In 2017, Mission Talent placed Melanie Rutten-Sülz in the role of Secretary General at Youth For Understanding. Melanie works at the heart of a global federation of intercultural youth exchange organisations. Previously, she was the Executive Director of the Global Coffee Platform, a multi-stakeholder sustainable coffee partnership. In this interview, Melanie reflects on what inspires her, and what she has learned from leading global membership organisations.
You have almost completed two years in the role of the Secretary-General at Youth For Understanding (YFU). Could you tell us in a nutshell, how has this been for you?
It has been an amazing journey over the last two years. I landed in a completely unknown and new organisation, with a strong mission, a very engaged and dedicated community with a global, decentralized setup, and an impressive legacy. But at the same time, from the first moment I started, I really felt at home and that I have arrived in a place where I can have an impact. I identify strongly with the mission and there are great people at YFU helping to bring the organisation into the future.
What are some of the most exciting moments you have been involved in?
There have been several special moments where I fully realised the beauty, relevance and impact of the organisation. For example, in June 2018 we celebrated the 20th anniversary of YFU in China, with a big event in Shanghai which was at the same time also very intimate, led and organised by young volunteers who are alumni of YFU China. It was so inspiring to experience the feeling of this big family of host families, volunteers and alumni, as well as representatives from all over the world who had come to celebrate with us in China. You could feel in this moment the spirit of YFU, making the world your home, and really sharing these intercultural values. It was my first time really experiencing what makes YFU so special.
In March 2019 we had our biennial Global Conference “Shaping #FutureGenerationsToday. Forming competencies. TransForming attitudes” in Mexico, where we not only brought together the global leadership of our 55+ membership organisations, but also alumni and external partners to reflect collectively on the learnings and the impact of YFU over the last decades and look into the future. There were some very funny and also very moving, personal moments, but overall it was this shared experience of becoming a better person, finding your purpose and being prepared for the world through this exchange experience.
There is a young German singer/songwriter named Tokunbo who went on exchange herself in the early 2000s, and she made a song about her host mother when she died. It is such a beautiful song, and she also made a video that we showed on the screen. So the singer was kind of with us at this moment, and everyone had tears in their eyes because it was just so touching. Everyone could really identify with this lifelong connection – being again with your host family.
Before you joined YFU, you were for many years the Executive Director of what is now known as the Global Coffee Platform. Coffee and youth exchange are very different, what key skills were you able to transfer from one thematic area to another?
You are right, coffee and youth have indeed very little in common! But of course, there is actually a lot of similarities between what the organisations want to achieve. They are, like other non-profit networks, global structures with a strong vision for change and impact, with a neutral hub at their heart to drive this change and bring together the different stakeholders. It is my role to engage those stakeholders to align on the strategy and shared vision, not favouring individual members or interests, but sticking to the overall greater goal, and facilitating collective impact. My work has been about promoting this transformational thinking and collaboration for the individual members, whether they are national member organisations of YFU, or stakeholders in the Global Coffee Platform. When I started at YFU, I was able to see the common issues and underlying similarities, and this is where I was very quickly able to contribute.
Nowadays young people are much more likely to travel on their own as visiting other countries has become far cheaper than it used to be. How is the model of organised youth exchange still relevant, and how are your members adapting their models?
It is true that the model or, let’s say, the market and the generation, society, technology, literally everything, has drastically changed in recent years. And yes, there are more options today for young people to broaden their mind. But this intercultural exchange experience is unique for everyone’s personal development. YFU offers a holistic approach from the advisory and selection process to the orientations and continuous programme support for participants and their host families, through dedicated staff and experienced volunteers working hand in hand throughout the programme. This quality focus on the whole experience of young people can never substitute for an individual travel experience. It is something completely different. Also, while initially students go on the programme to learn a new language or experience a new culture, you find a truly global perspective by being embedded in a global network and with a global community like YFU.
You are currently leading a federated structure, what are some of the key challenges federated structures are facing?
You have a multitude of stakeholders who are very diverse in their individual situations – depending on the country, size, setup and other external factors – and even their own needs. Resources are usually scarce, and there is a constant debate about where to invest those scarce resources. And usually, from the perspective of the member organisations, resources are best invested in their own work. So I think for a federated structure, the key challenge is to really be able to work on that shared strategy and shared vision and bring the different stakeholders on-board, to enable them to see the bigger picture and also the added value and the benefits of collective and collaborative efforts. Naturally, it is impossible to make everyone happy at the same time, so communication and engagement with the different stakeholders are also key to focus and deliver on the priorities that have been identified for the overall organisation, and not only for individuals.
Are there any specific recommendations you would or could make to other leaders coming into a federated structure or even organisations facing similar problems?
I think on an organisational level, it is really important to note that there’s not the one-fits-all solution, but to look at the systemic issues and root causes of the individual situation of an organisation. Then to get aligned with the key leaders, both the informal and formal leaders in your organisation, to really move with everyone in the same direction in an aligned way.
In a federated structure, there is quite a risk that different forces go into different directions driven by their specific situation, perspectives and needs, so it is critical to align with everyone and be able to address the systemic challenges and the root causes of situations together. And I think on a personal level, maybe as advice, it is good to not take things personally. There is a lot of pressure and different stakeholders have different needs, so the discussions can also get very heated, but it is good to stay calm and carry on. You need patience and understanding for everyone to move forward.