You’re currently the British Ambassador to Finland. What does it entail?
My job is to promote good relations between the UK and Finland, to our mutual benefit. I cover a fantastic range of subjects – EU, Ukraine, Ebola, Arms Trade Treaty, commercial and consular work – because our contacts with Finland are so rich and we share so many objectives in the world. No two days are the same; in the past 10 days I was with the Finnish Prime Minister in 10 Downing Street, visited a science park on Finland’s west coast and hosted trade promotion events at the Residence.
How did you get to your current job?
I’ve been a diplomat since 1990. I’ve worked a lot on Europe (my previous postings have been in Prague and as deputy Ambassador in Belgrade at the time when Milosevic fell). But I’ve also worked on arms control, drugs and crime and most recently the Middle East – my last job was as Head of the department in London dealing with Iraq, Yemen and the Gulf States. Helsinki appealed because I was seconded to the Finnish Foreign Ministry in 1999 for Finland’s first Presidency of the EU.
You’ve held multiple jobs at FCO. How have you moved from one to the next?
The FCO has an internal market for jobs: vacancies are advertised and diplomats bid for the ones they’re interested in. Sometimes you can be lucky and pick up a job quickly because you’re the right person in the right place at the right time. But I’ve also had times when it’s taken me much longer to pick up the right job – for example, when I returned to work after maternity leave. Having support and encouragement from mentors really helped me persevere and focus on getting the right position.
As part of your career at FCO, you’ve been posted abroad multiple times. What are the advantages and difficulties of it?
The advantages include the amazing opportunity to live in and understand a different culture; and to do things you rarely do at home – accompany royal visitors, get access to senior decision-makers, visit an astonishing range of places (beautiful hidden buildings, forests, naval ships, a pig farm...). The difficulties come from moving often and being away from home – you have to work harder to keep in touch with family and friends, and to stay up-to-date with what’s happening in your own country.
You have a BA in classics and modern languages from the University of Oxford. How have you used it in your career?
Most people are surprised that you can become a diplomat, having studied French and Latin literature. But French has always been important for diplomacy; and reading Tacitus’s Annals of Imperial Rome was just about the best preparation for understanding how a dictatorship works...!
What advice would you give to a woman who wants to do a similar job to yours?
Believe in yourself; and don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for demanding roles.
What are the most and least rewarding aspects of your career?
The most rewarding parts are when the team I lead has achieved something difficult or significant and I can see their sense of achievement. The least rewarding? Well, I’m a civil servant and we all have to deal with bureaucracy and unnecessary admin....
What are the key skills that make you good at what you do? How did you gain them?
Diplomacy is about understanding and convincing others so EQ is really important – empathy, listening skills. You also need to have impact and that’s an area where I worked a lot to gain more confidence. There are plenty of techniques you can learn about public-speaking, breathing and making presentations. But practice is the best way to get better at it!
What is the toughest lesson you have learnt?
One careless word can undo months of painstaking work to build an important relationship.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you tackle it?
In my last job, I was responsible for our posts in Iraq and Yemen where colleagues work in very dangerous conditions. At one point I had to recommend that staff be withdrawn from Sana’a because of the security threat from Al Qaeda. This was tough because the embassy team were very dedicated to helping Yemen and wanted to carry on; but I had to look at the bigger picture and manage the risk to their lives while being very aware of the valuable work that we would not be able to do while the Embassy was closed.
What achievements are you most proud of?
In Belgrade, the newly-democratic authorities were struggling with lots of legacy problems from the Milosevic years, including the discovery of some mass graves of Kosovo citizens. I convinced them to be as transparent as possible about the work they were doing, to help the reconciliation process. And when I was working on arms control, I used the UK Presidency of the EU to administer some life support to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (arms control work doesn’t often have astounding results – sometimes you won’t see the result for 30 years; sometimes progress is not going backwards!).
Do you have a role model and if so who and why?
My role model is Dame Mariot Leslie who was our Ambassador to NATO until earlier this year, and DG for Defence & Intelligence before that. She has always been very open about the challenge of combining a family with a diplomatic career; and she blazed a trail for female diplomats in the 'hard' topics like defence and security policy. She was immensely supportive to me when I first went on maternity leave and gave me some very wise advice.
Sarah Price - British Ambassador to Finland since January 2014
Visiting a school
Hosting the Queen's Birthday Party with her husband
Exploring the Finnish forest industry
Inspiring girls and young women to choose a career in foreign policy
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