Janice Dunn Lee: United Nations Powerhouse

Michael Harpen, European Correspondent, and Laura Umetsu, Editor in Chief


In January 2013, CGN’s European correspondent, Michael Harpen had the honor to interview Ms. Janice Dunn Lee, Deputy Director General, Head of the Department of Management at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the top floor of the Vienna International Centre in Vienna, Austria.  Ms. Lee is America’s highest ranking diplomat within the IAEA.

Ms. Dunn Lee has over 30 years of experience in governmental policy, management, international relations and diplomacy and has previously served in roles including as Director of International Programmes at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington D.C. and Deputy Director General of the Nuclear Energy Agency Organization of the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris, France.

Below is a summary of the interview, abridged and modified for the benefit of readers. 

CGN: First of all, could you please give us a bit of background on what is the IAEA, and what it is you do in your role as Deputy Director General?

JDL: The IAEA is a UN-related organization which oversees the peaceful applications of nuclear energy and nuclear technologies.  It serves in several functions; most people know it as the “nuclear watchdog” safeguarding nuclear materials and protecting the world from these materials getting into the wrong hands.  We also have a big responsibility for the safe operations of commercial nuclear reactors around the world.

Some of the other tasks we do include bringing people together to talk about the safety and security aspects of nuclear energy, materials and reactors (especially important post- 9/11).  Thus, we have been involved in nuclear security for about 10 years which includes participating in several recent nuclear security summits throughout the world.

There is also a promotional aspect of the IAEA which includes developing nuclear energy and harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful uses.  We have a lot of countries that are interested in advancing their energy programs who come to us for advice and information on how to develop a nuclear power program.  We also have countries that may not have a nuclear power program but would like us to be involved in nuclear applications for desalination, agricultural purposes, cancer research, and other medical uses.  Thus, we act as a fountainhead of information and exchange for member countries.

There are 158 countries which are members of the IAEA.  Probably 45-50 have nuclear power; the rest do not.  It is a very diverse and political organization; we try to reach consensus on the issues that are at hand which can make it a challenging place to find common ground.  But our main purposes include fostering international cooperation, bringing people together, and talking about safety, security, nuclear energy, and safeguards.

Part of my role as Deputy Director General includes fulfilling the day to day needs of the organization such as budget and finance, human resources, IT, general services, infrastructure, and other administrative functions that go into running the organization.

CGN: Sociology and International Affairs are not educational fields traditionally appealing to young Asian-American women.  What made you choose these educational fields?

JDL: I think my interest in sociology stems from my own personal background and upbringing.  I am from a family of Chinese-Americans who owned a business in California.  I grew up working in the

family restaurant, socializing with people and developing business interests.  It was a really great foundation for social interaction with people.  Also, being the eldest of five children, you learn to take charge.  So I think I had this interest in working with the public.  I was also interested in cultures and in languages, and I was interested in social dynamics such as why people get along and why they don’t.

I went for a Master’s Degree in International Affairs thinking it would open more doors.  I was not good in science and math, but I knew I excelled in other arenas.  My greatest hope after I got my master’s degree was to do something in the international field.  International Affairs also felt natural because I was interested in different cultures and it is part of a liberal arts background.

CGN: Considering your educational background, I think many of our readers would be surprised to know that you started your career as an intern at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in Washington D.C.  How and why did you start your career there?  What kind of opportunities does the NRC provide to nontechnical students and professionals?

JDL: I never thought I would be in the nuclear arena; it was definitely a bit of luck.  I was hired in a small office called the “Office of International Programs,” which was growing at the time.  The international aspect of the job was in export licensing, which involved nuclear power companies and vendors needing government permission to sell equipment and reactors overseas.  These companies (General Electric, Westinghouse, etc.) were looking to make nuclear sales overseas and needed my office to grant them an export license.  That was the beginning of my career; and it was really more policy based than technically based.

When this door opened for me, I had to ask myself “could I really succeed in this very technical organization without a technical background?”  I found that I could learn the essentials on how a nuclear power plant operates after being in the field for more than 30 years.  I also had great technical resources there including lots of engineers, scientists, physicists; and I knew that if I had a technical question, I could always go to them.

But what really intrigued me were the policy aspects.  The questions we would ask when assessing a request for an export license included whether the countries at issue were involved in nonproliferation activities, were they parties to the right treaties and agreements, and did they support the same kind of values that the United States government has?

Also it gave me the opportunity to work with other US government organizations that would have a say in whether a company should be allowed to export materials.  I interacted regularly with the Department of State, Energy, Commerce, and Treasury; each of whom would focus on the issue from their own policy standpoint.  That’s when I knew I could succeed in this political and policy arena even though I didn’t have the scientific background.  I would nonetheless encourage women with interests in science to go down that route and get an engineering or science degree.  It gives you more credibility, respect, and it opens more doors.

