Victoria Whitford


What do you do as Deputy Head, Commercial and Economic Diplomacy Department (CEDD) of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

As deputy head, I lead the FCO's diplomatic support to UK businesses overseas. I manage three teams covering commercial diplomacy and business outreach, market access and economic openness and trade policy, so it's a wide-ranging agenda. The priority is ensuring the FCO is delivering services for business that complement but do not duplicate UK Trade and Investment, so there's a lot of relationship management. I spend my day helping people solve problems and setting the framework for our commercial and economic diplomacy around the world. My main contribution over the past year has been creating the conceptual architecture for the '2020 Export Drive', a cross-government strategy and plan for how we can boost exports in line with the Government's ambition for a trillion by 2020. It is fascinating work. I also get involved in FCO corporate issues, whether that's the 'diplomatic excellence' agenda to ensure our diplomats have the skills we need in the 21st century, to championing flexible working, to providing input to the FCO Board.

What is a typical day like?

My working day has a set pattern but plenty of variety and flexibility. I work 4.5 days in four, so Monday-Wednesday in the office in Westminster (currently the Old Admiralty Building, just off Trafalgar Square and next to St James' Park) and Thursdays from home. I spend Fridays with my son (who is two) and do the school run and pick-up for my daughter (who is five). On the days when I am in the office, I get in at around 8:30am and finish around 5pm, although sometimes later if there's a lot going on. I catch up with my inbox on the Blackberry on the train, and read the news and diplomatic despatches from our network of Posts around the world when I get in. My day is normally pretty packed with meetings, as I am often consulting stakeholders or being asked to provide advice. I enjoy going to conferences and business networking events to meet people whenever I can. I try to get home more or less on time, because I'm a mother as well as a diplomat. When I work from home I use the time for think-pieces and strategy, although I often have meetings on the phone. I tend to work a longer day then, usually 8am-6pm.

In the UK, work as a diplomat is interesting but overseas the job is much more outward-facing and lively. In India, where I was Head of the foreign and security policy team from 2007-2011, I spent most of my day out and about meeting people, including NGO workers and think-tankers, politicians and journalists. It is a privilege to have a job that involves learning from people and understanding their unique viewpoints on life. In India I would normally be out meeting people in the morning, have lunch out with a contact, and then in the afternoon write despatches, manage projects or provide policy advice for London. In the evenings there was normally a reception or dinner. I would go home at 7pm, change and go out again, getting home at around midnight three or four nights a week. It was great fun but you do need serious stamina.

How did you get to your current job?

In a very roundabout way! I have had an eclectic career. After university I worked for the Science Museum in London as a trainee curator and then for the UN Centre for Human Settlements in Nairobi (Kenya) designing indicators for development. I joined the Foreign Office Fast Stream in 1999, and did a series of training jobs (Hong Kong desk, Brussels, Consular Division). I wasn't sure whether I wanted to continue with foreign policy or with science, so I did a science writing internship at The Economist. Then I was offered a posting to Kosovo in 2001 as Second Secretary Political, covering Kosovo Albanian politics and the peace process. I loved the job, got to know the country, made many Kosovar friends and learned Albanian. In my spare time I learned to ski and hosted a radio show at Urban FM on Sundays.

After Kosovo I went to Iraq in 2004, first as a press adviser in the Coalition Provisional Authority and then as spokeswoman at the British Embassy. I then moved to Washington in 2005 as Iraq Liaison Officer in the State Department. I took a year out to do a Master's in Public Policy on a scholarship at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University. In 2007 I became Head of the foreign policy team in New Delhi, covering India-Pakistan-Afghanistan and Kashmir. In 2011 I moved back to the UK with my family and decided it was time to try something other than conflict work. I went on loan to the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) as Deputy Director International, doing innovation diplomacy. This was great experience, with a large team of 24 staff to lead, and included a three-month stint on the IPO Board. I started as Deputy Head of CEDD in January 2014.

