UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU
September 1, 2019, 9 min read
Interview by Sarah Wagner
This week, Sarah is interviewing Katrina Williams, UK ambassador to the EU on all the main economic, social and environmental work.
In this frank conversation, we talk about the importance of being and knowing oneself, ways to become a more emotionally intelligent person, the value of personal engagement as well as the ability to just stop and breathe.
Thanks for being here Katrina. You are the Deputy Permanent Representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union. Could you briefly outline your main responsibilities and the key challenges that come along with them?
I am the ambassador who represents the UK with the EU on all the main economic, social and environmental work, whether in formal or informal negotiations.
What that means is that I need to be very good at understanding and making alliances with other people. I need to have a very deep understanding of UK policy on these issues so that I know where my room for maneuver is in negotiations. I act as a classic ambassador in the sense that I am presenting the UK, its thoughts, ambitions, values and what we stand for, which of course is a particularly interesting thing to be doing just now. I am also the deputy in this mission, hence I have a big leadership role for about 180 people who work here.
Whenever I'm faced with a problem I need to consider the following questions: What is the problem we are trying to solve? What is the issue we need to address and do we need to address it at the moment?
As a leader, you must take a lot of important decisions. Share with us the thought process you go through before taking such a decision.
I suppose the first thing to ask myself is whether I understand what the decision is and what decision is needed at the moment. Whenever I'm faced with a problem I need to consider the following questions: What is the problem we are trying to solve? What is the issue we need to address and do we need to address it at the moment? And you'd be surprised how often, when you unpack that question, the answer is different from the one that people thought you were trying to solve. And then I think about whether I got all the information that I need to take the decision. So, in sum, I think it's those three things: 1) what is the problem, 2) have I got the authority and 3) have I got the right information. And then it is a question of usually talking through with people and getting a range of different views on what the answer might be to the particular problem.
With so many responsibilities you must feel a lot of pressure on your shoulders. How do you deal with it?
I've always found it very useful to mentally ask myself two questions. The first is "How much of this is something that is within my control?". Because that helps you to focus on tackling the things that you know you have control of. And then my second question is "In a year, will anyone remember this?". Because if you say to yourself in a year will people remember this, it is a really good way of focusing yourself on the things that are really important now.
What gives you the energy that you need for your job when you wake up in the morning?
What motivates me when I get up is the notion that what I am doing is really important to people's lives.
My career has always been based on wanting to do things that actually have a real impact on people's lives. So, in the past, I've had roles that have been all about the trade-offs between ensuring people have food that has been environmentally produced on the one hand and sufficient and cheap food is readily available on the other hand. In this job, I have needed to make sure that the UK voice is heard on issues that directly affect us all, like tackling climate change.
You really need to know yourself because that tells you about your weaknesses as well as your strengths. But it also enables you to pick the things that you're comfortable with doing from the role models that you see above you.
You're a very experienced woman with an impressive career in the civil service. I wonder what advice you would give your younger self.
I think the advice I would give myself is to be less afraid to be yourself. The things I've learned over my career is that lots of people try to conform to a model of what they think the people above them in the organization are. And they try to push themselves into exactly following a particular role model. The thing that I have learned is that you really need to know yourself because that tells you about your weaknesses as well as your strengths. But it also enables you to pick the things that you're comfortable with doing from the role models that you see above you.
Learning that it is really about being yourself rather than trying to mimic somebody else is the most important thing.
For example, when I'm thinking about staff management, I model myself on the boss I had 10 years ago who was the most brilliant staff man and people manager in terms of developing people and helping them to think about their careers. When I'm chairing a difficult meeting, I think about another person that I saw who was the best chair of meetings I have ever seen. And you take bits of it and you adapt them to yourself. So, recognize what your strengths and weaknesses are, make sure that you are surrounded by people who will help you with that. Learning that it is really about is being yourself rather than trying to mimic somebody else I think is the most important thing.
We need to think more about the language in which we describe people. For instance, in the English language, 'stroppy' is a word that is only ever applied to women.
Tell us about your experience as a woman in the civil service.
I think the environment has changed enormously. Since the start of my career, the numbers of women in senior roles have increased enormously and that's great because when I joined the British Civil Service a very long time ago, when I looked up, I couldn't see people that I wanted to look like or be like.
One thing that I always say to my colleagues is actually to not let the fact of being a woman put you off. Because if you walk into a room where you are the only woman, chances are people will remember you.
