Andrew Cusack on Driving Innovation in a Rigid Organization

Driving Innovation in a Rigid Organization

Andrew Cusack is a Senior Policy Officer (CCCM) at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, where one of his greatest challenges is tackling pressing humanitarian needs under a inelastic organizational framework. In this conversation we cover Andrew's mission of innovating an UN agency, the connection of empathy and success, and risk taking as a requirement for happiness.

Reading time: 8 minutes


Hi, my name is Andrew and this is HOWILEAD

I've always had a passion for people, the natural environment, and hard work. I believe that it comes from spending so much time as a kid at my family's cabin; there's no road, no running water, and no electricity. Out playground was the wilderness, our teacher was experience.

These passions have expressed themselves in several ways throughout my adult life, but they've always been the foundation on which I've made any major decision.

My first 'real' jobs after university were as an adventure education teacher at Hong Kong International School and as an instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School during the summers. These helped to galvanize my commitment to leadership excellence and fed my interest in helping it grow in others.

After several years in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to explore the hard work (and sadistic) elements of my personality by trying my hand at running ultra-marathons and generally living outdoors in the High-Sierra mountains of California. These years were a crucible for my physical and mental abilities but they left me wanting, they felt self-indulgent and so I started to explore how else I might invest my time and energy in a way that would serve society, make the world a better place.

After much soul searching and research, I took an internship with a local architect and applied to architecture school a year later. Architecture school, as much as it is about art and design, is about learning how to solve a problem; coming up with creative, out of the box solutions for expressed needs. I found this to be an excellent home for my passions and commitments to nature and people (and as any sleep deprived architecture student will tell you, there's no end to the demanding workload).

My leadership experience also flourished as we worked on collaborating disparate design skills and competing interests in a number of group projects. Unfortunately, I found the reality of architectural practice after school left me disillusioned and frustrated, and I sought opportunities on how best to resolve this.

I became aware of the world of humanitarian shelter when I read an article about the reconstruction efforts after the Haiti earthquake. I spent the next several months desperately applying for field work in Haiti, I figured that with carpentry experience and an architecture degree I'd surely find something quickly... I didn't even get offered an interview.

Finally, an opportunity for an internship with a small shelter research NGO in Geneva came my way. I took advantage of being in Geneva to practice my 'elevator pitch' on anyone who'd listen, and to my great surprise, it worked! I started my first consultancy with UNHCR in November of 2011 and have been working with them ever since. I am now a Senior Policy Officer for Camp Coordination and Camp Management.



Andrew, what tough challenge are you currently trying to solve?

I am currently trying to understand how best to operationalize the immediate needs of people that I work for (displaced populations) with the bureaucratic limitations of a major international agency. These are always contextual solutions, but a thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of all the options, a well developed sense of how all the pieces fit together, as well as a mind for creative solutions (honed by the successes and failures of experience) are what take up a lot of my reflection time.



What are the 1-3 most rewarding aspects of your job?

- All of the little indicators that show me I am contributing in some small way to helping people

- More than anything, I hope that the work I do is a part of helping people. Not just making sure they survive whatever violent horrors they are fleeing, but making sure that they are given all of the same opportunities that I was given growing up. I am extremely cognizant of how lucky I am to have grown up in a place like Canada when I did.

- The people I get to work with - the volunteers in Greece, the refugees, the local authorities, the people in NGO's, and yes, even my UN colleagues. I am humbled by how much I get to learn from them and how rich my life is because of them. -


What is the number one thing (belief, habit, character trait, etc.) that held you back before your life took off?

I think that, especially in my youth, I lacked self-confidence. It wasn't until I stopped caring about what others thought and just committed to my goals that I felt free to play with solutions, explore possibilities, and dance uninhibitedly.


What is the book/documentary/article that most influenced your life and why?

I think that one of the books, among many, that had an impact on me was The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. I read it when I was still quite young and it helped me to see myself as part of a greater whole. Just one grain of sand among many trillions of living things, and being at peace with ebbs and flows of the world around me.


Who is the greatest leader that comes to mind and why?