What did you study at University and how has it helped in the job?

I read Physics and Philosophy at Balliol College Oxford from 1993 to 1996. Oxford opened doors and perspectives for me that I would not otherwise have had. My strengths are intellectual curiosity and solving difficult problems and Oxford honed and sharpened those abilities. I loved the intellectual rigour and discipline of physics and maths, and the creativity and human understanding involved in philosophy. I was interested in politics and social issues, and I loved travelling, but I knew very little about foreign policy until I did a Master’s degree at the University of Manchester from 1996 to 1997, where I learned about climate change, environmental policy and international development. This was when I first thought about joining the FCO. I have not managed to do an environmental or science policy job at the FCO although I am still trying!

Understanding science is a useful skill in the FCO as most people are from arts and humanities backgrounds, so that logical approach to problem solving is valued. Knowing how to construct an argument is invaluable in a policy job, as is creative thinking about alternatives. The most important thing I learned at University is that I was as smart as the men, although I was lacking in confidence. I learned to stay focused and work hard, to have confidence in my judgement, and that it is fine to be ambitious as long as you do not become arrogant.

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

The most rewarding aspects of working at the FCO are being at the centre of politics and world events and the sense that engaging with people through diplomacy makes a real difference to their lives. I've worked in three war zones - Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan - this was dangerous at times but always fascinating and felt like what I did really mattered. Working with Indian, Pakistani and Kashmiri political and civil society leaders on the India-Pakistan peace process was tremendously rewarding - particularly when I met politicians and journalists in downtown Srinagar. It gave me access to a culture, viewpoint and way of life that is closed to most people, and I always felt I was making a difference, even if just by listening and understanding.

The least rewarding aspects of working for the FCO are the labyrinthine bureaucracy, clunky IT, institutional accommodation when overseas, and having to uproot the family every three-six years. I sometimes feel that I am part of a very big machine that is Government, so my impact can only ever be limited, which is a bit depressing for someone who wants to change the world. Oh, and the pay - although I didn’t join the Diplomatic Service for the money.

What is you advice to someone considering a similar career?

Get a job and use the proceeds to go travelling while at university, to build your CV and to see if this is the kind of life you like. If you’re still at school, you could think about a gap year overseas. If you join the Diplomatic Service you will probably spend two-thirds of your career outside the UK, so you have to enjoy being immersed in other cultures, learning languages, taking the initiative and working with people from other countries.

I did the Duke of Edinburgh’s award at school, which gave me a sense of adventure and taught me about working in teams, and volunteered at Oxfam. I took a gap year between school and university and travelled around India and Nepal; in university holidays I volunteered at the Valley Trust in Kwazulu Natal in South Africa, travelled around South America and taught English in the Basque region of Spain. After my Master’s degree, I did an unpaid internship with the UN Centre for Human Settlements in Nairobi, Kenya (I sent off an application form into the blue and then pestered them until I got a response). I had no prior connections and very little money, but I was very determined, which helped me to find and fund these opportunities. I funded my travels through many jobs with varying degrees of awfulness – washing up in a restaurant, picking apples, cleaning houses, packing milk – as well as an internship at IBM and research for a sci-fi film, before getting my first 'proper job' in 1997. I did not know the Foreign Office was a career possibility until my final year at university.

To survive and thrive as a diplomat, particularly in tougher countries, you need curiosity, the ability to get on with people from all walks of life, resilience, tenacity and creativity. You do not need to have attended a public school, have a relative in the Establishment or conform to any other stereotype: diverse ways of thinking and being are actively encouraged in the Foreign Office. The most important thing is to be bright and committed.

What are the skills that make you good at what you do and how did you gain them?

My key skills are leading people, getting quickly to the heart of an issue, solving problems, building relationships, consulting, listening and taking difficult decisions. Resourcefulness and determination are probably up there too. I have gained my skills through work and life: I've done lots of formal training, but I have learned my most important lessons through trying new things and sometimes succeeding but often failing. I enjoy watching and learning from other people, and I am a strong believer in lifelong learning. To learn you have to be prepared to experiment and to make mistakes.

