Frances Wood

Head of Economics Unit | Foreign and Commonwealth Office

  CV in brief:     Education:   University   of Bristol  |  University of Leeds    Career so far :  UK Embassy, Seoul  | UK Government |   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)     Find Frances online:   LinkedIn  |  Twitter  |  What does a career in the FCO look like as an economist?    Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 201 7

CV in brief: 

Education: University of BristolUniversity of Leeds

Career so farUK Embassy, Seoul | UK Government | Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)

Find Frances online: LinkedIn | TwitterWhat does a career in the FCO look like as an economist?

Exclusive interview by Lucie Goulet, December 2017

What do you do at the Foreign Office

I head up the Economics Unit, which is made up of about 20 economists. I ensure the Unit works and that we're doing the right things at the right time. I make sure that what we produce is used and has impact.

What does the Economics Unit do?

We are a little bit like an internal think tank. 

We do four things. 

1/ We provide economics advice and analysis across foreign policy issues. For instance, we work on Ukraine and the debt crisis, on low oil price and what that means for oil exporting countries and whether they can maintain the current economic structures, on supply chains across Europe, etc.

2/ We help to manage our overseas network. We have around 200 economists overseas and we work very closely with them. 

3/ We carry out all the training on economics for the Foreign Office. 

4/ We work with the corporate side, assuring business cases for programmes. 

Are you an economist yourself by training?

No. As we have a Deputy Chief Economist, a Chief Economist, my boss wanted to bring in someone who was a non-economist but relatively familiar with economic issues to make sure that the work we produce is understandable by non-economists and slots into how the Foreign Office works. 

Why did you choose to work with the Economics Unit?

I want to ensure that we have a broad understanding of how we look at foreign policy and that we don't just look at it through a political lens. 

Take France and the recent presidential election: you won’t get the whole picture if you purely look at that through politics, nor if you just look at it through an economic lens. It's about marrying those two things, and coming up with a more sophisticated way in which we look at foreign policy. That's my main driver for the job.

I also wanted a job where I had more flexibility. This job allows me to take my daughter to school twice a week and to work from home once a week.

How did you join the Foreign Office?

I joined it indirectly. At first, I joined the civil service Fast Stream as a generalist. I was assigned to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) where I did a corporate job before working on climate change.

When you say corporate job, what do you mean by that?

Supporting the Chief Operating Officer, being a secretary for the management board, doing a review of non-executive bodies etc. I did that for year, and then I did a very fun climate change communications job. Back then, we had £12 million to spend on domestic climate change communication projects. I managed that budget and 87 projects, which was quite the baptism of fire in my second job, when I was about 23.

I got to talk to lots of people and look at climate change in different ways to appeal to people and reach them through things they did day-to-day For instance, we had a project with a football club to see if they could change how their supporters travelled to football matches and how they operated the football club to have a lower carbon emission. 

Then I applied for a climate change related job in the Foreign Office to see what another government department was like and to see whether the civil service was the right career for me.

I really enjoyed DEFRA, but I wanted to test things out. I only meant to come to the FCO for two years, and then ended up staying for 10 years, because I enjoy the variety of work and how much trust is placed in you, even when you're new to a subject.

Which kind of skills have you developed through your work here?

When I first started, I wasn't particular good at structuring my thoughts and writing. The Foreign Office makes you very good at speaking, writing, persuading and negotiating.

How does it train you in that?

There's some formal training, but it's also a lot of learning on the job. 

My first non-climate job at the FCO was on nuclear non-proliferation. Part of my role was to negotiate for the UK, as part of the P5, joining the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty. We didn't succeed in the end but being involved in those negotiations was a really good training ground.

How has being dyslexic impacted your career? 

At the beginning, I received a lot of feedback that I could be better at writing. I've picked a career where I need to be very good at writing, and that is the thing that I struggle the most with, being dyslexic. 

I have had good bosses who have supported me and spent the time going through my writing, giving me tips on how to construct shorter, and sharper sentences.

Our HR team helps out too. I have “reasonable adjustments”, which means I can have a bigger screen, I can have talk-to-type and other programmes to support me. 

My dyslexia mainly affects me in terms of my writing, grammatical structure and short-term memory. I keep endless to-do lists and get my teams to remind me when I've forgotten something. Being dyslexic, if something falls off my short-term memory, then it's like it never existed. 

I don't feel like it's held me back, but I it can be tricky sometimes when you're in an organisation surrounded by lots of very clever people. It can make you question whether you're good enough.

How do you address that?

I have good mentors who help me take that step back. When I was making the decision about whether to transfer to the Foreign Office or go somewhere else, my mentor helped me realise that it wasn't necessarily a forever decision. I was 25, so it was all very black and white for me. He said, "If you're enjoying it now, and you think you might enjoy it for the next couple of years, then give it a go. If you stop enjoying it, then do something else."