I don't know why but I'm really struggling with this question; there are many great leaders I admire - Yvon Chouinard, Sister Angélique Namaika, Arne Naess, Kurt Hahn, Malala Yousafzai, my Mom... - They all rose to the challenges/opportunities that were presented to them and applied, with confidence, their knowledge and experiences to achieve something great. Every time I try to single one out, reasons on how another may be better in this or that situation come to mind.


What were the 20% that returned 80% of the results you consider central for your success?

I think that this would be my generally positive attitude and the way that I treat others. It's stupid really, but I'm a generally happy guy that says hello and asks about how your family is doing.

This simple approach (that is sincere and brings me joy) has really helped me achieve so much - people are happy to bend over backwards to help me at work, or go out of their way to include me in discussions that affect refugees in the field because they see me as a friend more than because it's my job.  


What belief have you changed in the past year and why?

I used to believe in the EU much more but my experience working in Greece this year has taught me that economics and politics, selfishness and fear, govern international affairs as much as, if not more than, a commitment to human rights and doing good work.

Please share with us your morning routine (and evening routine if you have one).I usually wake up early and have a coffee and light breakfast while reading the news. If I feel up to it, and have the time, I might squeeze in a quick work out before hopping on my bike to head into the office. In the evenings, I try to protect that time for my partner. We'll generally cook a nice dinner together and then read, go for a walk, or watch TV.


Please share the story of the moment in your life when you found your purpose or the skill you excel at.

I feel like I gravitated towards my 'purpose' at a very early age; I've always had a passion for nature and helping people. If I had to highlight a skill that I believe I do well at, I'd have to say it's probably my strong sense of empathy. I have found that I rely on this the most in my work, especially when in the field.

Coming into a humanitarian situation and trying to work with a number of competing interests (refugees, local communities, host governments, cash strapped NGOs), I've found that empathy has helped me to see past my own expectations to understand the needs of each of these different entities and begin to weave a solution together from common threads that are not externally apparent.


What aspect of your life do you expect to be fundamentally different in 2050?

I sincerely hope that I can find a better work/life balance. The last few years with work have left the very important personal elements of relationship, nature, and athletics lacking.


If you could only leave behind 1-3 truths of life as your legacy, what would they be?

1. Trust in life - sometimes it's important to close your eyes, fall backward into the river of life, and let the current take you. The most amazing things will happen to you when let them.

2. Take the risk... but not blindly - they say that fortune favours the bold and I'd have to say that my experience this has found this to be true. While exposure to risk certainly has many potential consequences, the results for me have been an infinitely richer life. That being said, just learn first-aid, before you hitchhike it would be good to know some self defence, before you try class five whitewater you should learn how to rescue...

3. Nothing is ever good or bad, it just is - I personally choose to think that Aldo Leaopold was right when he said that "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." but the reality is that the universe doesn't care. Thus, our convictions about what is right and wrong are just that, our own - we should not be so arrogant as to assume that they will, or should, be shared by others.


If you could re-live one moment in your life, which would you choose?

This one, right now.



What makes the difference between being good and being great at something?

Passion - passion make it possible to find the time to squeeze those '10'000 hours' into our complicated everyday lives. Find your passion and it will guide you to greatness. Making a living from that, well there's the rub ;)


What was the most interesting conversation you had lately?

I really enjoyed a conversation that I had with a stranger about importing cheese from Europe while waiting in the customs declaration line of the Vancouver airport. Not because I care so much about cheese but because it was a total stranger and I love/miss that about Canadians; you can have a conversation with anyone, about anything, at anytime.


Which smartphone app is mission critical for your life (and travel)?

Whatsapp, Spotify, Google Maps, Camera, Tripcase.


What makes yourself and your followers follow your lead?

I think it's that I express a value for the best possible solution (not necessarily the perfect solution) without prejudice and commit to implementing it efficiently. I listen to everyone's ideas and give them all equal value and time and am usually able to find a way that incorporates everyone's interests into the solution.


To wrap up, what is the one piece of advice you would give your 20-year old self?

Don't be too loyal. It's ok to let something go and you should have the confidence to know when it's over.


Andrew, thank you for inspiring us! Keep up your amazing work!


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