Kate Thornley


What do you do at the Foreign Office (FCO)?

I am Second Secretary, Foreign Policy at the British Embassy in Brasilia. The bulk of my job is analysing Brazil’s foreign policy and explaining British foreign policy to Brazilians. I look at both of our perspectives on world issues. I also run dialogues between officials and ministers to make sure we’re discussing priority international issues at the right level.

I work with an excellent team in Brazil. In our team we manage the Chevening scholarship programme, identifying Brazilians with leadership potential to the UK to study a masters for a year and then working with them once back in Brazil to support UK interests in Brazil. I also work with our climate attaché who focuses on UK and Brazil collaboration on climate issues.

Do you speak Brazilian Portuguese?

I do. The language requirement was part of my reason for choosing this job. The FCO provided training. I spent four months learning Portuguese in the UK and then had an innersion month here in Brazil when I lived with a family and spoke Portuguese. It’s a great asset, I do most of my work meetings in Portuguese, talk to colleagues and friends in Portuguese and can access the media

Your first job was on the Nigeria desk.

I was based in the Africa department. I advised ministers on the British relationship with Nigeria. My portfolio was really varied, which meant that I learned about the different elements that make up a bilateral relationship. This included consular advice, counter-terrorism and trade and investment opportunities.

Why did you choose that particular job to start?

I joined the FCO through the Fast Stream. On my first day, I was presented with a brown envelope. Inside it was my first job description. I think they try and match it to your interests and areas of expertise but generally it comes as a surprise.

I was glad it was my first job because it was a traditional bilateral relation officer desk officer job which gave me a broad range of issues to work on.

Joining the FCO through the Fast Stream is competitive and can be quite daunting. How do you prepare for it?

It’s not knowledge-based, it’s skills-based. The Fast Stream looks at competencies: how you deal with people and information, how you formulate an argument and so on. So there is little you can do in terms of preparation, in terms of reading books or learning facts. It’s about you as a person. The various stages of the entrance exam are based around role-plays, how you respond in hypothetical situations, how you analyse and respond to information. You can brush up on maths, verbal and non-verbal reasoning for some of the earlier sift tests.

So my advice is to maximise exposure to non-academic activities: sitting on committees, getting work experience, taking up leadership positions in sports teams while at university. And once you’re inside the FCO, that’s when you develop the knowledge you need for the job.

Whilst at university, you worked as a translator and a language assistant.

I studied French and Spanish so as part of my degree I had to do a year abroad. I decided that I wanted to work rather than study in order to test different skills.

I was a language assistant in the South of France, in a small rural town. It was a difficult but excellent experience in terms of being thrown in a difficult situation and having to make friends and understand the local culture. And then I lived in Madrid, working as a translator.

Has learning languages prepared you well for the FCO?

The FCO doesn’t have a language requirement to get in so in that sense you don’t need to speak languages. However, a language degree means you’re not just learning facts and theories. You have to be able to understand different cultures and people in order to effectively operate in a foreign language. The year abroad took me out of my comfort zone and forced me to interact with people. It was excellent preparation for joining the FCO.

Your second job was Assistant Private Secretary to the Permanent Under Secretary. What did you do?

The Permanent Under Secretary is the most senior diplomat in the FCO. The way the FCO is structured, you have the ministers, appointed by the government, at the top. And then within the civil servant structure, the Permanent Under Secretary (PUS) is the head.

His main role is to oversee the running of the office, the 150+ missions across the world as well as the staffing and financing. He is the senior policy advisor to the Foreign Secretary. When you work in his office, you are supporting him (and hopefully one day her, although we haven’t had a female PUS yet) in making the right decisions.

Most of my job was working with various departments across the office to support them in giving advice to him and help him make a decision. The way the information process works is that we write things called submissions, which are policy papers that set up options. Most of the time, the submissions go to the PUS before they go to the Foreign Secretary. So my work was shaping the work as it came along, making sure the right decision came out and went to the right person. It’s partly a corporate job in that it’s a lot of information management planning but then it’s also policy heavy because you have to make sure the right decisions are taken for the right reasons.

It sounds like quite a senior role.

I was part of a team. So I wasn’t working on my own. The way the Fast Stream works is that your first job is meant to be a policy job and your second job is more of a corporate job, which gives you a different view of the office. I was very keen to do that job because it gives the best overview of the office and you can learn very quickly.

