Claire York


You’re a member of the NATO young leaders working group. What does that entail and how did you get there?  

A friend sent the advert for the NATO working group to me and I applied through an open competition to the Atlantic Council (USA). It’s been a great experience, working with an initial group of 15 individuals from other member states on a report and recommendations about the future of NATO. We met first in Washington D.C. for an intense three days of work in the spring, then again in Brussels to present our work to the Secretary General, and finally, this September, we were able to attend the Summit in Newport, Wales, with a larger group of young leaders. As part of the process we have met with senior figures from NATO, been part of discussions and debates about the future of the transatlantic alliance, and organised outreach through social media to extend the debate to a wider audience.

You are also an MPhil/PhD candidate at King’s College. What is it on? 

I'm a second year student at the moment. My research is in the Department of War Studies at King’s and looks at the role of narratives and the dynamics of international negotiations within foreign policy.

Why did you want to do a PhD, and what do you want to do with it?

I have wanted to do a PhD since I finished my Masters degree in Middle East Politics at Exeter University but I wanted to gain some professional experience before returning to academia. For me, it was important to take the time to go into more depth on areas I am interested in and develop a sound basis of knowledge and expertise. Once I finish, I want to continue to work on foreign policy, strategy, and international security and I would like to bridge the policy and academic worlds. I am teaching as part of my degree and so will get a chance to see if this is something I would want to continue in the future. I'm not sure where I will end up at the end of the degree, but I intend to spend some time abroad in the next few years in order to gain experience of other policy communities.

You’ve previously worked as a programme manager at Chatham House of their International Security Department. What did that entail?

My role at Chatham House was incredibly varied. I ran the department, working with the Head and then the Director, and managed the team of full-time staff, interns and Associate Fellows, which all grew substantially during my time there. I oversaw projects ranging from work on cyber-security, terrorism, organised crime, strategy, defence policy, human security, ethics, the armed forces, and conflict trends among other things. I would manage the budgets, fundraise for the department, run events, develop our profile among our stakeholders, and engage with governments, academics, policy professionals, NGOs, and experts. In addition, I was able to do some research, write articles, and provide policy analysis and media commentary. It was a fascinating place to work, with a great team, and a lot of exposure to contemporary current affairs and those involved in shaping the agenda.

You’re also an organiser for the Women in International Security UK, a networking organisation. Why is it important for women in foreign policy to network?

Foreign policy has still not achieved gender parity, although there are an encouraging number of initiatives that are addressing this problem. We still see too many events with all male panels, women continue to be paid less in certain sectors and they do face certain problems that men seem not to encounter. Many women share stories with one another of the challenges they face in the sector and we wanted to develop an environment where women could come together, support one another, and build lasting professional contacts that could then help increase the number of women in this field. Men are an integral part of this effort.  A number of my mentors are men and they have been incredibly important in guiding me throughout my career. In seeking more balance and gender equality in foreign policy it should be made clear that this is not just about women, but that having more diversity, different perspectives, and a wider range of personal and professional experiences is something that benefits everyone and enhances the working environment. 

What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?

The people I have met and worked with have been brilliant. Throughout my career I have been able to work with a fantastic and dynamic group of people and I always find engaging with them, building those links, and discussing ideas and different perspectives to be incredibly inspiring. Those kinds of interactions keep me driven and excited about this field.

I always enjoy the process of taking a new idea or approach, developing it, and seeing it come to life and gain momentum. Having this creative aspect to any role has been a theme throughout my career and it’s important for me to have that component. I also find managing a team to be hugely rewarding, even though it can be challenging at times, and it’s something I hope to do in the future.  

At the moment, as a student, having the opportunity to spend time reading about international affairs, exploring current events, and their historical and theoretical roots, and developing my ideas is just perfect.

In terms of what's least rewarding, I find that dealing with general administration and large numbers of emails take time away from the more interesting aspects such as policy analysis and research, but it is one of those necessary elements that make everything else run more efficiently.

What advice would you give to a young woman who would like to do something similar to you?

Firstly, it’s important to do something you love. That way, whatever you do is never really work, and you’ll give it the energy and commitment needed to get the most out of it.

Secondly, I always advise people to look at the skill set they might need for the future, both personally and professionally – what kind of individual and professional do you want to be? From that you can assess what kind of role interests you, what skills you need for it, which skills you have already, and which you need to develop. Over the course of your career, particularly in the first ten years, you can seek out the roles that will enable you to build that skill set and develop those areas in which you don’t feel as strong. If you pursue skills and experience rather than titles, you should then have a comprehensive arsenal of skills to enable you to choose from different paths and opportunities and feel comfortable and confident in your ability to enjoy new roles and perform them well.

