You’re currently a Political Counsellor at the British High Commission in Pretoria. What does it entail?
As the Political Counsellor role in Pretoria, I work with my three teams to deliver in the following areas: UK/SA joint work on international foreign policy issues; bilateral engagement with South Africa, including on mutual priorities such as climate change, science and innovation and education; and our communications efforts – internally, externally in South Africa, regionally and globally.
How did you get there?
There is no set career path in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). I’ve been in the FCO for 12 years, and worked on areas ranging from multilateral diplomacy (environmental policy, UN peacekeeping, EU engagement, NATO) to traditional bilateral policy, with the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia. When the South Africa job came up – as a maternity cover opportunity – I knew that it would be a perfect next step for me, not least as I’d lived and worked on the African continent before joining the FCO – and loved it.
You have spent most of your career so far at FCO. Why did you decide to join and then to stay?
I didn’t start out wanting to be a diplomat. I studied environmental sciences at university and was convinced that I would make a full career out of that discipline. I worked for several years in Africa, starting as a pure environmentalist, developing into a sustainable development expert, and then branching into post-conflict work. By the end of my time in Africa, I’d worked closely with the British Embassies in Tanzania, Rwanda (also covering Burundi), Kenya, Uganda and Zaire (later DRC). I still didn't know if I wanted a diplomatic career, but it became an option I was interested in considering: I took the civil service exams – passed, then took the FCO exams and passed those too. I then thought – “I’ve got this far, I might as well try it out, I can leave if it isn’t for me” – 12 years later I couldn’t be happier that I gave it a shot.
Your jobs at the FCO have been both in London and abroad. How does that make a difference?
In London you are responsible for shaping policy: analysing policy options, considering the risks and mitigation, discussing ideas as widely as necessary and putting them to Ministers for decisions. Overseas, the emphasis is on delivery of that policy: talking to opposite numbers from the host country as much as possible on the many/varied policy areas, enthusing them to work with us, and delivering joint initiatives.
What would you advise to a woman who wants to join the FCO?
I’d advise her to go for it! I know that for many women the work-life balance can be an issue. But the modern FCO is a diverse and flexible place to work. People need to manage their work/life balance in different ways as they go through their careers – sometimes needing to work part-time; job-share; work remotely or take some time away from the FCO to do other things. The FCO allows for all of these variants for all staff, and as the technology improves, so too do the flexible career options. So there are no blockages to a long and successful career.
You have a BSc and an MSc in Environmental Science. How have you used those in your career?
I used my academic qualifications directly in those early days in Africa before joining the FCO, and I’ve used them directly since – as an environmental policy officer when I first joined the FCO, and, more recently, with oversight of our climate change work in South Africa. But more broadly, I’ve found that the academic and scientific discipline needed for my degrees is also useful in ensuring that I analyse policy options robustly and thoroughly, considering risks/benefits and building in monitoring/ evaluation.
You’ve also done some courses on Coursera recently. As MOOC is something talked about quite a bit at the moment, could you please explain what motivated you to do them and how have you used them?
I’m a strong believer in lifelong learning. I don’t think you ever stop picking up new disciplines and skills. Coursera is a really handy, bite-sized way to learn in those odd stolen moments in evenings and over weekends – and there is some hugely interesting content generated by leaders in their fields. The behavioural economics course by Dan Arielly was particularly fascinating for a diplomat – as it dug down into what makes people tick – something that is useful to know in a career where negotiation is a key skill!
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
My career is at its most rewarding when I can see real impact: the UK and a partner country working together on something tangible. It is at its least rewarding when you’ve put a lot of effort into working together for shared benefit – and it might have really yielded dividends for a couple of years – but then something happens and things slide backwards. This happens a lot in diplomacy and is often due to factors well outside of the humble diplomat’s control!
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
The key skills are to be able to think strategically about what is important for UK interests, and those of partner countries, and to deliver on that basis; to develop strong interpersonal relationships – both within the UK Government, and with international interlocutors; to be able to listen to various viewpoints and to support or challenge as appropriate; and to think on your feet – coming up with new and innovative solutions to old problems (of which there are many!).
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
The toughest lesson I’ve had to learn as a leader is that being respected is more important than being liked. And there are many situations when you can’t have both.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
A really tough negotiation with a formidable individual. I handled it by toughening my own negotiation style, but also by using humour and personal touches to lower the temperature and to ensure that the bilateral relationship survived the encounter! It worked!
What achievements are you most proud of?
Most recently, I am proud of delivering a “Future Leaders” event in South Africa: an opportunity to introduce talented young people to potential sponsors and mentors. At the event, I introduced a bright, bubbly and very talented young lady from a deprived township to a British University Vice-Chancellor. The Vice Chancellor was so bowled over by this future leader that she offered her a fully funded three-year degree in the UK. When I see that sort of thing, I’m reminded of why I love the job.
Do you have a role model and, if yes, who and why?
I have many role models – I find that most people have really interesting knowledge to impart. I’ve learned a lot from colleagues in the same profession – both male and female, but I’ve also learned from people in very different lines of work. I’ve been inspired by figures admired all over the world, such as Aung San Suu Kyi, and by people who’ve yet to tell their story, such as my young friend from the township.
Danae Dholakia - Political Counsellor at British High Commission Pretoria
20 years' experience
CV in brief
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Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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