How do you move from one job to the next?

The FCO Fast Stream comprises of two one-year jobs and then you go overseas. The first job is assigned to you. Then you have a limited list of jobs and you pick your preferences.

The way the FCO operates now is a much more open job system. In the past, they would do two or three rounds a year where they would publish a list of overseas jobs, you would rank them by order of preference and then the HR committee would decide who was going where.

They have moved away from that model because with modern lifestyle, people want more choice and more control. So now they publish a list of jobs every month and you choose the ones you can apply to. About a year before I was due to finish my first job, I started looking at the job board and each month I’d see what came up.

I had criteria in mind: I wanted to work in an emerging economy, to learn a language, to do policy analysis work so I started assessing jobs on that basis. The process is very devolved now. You’re interviewed directly by the future line manager, as opposed to a central HR committee.

Postings tend to be three or four years, unless you go to a very difficult place.

What are the most important skills in your role?

People skills. Being able to understand why people think the way they do and what has formed their world views is essential. When you’ve grown up in the UK, the history you’ve learnt, the books you’ve read, the news you watch define your frame of reference. Then you go to another country and you’ve got to understand people who have a completely different frame of reference.

What is the most useful thing you’ve learnt?

Things don’t just happen; you need to make them happen. If you have an idea, you just need to go for it and make it work, whether that’s trying to start a new policy discussion in a different area, whether that’s putting yourself forward to travel so you can go to a country to talk to people about what matters to them. You need to have the confidence to believe in your ideas and go for it.

How do you deal with moving around a lot?

It’s very difficult. It places a huge strain on relationships, on families. Life can feel nomadic, as you don’t have a base. I’ve made a special effort to go back for as many life events as I can, weddings for example. You have to make the effort to do that. Having a group of people close to you who understand the situation helps. For instance, I’m still in touch with those I joined the FCO with. We have a joined WhatsApp group and we keep in touch with our day-to-day experiences.

How does the FCO help?

They are trying to be more flexible. They have policies that support partners, travel back to the UK.

The previous diplomatic model was husband-wife, wife follows husband. But in society now, where both parts want to have careers, it’s more of a challenge because there are parts of the world where these opportunities for partners don’t exist.

It can be a strange job in that your personal and work lives become intertwined. The accommodation is normally managed by the Embassy. It can feel quite strange but the Embassy community provides you with a tight knit group when you are overseas.

Why did you decide to join the FCO?

Mostly because of interest. The job is fascinating and very rewarding. It offers you loads of opportunities to enrich yourself as a person. The opportunity to live overseas was hugely appealing. Working in government is very interesting.

You are involved in the Women’s Association. What does it do?

I’m involved with the Global Women’s Association and, with my colleaguePrimrose Lovett, I’ve helped set up a chapter in Brazil.

We bring together a group of female and male colleagues interested in gender equality issues. We organise events to promote networking. Often female networks are less developed than traditional men’s ones so we organise informal drinks or get together or lunches. We encourage inspirational women to come speak to us and we have learning sets where we discuss issues women in the workplace face.

What advice would you give to a young girl who wants to join?

Seek as much life experience as possible. Seek experience in interacting with different people.

Don’t be put off by the world of diplomacy, which can seem academic and male-dominated. I recently observed a UN Security Council session, there was only one woman at the table; all the other ambassadors were male.

It’s important to identify a role model, people you look up to. We have a lot of excellent female ambassadors. You can also have male role models who embody qualities and values you’d like to embody. Reach out, ask them for advice. It goes back to my point before: you don’t get anywhere unless you ask.

Kate Thornley | Second Secretary - Political | Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Seven years' experience

CV in brief

Studied BA French and Spanish at the University of Durham

Previously worked as Nigeria Desk Officer then Assistant Private Secretary to the Permanent Under-Secretary at Foreign and Commonwealth Office | Translator at Synovate | Language assistant at British Council

Languages spoken English, French, Spanish, Portuguese

Find Kate online: FCO blog | LinkedIn 

Inspired by Kate's career? Here are some related job opportunities: Working for Foreign and Commonwealth Office Jobs at British Council

Exclusive Skype interview by Lucie Goulet, April 2016