Always strategic in her educational and career choices, Alice Charles built up a diverse portfolio of expertise and experience before landing her current role leading the cities and urban development work at the World Economic Forum in Geneva, Switzerland.
About Alice Charles
Tell us a bit about your educational background and early career
I was born in Florencecourt, Co Fermanagh, Northern Ireland and went to secondary school in Enniskillen and then on to Queen’s University Belfast, where I specialised in urban planning. In my Erasmus year, I studied urban planning at Radboud University Nijmegan in the Netherlands. Then I returned to Queen’s for my master’s in town and country planning. My early education was very much related to the area I ended up working in.
I put myself through university –I had three part time jobs to cover my living expenses – so I was always mindful that I needed to get a good job after graduating. I wanted to ensure I had secured a job offer well in advance of graduating and, while my preference was to work in Dublin, I found Irish companies didn’t have formal graduate training programmes and were recruiting in a more ad-hoc fashion. But UK companies were offering graduate training programmes and as I was keen to become a chartered urban planner, I started applying to a number of UK-based companies with programmes that would help achieve that.
After applying to lots of companies and doing many interviews, I was offered a position at GVA UK, which was the position I really wanted. I commenced work in September 2001 in the urban regeneration team. I started working on major public sector urban regeneration schemes – including King’s Cross St Pancras, the Olympic bid and Battersea Power Station – which was a fantastic experience.
After about four years in London, my cousin, who I’d been very close to growing up, and I decided we wanted to go travelling. So, I gave up my job and we went to Australia and New Zealand and all over Asia, Latin America and the US.
After that, I decided to come back to Ireland and in October 2005, started working in Dublin for Colin Buchanan, now owned by Jacobs. It took a bit of time to transition to working in Dublin. Business in London was very structured, whereas it was quite informal in Dublin. While it was initially a bit of culture shock, I learned that Irish people are very good at developing ideas and solutions and suggesting compromises. Even though some people might rock up a few minutes late to meetings, I always found that I got more out of these meetings than in the UK. That was my experience anyway. So I got the professionalism and experience of working on major projects and encountering big issues in the UK, but then I learnt a different way of thinking and finding solutions in Ireland.
Although I was still quite young I was in a relatively senior position because of my previous experience. Within a year, my boss transitioned out of the organisation and I was made head of the Dublin office. That was a very big shock to me and I had to work very hard to prove to everyone I could do the job and also find ways of getting the best out of the staff.
I took over the office in 2006 and not long after the financial crisis hit. We had some good contracts that kept us going through to 2010. Then in 2011, the company decided to close the Belfast office. Then, out of nowhere, the Dublin office was closed too.
I agreed I would wind down some of the contracts and so set up my own operation for about a year to do that. I had already applied for the MBA in UCD Michael Smurfit Business School and when I was accepted, I decided to do my MBA at night, over two years. I was also appointed as an external board member of Nama in 2010 and I continue in this role.
While I was running my own operation, I secured a number of contracts; one was to work with the Independents in Dáil Eireann part-time. It required me to work in the whip’s office, doing research relating to the environment, energy, climate change, planning and housing, and helping with speeches and parliamentary questions.
Then I heard about an opportunity in the Department of the Environment, where they were seeking an EU presidency officer. At that stage, my now-husband had started working for the United Nations in Geneva. So I was thinking about my existing experience and how that might translate internationally. I realised that I had never worked in the public sector other than during the summer when I was at university. So I thought this opportunity would not only provide me with public sector experience, but also international experience in the sense that it would involve working on the EU presidency and with the other member states, the Commission and the United Nations. I applied and got the job, so I closed my business and worked there until I finished my MBA.
Meanwhile, I had been applying for positions in Geneva. The job I’m doing now at the World Economic Forum came up and just seemed absolutely ideal: it was in the area I’d specialised in, it required an MBA, and it required work experience in the public and private sectors. So I applied and after 18 interviews and a series of psychological tests, personality tests, emotional intelligence tests, written tests and presentations, I got the job.
