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An Interview with Henriette Kolb, CEO Cherie Blair Foundation for Women

Global Leadership Post, 20 December 2012

Henriette joined the Foundation in May 2009. One of Devex’s recognised top 40 under 40 international development leaders in London, Henriette has extensive programme, policy and management experience in international development. She has previously held positions with the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), the European Commission in Tanzania and the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in Jerusalem. Henriette holds an MSc in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Visit the Foundation website: or follow the foundation on Twitter @CherieBlairFndn

Who is your leadership role model?
My leadership role model is Sergio Vieira de Mello, ex High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Secretary General’s Special representative in Baghdad, Iraq. This wonderful Brazilian man, who was killed in Iraq, showed incredible integrity and amazing dedication to his work. He was incredibly smart and able to negotiate with a broad set of stakeholders, a unique role model of a real Public Servant, exemplifiying all the positive attributes that go with that position. He promoted peace all his life at very senior levels of the UN. He brought every member of his team into his vision and what he was trying to accomplish. His death was such a tragedy. Samantha Power’s book : « Chasing the Flame » is an excellent account of his life.

How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style has evolved over my professional career over the course of the roles I’ve had in different organisations. I have now spent 3 years with the Cherie Blair Foundation and in the beginning we were a small team, almost resembling a family set up. My leadership style during that period was formed by the need to have a very flat hierachy, everybody contributing to the huge tasks at hand, which required extreme close collaboration. It was all hands on deck!

With growth in our team (now 15 people), there are now different levels of hierarchy and more specialized roles in place. This requires a different leadership approach and allows me to take a less hands on approach and a less operational role. We work in a very fast-paced environment, and I find myself becoming now more focused on setting out governance policies and strategy together with my senior management team. I also try to instill a climate of organizational and individual learning. I encourage my team to be innovative and take calculated risks, expand their talents and actively grow their levels of responsibility. I like to develop my team’s skills and we are lucky as we get to work and influence very senior private and public sector representatives.

We are still a relatively small organization and I feel it is important for all staff to have external mentors across all functions. I think it’s incredibly beneficial to have a go-to person, to be able to talk things through and to get advice from somebody who is not too closely involved.

What are your key career highlights to date?
My first career highlight is my current job, which I love. I have been very fortunate to be able to start everything from scratch. It is so rewarding to be able to develop innovative programmes with others from different sectors supporting women entrepreneurs across the globe. There are not that many organizations focused on supporting talented women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging markets move the needle from mico-entrepreneurs to small sized companies. Our experience working with more than 6000 women entrepreneurs in over 25 countries confirms to me that what is needed is more confidence-capability and capital growth. All of our programmes aim to address the specific barriers, which women entrepreneurs face.

My second career highlight, was when I worked for the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in Jerusalem. We were hopeful that things would look up in 2007, direct negotiations took place in 2008 and there were positive moments in a seemingly intractable situation. I was privileged to work with outstanding colleagues, highly capable and committed to their work. I very much enjoyed working with Israeli and Palestinian colleagues and with other UN agencies on the ground. It was a very special and unforgettable experience.

How would you describe the differences between Women’s leadership style and Men’s Leadership styles?
From my perspective and what I have experienced in my career to date, I think that the best is achieved when men and women share their skills and talents in one team. All male or all female teams lack something in my opinion. Throughout all my postings in Scotland, Tanzania, Israel, Palestine and now in London, I have had inspiring male and female managers as well as less great leaders, but I could never link the performance to a gender rather to who they were as a person.

A leaders’ style is so personal. The way you grow up impacts how you engage with the world. To me what counts is that a person can listen, engage with me and complement my skills with his/her talents. We all need to learn. Making the admission that none of us is perfect allows an organization to grow. Having a complimentary skill set really matters to me.

