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Q&A with RedR UK’s CEO, Jo de Serrano

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As the final part in our series of articles that celebrates RedR UK’s 40th anniversary we talk to Jo de Serrano, the CEO of RedR UK, who began this role almost exactly a year ago.

Jo came into the organisation and immediately began to shake things up. Just as a new strategy was approved for RedR UK’s direction, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

It’s been an interesting year for Jo and the organisation, in many ways. In this Q&A we look back at the past year, all the challenges that the organisation has had to overcome, and we look forward to the years ahead.

You've been CEO for over a year now, how has RedR UK changed over that time?

It’s been a very interesting year, to say the least! I can't say that COVID-19 is entirely responsible for the shift because even before COVID we were looking how to change. What I can say is that we are leaner and much more focused now. 

The strategy that was approved and on the table at the turn of the year, has actually been implemented much faster than we could have imagined. It had to take into account the COVID-19 context including a very pronounced shift from face-to-face learning to e-learning. 

This may change with a return of a new form of post COVID-19 normality, but I don’t think the learning space will be the same again. We’re still focusing on bridging the skills gap, with open programmes and bespoke learning initiatives for both individuals and organisations primarily within a local context. In addition, we have developed our Technical Hub to deepen the links between the engineering and humanitarian communities.

Although you couldn't have predicted what 2020 would bring for RedR UK, what would you have said to yourself a year ago when joining as CEO, to prepare for what was to come?

I’d have said, ‘Hold on tight, we’re in for a rollercoaster of a ride!’ I would have moved our face-to-face learning online sooner and moved forward faster on remote management, which was already included within our strategy, but for which we had only just made a start.

I actually think this year is a true turning point for RedR UK. During our 40th year, we’ve managed to show that an older organisation can change with the world. So, regardless of all the challenges we’ve had to overcome, I would have also said ‘Enjoy the ride because it’s really going to move the needle.’ 

Reflecting on the last year, what have RedR UK's biggest achievements been? What have the biggest challenges been and how has RedR UK overcome them?

Our first ever response in the UK was a highlight, in recognition that COVID-19 is truly a global emergency and that helping people in the UK, including diaspora and refugee communities could not only help us in the UK but also help their families overseas, killing two birds with one stone. 

We all felt underserved by COVID-19 communications and, at worst, were totally confused by them and so we could only wonder what it would be like for people who did not speak English as a first language, or where the messages didn’t engage people in the right way. Working with organisations like Uprising during the UK based COVID-19 training sessions allowed us to reach communities most vulnerable to this miscommunication.

Tackling mental health issues was a real eye opener, as it can typically be a taboo topic in the humanitarian industry, we felt it absolutely necessary to have this as one of our main themes in the COVID-19 training courses because looking after yourself is the most important thing to be able look after others. 

The biggest challenge was accessibility in the online space and how we can reach individuals operating in countries with low bandwidth. We overcame this by enabling all our training to be downloaded afterwards, so that everyone could participate. We’ve been running courses at different times of the day too, to work around participants’ lives. It was both a challenge and a success as we trained over 3000 people in 91 countries. RedR UK staff had to work odd hours to facilitate the training. It was a real cross-team challenge.

How do you see RedR UK evolving over the next few years?

I see an even deeper engagement with our engineering and insurance industry patrons and partners, especially around the areas of climate change and urban response. 

RedR UK’s Climate Change Adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction courses can really play a part in corporate social responsibility as they buy into the Greta Thunberg effect where everyone is becoming more environmentally conscious. I see it as a great thing for private corporations to be pushing this agenda forward.

We will face big challenges and changes around localisation across the humanitarian sector, but we can play our part in that, through certification of competencies across the sector, levelling the playing field amongst national and international staff during the recruitment process and enabling employers to select staff based on true assessment of competencies, as well as cultural and contextual appropriateness. 

What are you most proud of from the organisation since you have become CEO?

The team, they’ve been through hell and high water to deliver what we are delivering today. I’m also proud of our new set of values: CELIA. 

  • Collaboration of the team has been impeccable. 
  • Excellence has been proven by the feedback rates of our courses. 
  • We’ve been learning consistently, changing and adapting, which has been essential for survival.
  • Integrity is baked into everything we do.
  • Everyone remains accountable to each other, the organisation and those that we work with who are affected by emergencies. 

It’s a great place to work and I am always reminded of how many people I know have either taken a RedR UK course in the past and thought it was great and / or used to work for RedR UK. I like to think that people never truly leave RedR and the experiences people have here really stay with them. This is something I really value and want to thank everyone at RedR UK for their hard work this year - without whom we would not have moved the needle for the organisation.