Tell us a bit about the role
I lead the cities and urban development work at the World Economic Forum.
The World Economic Forum is an international organisation for public private collaboration. We focus on convening multi stakeholders to get traction on key global issues. As I lead our work on the future of cities, I work with mayors, leaders of government, global leaders of business and civil society to drive the transformation of cities and accelerate investment in smart and sustainable urban infrastructure and services. We aim to enable cities to leverage the latest innovations and technologies to leapfrog several stages of development and optimise city efficiency. I am lucky in that I love what I do, I am passionate about driving the transformation of cities and I get to work all over the world and have met and developed personal connections and relationships with some amazing global leaders.
I’m based in Geneva but I have been working on projects in India, China, Africa and Latin America, North America, Europe and Japan.
When I joined the World Economic Forum, I was asked to be part of the Global Leadership Fellowship, which is a three-year executive education programme taught in conjunction with The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, Insead, London Business School, the China Europe International Business School and Cornell Tech. I graduated last year with a master’s in global leadership.
The World Economic Forum is a place I really enjoy working. I think my colleagues are the smartest people I’ve ever met. Maybe this is due to the thorough recruitment process. There’s such a level of intelligence, and achievement amongst my colleagues and I’m constantly learning from them.
The founder and chairman, Klaus Schwab, has ingrained a culture of entrepreneurial leadership, so everyone has to be agile and be prepared to embrace new strategies and ideas.
You also need to be a good orator as you have to represent your work on the international stage and regularly speak with heads of state, ministers, mayors and global CEOs on behalf of the organisation.
It can be challenging to manage people who are immensely talented and in a rush. It’s very positive in terms of the output but it can be challenging in that they can run too fast and run into trouble.
I believe the types of things I’m learning in this organisation will be of value to me for the rest of my life.
How would you describe your leadership style?
One of the things I hear consistently through 360 degree feedback is that I’m quite visionary. I think that’s fair – I am good at getting stakeholders to sit down around a table and work together to develop a vision. I am known for my energy and drive when selling the vision and consequently I find it easy to gather support for my vision.
I am also very resilient. I have the ability to cope with significant change and find a way to navigate through uncertainty.
I’m very hardworking, but this is not about clearing the inbox or presenteeism – it’s about developing a strategy, delivering it, building a credible track record and maintaining it.
I’m also good at networking, but this is not just about me making connections with people. At the World Economic Forum, I introduce and connect people, where I feel there’s real value in them working together. Networking isn’t about going out and collecting business cards and thinking it might help you get a better job in the future, it’s also about connecting people within your network.
What motivates you?
I’m passionate about the area I work in, so that motivates me. My husband always tells me I’m so lucky because I love what I do. And I absolutely do. You have to be passionate about what you’re working at.
What is your inspiration?
My brother is definitely an inspiration. My brother has cerebral palsy and he has never let his physical disability get in his way. I think I became interested in urbanism because I saw how difficult it was for my brother to navigate the built environment and natural environment.
But also the way my parents dealt with my brother’s disability was quite remarkable. That inspired me. When the going gets tough, you don’t give up, you keep going. That is very important.
Other people have also motivated me along the way. For example, my economics teacher in Mount Lourdes Grammar School. She pushed us to achieve, but in such a positive way.
What is your greatest achievement?
Personally, I would say my marriage and the family we have created with our little boy is our greatest achievement.
Any failures along the way?
We run a number of pilot projects at the World Economic Forum and by their very nature they may not always succeed. For example, I have been working with a lot of different organisations on a project focused on addressing health in cities. It hasn’t been a failure but certain things haven’t worked and we’ve had to change course. You cannot plough on in the same direction if it’s not working. It’s really important to listen to feedback and change course.
What are your tips and advice for success?
I think you’ve got to be doing something you enjoy. There’s no point staying in a job you hate, because you are going to be miserable, you’re going to make everyone in your workplace miserable, and you’re going to make everyone at home miserable.