What kind of Organisation culture do you help create/support in your organisation?
We have built peer support into our working environment and having a mentor for each member of staff. Our three International Steering Committee advise the Programme Managers. These committees consist of people who are thought leaders in the fields of technology, gender, entrepreneurship and finance, are able to build unusual alliances across sectors. Such advice helps us to focus outwards and avoid becoming too insular. It is another level of support and growth that is constantly evolving. My role is to support staff and to give them the opportunities to stretch so that their confidence can grow.

We are not overly hierarchical - we create opportunities for senior staff to benefit from 2 week secondments to other organisations. Giving staff exposure to other organizational cultures that are relevant to their roles and develop their skill set, allows us to generate fresh ideas and stay motivated. Start-up organizations often demand a high degree of flexibility from their employees. This is the same in our field, but we give a lot and are proud of what we are accomplishing. It is important to share results with core functions such as fundraising or finance managers who normally would not get to interact as much with the women entrepreneurs directly. That way, we keep all staff engaged and informed. We also have members of the Board to go out and see the work we are doing.

How do you help grow leaders in your organization?
We look at what people want to do in their next role after the Foundation or inside the organization. We identify a couple of areas to work on and build a suite of opportunities for leadership tasks, either speaking opportunities or engagement with external stakeholders at a senior level, writing a blog. We look at individual roles and interests and identify what support and training courses staff might benefit from. We have to make sure we give enough opportunities for career development. Training is essential. We also invite staff to participate in core governance issues - it’s crucial to make sure those skills are transferable.

What is your greatest achievement to date?
I think it’s easier to ask others that question about me! I have helped to develop a European Commission wide HIV/AIDS workplace policy, which made a difference to staff working with the more than 100 EC-delegations around the world. I would say that being a loyal friend is also one of my greatest achievements. Once I embark on a journey, I’m there - and I am positive, embracing change.

As a Team, we work hard to accomplish tremendous things in research and service delivery, influencing key actors in the private and the public sector to see that women entrepreneurs are an opportunity in each market - that they present a fantastic economic and social multiplier effect. When you invest in women, you get back right into the community. Our research on the mobile gender gap with the GSMA Development Fund was used by Secretary Hilary Clinton to launch a major programme focused on allowing women better access to mobile phones. This too is definitely one of our greatest achievements.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Sleep more! Sometimes be less passionate, stand back a little! I’m enthusiastic and really interested in many things. Instead of being happy to always take things on, pause and use the 10second rule - wait and engage afterwards. Don’t think too much! Watch lighter movies.

How do you give back to Society?
Through work, I have made it all about giving back to society but that would be a lazy answer. Financially I contribute to a housing charity. Tim wise, I volunteer with Age UK, where I’m supporting a woman in her 70’s from Morocco. She’s lonely in London and doesn’t speak English very well, she’s not able to engage easily with others. I get her to practice her English and take her out to walk in the park to get her outside.

What would you like to achieve, as a leader, in the coming 5 years?
To continue to build a very strong Team, which continues to identify and develop new solutions that allow women entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and become a stronger voice in society.

Unrelated, and on an entirely different world scale, because I’ve worked in Israel and Palestine, I’d love to see a solution come about. The window is closing. If that could be accomplished, then any contribution I’d be happy to make gladly, as it is what I care about very deeply. If this conflict were resolved, it would have a huge impact on the region and beyond.

3 key words to describe yourself?
· Inquisitive
· Dedicated
· Passionate!

“Looking back on your career, don’t cut off an opportunity. Even if a job title doesn’t sound as glamorous eg Assistant in the Title, you can transform the role. Seize opportunities and don’t be too worked up about status. Go for what you really feel interested by, instead of a career path. As long as you know why, you will take the right steps.”

About the Author:
Anne Ravanona is Founder and Author of the Global Leadership Post and CEO & Founder of Global Invest Her, helping Women Entrepreneurs gain access to capital and putting Women Leaders in the spotlight. She is also President & Founder of Women Entrepreneurs Network & the Paul Nolan Miralles Association to help families of missing persons. Follow Ms. Ravanona on Twitter @anneravanona, @GlobalInvestHer, on her blogs at and