Spot the difference: How I made the leap from Whitehall HR director to high commissioner

Menna Rawlings went from being HR director in a government department to serving as the UK's high commissioner in Australia – not the most obvious career move. But, as she explains, the two roles have more in the common than you might think...

By Menna Rawlings

29 Sep 2015

One of the joys of working for the Foreign Office over the last 26 years has been the variety of jobs that I’ve done and places I’ve worked. From Israel to Kenya, Ghana to Washington, Brussels to (now) Canberra, no job – or day – has been the same. I’ve loved that. 

But what’s it like to go from being HR director in a Whitehall department to being High Commissioner in Australia? And – to answer what a colleague of mine calls “the question your Mum always asks you” – what do I actually do? 

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Here are the biggest differences I've noticed:

Global vs local. As HR Director, I was dealing with policies that touched our people all around the world. I was also part of a wider Whitehall community of HR leads. I sat on the FCO management board, and the civil service HR board. I had a helicopter view. 

Now I focus solely on one piece of the jigsaw – Australia. True, it’s a pretty big piece – a country 31.5 times the size of the UK, the 12th biggest economy in the world, 1.2m Brits domiciled here, 600,000 visiting each year, strong sporting, cultural and people-to-people links. Reflecting that, we have five posts across Australia (Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth); but with just 100 staff, we are a small and dispersed team. So the world from my large jigsaw piece Down Under looks very different from my previous perch in King Charles Street. You’re all upside down for a start. 

Breadth. Despite that, this job makes my head hurt in ways that my previous one didn’t, especially while I’m still new to it (five months in). As HR director, the clue to what I needed to be expert on was in the job title. As High Commissioner, I need to know about, erm, everything. This is partly because I’m representing the whole of the UK government, and our broad relationship with Australia covers all sides of domestic and foreign policy. But also because there is intense interest in what’s happening back in the UK – on migration, EU reform, politics, the cricket. I need to be the resident expert in all things, UK and Australian – with the support of a fantastic team. 

Private vs public. As HR director, I dabbled in social media, with a Twitter account and an occasional foray into public blogs or comments. In Australia, I am a public figure – and indeed this is a very big part of the job. I’m of the Tom Fletcher school of digital diplomacy: we need to occupy the space, use social and traditional media to project our soft values and our influence, and to engage with a wide range of people. So I do speeches, photo-calls, radio interviews and promote our work through Twitter and Instagram. And I’m getting used to people calling me “your Excellency” or even “Ma’am” (!) without flinching, much. 

Family vs family. Against this background, the challenge remains the same: to ensure that I give my wonderful family (husband, three kids) as much time and energy as possible, while delivering a high performance in my job. And in most ways, it is easier here than when I was HR Director with a 1.5 hour commute to work.

My work and home life is intertwined – I live 10 minutes from the office, with a support team at home who make life simple to manage. But we’ve taken the difficult decision to leave our two oldest kids – aged 17 and 15 – in the UK, to finish their A levels and GCSEs respectively without further disruption. This is hard, despite the joys of Face-Time and holidays. It’s a big price to pay for the life we choose to lead, on top of separation from other loved ones, including elderly parents.  

Support networks. My HR job was tough at times, even though I loved it. And I relied heavily on my colleagues and support networks to get me through. Leadership on the other side or the world can feel a lonely place by comparison. Not impossibly so, but I need to work harder to keep those links going, even as I invest in new relationships. So I have a (remote) mentor and a coach, and am developing some ‘buddies’ among the Head of Mission community here. And, oddly, it’s not as lonely as I thought it would be – it’s a collaborative, open and friendly team here in Australia, and we’re very much all in it together. 

My final reflection, though, is that as different as the roles are, they have more in the common than you might think. And the learning I took from being HR director certainly helps me here. Today, I was invited by foreign minister Julie Bishop to speak to her parliamentary colleagues about the UK position on Syria and refugees. It was mildly terrifying, but the presentational skills I learned from addressing large groups of FCO staff helped me enormously and ensured I felt confident and calm, including in the Q and A.

So I see each job is an apprenticeship for the next one, provided I keep using the learning to meet my development needs, learn from my mistakes and failures, and approach each new challenge with fresh energy and an enquiring mind.

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