I also believe it’s important to think about where you’re going and what you need to do to get there. In four or five years my husband and I would like to move back to Dublin. I’m thinking now about what I am going to do in five years’ time.
You should always use a good crisis. For me, it was redundancy. I took stock and decided I wanted to enhance my education and get international experience, even though I would have to take a pay cut to achieve this.
It’s very important to think about where you’re going overall and what you need to do to get there. That may require a return to education or gaining additional experience and it can mean making sacrifices in terms of moving laterally or going into a sector that isn’t as well paid, for a couple of years.
Without completing my MBA and gaining international experience I would not have been able to get into the World Economic Forum.
What are your plans for the future?
We definitely want to go back to Ireland but what I do back there, I’m not quite sure. I still want to work internationally. I’ve considered things like going into politics, based on what I’ve learned. I’ll see where it takes me. I’m going to take the time to soul search.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
I enjoy spending time with my husband and my son! We live in Switzerland and we’re near the mountains and the lake. In winter, we spend a lot of time in the mountains and that includes snowshoeing and skiing. I love to get out into nature. I love doing that in Ireland too. It’s great to get out and have a good walk, to breathe fresh air and clear the mind and get away from everything. That’s very important.
In the summer, in Geneva we enjoy the lake. And we’re also very lucky to live in the centre of Europe. So we can jump on a train and go to Paris or Milan for the weekend. But I travel so much with work I’m not interested in going off on big exotic adventures anymore. I’m more interested in being grounded and spending time with my family.
I also love going back to Ireland to see family and friends.
How has your degree benefited your career?
Without doing the MBA and gaining international experience I would not have been able to get into the World Economic Forum.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit?
I think it has to be our executive MBA trip to Brazil. It gave us the opportunity to connect with our lecturers and fellow exec MBA students, to understand the unique business context in Brazil and go exploring.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
It’s very important. My MBA class has a Whats app group, so we can connect informally on a regular basis and also reach out individually.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I am a farmer’s daughter, so I grew up working on the farm and I love animals, especially donkeys. Don’t ask me why.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
Unfortunately my IPhone, although I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. I will not use it around my son.
What is your pet hate?
People with egos larger than themselves – I generally find that the most successful people are very humble and those with egos less so.
What’s your favourite book?
I love Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. I find it a very honest account of her life and career and the very real challenges that working mums face. I was lucky enough to meet her in Davos, after I had read her book and I was able to tell her in person how much I appreciated it.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
I wouldn’t say I have a favourite. I like U2, Snow Patrol and Coldplay but I also like Avicii and Andrea Bocelli, so I have varied taste.
What’s the last film you went to that you loved?
The last film was Mark Felt, but I actually watched it on the plane on the way back from a business trip in New York.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Thai curry. I love Thai food.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
Tokyo. It’s the largest city in the world, but still everything functions so well. People have embraced innovation and technology, yet traditions and customs have been retained.
What are your insider tips for anyone visiting Geneva?
A lot of people think Geneva is a little bit boring, but actually when you get to know the city you realise it has a great quality of life. In fact, I have come to love the fact that shops are closed on a Sunday and you can spend quality time with family instead. In terms of things to see and do, make sure you explore the UN and Cern, walk by the lake and take a cruise on a boat and explore the old town.
Name three things on your bucket list
Move back to Ireland with my husband and little boy, spend more time with family and friends back home and immerse my little boy in his Irish culture and heritage. I also want to further improve my French and despite all the travel I do with work, there are a number of places in the world I want to explore, including the Galapagos Islands and the Arctic.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
As my brother has cerebral palsy, I have fundraised for disabled charities. The one that is closest to my heart is the Buddy Bear Trust, which raises money to give children with cerebral palsy in Northern Ireland the opportunity to avail of conductive education. This is a treatment that was developed in Budapest, Hungary, which really helps to make children with cerebral palsy more physically mobile, but also makes them more determined and believes in their ability. My brother received this treatment in Budapest many years ago and it really improved his life. I have also fundraised a lot over the years for Focus Ireland and have completed the Four Peaks Challenge.