Finally, we are usually our own worst critic. We often assume we aren’t qualified enough for a job, or properly equipped to speak up, and don’t realise that many people are in the same position and feel exactly the same way you do.  Rather than talking yourself down, give it a try and see, you might be pleasantly surprised by the outcome, and if it doesn’t work at least you’ve tried so it’s not failure.

What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?

I love working with people, and invest a lot of time in building and sustaining relationships with people around the world. I think it’s something I’ve enjoyed since an early age. I studied languages before politics in order to open doors to other cultures and countries about which I felt I didn’t know enough. Just the process of learning a language and using them overseas helps you overcome any reticence about approaching people and enables you to build relationships regardless of your backgrounds. Then in politics you get to practice that on a daily basis as its very public facing.

As a manager being people-centric is vital. It helps you think not only about the objectives of the organisation and the bottom lines, but about the ideas, concerns, and opinions, as well as the personal ambitions of those with whom you work. Having a team who feel supported in their roles and their future careers is really important, though how you achieve that can be a matter of trial and error as everyone is different.

I am a bit of a multi-tasker and tend to juggle several things at once, which has been essential for the roles I’ve done so far as they have all involved multiple competing deadlines within very short timeframes. I think it came out of necessity working in an MPs office and then became the way I like to work – I like the variety and the pace. Doing a PhD the opposite is increasingly true, and so now the skills required are more related to self-discipline and the ability to focus on long-term, slower tasks.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

I think one of the hardest things I learnt was that to deal with inevitable challenges it is important to take your ego out of the equation. A former colleague taught me that and it was wise advice. Separate the professional from the personal. This is especially true when you are doing something like foreign affairs that is so much a part of your own identity. Plus, once you realise that you are your own biggest obstacle and take control of, and responsibility for, what happens, it gets much easier. If you know you have worked hard and given it your best, whatever the outcome, it enables you to take the inevitable setbacks on the chin and move forward.

What is the mistake you wish you hadn’t done?

I would have liked to avoid the admin trap a bit more. Management is incredibly time-consuming, particularly when you have a rapidly expanding team. Although I enjoy management, if you want to be known for your expertise, analysis and written work, it’s important to carve out time for that so you can develop those skills. I would have liked to have done more of that in my previous role, but there were different imperatives in play at the time. However, I’m a big believer in the idea that making mistakes is a key part of learning and gaining the experience needed to grow as an individual and a professional.

What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?

One of my biggest challenges has actually been the switch from the policy and think tank community to academia after seven years out of it. A PhD is a big undertaking and teaches you a huge amount about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and how much you don’t know. It was a bit of a culture shock to return to this environment. However, it is a great challenge and I am learning a huge amount. My solution is to read a lot, ask a lot of questions, and recognise that it’s going to be a long-term process with many highs and lows along the way. Another was when I was in charge of the International Security Department for eight months in between bosses. It taught me a huge amount about the resilience you need as a senior manager and was an invaluable insight into how much someone of that level has to deal with on a daily basis.

What achievements are you most proud of?

I’m proud of a number of things I’ve achieved. At Chatham House, I had the privilege work with Paul Cornish and then Patricia Lewis and our team to develop the International Security Programme. Over four years it became one of the largest departments, which was a particular achievement as I know how much hard work went in from all involved. I’m also proud of some of the things I accomplished at Parliament with defence policy, with WIIS UK, and with the NATO Working Group. More recently, being able to do a PhD, which has been a long-term ambition, has been brilliant.

Do you have a role model and, if so, who and why?

There are a number of people that I look up to and learn from (including former bosses, colleagues, mentors, and friends), and I hope they know who they are. Everyone teaches you something different, and it’s important to have a few people who have advanced in their career or have followed a path similar to that which you would like to tread that you can ask for advice or guidance. Those who I consider role models are people who are passionate about what they do, demonstrate intelligence and good leadership, value others and treat everyone as equals regardless of their position in an organisation, have a vision of how things should be and are dynamic in developing those ideas and putting them into practice, and those who possess an ability to connect to others and take them along with them as part of their work.

Claire Yorke - Doctoral Researcher in War Studies at King’s College London

Eight years' experience

CV in brief: 

Studied at: Lancaster UniversityInstitut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (France), University of ExeterKing's College London

Previously worked at: Chatham HouseUK Parliament

Find her online

Twitter: @ClaireYorke

NATO Young Leaders bio

Job opportunities at Chatham House

With members of the NATO Working Group, September 2014

With members of the NATO Working Group, September 2014

Palmyra, Syria, 2008

Palmyra, Syria, 2008

Chairing an IISS and WIIS UK event on Boko Haram with Virginia Comolli, Paul Edwards, and Bala Mohammed Liman

Chairing an IISS and WIIS UK event on Boko Haram with Virginia Comolli, Paul Edwards, and Bala Mohammed Liman

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins speaking to WIIS UK

Ambassador Bonnie Jenkins speaking to WIIS UK