An interview with Susan Jones on her career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “I’ve never been bored and have always felt that I was contributing to the greater good”.

Sue Jones has enjoyed an over 40-year-long career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), occupying geographical, policy, and HR related roles in London, together with overseas postings to a number of Diplomatic Missions such as Singapore, West Berlin, and Brussels.

Pursuing her desire to travel, Sue had originally thought about applying for a Commission in the RAF. However, after attending a careers talk at her college from a visiting FCO recruiter, she decided more opportunities for overseas travel would be open to her through postings to Diplomatic Missions abroad. After applying via written form (which she notes is a very different process to the online applications of today), attending interviews and tests and then going through the required clearances, Sue joined the FCO in July 1979, only two weeks after leaving college.

A career within the FCO requires a job change every three to four years, something which Sue says can be challenging because of the constant change and learning process. While reminiscing on feeling “like the new girl for a few months”, she does, however, emphasise how quickly you learn and settle in. In fact, she argues the dynamic and varied nature of FCO work is a benefit, as “you learn so much about different parts of the world and subject matters”.

On joining the FCO, Sue occupied the role of Secretary for 15 years, a role which has transformed due to the development of Information Technology. Transferring to the role of Desk Officer in the mid-1990s, she describes this change as a “big challenge”, highlighting the “new responsibilities and focus” which required “different skills and competencies” – a move she is insistent to have “never regretted”.

As the FCO modernised, Sue notes how “younger members of staff who knew more about technology and innovation could advise the older members of staff, who might be a bit wary of new systems and processes”. She emphasises the key importance of this teamwork aspect, telling of how she would participate in this give-and-take by sharing her experiences and knowledge with those younger members of staff: “it’s important to be inclusive and you will also identify what people bring to a team”.

Rather than pinpointing one role within her career as the most stimulating and absorbing, Sue highlights all of her jobs as being interesting for different reasons. She says: “the subject matter is varied, challenging, and rewarding”, attributing the fascinating nature of her career to “learning so much from others”.

Sue’s first posting, just before Christmas 1981, required her to fly to Singapore in the Far East, 8,000 miles away from her home in the UK. At only 22-years-old and as an only child, she says she “felt for [her] parents,” though makes sure to note they benefited from two wonderful holidays in Singapore as a result of her posting! Although she was initially nervous as the thought of being so far away from home, she says she needn’t have worried as everyone in the High Commission made her feel so welcome.

Within all of her overseas postings, Sue worked in the Chancery (Political) section of the Embassy or High Commission. Spending three years within Singapore, Sue was given the opportunity to travel regularly, including three temporary duties, each of six weeks, in Bangkok, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur.

Though sad to leave Singapore, Sue describes being excited to cross-post to West Berlin in 1985. There she worked in the British Military Government. Berlin was still a divided city and the western sector was surrounded by the famous Berlin Wall. During her three-year posting, she could enter East Berlin but was not permitted to visit wider East Germany.

After a short stint in London, Sue was posted in 1989 to the British Embassy in Brussels, where she enjoyed exploring Belgium, Holland, Germany, and France. She also rediscovered her love of horse riding, which she did weekly in the Ardennes.

Sue expresses that travelling was a key element to her career and an invaluable experience: “you can travel, absorb the culture, food, music, language, and make friends with the locals. It makes you much more curious, aware, and appreciative!” She emphasises that being overseas gave her the opportunity to “live in a new culture, when in Singapore, and develop foreign language skills when posted to West Berlin and Brussels”.

Commenting upon the diversity of the FCO, Sue notes the vast disparity between the working practices of the 1970s and the more liberal working practices of modern society. Enquiring as to gender equality within the organisation, particularly relevant due to International Women’s Day being celebrated on March 8th, she highlights a number of women who work at all levels within the FCO, including some very experienced female Ambassadors and High Commissioners.

Within her own career, Sue has worked for both genders and has also managed mixed teams: “They respect your experience, fairness, and guidance whatever sex you are. So, any young woman looking at a career in the FCO, or any Civil Service job, has the opportunity to prove themselves with their own experiences, competencies, skills, and personality”.

Sue retired from the FCO in September 2019. When asking whether she would change anything about her personal career path, Sue is quick to respond in the negative: “No, definitely not! I loved my work and was honoured to be part of a great Civil Service and to represent my country overseas. I’ve had no regrets and would recommend to others that if they like travelling, have an interest in people and international relations, and want variety in their life, then apply to the FCO. You won’t regret it!”

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Dolly Carter

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December 2021
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