I think we've done great things in terms of allowing people of whatever agenda to work flexibly and that I think has had huge benefits in terms of getting diversity into places and things. Yet, there is still some way to go. The architecture is all there in terms of empowering women and enabling people to rise through organizations. I think culturally, there is still a bit of room to go, though. What I'm talking about are very soft quite nuanced things that we just need to continue to work through. I think we unwittingly sometimes set standards in ways that don't help women as much. We need to think more about the language in which we describe people. For instance, in the English language 'stroppy' is a word that is only ever applied to women. It means feisty, something like bossy. Well, it's more about fighting your corner, which everyone needs to do from time to time. But it has a negative connotation, whereas being described as assertive does not. I've been called 'stroppy' but I have never heard a man being called 'stroppy'.
One thing that I always say to my colleagues is actually to not let the fact of being a woman put you off. Because if you walk into a room where you are the only woman, chances are people will remember you. You then have to be good because they will remember you whether you are good or whether you are not so good. But that distinctiveness can be an advantage.
The people who are really good at listening and really good at observing and good at seeing what is not being said as much as what is being said tend to be the very successful people.
In our society, we usually focus on IQ whereas, in my opinion, EQ is just as important to excel at work. How do you become more emotionally intelligent?
There are a couple of things that help you with emotional intelligence. I think the most important one is learning to listen and observe. If, like me, you are an EU negotiator your life depends on that a lot. So, the people who are really good at listening and really good at observing and good at seeing what is not being said as much as what is being said tend to be the very successful people. So, it goes back to the old saying that you have one mouth and two ears for a reason and you should use them in roughly that proportion and practice your listening skills.
The other very good piece of advice that somebody gave me when I was a very young civil servant was to stop and breathe.
The other very good piece of advice that somebody gave me when I was a very young civil servant was to stop and breathe. If you are in a meeting where you are feeling under quite a lot of pressure, take a minute every five minutes, just check in on yourself, stop and breathe and take stock of what is happening around you and where you are in the meeting. That has a remarkable effect in terms of calming you and helping you to understand what is happening around you.
[It is about] being able to focus on small things that give you pleasure and comfort during the day.
You used to be the deputy adviser to Tony Blair on European affairs. Share some of your key learnings from that period.
I was doing that job during the last UK presidency of the European Union. Let me share two observations. One of them is about the value of personal engagement and working; personal relationships was one of the big things I learned from that period. Before our presidency, I spent many hours with my Austrian opposite, the Council presidency predecessor, to make sure that we had aligned the programs for all presidencies. We needed to ensure we had a deep understanding of where the other side was coming from and we actually managed to agree to work together on some files where our two countries did not have very similar views in a very productive way.
The second is to switch very quickly from one mode to another. I observed many senior politicians and how they deal with the many and conflicting demands, how they have to move from thinking at one moment about a piece of EU engagement to the next moment receiving some school children, to the next moment dealing with a difficult domestic policy question. They need to compartmentalize those issues in a positive way.
And lastly, having little tricks of being able to focus on small things that give you pleasure and comfort during the day. Like having a cup of tea at the right time. Or of being able to take five minutes out to do something that will make you feel better. And that's something I have learned from politicians.
The thing they do not tell you in management courses is the more senior you are, the more lonely it can feel unless you have got those networks of people that you can go to.
Is there any final advice that you would like to share with our readers?
I think my advice to women generally is to find the people who will help you to support your confidence – and it doesn't need to be women who support your confidence.
There have been two really important moments in my career where people quietly came along and tapped me on the shoulder and said “You can do this. That's something you can do.” And on both occasions, they were men.
Building yourself the broadest possible network so that you have got those people around you is crucial. The thing they do not tell you in management courses is the more senior you are, the more lonely it can feel unless you have got those networks of people that you can go to.
Katrina Williams became the Deputy Permanent Representative to the European Union in March 2017. Previously she was Director General, International and Growth in the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) from December 2016. Prior to this she was Director General for International, Science and Resilience in the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and then in BEIS.
Before joining DECC, Katrina was Director General for Strategy, Evidence and Customers in the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), advising ministers on the department’s strategic focus and overseeing all its international and EU work. From 2008 to 2012 she was Director General for Food and Farming in Defra, having joined the department as a director covering a range of animal health policies.
From 2003 to 2006 she was Deputy Head of the European Secretariat in the Cabinet Office, co-ordinating Whitehall policy and advising the Prime Minister on European matters in the run-up to and during the UK’s 2005 Presidency of the EU. She has had a range of roles in the Department of Trade and Industry, Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Cabinet Office as well as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Defra and has twice served in the UK’s Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels.