Corin Robertson is one of only 9 Director Generals in the FCDO. She is a also a rare combination of immense intelligence and approachability. To hear more about how she’s balanced a demanding job heading up the Counter Terrorism Dept, hosting politicians alongside a growing family, read on
What was your first ever job?
My first job was as a waitress in a US-style diner when I was in sixth form, growing up in Sheffield – we had to wear tight jeans and t-shirts..!
How did you originally start working with the Foreign Office?
I was thinking about jobs in my final year at Uni, and, whilst my Plan A was to stay on and do a PhD, I thought it would be a good idea to apply for some graduate recruitments as well, for the practice. The Civil Service Fast Stream came up, and, within that, I thought the Foreign Office sounded the most interesting (with lots of scope to travel and use my languages!).
Where was your first placement? Any tricky moments?
Japan was my first posting in my mid-20s. The trickiest part was navigating the cultural and language barriers, particularly as a woman dealing with mostly male counterparts. I’d often find that if I attended an event with my husband, my Japanese interlocutors would address all the questions to James (who didn’t understand Japanese!), since they couldn’t quite cope with a female diplomat! Fortunately things have moved on a bit since then….
Do you travel a lot? Yes, quite a bit. I’ve recently been to Brazil and South Sudan, and will be travelling to Rwanda, DRC and Barbados over the next couple of months. I try to balance travel with being at home for my kids though. They are teenagers now, but in a way I find they need you around more than ever at that age.
Where is your favourite place visited or lived? I’ve been lucky to have 4 fabulous postings: Canada, Japan, Brussels and Mexico, as well as spending a year teaching English in Colombia when I was a student. They’ve all been at different stages in my life, so I’ve enjoyed them for different reasons. Canada was the best posting so far with my family – a great place to live with kids. Mexico was fabulous because it’s such a fascinating and beautiful country, and I was British Ambassador there, which was a great privilege and loads of fun (although with plenty of challenges too)
How did your role change in your 30s then your 40s? In my 30s I was promoted into the Senior Civil Service, which basically means having a bigger leadership responsibility – my first “SCS” role was heading up the Counter Terrorism Department, so plenty to keep me busy (!). It also, as is so often the case for women in their 30s, coincided with me having two small children, so I look back on that period as being rather chaotic, juggling lots of competing demands, sleep-deprived, but massively fulfilling at the same time! In my 40’s I started to settle into more senior roles, and took more control of balancing my roles as Mum, wife, and diplomat. I think I grew more self-aware in that period and was clearer about what I needed to prioritise in order to get the best out of my job and my personal life. And of course as the kids got bigger, I started to get a bit more sleep!
What’s your typical day now? At present, I’m Director General in the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office in charge of Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. This means that I sit on the FCDO Board, and am responsible for about 3500 people, and a big (for Government!) budget. A typical day would be talking to Ambassadors in my region about developments on their patch, briefing a Minister, taking a decision on a development programme, or on a security issue etc. I also do quite a lot of mentoring and coaching so might have some mentoring sessions, or run a leadership learning set.
How has your approach to work changed now compared to your 20s. Do you find it easier/harder?
As I’ve got older, and more senior, I think I’ve become more self-aware and more confident about where I can add value. I also feel more able to say no to things so that I can try to balance my work and home life. I try to work from home two days a week, and am quite ruthless about leaving work (when I can) in time to spend the evening with my family. I think that as a working Mum, you learn to prioritise ruthlessly, and work out what are the things that matter most, whether in your professional or personal life. If you manage to prioritise those things (whether your kids parents evening, or a really important meeting at work), then you’ll probably be happier for it. I’ve also learned that I need to invest a bit of time in me, too – I try to exercise a few times a week, drink plenty of water and get enough sleep (although I fail at most of those quite regularly as well!).
What is a career highlight? Being British Ambassador to Mexico from 2018-2021. It’s an enormous privilege to get to represent your country overseas, and the role opens up all sorts of opportunities to meet fascinating people and do amazing things. Through my job and the roles I’ve done I’ve had the chance to meet politicians, royalty and celebrities that I would never have got the chance to meet as just Corin Robertson from Sheffield, whether David Attenborough, Margaret Thatcher, Keane,
Have your ambitions/aspirations changed? Not really. I’ve always been fairly ambitious, but also always been quite clear about making career choices that would work for my husband and children. I’m in a career which isn’t just a “day job” but which involves uprooting your family every few years, so there are jobs which I have turned down because it wouldn’t be right for my family at that time. I’ve been pretty fortunate overall that I’ve managed to secure postings (Tokyo, Brussels, Canada and Mexico) which have worked for my husband as well, and for our children when they came along. I believe strongly that if you don’t prioritise your personal life, you won’t be happy or productive in your professional life. I sometimes forget my own advice and end up regretting it, but none of us are perfect!
Any key advice you’ve received (or would like to give)? I think my advice would be a) be yourself – whatever you do, do it authentically and don’t try to be someone else (and don’t underestimate how powerful that can be to women coming up behind you) and b) “go for it”, whatever “it” is, and don’t self-limit. I think that many of us, as women, often think of all the reasons why we’re not qualified for something, and hold ourselves back, but there’s a whole world of opportunity out there. So dream big! And finally c), find a mentor or support network to help you – everyone can use a little help now and then!
What next for you? My kids still have a few years left of school, so we will definitely stay put in the UK until they leave home and settle doing whatever they decide to do next. It’s hard to get my head around at the moment, but the theory is that my husband and I then go on more postings, and the kids come and visit. But I confess I’m slightly in denial about the kids every leaving home! Any advice on getting used to empty-nesting from your readers very much welcome