Mark Suzman’s resume includes a doctorate from Oxford to top off a bachelor’s from Harvard, a correspondent gig for the Financial Times in Johannesburg, London, and D.C., and an advisory role for United Nations Secretary Kofi Anan.
Originally from South Africa, his experiences working in international affairs all around the world inform his current role. Suzman is Chief Strategy Officer and President of Global Policy and Advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation — titles he calls “two distinct roles but complementary roles.”
He focuses on building strategic partnerships with governments, non-profits, and other organizations abroad to implement the Gates Foundation’s programs.
“I also oversee foundation-wide learning initiatives and help manage strategic trade-offs across all the foundation’s work,” he said. “As an example, this includes exploratory work we’re doing in mobility from poverty in the U.S., and topics such as what the foundation is doing specifically on pandemic preparedness.”
Suzman joined the Gates Foundation in 2007 and has steadily risen through the ranks to leadership over the past decade. He shared his management tips and strategies for keeping it all in balance for this installment of Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Current Location: “Seattle, Washington. Our office is right in the middle of the ‘Mercer Mess’ on 5th Ave. North, but I have a view of the Space Needle from my office.”
Computer types: “For work, I use a Surface Pro, but also carry an iPad when I travel. It’s great that I can now integrate my work email and documents to my iPad and iPhone.”
Mobile devices: “iPhone, Kindle Paperwhite.”
Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: “I’m an avid cricket fan, so Cricinfo; Bleacher Report for other sports; Trip Case and the Delta App for travel; News apps — I read a lot, so here’s a handful of examples: The Financial Times, New York Times, Times of London, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, London Review of Books, The Economist, New Yorker, Slate, and Medium. My favorite app for fun is Endless Alphabet, which I use to help teach my three-year-old spelling (it’s actually a lot more fun than it sounds).”
Describe your workspace: “My office has a nice, open feel with glass windows and walls. My support team sits just outside which is great as we can take advantage of the few minutes I have between meetings.”
Why does it work for you? “The best part of my space is that we’ve disabled the automatic blinds (which are designed to automatically block out sunlight and reduce glare) so whatever sunlight we get in Seattle comes straight in (this can be slightly problematic for meetings when there’s an afternoon glare, but I have a basket of sunglasses for guests if they need to borrow a pair). When the sun is not shining, I have a light box to help me get through the dark Seattle winter.
I use a stylus for my computer as even in the digital age I remember things and make notes by handwriting, so having space for the Surface Pro is nice. I also have a table devoted specifically to reading and writing (positioned away from my computer screen).
Finally, just behind my computer is a framed picture of the view from an old family farm in South Africa which is where I spent large chunks of my childhood. It always keeps me grounded to have that in my field of vision.”
Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? “I always try to take at least one 24-hour period a week completely off email. Disconnecting is actually necessary to provide your best work, so while I don’t always succeed, I always set that as a goal. Also, I expect my staff to take time away and disconnect and actively manage that, which helps them push back on me when I’m not doing the same.”
Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? “Twitter is the only social network I have, and I mostly use it to share articles and information related to work. I do like to share a few personal things now and then, but it’s not part of my everyday routine.”
Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? “53 right now, which isn’t bad!”
Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? “44 this week, and Monday was a snow day! That said, I’m going on vacation next week so this may be a bit heavier than normal.”
How do you run meetings? “When I lead a meeting, I always try to draw out a full range of opinions on a particular topic before I offer my own. Even when you think you’re not shaping a discussion, inadvertently you often do if you set a particular direction early on. Very intentionally I make sure people who haven’t spoken have the chance to speak, especially as many of my meetings include participants from around the world joining by phone or video conference. Meetings tend to get dominated by whoever is in the room. Then I always try to come to shared clarity or conclusion and next steps, even if the next steps might be that some of the questions haven’t been resolved.”
Everyday work uniform? “Slacks with button-down, long-sleeved shirt. I will wear a tie and a jacket when important people are in the office, but often need to be reminded the day before. I have also embraced the west coast practice of ‘jeans Friday.'”
How do you make time for family? “If I’m not traveling, I am devout about doing the wake-up and bedtime routines with my son. No exceptions. Every day it’s a full choreography of what to eat, what to wear, and talking about our days.
Another non-negotiable is date night every week with my wife. This is something my wife encouraged early on, and wow, it makes a difference. We have a dedicated time every week with no distractions where we just catch up. We have actually made it quite easy — we go to the same restaurant, and often sit at the same table.
Skype is also a great tool for our highly distributed extended family. We have a weekly Skype call with my parents in South Africa, which we do every weekend, which makes a big difference in giving my son a chance to get to know his grandparents.”
Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? “Playing tennis and watching sports. Any kind of sports — cricket, football, baseball, soccer, rugby. I first moved to Boston when I came to the U.S. so have always been a Patriots fan, but my son is a true Seattleite and loves the Seahawks (especially Russell Wilson), so we watch every game together.”
What are you listening to? “Of Monsters and Men, Admiral Fallows, Nick Cave, and Lana Del Ray.”
Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? “I read more than most people, without a doubt. In addition to the news apps I mentioned before, I read the daily news summary from the foundation about work related to our issues across the globe. Also, I subscribe to Africa Confidential, India Today, and the Eurasia Group’s political intelligence summaries, which are all great resources.”
Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “I’m working through The Great Convergence by Richard Baldwin, which I picked up as its theme of technological advancement and globalization is related to what I think about at work. For fun, I’ve just read Volume 5 of the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. The quasi-autobiographical series is incredibly dense, but really one of the best things I’ve read.”
Night owl or early riser? What are your sleep patterns? “I used to be more of a night owl, but since my son was born I haven’t slept in past 6:00 a.m.”
Where do you get your best ideas? “A mixture of reading and conversation. I read a lot. More than most. I try to expose myself to as diverse a range of inputs as possible. I often ask for more detail on papers that I don’t really need to know, but I find that extra detail often provokes a reaction or a thought or a perspective that I otherwise wouldn’t have had. Regarding conversation, one of the great things about being at the Gates Foundation is the caliber of people and the diversity of experiences they bring is enormous and unique.”
Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? “The first person that comes to mind is President Barack Obama. He seemed to strike a pretty good harmony of taking inputs, making decisions, all while prioritizing the biggest issues and making time for family. Of people I’ve worked with, the one that comes to mind is Kofi Annan, during his time as Secretary General at the United Nations. He was pretty amazing at being both a leader and a listener. He took in ideas, then made clear decisions and set direction in a soft-spoken but very clear way.”
What are you most excited about in your work right now? “One of the most exciting shifts in recent years has been in moving from rhetoric to reality in terms of our gender-focused programs at the foundation. It’s clear that focusing on women throughout our global health and economic development efforts actually gets us stronger, more durable development outcomes. And we can do this in really interesting ways. One of the most exciting recent examples has been the extension of financial services in developing countries through a digital platform. Simply having access to financial services (basic banking services we take for granted here in Seattle) has a significant impact on a woman’s income. But too often, women have a much harder time getting a bank account or the financial services that come with them. That means hiding money around the house, worrying that it might get lost or stolen. A recent report by McKinsey Global Institute showed that by going digital, around 1.6 billion unbanked people (more than half of them women) could gain access to these important financial services. And simply having access to these services can trigger widespread and positive change for these women, their families, and also their communities and entire countries, including a potential $3.7 trillion bump in GDP.”