Vivien Life


You have been Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Kingdom of Denmark since 2012. What does it entail?

Leading the embassy in using the relationship with Denmark to pursue British interests. That means trying to convince the Danes to agree with us on key policy issues, to work alongside us, for example in Iraq or on Ebola, being able to explain Danish positions to colleagues in the UK who are themselves looking for support or partnership with Denmark, promoting British exports and investment into the UK and looking after British citizens needing assistance in Denmark.

What is a 'typical day' like?

A mix of getting out and meeting Danes – the main reason to be here – through a mix of one-on-one meetings or conferences and events or dinners in the evening; leading the work of the team internally – so usually some internal meetings at the embassy; and linking up with London – writing reports back or may be taking part in a VTC. And in spare moments keeping up with social media and e-mails.

In a blog post on International Women’s Day, you wrote, “The other women ambassadors had already established a strong and supportive network I could plug into.” Could you please tell us a bit more about it?

There is a group of about 20 women ambassadors here. We meet as a full group only about twice a year. But we’ve got to know each other and link up in other ways – making a point of seeking each other out at wider events. And we have a small gang who always try to sit in the front row at formal meetings at the MFA (Minister of Foreign Affairs) and ask the first questions – I don’t know if the MFA have noticed!

Your previous job was as Head of the department leading on energy and climate change. What did that entail?

Adding value to the international work of the Department of Energy and Climate Change by:

a) Using our network of posts to influence countries to support our ambitions on climate. It meant getting inside the way policy was being formed upstream rather than waiting until rigid negotiating positions were presented in the EU or UN. The EU has now adopted this concept of ‘climate diplomacy’

b) Ensuring there was a good understanding in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of how energy was influencing the political position – Russia/Ukraine; Libya during the Arab Spring

c) Ensuring energy security objectives were taken into account in deciding foreign policy priorities

You joined the FCO after working at the Treasury. Why this move?

I was interested in international work and working on international debt and the World Bank. And I’d met my now-husband, who was working in the FCO so thought I’d give it a go with a view to our being able to go overseas together

You studied English at the University of Oxford. How do you use it in your career?

A huge amount of what we do in foreign policy is about communication and getting the message across and having good skills in this helps every day. Whether (as it still sometime is) it’s about exactly the right words in formal communiqués or (more often these days) giving written advice clearly to ministers, making a speech or a quick tweet. And having an appreciation of one language helps in learning new ones

What would you recommend to a woman who would like to follow a similar career path?

It’s tougher I fear than when I joined. There’s been less recruitment and there’s more competition for the places there are. Don’t be deterred from trying. But also look for other ways of developing the skills you’d need to demonstrate to get in, perhaps working in a different area first. 

Denmark is a leading country in terms of gender equality. What is your role in this, as British ambassador?

Denmark is excellent in terms of women in politics and the public sector. Less so in terms of the top of business, as I found to my surprise when I arrived here. So both countries can learn from each other on how to achieve equality and we do get involved in facilitating exchanges of info and people in both directions

Why did you become interested in foreign policy?

My earlier jobs in the Treasury had a more domestic focus but I was always interested in Foreign Affairs and working on international debt at the time when there was a real crisis really brought home to me how international affairs impact domestically.

What was your first job, and what did you learn doing it you still use today?

My absolutely first paid job was aged 14, washing up at a rugby club, alongside the unpaid but dedicated wives and girlfriends who hung around the bar afterwards and were ignored. I learned never to go out with a rugby player and I never did!

Other jobs I did as a student – working at a checkout, or as chambermaid – made me appreciate how key those roles are, and how badly treated the staff doing them can be by customers and managers. So whether it's as a customer or a manager, I always go out of my way to treat such people with respect. 

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

It's hard to single out the most rewarding aspect from a very rewarding career. But I’d pick out:

Feeling you are having an impact, however small, on matters of global importance

Just being an Ambassador, in every aspect

All the great and inspiring colleagues I’ve worked with over the years

Least rewarding: when we get bogged down in process, whether of our own making around how we make policy or finance or HR or, for example, handling what can seem to be vexatious FOI cases

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

Leading and managing staff, connecting to people quickly, communicating warmth and enthusiasm, seeing the core of issues quickly and taking well-judged decisions based on that. All learned on the job, watching other role models, getting feedback and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?

As a working mother, especially one who travels and works with 24hr a day issues, you will not escape feeling guilty either about not being there for some key moment for your children or not being where the action is for your job. But you have to live with that and aim to have confidence in the decisions you have taken. 

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

It’s tough to choose one. Crises are challenging – for instance I worked on the crisis following the Russian invasion of Georgia – but you have a structure to support you and a focus. Keeping up focus and motivation over a long period on a tough issue can be harder. So I’d pick the work I did to re-boot our efforts on climate change after the big disappointment of the Copenhagen meeting in December 2009. It was about being clear what had in practice been agreed, understanding what went wrong and finding new ways to have the broad influence we needed to bring about change.

What achievements are you most proud of?

Another long-term issue was working on reform of the countries in the Eastern neighbourhood using EU instruments to incentivise progress and penalise failure. In Belarus I had been hugely impressed by meeting some of the brave people working on reform and very unconvinced of the government’s commitment. Working with our ambassador and the team in Brussels working against the odds we managed to convince EU partners, who wanted to reduce sanctions, that progress was not good enough. Sadly I can’t say we’ve seen progress since.

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

I have different role models for different things. For making the key decision to try for an ambassador job and taking off overseas just as your children go to university, I was inspired by a colleague who did that with huge success. For keeping up a high level of ambition, not being deterred by setbacks and inspiring team to do the same – John Ashton who was FS Special representative for climate change while I was working on that. For putting your own personality into the job, Anne Steffensen who was the Danish Ambassador to London when I started here.

Vivien Life | British Ambassador to Denmark

26 years' experience

CV in brief

Studied English at University of Oxford

Previously worked at HM Treasury

Find her online @HMAVivienLife I FCO biography

Career opportunities At the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) I At the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) I At HM Treasury (HMT)