New world of Diplomacy
Her Excellency Menna Rawlings, British High Commissioner to Australia is the rather stiff title worn with ease by a very warm, engaging, down to earth and funny woman. Born in north west London, her family’s roots are in the coal-mining districts of Wales, and when the family moved back to Wales when Menna was 18, she stayed in London, graduating from her local comprehensive and then studying International Relations at the London School of Economics.
In 1989 she joined the Foreign Office, and served in Brussels, Nairobi, Tel Aviv, Accra, Washington D.C. and London, before taking up the role as British High Commissioner to Australia in April 2015. I sat down for a bit of girl talk with Her Excellency after her speech at the Committee for Geelong’s Annual Leadership Breakfast in February. She said that in the early, early days, it was the support from her family that gave her the confidence to go after what she wanted.
“I come from a very close family, with Mum, Dad and two brothers. They made me feel supported and didn’t put any barriers or ceilings in the way, without being incredibly ambitious or aspirational as a family – we’re very ordinary people,” she said. As a young woman in her early twenties, Menna spoke of being daunted by the grandeur and the aristocratic atmosphere of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Walking up the Grand Staircase of the Whitehall building and wondering what she, a girl from west London, was doing there.
“Once I joined the Foreign Office, and I was having a few issues and lacked confidence, there were one or two people who had my back and who looked out for me. They were more senior leaders, and these days we’d call them mentors, and they definitely gave me a bit of extra support. They validated the work that I was doing and helped me to settle in to what, at the time, felt quite a strange place to be. “The way it works in the Foreign Office is that you move through different jobs, so you don’t stay in the one place for terribly long. You will do a job for three years and then move on to somewhere else.
“In my early twenties I went to Brussels, then I went to Kenya for three years, and I think that the end of the day, when lots of people are telling you that you are doing a good job, or that they like what you do, or you get a sense of competence reflected back, ultimately you’ve got to believe it yourself or you’re holding yourself back.” Menna and her husband, Mark, have three children, aged from 8 to 18, that the couple have raised wherever Menna has been posted. It is a rarity for a leading diplomat to also be the mother of young children and it is commented on frequently, ‘And she has three children!’ I wondered if having a young family and having to make all the choices around time management that come with that - specifically what to say no to – had helped her in her career.
“I would say definitely, definitely. First of all, my partner – now my spouse – has always been very supportive, and we took the decision very early on that we would go with my job rather than his, because my job was more interesting and offered opportunities for global travel that we were really interested in. But he’s been a fantastic support. “When I was single, in my twenties, I didn’t have someone to talk to and to lean on – never mind lean in, there’s definitely a bit of leaning on at times that’s needed – and that makes all the difference. But also I think that my family, in the broader sense, have helped me with balance and to keep everything in perspective, to avoid the risk of the career becoming all consuming and the biggest part of me. “My family is more important to me than anything else and that is massively balancing.
And we’ve had fun. We’ve lived in Israel and Ghana and the United State, and now Australia. We’ve travelled all over together and done some amazing things, and that’s part of our story as a family. That’s really precious,” she said. All working parents of very young children know that, for a few years, there is a rolling recurrence of colds and all-toofrequent bouts of gastro. It is a difficult time for many of us, but as an increasingly senior diplomat working in the public service – having to appear and speak regularly in public, not to mention the continual meetings with other diplomats, government officials and professionals who are notably not sniffling, coughing or running to the loo – it must have been quiet a trial.
“Yeah, I definitely remember those years,” Menna said. “My youngest is now eight, so touch wood we are coming through that, but certainly when our girls were very small it was awful. And then, when they go to nursery or kindergarten for the first time, and they just bring home cycle after cycle of illness, I think you just have to grit your teeth and get through it. But also, if you’re ill, don’t go to work! Really don’t, because you’re not helping yourself and you’re not helping anybody else.
“These days, with the possibilities of remote working, I think it’s actually easier… You just cope, and you can see why women are going to be increasingly successful in the workplace because those sorts of skills, that flexibility and adaptability and prioritisation is something that women have to be very good at. If you can apply those skills in the workplace, then the sky’s the limit.” It’s a little like the fridge magnet: ‘You can’t scare me, I’ve got kids!’ but, despite the challenges, Menna said there have been many more ups than downs. “The jobs that I’ve done have been very diverse and different, but there have been a couple of standout moments.
One happened when I travelled from London with somebody I was working for to Israel and the occupied territories. I had already been posted there before, but I had travelled back with him and, because he was very senior, we got to see Yasser Arafat. This was probably about three years before he died, and, whatever you think of the situation there, to me, figures of history like that up close and personal are just incredible.
He was making me tea and he was actually incredibly charming. The fact that you get to meet people like that, to have a conversation with them, you see why these world leaders, leaders of countries or organisations are leaders, because they do have something amazing about them,” she said. The news footage of Yasser Arafat kissing Menna’s hand certainly caused a sensation amongst her friends back in the UK. “At the completely other extreme, I’ve been involved in cases of British people who’ve got into trouble overseas. Some of those can be very devastating, but you’re helping people through terribly difficult times.
There’s definitely been a couple of cases that I was involved in which were hard, but where I felt, ‘God, what I’m doing here is really important’; that it isn’t just about quotes around building critical relationships, it’s about actually helping people as well. Those moments are quite special.
“The thing about diplomacy is that there is no fixed end. It’s not a project, it’s a relationship, and it’s often quite hard to identify those moments when you’ve made a bit step forward. But we had one this week, when my team came and said that we’ve got a British company, based in Stockport [part of David Cameron’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’], and it’s a military company building bridges, that has won a contract with £53 million worth of business. You think, ‘Wow, that’s great, that’s a good day.’ But you don’t often get those moments, and it’s sometimes quite intangible. You have to get used to not always having that sense of achievement because it is an ongoing process and an ongoing set of relationships.”
By anybody’s standards, Her Excellency Menna Rawlings, has a very big job, and I had to ask, before she went on to her next round of interviews (‘I feel like a celebrity’, she laughed, after yet another person had interrupted to get a selfie with the British Government’s representative in Australia) what got her through the day and up the next morning to do it all again.
“What gets me through the day is definitely caffeine, as my team would tell you. Unfortunately, in Canberra I’m not right next to a coffee shop as I was in London, so lots of coffee runs and caffeine in the morning. Laughter gets me through the day; having relationships with my team that I feel are really valuable and seeing young people having energy and ideas and coming up through the [public service]. And then, absolutely, husband, kids, sitting in front of the TV at the end of the day with a bottle of wine maybe, pyjamas, a bag of crisps … yeah, all those things.” This is one diplomat with humour, heart and intelligence.