Franziska Heizmann, working as an independent humanitarian consultant around the globe

22. February 2022

«For me true wealth has become being healthy and fulfilled»

Today, I am so grateful to meet Franziska Heizmann*, an independent humanitarian consultant, based in Bern, Switzerland, specialized in safety and security risk management, crisis management, trauma risk management (TRiM) - providing consulting and trainings in these areas all around the globe, but specifically in regions of humanitarian crisis. She worked at the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) and is part of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid unit of the Swiss government (DEZA), was a UN Military Observer in the Middle East and does consulting for many International and National Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Franziska is a longstanding, highly-appreciated colleague and friend of mine, and I have deep respect for her important work and how courageously she followed her heart and call in her career choices. In this interview I asked her how her work life looks like, why she does this work and what makes it fulfilling to her. Above all, she shares the way in which the move to the humanitarian sector changed her view on life and why being safe and feeling safe might be two different things.

Franziska, first of all thank you so much for taking the time for this “Human Facts meets”. Before we go deep, let us shortly start with giving our readers a little bit of insight about your work. What do you do as a consultant in the humanitarian sector?

Franziska: Eva, thanks for inviting me to share my thoughts with you and your community. It’s been over 20 years now that I have worked as a consultant for Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). They either are situated in the humanitarian sector, respectively are engaged in development cooperations or in civil peace service. I have specialized in the field of safety & security risk management, and as a security consultant I mainly offer two things: on one hand, I give expert advice on how to develop security risk or crisis management policies. On the other, I train people in how to develop and implement security plans in their national and international projects. That means, my clients are either people in the headquarters of these NGOs here in Switzerland or Europe, or their staff who are based in the countries where they are engaged in projects or programs. That’s why my job involves a lot of traveling to be with the teams and support them directly on the ground in developing their security plans or train their staff. Particularly in humanitarian crisis regions.

This sounds very interesting, Franziska. Would you mind giving us an example and make it a bit more tangible?

Franziska: Sure. For my NGO clients, security means, first of all, the wellbeing and safety of all the humanitarian staff involved in their projects or programmes, physically and mentally. This safety could be threatened for example by road traffic accidents, burglary or - to the extreme - kidnapping. We try to identify these risks, establish measures on how to mitigate them and finally plan what people should do in case they happen. Let me give you a concrete example of how that works. I travelled last year to Ukraine and was visiting several local Caritas Offices, accompanying their staff while they were delivering food parcels to communities. Being with them helped me to directly see how they implement their security measures, as defined in the security plans. On that basis, we then did a workshop on how to improve or develop further their security behavior, particularly if the situation in the Ukraine would get worse and they need to move away from their location.

It’s clear that security is particularly a topic in regions of crisis. What are the major crises you have advised on?

Franziska: Some of the most demanding missions (when I go abroad for work I talk about a mission) I have done were Lebanon in 2006 when Israel was bombing parts of the country, 2011 in Haiti after the earthquake, Afghanistan after a kidnapping and the last Ukraine mission I was just talking about before. The challenges are always different ones. It might be the security situation, the context in general or also the mental health or status of the people I am surrounded by or working with. That is one of the reasons why I engaged in an additional qualification as a trauma and stress support coach.

To help save other people’s lives is indeed very meaningful and purposeful work, Franziska. How do you think have you created most impact? What were some of the most fulfilling moments you remember?

Franziska: Of course, every mission where I could facilitate and support the development of Safety and Security Risk Management, every training that helps people feel safer or be safer, creates impact. However, for me the most fulfilling moments are the small human moments where I feel I could make a difference in one person’s life in a deep way. It is very often a very quiet moment, not loud and life shaking. It’s in such moments where I was able to connect from heart to heart with the other person and this connectivity made a positive difference in their life – and at the same time in mine as well.

