Thorda Abbott


You have been Deputy Head of the Projects Task Force in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) for the past two years. What does that entail?

I am one of three Deputy Heads. We each run a team of project officers of different grades and experience. We all deploy across the office to do urgent high priority work when individual FCO Departments do not have the resources to take it on. 

You have been British Ambassador to Mongolia and Armenia. What was that like?

They are very different countries, both from each other and from anywhere else. Armenia has a long Christian heritage; it was the first county to adopt Christianity as a state religion in AD 301. It has expanded and contracted geographically across the centuries, but retained its culture, its language, its script and its identity. For a comparatively small country, in terms of area it has a wide range of landscape and a wide reach. You will find Armenian communities in Russia, the United States and the Middle East, as well as in other countries across the world, including Britain. Mongolia is much larger in terms of land but has a similar population of approximately three million. It has a strong nomadic tradition and a spectacular, if sometimes harsh, landscape. Mineral wealth has the potential now to improve living standards dramatically, but at the moment between 30%-40% of Mongolians still follow the traditional herding way of life.

You’ve also headed a mission as Chargée d’Affaires in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. How is it different?

This was certainly different from anything I’d done before. I was asked to open our Embassy at short notice. I assembled a sort of “Embassy starter kit”, including a flag, a sat phone, a laptop, some stationery, a first aid kit and a kettle, and the office bought a large trunk to put it in. This is the biggest piece of luggage I have ever taken with me on a plane; picture the eye-rolling at the check-in desk. I also travelled with a briefcase full of dollars, which the German Ambassador in Dushanbe kindly agreed to store for me as I was living in a local hotel. Tajikistan had recently emerged from a civil war and there was a 10pm UN-enforced curfew in place. The country was still feeling the effects of the withdrawal of much of the Russian population following the breakup of the former Soviet Union and there was a lot of goodwill towards Western countries that wanted to set up Embassies there. The Tajiks took great care of me, and ensured my security by allocating me a handsome, young, male, armed KGB body guard every day. I quite missed them when I left.

You’ve had jobs as First, Second and Third Secretary. What does that mean in FCO terms?

The three equate respectively to a Lieutenant Colonel, a Major and a Captain in the Army. I passed the entry exam and came into the Diplomatic Service as a Third Secretary straight from school. Being appointed a Second Secretary and then a First Secretary represented a rise through the ranks with increasing experience and responsibility.

During your 40 years at FCO, your have been appointed home and abroad multiple times. One of the reasons I often hear for the lack of women in foreign policy is because this is hard to combine with a personal life. What do you think and what has your experience been?

There’s very little you can’t do if you set your mind to it, but you can’t get away from the fact that there will be challenges if you take on a career that involves moving country every three years, particularly if you have children. You need to think about what your priorities are, and where you’re prepared to compromise. My other half and I want to see each other at least once every three or four months when I am overseas, so we organise our lives to make this happen. We do not have children, which makes the logistics easier.

How does one move from one position to the next in FCO?

The FCO has had a free market in jobs for nearly 20 years now. Most appointments are for two or three years. When your current job is coming to an end you look at what’s coming up and bid for jobs you’d like. The process usually involves being short-listed and invited for interview.

How did you become interested in international affairs? Why did you decide to make it your career?

My father was a diplomat, so I grew up taking an interest in what went on in other countries. He’d been a soldier before that, but I didn't want to join the Army because I'd spent seven years at boarding school. I was very happy at school, but thought I’d had enough of communal living and lace-up brown shoes. As an idealistic teenager in the sixties, I was also more hippy – drawn to peace, love and happiness – than a rock chick. I felt that a world without war was something worth working for. I still do. I am not ashamed of still being an idealist. There are times when, sadly, I believe that armed conflict is inevitable, but every time it happens I believe it represents a failure for my profession. 

You are fluent in French, Spanish, speak some German and previously qualified in Ukrainian and Russian. How have you used the languages in your career?

I have learnt most of my languages since I joined the FCO. Speaking the language of the country you’re in gives you an unparalleled advantage. Of all my languages, I claim to speak only English well, but I have used all the others at one time or another. Strangest experience? I once chaired a meeting of EU Ambassadors in three languages at once, one of which I didn’t speak, because we didn’t have a common language between us. 

What was your first job and what did you learn from it that you still use now?

I worked three days a week in the flower department at Harrods when I left school, while I applied to join the Diplomatic Service. I learnt how to prune 500 roses twice a week, how to charm tips out of men ordering flowers for their wives and how rude people can be to shop assistants. I still prune roses and strip their leaves off below the water line, but soliciting financial incentives is frowned on in the FCO. Being polite to people even when you don’t have to be is the mark of civilisation; it also makes people much more likely to help you than bad manners will. I do have to remind myself of this from time to time...

What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?

No one gets the top job without hard work. Keep your integrity, but temper honesty with tact. Ask for what you need, but don’t become shrill. Don’t be afraid to challenge perceived wisdom. Try to be honest about your own failings. Be firm when you have to be, but not unkind. Remember that however senior you become it’s not about you, it’s about what you contribute. 

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

The best bits are when something works because I have intervened personally. The worst bits are when something goes wrong and everyone is blaming me!

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

Dedication to the task at hand. Not just being fair, but being seen to be fair. Reminding myself that I do not have a monopoly on good ideas and sometime have bad ones. Understanding that so long as I recognise the bad ones, it doesn’t matter; it’s better than not having any ideas at all. Keeping calm under pressure. Showing patience and a degree of humility, especially in somebody else's country.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

That whatever I do, sometimes things are not going to work and some people are not going to like me. I am much less worried about this than I was when I was younger.

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

Learning not just to listen to other people, but also to show them I’m listening. I’m still working on it.

What achievements are you most proud of?

That I have left places better than I found them. That in a number of countries I have left a development legacy in the form of better governance structures and a better framework for the treatment of the vulnerable, including women. That I have helped a number of British companies do business overseas successfully. That I have helped a number of British people in difficulty. And of course, that I have been British Ambassador three times: an honour, a privilege and a gesture of faith by Ministers and colleagues.

Thorda Abbott-Watt, Deputy Head, Projects Task Force at Foreign & Commonwealth Office

41 years' experience

CV on the Foreign Office's website