You were diagnosed with dyslexia at 17. Were you concerned when you started studying and then started your working life?

I got diagnosed at 17, so I had no help during my A-Levels, but at uni they were very supportive. I could record my lectures, I got money for book allowance and a computer. I picked courses that had more coursework and fewer exams because I struggle to remember everything and write it down in the exam. 

My Master's Degree was entirely coursework-based, which was one of my criteria because I knew that if I had the time, then I could do it. The traditional model of cramming for exams was just not going to work for me.

At the FCO, you’ve worked on climate change, you’ve been posted in South Korea and you work in economics now. What's been the driving force in your career?

I pick jobs where I feel like there's enough of what I've done before not to be entirely new as well as enough new things that will challenge me. 

When I went to South Korea as economic counsellor, I knew that one of my four teams worked on climate change, which was familiar to me. When I arrived, that team needed the most direction which allowed me to get comfortable in my job, and then expand out and do the whole of my job.

Internally, we talk a lot about whether women wait until they're ready and feel like they can do everything in a job. The Foreign Office teaches you to just go for opportunities because you move around and do lots of different things. 

You might have three or four career anchors that you stick to, but you do jobs that are completely new, like the nuclear non-proliferation job I did after working on climate change. That was a steep learning curve, but there was a tiny bit of overlap in civil nuclear energy. Then having done the economic counsellor job in Korea where I managed the economics team and created new partnerships between the UK and Korea on things like financial regulations, I felt comfortable coming into this job.

I feel like I need to have something that makes me feel comfortable, and then I can build on it for my next job.

You mentioned you've got a young daughter, and I can imagine that for a lot of people going into the Foreign Office the idea of moving around and having kids can be quite scary. What's your advice?

I did the interview for the job in Seoul when my daughter was a week old. It was the first time that I'd been away from her. My husband took her out for a walk, I did the interview, and then she came back. I just about had enough adrenaline to carry through and get the job. 

We went out to South Korea when she was 10 months old. There were a lot of moments when we got there where I questioned my judgement, about whether it was actually a good idea to move abroad for the first time with a 10-month-old when you're getting two hours sleep a night and to expand my team from three to 14.

But then there were some big advantages. Since we were not paying rent, we could afford for my husband not to work, which solved our childcare problem. We lived on compound, behind the embassy, which meant that I could come home at lunchtime and see my daughter. I could come home after work before evening events and put her to bed. I breastfed her until she was 13 months, and since I was living a 10-second walk from work, I could do things that wouldn't have been possible if I was in London.

We also built a little playground for her in our garden, which the Ambassador approved and came to help us build. There were downsides, because obviously I was away from my mum and support networks, but we were in a place where things can be more flexible and we lived so close to work that it had a massive advantage.

What do you recommend to university students who want to pursue a career at the Foreign Office? 

Go for it, apply for the Fast Stream. There is still this misperception out there that the Foreign Office is only for a certain type of Oxbridge graduate. I am from a middle-class background but I didn’t go to Oxbridge. I went to Leeds and Bristol and I'm dyslexic.  The office has changed a lot, but people's perceptions of what it's like hasn't caught up yet. It definitely has much further to go, but I think it has come a long way and it feels much more diverse than when I started.

What are key things to pass the Fast Stream?

Not panicking. Once I got to that assessment centre, I felt like I did really badly in one exercise and I wanted to walk out at lunchtime. In fact, you get marked twice against the same skill, so you get more than one opportunity. I decided to stay and finished it and I actually passed.

Were there adjustments in place when you sat the Fast Stream because you are dyslexic? 

I skipped the online tests, which was great. We had an in-tray exercise in a centre, which is done remotely now. They got all the dyslexic people to do it together.

They will match the extra time that you get in your school exams or uni exams, so I got an extra 10 minutes per hour. They also matched it when I transferred into the Foreign Office as I had to take exams to do it. The extra time just gives me that little bit of breathing space to be able to finish off what you I started.

What’s next for you? 

I’ll be learning German next year and then I'm moving to Berlin for four years in March 2019 as Regional Director for the Science and Innovation Network. I’ll be managing about 35 people across Europe, Turkey and Russia. The purpose of the network is to build science and innovation relationships between the UK and those countries.

Does being dyslexic impact how you learn languages? 

I will get some extra time. The FCO will let the teachers know so that they'll change how they teach. They make it more visual and adopt the same techniques they apply to teaching dyslexics in school. I'm a bit nervous because languages haven't been my strength, but it feels like a big barrier in my head, something that I really want to achieve personally.