Success is all about having the right skillset of communications and the ability and training to understand processes.  What is important is that you understand how things get done, and you know how to find your way to the answer, regardless of your educational background.  You need to know how to find the path, and that was something I instinctively had and continue to develop.

There are lots of opportunities for nontechnical people at the NRC.  I like to point out the fact that I started my career as an intern at the NRC, and 20 years later I became director of that office which had grown from a staff of 3 to a staff of 40.  Success is definitely possible.

CGN: When you were a young twenty something year old woman, did you really see yourself as someone who would forge such an ambitious and far-reaching career path or was this more of something which just “happened?”

JDL: I think it was more of the latter.  I knew that I had applied myself so much in my education that I had to do something with it.  Did I set my sights on being the Secretary of State?  No, but I knew that I wanted to have some kind of professional foundation in my life.  I also knew that I wanted to have a family life and thus thought: “how was I going to have it all?”  That is the way I approached my career.

I was very fortunate to find and marry someone who was really supportive of me, my interests in my career, and also of having a family life.  Having a really great partner, and thus, a great partnership was one of the reasons I was so successful.

But as far as the ambition goes, the more I worked, the more I realized that I enjoyed what I was doing.  Your career builds and molds you.  As you advance, you will think back and realize that “yes, I can really contribute in a way that is positive” and it becomes satisfying when you can influence and affect other people and help them.  I really feel that I am in a stage of my life now that I can share my experiences and help people go down the paths that may lead them to success.

I would say to young people that your first job is really important.  I think it is the key to molding your future.  Sometimes people just fall into it, other people are quite directed.  I was not so much directed but I just fell into a very good field.

CGN: You have had quite an amazing and circuitous career path: degrees in Sociology and International Affairs, then the NRC in Washington D.C., the United States Congress, the Nuclear Energy Agency of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (or OECD/NEA) in Paris, France, and now the IAEA in Vienna, Austria.  Can you briefly explain your career path and responsibilities in each position and how each job position helped you advance professionally?

JDL: They were all stepping stones in retrospect.  I am very pleased and quite satisfied about that because it brings together all my experiences to a place where I am quite useful.  I feel that people can benefit from my experience and knowledge and that I can really contribute in a positive way to the organization.  It is about stepping stones; you don’t realize it at the time, but you will realize it later on when you look back on it.  I can now very much see that all my experiences led me to this place.

I was interested in international affairs and started a career as an intern at the NRC, which was a great foundation for me.  I eventually became the Director and earned the respect of the high levels commissioners whom I worked for.  These are political people who open doors, and you develop a relationship with them.

While I was at the NRC I realized that I was having a fulfilling career as a government employee.  It is quite satisfying in the sense that you give to a cause and to your country.  Public service is a good thing; it is not necessarily as lucrative as the private sector, but it is satisfying in that you are doing something positive for your government.  Government became quite important to me as I migrated into what I thought would be my second career, which was to live and work in an international context.  I decided that when the time was right, I would do that next.

When “the time is right” to make this sort of change is different for everyone.  For me, it made sense to do an international career later in life when I knew more influential people who could help me decide where I could be most useful.  My first international post was at the OECD/NEA in Paris.  It was a smaller organization with a more limited mission, but it prepared me for my next job post.

By the time I reached the IAEA, I was very familiar with the organization and the work it did from all my experience.  I was an ideal candidate and I was fortunate that someone approached and offered me the job.  Job hunting gets easier as time goes on because people will generally come to you based on your reputation.  However, you have to build a reputation.  You need to be known as a person who can get things done, who is reasonable to work with and who knows the field well.

CGN: Politics, governmental policy, international relations and diplomacy, especially in the higher echelons of management are traditionally male dominated arenas, yet you have thrived in this environment.  What kind of additional challenges have you had to face as a woman compared to your male counterparts?

JDL: I was lucky in my career that when I entered the workforce, there was recognition about the need to employ women.  However, I did not feel the need to fight “because I am a woman.”  What is more important for all people is that you focus on your job and that you do it well.  You can’t worry about the next job or the one after that.  If you do it well, someone will recognize that.  There will be an opportunity or several opportunities.  Focus on the job at hand; do not let yourself become distracted because you will not do it as well as you should if you are thinking about something else.  Apply yourself to the task at hand and doors will open.  That’s the key to success.

CGN: The IAEA, the OECD, and the NRC have similar interests and goals, as they are all related to nuclear science, research, policy, safeguards, and security.  How do the challenges, responsibilities, and satisfaction of working in an international organization compare to working for a federal agency?

JDL: They are all a little bit different in pace, goals, and processes.  I had some really good mentors in my career.  One in particular taught me that you can’t get too far ahead of yourself.  You have to take things one step at a time.  We often have big goals and they can take more time than we expect.  However, you have to keep advancing the ball.  Chart the course and take satisfaction in each step knowing you are getting closer to the goal.  You may not reach it, but you’ll get closer with each step.  The journey

towards success is its own goal.  It’s all about how you get there and appreciating what you have to advance to the next level.  These things just build up over time and before you know it you have accomplished quite a bit.  So I think that I really have found satisfactions in whatever arena I was in.  I found that in the US government, in the OECD, and I’m finding it here at the IAEA.