One such moment I remember was when I offered counseling support to a man after his release from being kidnapped. Talking to somebody after such a traumatic experience is not easy and a fine balance between listening and helping to bring out and release all feelings that should not be lived through again. The man was telling me his whole story and I was just sitting there and listening. Sometimes I expressed my empathy or would just nod. Then, I asked him what has helped him to stay strong and faithful during the kidnapping. He said that he decided not to fight against the walls surrounding him, and instead to surrender. Although, I did not speak his language and all had to be translated, I felt so touched about this very simple, honest and wise answer reflecting one of the greatest human strengths: to surrender to the given situation and to enter a place of inner peace in order to act consciously from a space of human strength and faith. At the end he asked me whether he could take a picture of me, to show his wife the nice person who helped him in this difficult moment of his life. I felt so humbled and fulfilled that our human connection had enriched us both.

You started once a promising career at one of the largest global banks located in Switzerland. What happened? Why did you drop it?

Franziska: First, I must start by saying that I am deeply grateful for having been in this very privileged situation that allowed me to follow my calling.

Many, many people on our planet are forced to follow their survival - not their purpose or calling.
It is true that I was once working in a Swiss Bank and I was well positioned, but I felt empty. Empty is not good for me, it makes me feel depressed and sucks my energy. So I wished for something more meaningful, to feel fulfilled and more energized. As I was already an officer in the Swiss Armed Forces at that time, I read about an opportunity to go for 6 months to Kosovo with Swisscoy as a Legal Adviser and Log Admin. It really resonated and I just jumped on. What I didn’t realize at this point in time is that finding and living-up to your purpose is a journey, not done in one event, with one move. Leaving the bank was not the end but the beginning of this journey that brought me through several other institutions, such as Swiss Humanitarian Aid and SDC. Each step led me closer towards my purpose, or better: to tune into my purpose. Today, working as an independent safety and security consultant, I feel very much close to where I believe I am supposed to be in this life: to accompany people and to support them in being safe and feeling safe.

How do you recognize that you are in tune with your life purpose?

Franziska: For me, that’s when I feel that I can bring my whole self to work. When I can be who I am. I can show my vulnerabilities, can say when I do not know an answer, can also be tired or exhausted occasionally and do not need to wear an all shiny “I am super woman” mask.

It’s a feeling of oneness inside myself. It feels like all puzzle pieces fall into place in one go and I can see the full picture. Colourful, wonderful in sync with all around. Then I know, that’s the right place for me to work and be. I realized that these are mainly places where I feel that human values are shared, where I feel not only appreciated for what I do, but as well for who I am. For me the main point is that I can choose to work with whom I like to work, that’s why I realized that I can best tune into my purpose as an independent consultant.

Have there been any moments of doubt, i.e. “Why I am doing that?”, or even regrets not having followed your banking career here in Switzerland?

Franziska: Absolutely not. Even though also in the field of humanitarian work there are of course organizations or clients that do not reflect my values or value my style of work. I guess that is the same as in the business world. Just recently I stopped working for an organization because I couldn’t see my values mirrored, which at this stage of my life is a no-go.

Based on your over 20 years’ career in humanitarian work: What has been your major learning?

Franziska: I realized that it’s not my magical knowledge of Security Risk Management that creates impact in other people’s lives, it’s the quality of human connection.

It’s through my being, not necessarily through my doing, that I make a difference.

Surely, I meet all people because of my work as a safety and security consultant, but it is the openness, my presence, my ability to hold a space when it gets difficult, that creates the impact. My skills and know-how in Safety and Security Risk Management are the vehicle, but not the motor.

What would you recommend to those who are thinking about changing from working in business to the humanitarian sector?

Franziska: First of all, if you change the sector and want to work in the humanitarian field, then it should be because your heart is calling. It can’t be the money because you are generally paid less in an NGO than in the business sector. Making it a fulfilling move depends on what you are willing to leave behind. Secondly, if you want to have an impact on the peace of our world, then you need to be at peace with yourself. The older I get the more I am aware that real peace starts within. That means, a change should not be a run-away but a run-to decision. The simple shift to another context – humanitarian organization or another – will not heal or solve any inner conflicts or wounds that you might carry with you. It’s not a guarantee for inner peace per se.

However, I do not have a concrete recipe for people who want to change. It depends on your age and your area of expertise. If you are a HR person, you might for example think about to become a HR person in an NGO, same for a bookkeeper or an IT programmer. Until today I believe you need to be at the right place at the right moment and then open to catching an opportunity, as it was in my life. Our human nature, however, let’s us sometimes paint “the grass greener” on the other side. I definitely recommend as a first step to get in touch with people who are working in the field to challenge your assumptions.

