British diplomat Victoria Grove speaks about changing her career path after an accident stopped her from joining the army and pivoting from Accenture to the FCO Fast Track Stream.Read More
Interviews / Diplomacy
Chair | Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace
1. What do you do at the moment?
I lead the Global Commission on the Stability of the Cyberspace. It is an international platform of 28 experts from different countries with various experiences and backgrounds. Among them is, for example, professor Joseph Nye from Harvard University, former American prime hacker Jeff Moss, a private sector representative from Russia and an academic from China.
2. You started your career at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia. How did you end up there?
In 1991, my first job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was at the Press and Media Department, where I wrote press overviews to then Foreign Minister Lennart Meri (Foreign Minister 1990-1992; President of Estonia 1992-2001). Since Russian is my mother tongue, my task was to read Russian newspapers and write summaries of them. A number of people did a similar job from different languages like English, French and German for example.
Back in 1991, Estonian Foreign Ministry was full of young people, who had an opportunity to build their own country. It was a small circle of friends since Lennart Meri decided that he would not use any Soviet diplomats and would start with new people. I was invited to join. At that time, we were not sure that in August of the same year, we would have our own country to run. I was the 21st member of Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and today we have over 600 people working in the Ministry.
3. What do diplomats do and what are some of the most prominent misconceptions about this occupation?
The most significant misconception is that the life of a diplomat is very glamorous- big parties and fancy gowns. Actually, a life of a diplomat is very similar to any bureaucrat’s, where you need to write a lot, analyse information and communicate. This role is unique since you will spend half of your career abroad.
In addition to changing location, changing topics has been a substantial part of my career. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia is small, and thus one cannot be a specialist in one field- be it security, development or environment for example. Estonian diplomats are generalists and must continually adapt their skills and learn. Currently, I am 55-years old, and I have changed the topic I have worked on in every 3-4 years. I started at the Press and Media Department, then I worked as a lawyer in the Ministry, after that as a Consul. Then, I was Deputy Secretary of Trade and Development. I was part of Estonia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. Then, I led the accession negotiations to OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development). There have been so many different topics I have worked with over the years.
4. Which skills have supported your success as a diplomat and how do you adapt to new environments?
As a diplomat, every beginning in a new country is hard.
I try as much as possible to learn about the country and the people beforehand. I believe that personal touch is very important. For example, when I met John Kerry, I knew that he was a dog lover. I did not start the discussion with dogs. However, he asked in the middle of the meeting if he could allow his dog, whose name is Diplomat, to enter the room. As a dog lover myself, I had no objections. But this meant that he had also familiarised himself with my profile, and this type of small detail brought the occasion to an entirely different level.
Secondly- communicate, communicate, communicate. Contacts start from the first face to face meeting, and as a diplomat, one must begin creating connections immediately. Networking is a big job, especially if you are representing a small country because everybody wants to talk to the Ambassador of the United Kingdom. The only solution is to approach people and introduce yourself. Networking only happens by being brave and pro-active. In my opinion, there is nothing worse than a diplomat who does not like to communicate.
In diplomacy, women have an advantage in the sense that women are remembered. For example, when I was an Ambassador in Moscow (2007-2011), then there were 141 male ambassadors and me. This meant that everybody remembered me since I was the only woman. You have to make the maximum use of that.
Thirdly, it is crucial that you try to understand the other side. Why is your opponent thinking this way? It does not mean that you agree with them, but if you understand where the other is coming form, you can explain your position much better.
5. You were the Estonian Ambassador to Moscow in 2007, when Estonia-Russia relations were very tense (In April 2007, riots and unrest took place in Tallinn, Estonia, due to the relocation of WWII Memorial Statue, the Bronze Soldier. Riots were mostly perpetrated by the Russian community in Estonia, and Russia's involvement has been identified. During the unrest, Estonia was also a target of the first recorded cyber attack. In Moscow, local youth activists surrounded and attacked the Estonian Embassy in Moscow). What did you learn from this experience?
First of all, we are talking about three years, which is a very long time. Unrest around the Embassy of Estonia in Moscow took place within a week.
Estonia-Russia relations have always been very special since we are neighbouring countries. The relations were difficult already back in 2005 and there was lack of trust and respect. What can an ambassador do in this type of situation?
Since Russian is my mother tongue, I tried to talk to the locals and explain that Estonia is a normal country. Relations with the press were also critical since there was a need to share objective and transparent information.
I think it is easy to be a diplomat, when you know that you are doing the right thing. I have been fortunate since I have not had to talk something that I do not believe in. The situation is complicated when there is a conflict between personal and policy objectives and I know diplomats who have stepped down because of that.
Finally, it is vital to keep calm. You can cry in your bedroom, but you cannot show it. A smile on the face, you have to explain your positions even when they are very complicated.
6. What kind of skills do you recommend for young people to develop if they wish to become diplomats?
Knowledge of international affairs is important. However, the practice in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has shown that people with different backgrounds can be very successful diplomats.
I recommend to study and live abroad. This experience allows you to understand if living overseas is actually a thing for you. There are difficulties attached to working and living abroad like no family and friends close by, new environment etc.