CGN: What key traits and values do you think are necessary for a person who has similar ambitions to yourself in governmental policy, politics, and/or international diplomacy?

JDL: You have to really want to work with people, cultures, nations.  You also have to appreciate the differences that people bring to the table and then find the common ground to build on.  Good communication skills are fundamentally important: you have to be able to read, write, and speak well.

You have to keep things simple.  We tend to overcomplicate things in our lives.  I think we strive for simplicity, even though people often won’t admit that.  I learned over the course of my career that simplicity is beautiful. If you keep your message simple, you can explain it easier and it becomes more memorable.  You should always think what your message should be to people when they walk away.  They can’t remember volumes of information, but they can remember a few key points.

CGN: How should young students and professionals prepare themselves if they are interested in exceling professionally in governmental policy, politics, and or international relations?  Are there any resources which you can recommend?

JDL: Education is primary.  You need to have an education; and you need to get the best education for whatever you can afford.  You have to take advantage of the opportunities that cross your bow.  There are many fellowships and training opportunities available.  When you’ve done something for a while, and it’s time to refresh or expand, take a course or a fellowship or find an opportunity that allows you to grow.  There are lots of training programs out there that are offered with the government and private sector.  Look for these opportunities, and figure out how to be selected.  It’s very political too.  You have to spend time knowing people and you can’t be afraid to take chances or challenge yourself.

CGN: Looking back on your career up to this point, what would you say is your biggest personal and career achievement?

JDL: On a personal level, it would have to be my family and children.  I am grateful and satisfied that they have become young successful individuals who are grounded and have a really good outlook on life.  That has made my work-life a lot easier because I have children who know what to do; they have excelled and I’m proud of them.

As for my career, I would say that the job I am in right now represents the pinnacle.  I honestly never thought I would be here; I have always been satisfied with where I was at the moment.  That may be another part of my formula for success.  When I was at the NRC, I thought it was a great job and I was so happy to be there, that I really didn’t think there was a better job.  When I was in Paris, I thought that was a really great job too and was a slice of life that I really loved, and was personally gratifying.

It was also a great “ticket punching” activity, which I didn’t realize at the time, and it brought me to the IAEA.  I didn’t have this “goal checkbox” list; it has been a bit of a surprise how my life has ended up.  Being here at the IAEA is something that I didn’t really put on my list.  However, I was very fortunate to be recognized and to serve here, and feel that this opportunity is incredibly self-fulfilling in many ways and that I’m bringing something to the table too.  I feel appreciated, useful, and that I am making a difference.  I honestly believe that I can see results, not necessarily leaping ones, but one step at a time.

CGN: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind at the conclusion of your career?

JDL:  I would hope that people say I left this a better place: better organized, more efficiently run, that I brought people together and bound them with a common purpose; that I gave them something which made them feel connected and important to a larger picture including a more peaceful world and electricity for mankind.  These are big tangible goals.  What I am trying to do in my job on behalf of an organization of 2500 people is to make them feel that we have a lot to contribute to the world with big, lofty, inspiring goals and that we need to remind ourselves of our mission and what we have been chosen to do.  To have people say: “I really liked working for her; she made me feel good about my job” would be most satisfying for me.

CGN: Although you have accomplished a great deal, is there anything you would have done in hindsight?

JDL: I have been pretty satisfied with how everything has unfolded and can’t say that I have any regrets.  I always did think that the private sector would be a challenge.  It is an arena that I haven’t touched (outside the restaurant experience) and I sometimes step back and think to myself if I could have been successful in that field.  I think I would have, but it is uncharted territory, and I’m fascinated by it.  I’m fascinated by what makes people succeed in any environment, and I like to challenge myself to see if I have the right tools which would have allowed me to succeed; but admittedly the private sector is a little bit of a mystery to me. My life has gone down a path which I did not expect.  I had always expected to be in the private sector because I had grown up in an entrepreneurial environment through the family business.  I was conditioned that you should be measured by how much you earn and thus the private sector is where you prove yourself.  The fact that I spent my entire career in the public international sector has been a surprise to my family and me.

CGN: Is there anything else you’d like to add before we conclude today?

JDL: I am happy to have participated in this interview and here is why: I love interacting with people, especially young people.  I tease my children about this because they are at the point in their lives thinking about marriage and having a family.  They once asked me if I felt “ready for this.” I responded: “Yes, I am ready to mold a new life.”

Thus, I am ready to help mold and influence young people in a positive way to the degree that I can, and I look forward to the opportunity to interact, motivate, and shape young people into responsible and productive adults.  It is part of the legacy that we hope to leave behind: a better world and a better people because of our actions.  It gives me great satisfaction when I can do good things for people.  When I help open a door for someone and see them flourish, it’s very satisfying.


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