Melinda Simmons


You’re currently Head of the Conflict Department at Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). What does it entail?

The Conflict Department manages some of the critical tools a government can use to prevent or resolve violent conflict. These include: oversight of UN peacekeeping and peace-building operations, and management of a cross-government fund for conflict, stability and security, which is over £1bn. We manage risk management and transparency mechanisms for businesses operating in fragile countries. Conflict Department also carries out campaigning work, including on the forced recruitment of child soldiers, and on preventing sexual violence in conflict.

Prior to this, you worked at Department for International Development (DFID). First, you were deputy director of the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review. What were you doing?

I had lots of jobs at DFID. My first senior civil service job there, was as Head of its Southern Africa programme, during which I was based in Pretoria for three years, overseeing all DFID’s aid programmes in seven countries across the region. After that, I headed up the Middle East Department, where I had oversight of DFID’s programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in Yemen, and across the region. I also ran an emergency humanitarian response in Gaza. I took a year of special leave, because of family illness, and took up the head of the humanitarian emergency response review when I came back. The review, which was chaired by Paddy Ashdown, looked at how well the UK responded to natural disasters overseas, and made a number of major recommendations, all of which have been taken forward by DFID since the review published.

Then you became deputy director of the Europe department. What did that entail?

DFID spent £1.3bn a year through the EU for development assistance and my job was to make sure that the funds to which the UK contributed delivered efficiently – this included humanitarian response, neighbourhood, accession and development funds, so the policy issues covered a lot of ground. As part of the job I was also a UK Alternate Director at the European Investment Bank, for which I attended monthly board meetings. This was during the height of the economic crisis in the Eurozone, so it was an incredibly interesting time to be involved in the decision making about how the EIB invested its funds. Plus it used my languages (I have a BA in French and German and speak both fluently).

Why did you choose to join the civil service after working for business and peace building charities?

In business, I was representing massive multinational companies that were launching their products for the first time in emerging market economies, including in South East Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America. I loved being in business, but I began to be more interested in the political environments in which the markets were growing, and the impact of big business on society, than in the products I was marketing. So I decided to shift my career path towards joining government, where I would be able to work on these issues more centrally. I did this by moving to a peace-building NGO (and taking a HUGE salary cut – talk about personal commitment...!) and then applying for government via the Fast Stream scheme.

What would you advise to a woman who wants to work for FCO or DFID?

Where to start with this? I run sessions in the FCO for women on several aspects of career planning, and I also mentor four or five women in government. My mantras are: 

1. Get comfortable with networking – good networking is more than half of the path to get the job you want.

2. Be prepared to blaze a trail. I’ve been around for years and still feel as if I’m knocking down barriers.

3. This is fantastic work. Enjoying your job is every bit as important as planning your life.

4. Always review your skills and think about how to evolve them.

5. Be confident. You always, always have something to offer.

You have a BA Modern Languages and an MA in European Politics. How do you use them in your career?

I use languages regularly – my BA degree was in French and German and I’ve used both on and off, but I’ve also, at various times, studied Russian, Arabic and Hebrew. The FCO prioritises investment in learning languages and as a linguist I think this is a no brainer. You need languages if you want to build trust. In all my jobs, when I’m talking to someone from another country and I have some of their language, I will begin in that language. I used my languages most intensively in my Europe job (see above) but even when I headed up the Southern Africa programme at DFID I learned some (very) remedial Xhosa and Setswana.

You went back to school to do an MA after a few years working. Why this choice?

I decided a BA in languages wasn’t going to be enough to make my application for government competitive. I chose an MA in European politics because my work experience had been largely in Europe and my main languages were European, so it felt like a logical area in which to broaden my knowledge. The MA was partly what helped me get my Europe Dept job. I could bore for England on theMaastricht treaty.

What do you think would change if there were more women involved in foreign policy?

More foreign policy institutions would have access to far more talent. Who wouldn’t want to access that?

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

Most rewarding is making things happen, particularly through others, and watching my teams develop their ability to go further. Least rewarding: commuting!

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

Confidence in public speaking, and the ability to network, plus speed reading, and tactical learning so I had the right technical knowledge at the right time. Most I learned on the job. Speedreading was the best, most useful formal training course I ever went on. I use innovative online learning now to increase my technical knowledge: I am a huge fan of FutureLearn for its flexibility as well as its networking potential. Oh, and I really need projects at home that help me to shed the stress of a busy day. I’m learning to play the piano, plus I bake – a lot (don’t get me started on the best way to plait enriched dough...) and I box. I recommend boxing to any woman who works in a majority male environment.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

I think it’s really difficult to build the courage to speak up for yourself. Often for women, that’s just a step too far out of your comfort zone, plus there’s a real 'why bother' button that switches on in your head. Giving yourself permission to be heard is hugely empowering.

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

My biggest challenge came when my partner, who is a journalist, was arrested in Zimbabwe a few years back and charged with the crime of observing elections without permission (a non existent crime for which there was no legal basis). I campaigned for his release, while managing my own personal worries about his well-being, and the impact on our kids, and getting on with my day job. One great skill that I could not have done without, and which I picked up in my life in business, was the ability to pick up the phone to anyone, no matter how senior, to get my point across. By the time my partner came back home, I had the skin of an elephant. It made me incredibly resilient.

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

I have several. They’re all women who have worked very, very hard to get to where they are. My current favourite is Julia Guillard. Followed very closely by my Mum. Then Judi Dench.

Melinda Simmons - Head of the Conflict department at FCO

24 years' experience

CV in brief: 

Studied at: University of ExeterUniversity of North London

Previously worked at: Department for International DevelopmentInternational Alert, The Television Register

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