Prema Gurunathan


You’re Head of Public Affairs for ADS. What does it entail and how did you get there? 

ADS is a trade association whose members include all the major aerospace and defence companies the public is familiar with. As the Head of Public Affairs, my role is to represent the needs and concerns of these businesses in the political sphere. These needs include investment in research and development, apprentices and working with our international allies. I spent four years working as a Research Assistant to a Labour MP and then moved into Public Affairs as a knowledge of how parliament and the civil service works was seen as desirable. I had two roles before realising that the aerospace and defence industry was a way to combine my interest in foreign affairs, aircraft and domestic politics. 

The Aerospace, Defence, Security and Space industries have a reputation for not being too welcoming to women. What’s your experience and how do we change that? 

I've had a positive experience but the fact that the industry has this reputation detracts from young women considering it as an option. Businesses and professional engineering bodies are doing their part through outreach programmes but I think the underlying problem starts at an early age with the labelling of toys for boys and girls. The solution then is complex and responsibility lies as much with parents as it does with schools, toy companies and governments. 

What makes a good lobbyist? 

Firstly, being a good and genuine listener – not just of the client's brief but also to politicians and civil servants. If you don't listen, you can never understand what their needs are and how you might meet them. Secondly, a shot of passion for the industry you are representing doesn't goes amiss – it is there, you just need to dig a little harder sometimes!

You’re also active with the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP) network, formerly as their Executive Director and until recently as their Executive Advisor. What does that entail? 

I was the third person to join the YPFP London committee and when I became Executive Director I built it up to a team of 25 volunteers, which ran at least two events each month. It was a job in itself but taught me so much about managing people and getting the best out of them – and me. As Executive Advisor, I was my successor's mentor and contact book. 

Why was it important to you to chair a networking group aimed at young foreign policy professionals?

YPFP's ethos suited my world-view – that foreign policy is no longer about people working in the diplomatic service. Think about the financial crisis, it's now regarded as a foreign policy issue, but that certainly wasn't the case when I was growing up. YPFP brings together disparate and sometimes untraditional groups of people so that when they became decision-makers, they can draw from a wide range of people and ideas to solve problems.  

How does YPFP support its members?

It does so giving them the knowledge, resources and networks to achieve personal and professional excellence. 

You hold a BSc in Government and economics from the LSE, an MA in Intelligence and Security from King’s College and an MSc in American Politics from Birkbeck. How do you use them in your career? 

I can explain missiles in a non-geekish way! More seriously, they've given me a broad understanding of relationships at the domestic and international political levels.

You obtained your MSc while working. How did you manage it?

Time management, a supportive employer and spending my holidays catching up on essential reading. Sad but true.

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

Most rewarding – when we win Government and MPs round to our way of thinking. In the last few years, it has been to the importance of investing in and planning for growth in the UK's Aerospace and Defence industries because they are globally competitive.

What advice would you give to somebody who would like to do a similar job? 

Work hard – as long as your subject choice is credible, what it is matters less than you'd imagine. Read widely. If you can't do relevant work experience, then get involved in your choice of political party or campaigning charity. 

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

I'm a good listener and ask lots of questions, mainly because it saves the guess-work when I'm back at my desk. And there's no such thing as a stupid question;  someone who worked for me once admitted that the question he failed to ask because he thought it was stupid was shortly asked by a BBC journalist.

The second skill is humour and without being inappropriate, a sense of fun which helps you get under the skins of even more difficult people and is amazing for building team spirit.

What is the toughest lesson you have learnt? 

Never take things for granted - always follow up leads and promises. 

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

Establishing credibility and presence - because I look young and am short! Respective solutions - I know my onions, dress professionally but memorably, and I'm so glad I spent nearly a decade in drama clubs at school as it paid off with public speaking. 

What achievements are you most proud of? 

That many people I've had in my team at YPFP and at work have subsequently thanked me for supporting and nurturing them and being that nagging voice in their head that asks "what more can I do?".

On a more personal level, for doing what I know was a fantastic job with YPFP London.

At work there are two. The first is the political visits (including the Prime Minister) that I organised with a small but special team at the Farnborough International Airshow 2012. The second was to raise awareness of the International Rocketry Challenge by getting MPs to take part in their own (much safer!) competition. It was initially seen as a slightly mad idea which I had to sell to colleagues and our industry members but it was a roaring success. 

Prema Gurunathan - Head of Public Affairs at ADS

13 years of experience

CV in brief

Studied at: London School of Economics, King's College London, Birkbeck

Previously worked at: Defence Industries Council, BT Health, Manchester Airports GroupHouse of Commons

Find her online

Twitter: @PremaG

Job opportunities at ADS