Marie Sardie, one of our esteemed Dietitian Day 2016 executive leadership panelists, is a permanent member of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, based in Geneva. She is a public health specialist and has worked for major donors, including the United Nations, World Bank, Asian Development, Bank, European Union, Australian government and international non-governmental organisations.

Marie also spent time specifically in the field of dietetics: in the late 1980s, she served as the Advisor in nutrition and dietetics for Queensland Health, and obtained a significant grant for a public health nutrition project focused on helping blue-collar workers to make healthy lifestyle choices.

She was also the head of department of nutrition and dietetics for Brisbane’s Wesley Hospital for a short time, where she developed and implemented a state-wide training program helping hospital-based food service managers to acquire skills in quality management and performance outputs.

Dietitian Connection had the chance to speak with Marie recently and gain her insights on key aspects of leadership.

On maximising your opportunities within an industry: 

For Marie, dietetics was a chapter in the journey that led her to public health. The clinical side of the field of dietetics held no appeal for her, however – her fascination was with public health.

Starting from her teenager days, from the novels she read and the media she searched for, she knew public health was the field for her. “It must have been in my DNA,” Marie laughs. She especially wanted to “help human beings develop beyond what they were.”

By age 28, she was doing just that: working for the UN managing a million dollars and dozens of staff in Asia. And she’s never looked back, continuing to work toward poverty elimination and humanitarian aid.

In fact, she says, “I can’t look back, because I’ve enjoyed the journey. Dietetics was a small component that led me to public health.”

On making decisions about your career early on: 

“Don’t try to figure out what you want to do for the rest of your life,” Marie says. “Try to look at something you’d be really passionate about for a few years after you graduate, but keep it generic enough that you can move into other sectors.” 

She probably had a dozen careers herself before she was 40, she says – every assignment in a different sector of health. “If you stick to one sector, the world is your oyster,” Marie says, but only if you “look beyond the boundaries of where you find yourself stuck right now. “

Also when you’re starting out, she advises, “Don’t worry about mistakes, just make sure you’re mentored by someone to minimise your risks.”

On the importance of communication:

Marie remembers her first project in India, working with locals who were illiterate. There, she learned we are “all full of incredible knowledge inside – illiterate or not.” As such, “There are ways of giving people tools to enhance their livelihood.”

One of these tools was communication – whether an audience was illiterate or not. “Keep the language and concepts simple, and make sure nothing is lost in translation,” she urges.

Marie also encouraged others to repeat what she’d said back to her, saying, “Tell me what you think I said”. This helped eliminate confusion, especially when working with international teams. “Otherwise you’re in deep trouble when you’re managing big projects, worth millions of dollars!”

On remaining innovative and relevant:

“Always keep the brain alive and get yourself out of your comfort zone. If you don’t know about something – research and learn about it,” says Marie. She is a perpetual student – which keeps her mind alive. Across diverse subjects, such as art, she studies new topics to learn more about the modern world around us.

She is also lucky enough – and smart enough – to work with world-class teams who have leading technology at their fingertips.

On how to lead:

If you’re going to lead, says Marie, you have to understand where you’re going. But everyone looks at the same thing differently. It takes time for everyone to understand what it is you’re doing, and to get them to commit, she points out.

Be rigorous and careful, she advises – you can afford to make little mistakes, but not big mistakes.

On the best gift you can give a young person:

“I truly believe the best passport you can give anyone is an education,’ says Marie. She has made this a personal and professional commitment of hers.

Marie especially encourages young women to pursue an education – and then to pay it forward. She’s seen this model play out successfully over several generations of women around the world.

“I have learned to be empathetic and understand where young people are coming from, and they do the same for me – we are all learning from each other,” Marie says. “You can’t change the world, but you can change yourself – and you can change some people within your personal and professional environment.”

On how to achieve your dreams:

“You don’t have to be born in the “right family” to achieve what you dream about,” Marie says. Her grandmother was an illiterate farmer, and mother of 8, from Lebanon. She probably never dreamed her granddaughter Marie would have such a different life – but Marie is confident her grandmother would be so proud of her.

“If you have fire in your belly, then go for it – the only barrier is yourself! But that passion has to exist within first,” she notes. “Some people want to be leaders and some don’t.”

She encourages people not to think small – “If you are frustrated with your environment, then think big and change it!’

On how to achieve balance:

Marie is a trekker, with a personal goal to trek all of the world’s mountain ranges [she is well on her way!]. Trekking enables her to find balance between having an acute interest in constant learning about the world around her — and the need to shut off, to recharge.

This outdoor hobby allows Marie to be “totally switched off, thinking of nothingness and concentrating 110% on what you’re doing.” Everyone, she urges, needs an outlet through which they can shut off like this.

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