Blazing a trail: trade commissioner Natalie Black marks International Women’s Day

UK PLC’s top official in the Asia Pacific region tells CSW about the importance of role models and asking for advice

By Suzannah Brecknell

08 Mar 2023

In 2018, a row of mirrors appeared on a prominent wall in the Foreign Office. Each mirror, sitting beneath portraits of the first women to hold key posts across the department, represented a high-status role which had not been held by a woman. Each time a woman has taken up a top posting since then, one of the mirrors is replaced with her portrait.

The installation, known as the Mirror Challenge, encourages women to see themselves in those top roles, and imagine change before they effect it. It is a powerful realisation of the importance of role models when it comes to increasing diversity.

But sometimes there is no role model because the role is brand new.

Natalie Black is the first woman to hold the post of trade commissioner to the Asia Pacific region. She is also the only person to ever hold the post of trade commissioner to Asia Pacific, since it’s a new role born out of the 2017 Industrial Strategy, which Black herself helped to develop in her previous job as deputy head of the No.10 Policy Unit.

Black is talking to CSW to mark International Women’s Day and the conversation has turned to her decision to take parental leave while in a representational role overseas. She is one of the most senior diplomats to have done so, and she explains that in part she wanted to demonstrate it was entirely possible – indeed positive – to take caring leave in a senior role.

“I'm a believer in the idea that you can't be what you can't see,” says Black, before pausing, perhaps remembering that she’s doing a job which didn’t exist until 2018, and adding: “Well, you can – but it's quite hard.”

Black’s pregnancy and maternity leave took place during Covid restrictions. “I remember telling a few people I was going off, and they had no idea because they had only seen the top half of me for the last six months,” she recalls. Since then, two other members of her team have taken maternity leave with no concerns about whether it would be possible.

"I think in the modern workplace, if you want to recruit talent, you’ve got to make sure you've got structures in place so that anyone feels comfortable taking caring leave for a whole range of different reasons,” Black says.

“It’s also worth remembering the opportunities that maternity leave can bring for others,” she adds. “I have a fantastic deputy who stood in to cover for me while I was away and, as a consequence, a number of people moved up. So, taking leave shouldn't be seen as a problem. Actually, it can be an opportunity.”

As a leader, she reflects, “you don't want to be a single point of failure. So having an empowered team who are ready to step in for those kinds of opportunities is a great thing for the organisation”.

As trade commissioner, Black oversees the strategy and operations of the UK’s trade policy in Asia Pacific: Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand.

“Ask for lots of advice. I'm always asking people what they think about something, or whether the approach I'm taking seems sensible. I don't see that as a sign of weakness. Actually, I'm being greedy”

With a 250-strong team working over 15 locations, she spends a lot of time travelling. She is based in Singapore but even when there, her day might involve talking to Japanese investors in the morning and Australian officials in the afternoon. It’s a job that she clearly relishes, describing Asia Pacific as “where the action is”.

Learning from others

And yet, as she knows from personal experience, forging new paths and taking on roles that are new to you – let alone roles new to government – can be challenging. What’s her advice for others who are learning to be what they can’t see?

“My number one piece of advice,” she says, “is to ask for lots of advice. I'm always asking people what they think about something, or whether the approach I'm taking seems sensible. I don't see that as a sign of weakness. Actually, I'm being greedy; I'm getting as much advice as possible to make it likely that I’ll have the best possible outcome.”

She adds: “If you feel like you're treading a path no one has walked before, [remember that] someone has been there, in some way. It might not be exactly the same – it might not look or feel the same – but there will some similar elements which you can learn from.”

Black took her own advice when she was about to take up the trade commissioner role. She had recently completed the Forward Fellowship – an 18-month programme which brings together leaders from different sectors to learn and develop together – and decided to ask her cohort how to prepare for this job.

"One of them ran the Asia operations for a well-known hotel company. And he said to me: 'You need to meet everyone that works for you.’”