What is the toughest lesson you ever learnt? 

Being intelligent in the classical sense will only get you so far. To succeed you also need emotional intelligence, the ability to cope with setbacks and to have patience. Charm and humour will get you a long way when logic and persuasion have failed. I have come to accept that there are many things that I will never be able to change: that does not mean I should stop trying, but I have learned to pick my battles and to know when to give in gracefully.

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

I have made lots of mistakes. The most important thing is to learn from them but not dwell on them. The Foreign Office is both a supportive and hierarchical organisation, which means it is actually fairly difficult to make major mistakes: I don’t think I’ve ever dropped any real clangers, except perhaps taking the then Foreign Secretary William Hague to the wrong meeting during a visit to India in 2010 (he ended up calling on the Vice President with the Prime Minister, which was not in his programme). Fortunately he had a sense of humour and I’d built up some credibility by this point, so it could have been a lot worse!

What has been you biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

My biggest challenge has been gaining a better understanding of how other people see me (an important leadership skill). The flip-side of my strengths is that I can come across as driven and quick to reach conclusions that seem obvious to me but not necessarily to others, so I need to slow down and bring people with me. I have overcome this through a lot of feedback and practice, with help from a coach, but it was a necessary and painful process.

Which achievements are you most proud of and why?

I feel I have achieved a lot in my career so far, although there are of course many areas in which I wish I had been able to have a much greater impact and do much more to help. I felt that the relationships I built with politicians, journalists and young people in Kosovo, some of whom are now in positions of authority, helped along the process of achieving a durable peace in Kosovo in which the rights of ethnic minorities are respected. In Iraq, I was able to contribute positively to the process of building a transitional government under occupation and then to a peaceful first election. I also did my utmost to help save the lives of two British hostages in Iraq, although those efforts were sadly unsuccessful. I was honoured with an OBE in 2006 for my work in Iraq. That is an achievement, but it is hard to think of it as one: so many Iraqis and service personnel have lost their lives in that conflict that I think about events there with sadness. In Afghanistan, although over a brief period, I was able to build good relationships with the community in Lashkar Gah and demonstrate that the UK was a friend to them. In India, I helped to keep alive the India-Pakistan peace process in an extremely difficult period after the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008; I also built strong relationships with Kashmiri people, and I believe that the project work I led there has been instrumental in maintaining hope and in some real improvements on the ground.

Who are your role models and why?

I am not sure I really have a role model, but there are many strong and influential women whom I admire. I think Tessa Jowell is very impressive and a great politician. I admire Professor Joanna Haigh, the head of the physics department at Imperial College and an influential voice in climate change policy. I’m a big fan of Lyse Doucet – she is a true professional and has real commitment to giving people a voice. I have met many amazing women in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Kashmir who campaign tirelessly for a better life for women and for their countries, often putting themselves at great personal risk. At the FCO, I have great respect for Karen Pierce, Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, and Barbara Woodward, our Ambassador-designate to China. I wish I could have had sessions with Hanna Segal, a psychoanalyst. I would love to have ridden across the desert in Syria and Iraq a hundred years ago with Gertrude Bell: she had a fabulous sense of adventure and understanding of politics, and had her priorities straight – she took a full dinner service with her in a trunk when travelling.

Victoria Whitford | Deputy Head, Commercial and Economic Diplomacy Department | Foreign and Commonwealth Office

15 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied MA in Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University | MA at the University of Manchester | Physics and Philosophy at Balliol College Oxford

Previously worked at UN Centre for Human Settlements | Science Museum in London | The EconomistOxfam | IBM

Find her online LinkedIn

Career opportunities at UN-Habitat | at Science Museum | at The Economist | at Oxfam | at IBM