In which ways has your work changed your view on our world here in Switzerland?  

Franziska: For me, true wealth has become being healthy and fulfilled. That means having enough energy to walk the path I have chosen and being resilient enough to go on the next call as well. I have become grateful for the things we normally take for granted: for example the possibility to walk safely home from the train station, which is in many, many countries not possible. I have learnt to cherish small moments, a little flower that comes out of its bud, the sun on my face, a sweet melting piece of milk chocolate in my mouth, a connected talk with a friend, a long walk with myself in the fresh air and lots of silence as well. It means also to not get frustrated about my fellow Swiss when they walk around with facial expressions that one could think we live in a war country. Often I realize that the people in most countries I have visited - and there are many - smile more than we Swiss do despite the high level of safety and wellbeing.

Having seen so much suffering around the world, what is it that keeps you optimistic?

Franziska: Indeed, I have seen lots of suffering. But I also have seen lots of sweet smiles, strengths, beliefs, love. For some reason I never feel pity or depressed about it. I feel empathy, I feel sad, I wish a situation in somebody’s life could be different, but I never suffer with the people. Of course my heart is touched, heavy at times. But what keeps me up is that I know I can only be of good support when my energy is high, and I have my feet on the ground properly. Therefore, I am there and listen, connect, do my work from my heart and believe in what I do. I know that this is how I can be of best service to the people. That’s why I do therapy, coaching, supervision and yoga to stay healthy and to make sure none of the moments I live, or experience, stick too long in my body system causing pain or unnecessary blockages. And of course all the fantastic people I work with keep me staying optimistic as well.

Compared to Switzerland, you work in regions where people live in true physical existential fear for their lives. However, fueled by the pandemic, fears have taken rise as well in our rather safe western Europe. How can this be and what can we do about it?

Franziska: I think there are two levels of safety and security that I would describe as “being” safe and “feeling” safe. The first involves organizing how you respond to a risk in the outer world to be and stay safe, e.g. stay in your home, don’t walk at night, take a taxi instead of public transport, etc. “Feeling” safe, however, involves nourishing your inner feelings of safety, security, confidence, peace and faith. In the best case the “being” safe goes along with “feeling” safe. But not necessarily. That’s why I believe any security management targeting the “being” safe needs to go along with supporting people as well in “feeling” safe. On an individual level this means: don’t blame the environment if you don’t feel safe. It is your feeling, and you are responsible for finding out what you need, nobody else. You know best but might need some support to find the way. If you need help, ask for it because there are people who can help and support.

Personally, what I think is helpful as a good starting point is to be honest with oneself and express the fears. Don’t pretend to have it all under control while you freak out inside. Share it with people who really listen to you. Then I recommend – and that is exactly what I do myself too – to feel inside what is needed now to feel safer, feeling in the body, feeling in the mind, picturing you somewhere where you feel safe. Then looking to fulfill these needs to see if it feels safer. Sometimes it is to speak with a friend, sometimes, it’s to take a rest, a cup of tea, a walk, a poem, a photo of my family, some music. I personally carry always a little lavender pillow spray with me when travelling – because the smell helps me calm down, feel at home and at peace wherever I am.

Thank you so much for your time and sharing your thoughts and experiences, Franziska. As always it was very inspiring! I am looking forward to continuing to hear, learn and exchange with you! Stay safe, healthy and fulfilled.

*) I met Franziska Heizmann when starting my career at UBS Zurich 20 years ago. Since this time I had the pleasure of having countless inspiring personal exchanges to learn more about her humanitarian and trauma work. She is a great role model for me in following her purpose in life without compromise. I am grateful for her courageous, important yet humble engagement for humanity in our world and all the prices she is willing to pay for this.

Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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24. February 2022
Good to learn that being safe and feeling safe are two different concepts. What drew my attention is Franziska's comment that we should not run away from insecurity and lack of safety. Being in humanitarian work it would interest me to hear what she would say about refugee crisis especially in Africa.
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