What value can an Ex Ambassador add to your Advisory Board?

What value can an Ex Ambassador add to your Advisory Board?

Greg Dorey, previously Ambassador to Ethiopia and Representative to the African Union, suggests reasons why you might consider using a former UK Ambassador as an Adviser or Non-Executive Director.

This article will no doubt be seen as self-serving, and to a degree it is.  But most readers will probably have a somewhat dated view of UK Ambassadors and be unaware of the added value they can bring to a business as an Adviser or Non-Executive Director (NED).

The Financial Times has defined the ideal NEDs as bringing “5 I’s” – intellectual rigour; independent-mindedness; integrity; strong interpersonal skills; and an inclination to engage to the table.  That is practically a person specification for joining the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

Most UK Ambassadors have had careers which extend beyond working for the FCO.  This can include spells at other Ministries or secondments or full-time appointments with companies, NGOs and charities.  And they are a much more diverse bunch than they used to be.  I joined the FCO in 1986 after time with NatWest and several years in the Ministry of Defence (and had a short secondment to HSBC later).

So where do I believe that we are able to add value?

Greg Dorey

Picture – (http://bit.ly/2gQn2uP)

Substantial networks and established relationships at the highest levels

Most UK Ambassadors will have built up load-bearing, high-level relationships in many countries and organisations throughout their careers.  They will be able to use these to good (and appropriate) effect in later life.  Even where they have not previously met a specific interlocutor, they will be familiar with how Presidents, Prime Ministers and other Ministers operate and will have shared points of reference that they will be able to deploy in support of the project in question.

Stakeholder Management

UK Ambassadors will have spent most of their careers operating in highly complex stakeholder environments – negotiating and delivering strategy and policy in situations of profound change.  They may have worked on massive projects and varied programmes, weighing up risks and mitigating them effectively, and they will all be experienced at using  a wide range of skills in the stakeholder management toolkit, which they will have drawn on to produce substantive outputs.  They will have performed this work in a wide variety of cultures, social groupings and environments.

Use of Media

They will also have required highly-developed communications skills, deployed through public speaking to a variety of audiences; through use of radio, TV and print media; through social media including Twitter, YouTube and blogging; and, of course, in diplomatic contexts such as negotiating on difficult issues.  (Feel free to Google me for some evidence.)


Ambassadors no longer focus solely on high-flown policy issues, although that is part of the agenda.  They are required to take an overview of many different disciplines; identify linkages; and extract synergies from them (working closely with researchers, historians and other specialists).  In Ethiopia, I found myself working variously on political, economic, commercial, developmental, regional security, public relations, capacity-building and cultural issues.

Corporate Responsibility

Ultimately, an Ambassador is responsible for all that goes on, with a “Her Majesty’s Government” label, in the locations to which he or she is posted.  Nowadays they must be adept at performance management, financial management, estate management and project management; responsible for rigorous audit and health and safety requirements; and able to ensure the safety and security of staff – but also to deliver continually high morale and promote diversity.  They have to show that they can be adept intellectually while displaying the highest standards of professionalism, ethics and inclusivity.  A tough annual performance process and staff surveys keep up the pressure and expose any shortfalls.

Commerciality and Business Planning

You would expect UK Ambassadors to be highly politically aware – a competence not always to be found in commercial life.  This skill will have been practiced in an environment of rigorous and transparent accountability, keeping Ministers and senior officials informed of what they need to know (and helping them evolve policy), with a requirement to plan forward strategically and then deliver efficiently and effectively against tightly-drawn personal objectives and business plans.  (I won’t say the British Diplomatic Service is unique in having such processes in place, but I have come across them relatively rarely in other countries’ diplomatic services.)  We don’t have bottom lines in the public sector, but we do have to deliver to time and within budget and to act as stewards for all the resources in our custody – including historic residences, big compounds and large teams of staff.

In short, UK Ambassadors have a very wide range of skills and experiences which could be valuable to a business, and an ability to detect and benefit from linkages which are not immediately obvious to those with a narrower focus and can therefore add value to a company or stop it making avoidable mistakes.  Most British Ambassadors will have spent time working on commercial issues during their careers, helping to win large contracts and defending existing investments.

But in many countries, commerce is not simply based on straightforward rules-based principles, so the diplomat’s ability to understand the political/economic backdrop; engage with interlocutors on that basis; and use good judgement of the wider country scene to advance business goals can be crucial to achieving the best possible results.  When economies are less liberalised than our own, they will understand how the governments in question work and the processes by which they operate.  So they are well placed to help businesses navigate many of the potential bear-traps even where they are unfamiliar with the specific project in question.

Former UK Ambassadors can bring an external dimension to a business as a critical friend who asks good questions from a different perspective which may not have occurred to those who are more steeped in business practice.

But let me finish with a word of warning – don’t make them NEDs unless you are intending to give them a proper strategic role in the business where you intend to make full use of their talents.  If this is just a corporate governance box-ticking exercise, they will get bored and dissatisfied very quickly.

To arrange to speak to Greg, please contact Richard Putley, Managing Director, at rp@executivesinafirca.com

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