Joanne Liu is president of Médecins Sans Frontières, an international medical humanitarian organisation that has 30,000 medical professionals delivering emergency aid in more than 60 countries. She trained at McGill University School of Medicine and has a fellowship in paediatric emergency medecine from New York University School of Medicine. She is currently studying for a Masters in Management at the Desautels Faculty of Management in Montreal, where she is enrolled on the specialised International Masters in Health Leadership taught by management guru Henry Mintzberg.
Dr Liu has volunteered with MSF since 1996 in a number of different capacities, including physician, field doctor, programme manager and board member. Her humanitarian work has taken her to some of the most unstable regions in the world including Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya and Uganda. She opted to study for a MiM after seeing a growing need for management skills to cope with decreasing resources and increasing demand on healthcare. She was elected president of MSF in June 2013.
Born and raised as a French Canadian in Quebec City, Dr Liu now lives in Geneva and enjoys cooking, cycling and hiking.
1. What are your business influences?
When I was 13, I read Et la paix dans le monde, Docteur? a physician’s account of working with Médecins Sans Fontières during the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. It was this book that inspired me to work for MSF.
2. What is an average day at work like?
Extremely busy and never predictable as we work in response to world events. For example, there could be a natural catastrophe where the organisation of aid needs to take place within a few short hours if MSF wants to have any chance at making a difference. Or, it could be managing a new influx of refugees who have arrived into a host country which does not have the response capacity for them. Additionally, our staff can be injured through their work, and even in some cases could die or be abducted.
3. How do you deal with the pressure?
I deal with it because I see real meaning in what I do. My life is so comfortable compared to Syrians who have lived under the threat of attack for the last three years. I have nothing to complain about, even if I am busy, or have moments when things get tough.
4. What inspires you?
People inspire me. Every day I meet amazing individuals in the field. When I see a mother who has walked for three weeks to come to a MSF clinic, with two kids on her back and her belongings on her head, facing intimidation and physical abuse on her way, I am inspired by her resilience – her desire for life.
5. What is the best piece of advice given to you by a teacher?
Keep your options open while you are studying.
6. What is your biggest lesson learnt?
Sometimes in your career you are at the right place at the right moment. But you have to be aware that eventually you may no longer be the right person for that position. So build your succession and foster for it while you are still at the peak of you career.
7. What advice would you give to women in business?
Never lower your sight – always look at people at eye-level.
8. What is your favourite business book?
I have two: Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl Weick, and Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis by Graham Allison.
9. If you could do it all again, what would you do differently?
I would probably do an undergraduate degree before going to medical school. Perhaps in arts and sciences, for the creativity.
10. What are your future plans?
Getting through my first mandate as president of MSF and setting a medical humanitarian vision for the entire MSF organisation, where the patient will be at the centre of our decision-making.
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