It is also essential to develop your communication skills. They are learnable, however, when talking to people makes you feel uneasy, then maybe being a diplomat is not just for you.
Finally, I would recommend developing your adaptability and analytical skills. As a diplomat, you have to learn something new every 2-3 years, since as an Ambassador you do not represent only one field. Namely, you also must be able to answer questions about the education system, social challenges and health policies of your country. It does not mean that you have to know everything in detail, but you must have a general understanding and an idea where one might get more information.
7. How have you managed to bring together being a diplomat and having a family?
Working abroad has an immense effect on your family, and you have to think through if your family is ready for this change. Are you prepared for a situation where part of your family stays behind, or your husband will accompany you? Are you prepared to put your children through this change and expect them to go to school, do sports, be active and also successful?
Balancing family and work is already tricky when you aren't living in the same town. When my two kids were small, it was a massive logistical exercise. When you take this family into a new environment with another language, it becomes very very difficult.
I discussed every career move with my husband first, and throughout the years, we have tried all sorts of models. When I was a Consul in Finland, my husband took a paternity leave and stayed at home with Kristjan, our son, for a year. Today, I can say with confidence that during this year, they developed a strong relationship, which without this year would not have happened. In Washington DC and Moscow, I was by myself. The kids were big, but my husband's support was still critical. He took care of our family so that I could progress in my career. I do not know how many couples go through this. However, I was ready to come back from the States and Russia in case it had not worked. My children have been great and my husband has been just fantastic.
Everybody does not have to have the support of a husband. It can also be parents, friends, colleagues. However, everybody has to have someone, who they can call when their kid is ill, or one just needs to talk about the joys and sorrows of the day.
Also, today it is not only the diplomats, who have to balance family and work in a foreign country since numerous occupations require working abroad- be it in Finland or some other place.
8. Before the events in Moscow, you were a diplomat behind the scene; however, after Moscow, you became a public figure. How did this change your life and how have you managed?
I do not enjoy being a public figure, and I have always preferred to be behind the scene.
For example, I do not like public speaking, and I always tend to be nervous and rewrite my speech several times. However, at some point, I just learned to live with this feeling.
My public profile has created a greater interest in the work of diplomats, and I have pushed many of our diplomats to go to schools and talk about our occupation and work.
9. What books are you reading now and which books have had an impact for you?
At the moment, I am reading two books. One is Donna Brazile "Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns That Put Donald Trump in the White House” and the other is Joe Biden’s “Promise me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose”. Both of the books talk about last year’s Presidential Election in the States.
However, I am a big fan of biographies, especially of inspiring women. As a child, I read about Alexandra Kollontai. I also enjoyed the biographies of Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright very much.
10. Today, you work at an international level on cybersecurity. How did you adapt to this change in the later stages of your career and what have you learned?
Indeed, it has been a significant change. I worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 26 years, and I did not have a clue about the outside life.
It is my first year out, and I am still finding the right balance, however, already at the Ministry I worked with cybersecurity and thus the topic, and people are not new to me.
Today, I can work more on topics that are dear to my heart - gender equality and women, integration and international affairs. Since I can accept more invitation than before, I try to visit schools and the Eastern part of Estonia as much as possible.
However, I dare to recommend to people who have worked more than 20 years in the same position to venture out. I am not saying that you should quit your job before finding another but I do recommend to look around and search for new opportunities.
11. International affairs still tend to be male-dominated. Do you have any recommendation on how to feel more comfortable in a male environment?
Things have changed a great deal in the last 20 years, mainly thanks to U.S. Secretary of State being a woman several times.
The most important is self-confidence and bravery to express your positions and ask questions. In general, women do not ask questions, thinking that they do not know how. In reality, when you have listened to 2-3 first questions, you understand that these questions are not better in any way than yours would have been. Women must start asking questions.
Women should also support each other more. It does not mean that we should vote for women purely because they are a woman. However, if you see that the other woman is going through a rough time, then we need to support each other. Sometimes, sharing your experiences and the ways you dealt with it makes all the difference.
12. When you were a candidate in the Presidential race in Estonia, your handbag notoriously gained a lot of attention. This is a problem for professional women in the public life: their looks gain more attention than their positions and ideas. How could we divert the attention away from the way women look towards our expertise and insights?
It is a complicated topic. During the Presidential campaign I faced a dilemma- when I answer the questions about my bag, then I am foolish because I have interest in bags. When I do not, then I am arrogant.
A lot depends on the listeners and journalists. There are a lot of women among journalists, who could set up an example. If they want to talk about fashion, then let’s talk about fashion seriously, but not to gain more clicks.
Also, let’s be much more selective about the questions that we ask female professionals. Why do we ask how a woman brings up her children? Why are we not asking the men?
The same applies to our use of language. We have female prime ministers, but we do not have male prime ministers. Let’s try to narrow the gap and use the word, prime minister.
And when someone is well dressed, let’s also compliment the men that they are looking good or have a nice tie. Let’s be pro-active about narrowing the gap ourselves and talk about the looks both with men and women.
13. What are the future trends in international affairs?
Analysing and processing big data. It was the case that there was a need to seek out information. Nowadays, the problem is not the lack of data and information, but making sense of large amounts of data and verifying what is true and false.
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