help, mentoring or coaching? If so, how?

Within the Council of Europe and the United Nations, senior leaders were encouraged to go on leadership programs and courses. While valuable in themselves, the most valuable element for me was networking with others. I thrive on networking, I’ve always found this a strength and one that pays a huge dividend. 

Throughout my career I benefited from having interns and always tried to give them meaningful work. It’s been inspiring when they have contacted me since and told me how important that experience was for them.

Topic: 50 in 50