Working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)—trying to save lives in war zones in Myanmar, Syria, Sudan, and many other countries—is one of the hardest jobs on earth. Yet it is still a job, in a large enterprise with a $2 billion annual budget. The ICRC has had to develop a management structure, policies, staff benefits, and all the other mechanics of a large company, with the added demand of operating in constant crisis mode.
One key asset, says the organization’s president, Peter Maurer, is its flat management structure, with bottom-up initiatives and a good deal of autonomy for workers in the field. It’s a management philosophy familiar to many cutting-edge tech firms, yet the humanitarian organization has functioned that way since its founding in 1863, says Maurer.
Fast Company spoke with Maurer, who is Swiss, during his recent trip to the U.S. West Coast where he met with tech companies like Facebook and Salesforce to enlist their help in ICRC’s humanitarian work, including strategies to limit cyberwarfare. He expressed admiration for the flexible work hours in tech firms, something he’d like to adopt at the ICRC’s headquarters in Geneva. It’s these desk employees, not the aid workers on the front line, who are most prone to burnout, says Maurer. They suffer from frustration at being far from the action, dealing with bureaucratic matters instead of directly helping people.
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