Catriona Laing


You’re currently a senior diplomat posted at the FCO in London. What does that entail?

I am currently preparing for my posting as Ambassador to Zimbabwe, which starts at the end of August. This entails training courses and briefings around Whitehall and with external partners, including parliamentarians, academics and business people.

After leaving the Mission of the Helmand Province Reconstruction Team (PRT) and taking some leave, I spent three months working on the lessons from our joint civilian/military experience in Helmand. This involved visiting the partners we worked with on the ground – US, Denmark and Estonia – to share learnings, as well as visits to the UN and NATO. I have written this up as five strategic reflections. This will feed into a wider Cabinet Office led lessons process on Afghanistan.

After this, I spent two weeks on a UN-sponsored training course in Buenos Aires to prepare people who may one day take up positions as Special Representatives of the Secretary General. I then spent three months working on the Ukraine crisis – first in the crisis centre in London and then in our Embassy in Moscow.

My final assignment was working in the Foreign Office (FCO) communications directorate on a change management programme to move from standing teams to project-based way of working. So it has been quite a busy and varied year, and one which has enabled me to get exposure to different parts of the Foreign Office.

What did you do as Head of Mission for the Helmand PRT?

I spent 18 months from March 2012 to September 2013 in a triple-hatted role as Head of Mission for the Helmand PRT and Senior Civilian Representative for NATO and the UK in southern Helmand.

The PRT was a multi-national, multi-functional team of 220 (at peak size) comprising of civilians from a range of backgrounds from the UK, US, Denmark, Estonia and Afghan colleagues, as well as UK and US military and police. The role of this integrated civil/military operation was to work with the local Afghan government in Helmand to strengthen governance and development and lay the foundations for transition to a full Afghan lead by early 2014.

What do you do on a “typical work day”?

Every job has been very different. My most unusual job was Head of the PRT in Helmand. I started the day (as I always do) with my personal yoga practice for 30 minutes at 07.00, followed by breakfast of tea and porridge. I had a diary meeting with my Aide de Camp (an RAF officer) and my private secretary (a civil servant) to go through the day’s meetings and make sure I had all the briefing I needed.

At 08.30, there was a daily meeting with my team leaders which started with a security briefing advising us of any changes overnight and any impact on our planned moves. The head of media then ran through the key UK stories on Afghanistan and local media stories covering Helmand. Each team leader would then give a brief update of key issues for the day.

At 09.00 there was a VTC with the British Embassy in Kabul, which followed a similar format, and once a week looked ahead at visits from Ministers, senior military and senior officials. There was a weekly VTC with the London Afghanistan team, chaired by the Cabinet Office, to review progress against the National Security Council strategy for Afghanistan. 

The rest of my day depended on whether I was travelling or not. I undertook regular visits to the Districts of Helmand, which entailed helicopter travel to the relevant district with my close protection team and other PRT team members. In the district, we would usually start with a briefing from the local military commander (UK or US depending on the district) followed by briefing from the local team of stabilisation officers and then lunch with the District Governor and District Chief of Police to discuss progress on the ground and how our various programmes were going. If I was staying at the camp the day would include a mix of briefings with military colleagues, a trip by helicopter to meet with US marine colleagues at Camp Bastion, preparation for or hosting visits (the PM visited four times and many cabinet ministers came through during my 18 months in Helmand).

Back at the military camp, I would try to fit in some pre-dinner exercise (most people exercised for an hour a day in Helmand). I took up kickboxing with one of my bodyguards, which was a lot of fun. Dinner was around 19.00, after which I would go back to work until around 21.00. I would then read or watch some TV in my room before another short yoga session and bed.

How did you get to your current job as Ambassador to Zimbabwe?

During my posting in Helmand (which was done on loan from the Ministry of Justice) I discussed with my line manager, the Ambassador in Kabul, what I should do next. He encouraged me to apply for Ambassador/High Commissioner roles. I applied for two African posts and was successful in my bid for Harare. I have now transferred into the FCO.           

You’ve worked in multiple government departments/ministries. How did you move from one to the next?

My move from the Department for International Development (DFID) to the Cabinet Office was because I wanted a change after 10 years working in DFID.

Suma Chakrabarti (now President of European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) was, at the time, Head of the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) in the Cabinet Office but was shortly to move on. His successor Geoff Mulgan, who had been head of the No 10 Policy Unit and the think tank Demos, was his successor. Geoff asked Suma for advice on who to bring into his top team. Suma recommended me and another individual. I had just completed working on the Government’s second development white paper on globalisation. I had an interview and was offered the post of leading the Renewable and Resource Productivity project team. I had never worked on these issues before and spent Christmas reading up.

On January 5 2001, I arrived at the PIU to head a 10 person team – five of whom were the UK’s leading academics on different aspects of energy policy. I made clear my role would be strategic direction and Whitehall handling. It was a challenge and I had to learn fast. I ended up spending 4.5 years at the Cabinet Office, in what became the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, working on a variety of domestic and international projects. The early days of the Blair government were very exciting, as he wanted first principles examination of nearly all areas of policy. 

