An interview with MSF UK board member, Nikky McLean
In February 2020, we sat down to chat with one of Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) UK's board members, Nicola McLean.
We discovered what being a board member is like, how it feels to return to MSF after a few years, and how Nikky balances her board responsibilities with having a full and fulfilling life.
What first drew you to MSF?
I joined MSF in the 1990s; I was passionate about making the world a better place for those in need. When I picked up a flyer explaining MSF’s work and its principles, it fitted completely with what I was looking for.
How did you move from working on assignments to being a Board member?
During my time on assignment, I worked as a nutritionist, project coordinator and medical coordinator from 1993 to 1997. After leaving international work with MSF, I kept in close touch with MSF UK for another six years as coordinator of the Peer Support Network (now known as Volunteer Link). After this, I lost touch with MSF for a while through having a family and a busy NHS career, although I remained a member of the Association.
Late in 2017 I had a career change. I stepped down from an intensive NHS leadership position and took up clinical work again. But I was also looking for something meaningful that would utilise my management and leadership skills. An email was sent around the Association asking for new board members and I fitted the profile. So, I applied!
How long have you been an MSF UK Board member?
I was elected to the Board at the 2018 AGM, so nearly two years.
How did it feel to re-enter the MSF world? What has changed?
I hadn't been in touch with MSF for about 15 years. So, although I knew I loved MSF and I really wanted to be part of the Board, there was a part of me that thought I might walk in and everyone would say, "What are you doing back? You've been away so long." But within moments of walking into the office I saw faces I recognised and it felt like coming home. It helped that I felt really well guided through the application and election process. There was a lot of support.
And now, it’s really rewarding to see the skills I’ve built up throughout my career being used for the benefit of MSF.
In terms of what’s changed; I find it helpful to have the perspective of ‘then’ versus ‘now’. It’s more bureaucratic, but that does make it safer. Being a Board member gives you an interesting insight into balancing the need for safety with trying to avoid MSF becoming a heavy or slow organisation.
What is it like to be a Board member?
It did take me a while to feel like I was truly contributing to the Board, but from the beginning I have felt very privileged to be an MSF UK Board member. I really enjoy the role, it’s so interesting and stimulating.
The work is probably around one day a week, with a slightly heavier workload during busy times. Having said that, it’s great that the Board is flexible enough that those who work full or nearly full time can contribute to Board meetings (there are around seven a year) and then perhaps a Board sub-committee. And those with more time can choose to give more.
I believe the Board makes a real difference. The breadth of skills and experience of those on the Board ensures we can support the Executive and, at times, hold MSF to account. It is great to be part of that team. There is a lot of reading. And learning MSF acronyms, after so many years away, was a real challenge!
Tell us about your day job?
I work part-time as a community paediatric dietitian. It’s a very varied job and, although I always kept my clinical hand in while doing other roles, I’m really enjoying having more direct patient contact again.
How do you balance that with your Board duties?
I work part-time. I could have chosen to work more hours and still contributed to the Board, but I was interested in getting more involved with MSF, so I create more space for this.
Additionally, when I’m not doing face-to-face contact, my work is flexible about me juggling my MSF Board duties with work. This really helps. I've got my office set up at home. I can do my work admin, join an MSF video call and then go back to my work. My work understands that my being on the MSF Board is beneficial to them as well.
My clinical appointments are obviously pretty set in stone, so sometimes I accept that I'll try and make Board commitments work where I can, and if I can't, I can't. I’ll often link up virtually.
How does having a family inspire your Board work?
My partner is very supportive of MSF and my work as a Board member. Having a family makes you learn better than anything how to juggle commitments and prioritise! I have three girls so, to me, being a role model is important and I hope it will inspire them to contribute to making the world a better place. Having a family inspires me to do my bit for future generations, however challenging and hard the world can seem at times.
What does an average day look like for you?
Every day is different, which I love. I need to be around for my three daughters, but they are teenagers now which makes things easier. I also make sure I get enough exercise so try fitting in yoga, swimming, cycling and walking when I can.
Monday: Completed and sent out my Sierra Leone report, had a Skype call with the outgoing ASC chair, did a little prep for the ASC meeting, and did a talk about MSF at one of my daughters’ schools
Tuesday: A clinical day
Wednesday: This interview and some more ASC prep in the morning. A clinical afternoon, and an ASC virtual meeting in the evening
Thursday: A clinical day
Friday: Some MSF work – not sure what yet – and a yoga session!
What would you say to someone who might be interested in running for the Board?
Being on the Board is incredibly rewarding. If you’ve been out of touch with MSF for a while, please don’t consider yourself outdated. Your skills are still valued if, and when, and you are ready. If you think you could be ready now – contact Simon Heuberger, the MSF UK Board coordinator and find out more!
If you don’t feel you can commit the time right now, stay in touch however you can, and MSF will welcome you back whenever feels right for you.