That might sound sensible – even obvious – but when your staff are spread across a number of countries, it becomes what Black describes as "quite the undertaking”.

“In my first few months, I went everywhere, and I had a one-to-one with absolutely everyone. Even if it was just five or 10 minutes to ask what their football club was and why they enjoyed working for the UK government. That is something I probably wouldn't have thought of by myself, but [that insight came from] asking someone – someone who wasn't a trade commissioner – for advice. They've never worked for the UK government but they have been in a similar situation. You will always find someone who you can ask, and it’s a demonstration of strength to ask them.”

Black’s eagerness to learn from others stands her in good stead as trade commissioner – she describes how her team not only champions the UK to investors and partners in Asia Pacific, but looks for innovations and best practice they can feed back to the UK. She also very specifically links her quest for new ideas and ways of working to her commitment to diversity.

“When I arrived, I had six people from the UK that were women,” she recalls. “I thought that was very low, and we've now more than doubled that. I've got three deputies and one of my deputies is a woman, so we really have tried to show that there are amazing opportunities overseas and they are genuinely open to anyone.

“I’m talking about women because it's International Women's Day,” she says. “But of course we've got to think across the spectrum of the UK because we want to ensure the civil service in the UK represents the communities it serves, and that also it needs to happen internationally.”

A diverse overseas team not only better represents the UK as a whole to international partners, it also improves the way a team can work. “Particularly if you're trying to do new and innovative things,” she says, “you want people who are going to challenge, who are going to have different ideas, who are going to help us pilot new arrangements.”

Building a diverse team is one thing, but how can a leader then ensure that team members are enabled and encouraged to bring that challenge? Black’s answer is that the leader needs to adapt to their team.

“My style by default is that I like getting people around the table to thrash out ideas, see where it goes. Then we agree something and off we go. I like to test things and hear different people,” she says.

“But, working in a regional role, that can be quite hard because you're doing a lot of it virtually. And you're also doing it in different cultures. Sometimes it’s not in that culture to challenge and speak your mind – that is true of a number of the countries that I operate in.

“So you need to find other ways to help people feel comfortable to come forward, such as more one-to-one discussions. I think one of the great challenges for all trade commissioners is you're always having to think about how you adapt your style to recognise the diversity of your geography and that people are going to respond in different ways. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I get it wrong, but you're always learning.”

Connecting people

Black describes the role of the trade commissioner as “making the world seem smaller, and more connected, at a time when the world feels big and disconnected”.

In recent months, this has included connecting businesswomen from the UK with female entrepreneurs in Southeast Asia.

“Ultimately it’s about creating opportunities. The good leader makes sure that people around them are doing the stretching things, difficult things, while they're in a safe environment”

“Last year, the UK became a dialogue partner of Southeast Asia,” she explains. “This matters because Southeast Asia is projected to be the fourth largest economy by 2050. This is where a lot of the action is for future growth.”

“And from countries in this part of the world, one of the feedback points that we get is they would like to work with the UK on how to help women get more investment for their businesses. There is a clear demand, and there are just so many impressive female entrepreneurs in the world that it's one of the joys of this job to be looking back to the UK identifying fantastic brands and encouraging them to come out here.”

Black draws a parallel between promoting those connections and creating a more diverse workforce.

“Ultimately it’s about creating opportunities,” she says. “The good leader makes sure that people around them are doing the stretching things, difficult things, while they're in a safe environment, and that's especially true for anyone who is not as represented in the workforce as they would like.”

As we move up the career ladder it can be easy to focus on our own next steps, she suggests, but don’t forget the empty mirror that still needs to be replaced with the portrait of a trailblazer. “We can often be in a rush to move forward,” she concludes, “but as a leader one responsibility is to turn around and see who's trying to come up after you and make sure they've got more opportunities than you had.”

You can read a full interview with Natalie Black in the spring issue of Civil Service World. Contact to make sure you get your copy

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