My next move to the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) came after two years heading the DFID office in Sudan. Again I was looking for a change and Suma, who was by now Permanent Secretary at the MOJ, contacted me and encouraged me to apply for a new role he was creating as International Director. I was appointed following an open competition. My move to the FCO was after going on loan from the MOJ to head the Helmand PRT and then transferring into FCO after being appointed as Ambassador to Zimbabwe.

My conclusion from this is that it is a mixture of being proactive, being willing to change tracks and having influential mentors/sponsors who can recommend you. So get out there and network.

You studied economics and business management at university. How has this been useful to your career?

Economics was invaluable – it is a really useful framework for anyone working in the public sector as government is all about making choices with scarce resources. The microeconomic framework of opportunity cost is really helpful in thinking instinctively about this.

Economics was my route into development. After my masters in economics, I applied for an Overseas Development Institute Fellowship and was posted as a planning officer to Botswana. After completing this, I joined the Overseas Development Administration (ODA, which became DFID in 1997) on a temporary contract. I did the government economics fast stream competition, was successful and continued to work at ODA/DFID. Economics was therefore also my route into the UK government. I did a government sponsored MBA in 1995/96 which was very hard work! I really enjoyed developing a different set of skills and getting to know people from a diverse set of private sector backgrounds. The method of working in six people study groups was really good for learning how to make the best use of different skills and backgrounds – the civil servants almost always got to do the drafting! I am still in touch with many of the friends I met on my MBA.

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

The most rewarding is when you see a strategic insight translating into practical change for the better on the ground.

Least rewarding is having ideas blocked because of risk aversion or resistance to change.

You’ve been posted abroad multiple times. What were the advantages and difficulties?

Overseas you feel much closer to the action and generally have more autonomy. I like living in different cultures and experiencing different lifestyles. I still get that feeling of excitement and anticipation every time I step off a plane in a new place for the first time – smell the hot steamy air, witness the slight chaos of the airport and see the different faces – for me that is a great feeling and never fails to give me a sense of thrill.

The difficulties are the practical ones of making life work often in difficult circumstances where red tape and bureaucracy can be gruesome. “The man with the key is not here” is a phrase I have heard more times than I care to remember and sums it up as well as (usually) making me laugh.

It is of course also difficult to be away from family and friends. It takes its toll on relationships and you have to work hard to keep in touch – it’s easier of course now with social media.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job to yours?

·         Get lots of different experiences

·         Seize every opportunity, take risks, believe in yourself and go for it

·         Do people favours without expecting anything in return – you will almost inevitably get a benefit at some point

·         Find good mentors and people who will champion you and promote you

·         As you progress through your career mentor others – particularly young women

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

·         Critical thinking from first principles

·         Change management

·         Empathy

These were acquired by doing lots of different kinds of jobs – different departments, organisations, strategy and delivery. Living and working in different cultures.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

It is easier to go with the herd and comply. It is hard to challenge and stand up for what you believe in. You will make some enemies and it can be very unpleasant. But doing the right thing is the right thing to do.

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

Not going for a job as private secretary to a minister because at that time I wanted a better work/life balance. I ended up with just as tough a job, and without the understanding of being a private secretary, which would have been a good experience.

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

Preparing for work at the PMSU. I had to lead a team of UK’s leading energy experts and only had a few weeks to prepare. I focused on what I could do, rather than what I couldn’t. I asked for advice on what I needed to know on the technical side. I learnt how to ask the key questions and add value in this way.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Being lead civil servant on the design of the Extractives Industries Transparency Initiatives.

It emerged from a civil society campaign called “publish what you pay” to force governments to publish what they received from extractive companies operating in their countries – the idea being that transparency would reduce scope for corruption. Tony Blair was interested in this area as something he might be able to announce at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002. We only had a couple of months to pull together a text between government, private sector and civil society – indeed this was one of the first of its kind. Positions were entrenched at the outset – the private sector wanted a voluntary approach, civil society a mandatory approach and many government departments were against the idea altogether. It took huge amounts of creativity and hard work to pull it together in time for the summit. EITI is now a well-established initiative which has made a real difference on the ground.

I am also very proud of what we achieved in Helmand in such difficult and dangerous circumstances.

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

Minouche Shafik – now deputy governor at Bank of England, previously at IMF and Permanent Secretary DFID. We met originally as students at the LSE. I admire her for maintaining her humanity in the toughest of jobs. She proves that you can get to the top and be a nice person!

Interview carried out in August 2014. Since then, Catriona has taken up her posting as Her Majesty's Ambassador to Zimbabwe

Catriona Laing - Ambassador Designate to Republic of Zimbabwe

25 years’ experience

CV in brief

Studied Economics at the London School of Economics | MBA in Business Administration at Cranfield School of Management

Previously worked at Ministry of Works, Transport and Communications Botswana | Department for International Development | United Nations Mission in Somalia | Prime Minister's Strategy Unit | Ministry of Justice

Find her online @CatrionaLaing1

Working for FCO