Diplomatic Fast Track Stream | Uk Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)
Victoria Grove spoke to Women in Foreign Policy's Hannah McCarthy about her early ambitions to join the British Army, her experience working in management consulting in the UK and Norway and her decision to join the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and transition to a career in diplomacy.
Victoria thanks for taking the time to talk to Women in Foreign Policy. First of all it would be great to hear about what your current role at the Foreign and Common Office (FCO) entails?
I am an Assistant Private Secretary to a Minister of State. Within the Minister’s portfolio, I cover human rights, national security and the Minister’s official FCO social media. So I am the Minister’s go-to-person for anything that the Minister does related to those areas; be it official engagements in the UK or overseas, answering questions in Parliament, or taking policy decisions. I ensure that the Minister has what he needs at all times to effectively represent Her Majesty’s Government.
And did you always want to be a diplomat or was it something that you considered only recently?
Public service has always been in my mind, but I had actually planned to be an officer in the British Army. I wanted to make a difference and have an active job which would allow me to travel the world. I was fortunate to gain a place at Welbeck Defence Sixth Form College and was part of the Armed Forces’ engineering graduate programme known as the Defence Technical Undergraduate Scheme. This military experience taught me to push myself to the limits through adventurous training, and how to be a part of and lead a team through assault courses and military exercises in the cold and wet! Unfortunately, I had a rock climbing accident in Chile just before I was due to enter the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, so had to find another path.
To have had to change your entire career plan so abruptly and unexpectedly must have been a very difficult experience?
The accident was a shock, physically and mentally. I had effectively been working towards a career in the Army for over five years and the door was now closed for reasons beyond my control. Physically, I was very lucky that my spinal cord was unaffected so it did not take too long to recover – I was jogging within 2 months. Mentally, it took longer to process the impact of the accident, I no longer felt invincible. Thankfully a strong support network of family, friends, professors, and strangers whom I had been introduced to who had been through a similar experience, helped me get into a positive frame of mind. I set myself two goals - getting a new job, and also raising money for charities that support those with spinal injuries. The latter is a story for another day!
I started searching for graduate jobs and management consulting roles offered the most variety, so after multiple rounds of assessment, I started at Accenture. It was an incredible experience to work in a global company of over 240,000 people. My training started with coding in Bangalore, and I then specialised in defence and public service. I gained a breadth of experience on five projects both in the UK and Norway. I learned how to deliver technology projects, manage risks, build client relationships, and lead a team.
What kind of thinking-process did you go through before making the move from management consulting to diplomacy?
I recall going to an Open House event at the FCO and thinking I’d love to work there, but I was doing well in management consulting and the remuneration package was generous. At the time it felt like it would have been a step backwards both financially and in terms of seniority. I was only in my mid-twenties but already felt like I did not want to lose momentum in my career.
But it was really when I was sent to work on a project in Norway that I realised how much I enjoyed working abroad and found myself more inclined towards policy making as opposed to policy implementation - which was generally what I was doing as a consultant. I first attended a course in international development at the University of Oslo to see whether going back to Uni would be a good idea and what topic I’d like to study.
I enjoyed meeting people from different backgrounds, debating, reading and writing essays as they all stretched my mind, so the course confirmed that I should study again. While I very much value the work of the international development community, I decided it was not the right subject for me at this time. I needed a broader set of skills to transition from my tech/engineering background, so I turned to Public Policy. Public Policy courses tend to include modules in economics, law, statistics, philosophy, research methods, and so on. They are broad courses, yet through independent research modules and reading groups, you can still specialise in certain topics.
So, I funded myself through the Master’s in Public Policy at the University of Cambridge. Fortunately, I was able to take an unpaid leave of absence to study. This kept the option open to return to either continue from where I left, or move within the company and use my new skills in a different business group.
Nevertheless, during my time at Cambridge, I met incredible people of all ages, for example an oil and gas retiree who was re-training as an archaeologist and was inspired to follow my passions. My independent research modules had focused on foreign policy and I loved it. While the FCO would still be a literal step backwards in terms of finance and seniority, it now felt like a step forwards mentally so I started the application for the Diplomatic Fast Stream.
How did you approach the application process for the Diplomatic Fast Stream?
The Fast Stream application is quite a long process from start to finish, and during this time I researched as much as possible about the FCO. Being at a lively university definitely helped – I attended multiple talks by former ambassadors, politicians and academics working in foreign policy. I read books by former diplomats, and found both positive and critical accounts of the FCO. I read this website! I read the FCO annual reports. I spoke with as many people as I could possibly find who had links to the FCO or Ministries of Foreign Affairs overseas. Simultaneously I looked for and subsequently discounted alternative options – international governmental organisations, NGOs, think tanks. All of this research helped me to confirm to myself that it was the right move for me, and subsequently demonstrated to my interviewer how seriously I had considered this decision.
Having recently made the transition from the private sector to the FCO, what is the reality of working there and what are important considerations for anyone considering a similar move?
I love working at the FCO. I feel I am doing something meaningful and have a real impact on UK foreign policy. I can see so many jobs that I want to do in future – be they in offering support to Brits overseas, in a crisis team responding to natural disasters or as a policy maker in Whitehall.
It was a positive transition but not always easy. As you’d expect, there are cultural differences between consulting firms and the FCO. For example, progression in consulting generally follows an up or out model, whereas progression within the FCO is much slower. Communication in consulting is through slides and excel, whereas the FCO favours carefully crafted prose. The FCO and wider civil service have procedures that have developed over multiple decades, whereas consulting was much more fluid. It took time to figure out what of the new culture I had to adapt to, and what strengths from consulting I should maintain. I often have to remind myself that diversity of thought is something I bring to the organisation and something I should cherish.
So, what’s next?
Being on the Diplomatic Fast Stream means I spend two years in London doing one-year long policy jobs and I then have the option to go abroad as a diplomat. I am currently in the middle of my second policy role in London so I hope to go on my first posting overseas after this. I do not know where that will be yet but we have one of the largest diplomatic footprints in the world thanks to the recently-announced new missions so there are lots of opportunities all over the world. In the longer term, I aim to be fluent in at least one foreign language and hopefully have the honour of becoming an ambassador one day.