Elizabeth Davies-Kumadiro is Head of Renewable Energy and Transmission for the UK's Department for International Trade in China. She tells us how she is building her career.
What does an average day at work look like?
My ‘day in the life’ can be pretty varied. Starting a new job is always daunting. In diplomacy, it takes time to adjust to the pace of meetings, calls, conferences and workshops across the country. But I love it. I’m learning lots about UK and Chinese renewable energy industries every day.
Being a diplomat is an amazing opportunity to meet industry-leading people and ask their opinions on things that interest you. You just need to be prepared for people to ask the same of you. Fortunately I have a supportive team. They help with questions that only someone with an engineering degree can answer.
What skills do you need to excel as a diplomat?
Early in my role, I sat down with our Trade Commissioner, John Edwards, an amazing diplomat who’s been in China for a long time. I asked him for his advice on how to approach the role.
He told me the most important thing is to listen, rather than just reeling off things you think people want to hear.
It sounds cliché, but it’s really important. It requires confidence and humility to ask questions because you want to know the answer – not because you want to prove you’re smarter than everyone else.
Listening hard means I know what different people and organisations want, what they find challenging and how I can help them.
If you’re from an under-represented group, you might not be who people expect to see. To cope with microaggressions in the workplace, which can feel undermining and overwhelming, it’s important to regularly affirm your own worth. This requires a special kind of confidence. The confidence to build rapport with people rather than getting defensive, which is our natural response.
Having the confidence to stop others from disrespecting you isn’t always easy. Something which helps me is to recognise how I add value. That gets easier with experience and as you expand your network. When I started the role, it was reassuring to say to myself ‘I can listen, I can synthesise information, and I can come out of this meeting with a better understanding than I walked in with’.
Would you like to receive more articles like this? Sign up for our monthly newsletter.
What are the benefits to being a diplomat?
I get to meet industry leaders and build up a great network. I’m close to policy and to the industry.
I feel like I’m doing something useful for individual businesses and organisations, because we’re at a pivotal moment for the energy industry. We need to focus on making that shift successful, for the sake of ourselves and our planet.
It’s also amazing to be in China. I love it here. It’s exciting to feel like I’m on the cusp of a new generation, a new energy industry, and a new global order – and to have the opportunity to get stuck into all of those changes.
What challenges have you faced as a diplomat?
It has been really difficult to come to a new country without my support network. The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office is not famous for diversity.
But I’ve found a great network of people here in Guangzhou. I’ve made friends in the gay and Black communities.
I was worried that I’d miss my friends and family a lot, especially as Coronavirus restrictions make travel difficult. Voice notes, phone calls and video calls have made all of that a lot easier. I know my friends are for life and will come and see me once things ease up.
In the meantime I’ve been focused on staying zen. I’m planning to go on a Tai Chi retreat in Yangshuo, a town in south China famous for its unique hills and beautiful scenery.
There are lots of things I can do on my weekends, from trekking through waterfalls and going to swap shops and eco-markets, to attending Afrobeat parties and chilling in wine bars.
What advice do you have for aspiring diplomats?
Go for it!
Learn how to sift helpful feedback from unhelpful feedback.
Write down your goals and take career decisions based on whether they move you closer to them or not.
Remember that the only difference between a dream and an ambition is a plan. Develop your interests even if they aren’t relevant to your current job.
Reach out to people who do jobs you’re interested in and learn from them; cultivate your network.
Trust that you’re good enough to do what you want to do.
If you’re Black and interested in diplomacy, feel free to reach out to me for a chat on LinkedIn.
Reach out to Elizabeth on LinkedIn.
Elizabeth participated in the Generation UK scholarship programme in 2018, studying Mandarin for a semester in Tianjin. After the scholarship, she joined the UK Civil Service, working in European policy at the Ministry of Justice before joining the Department for International Trade's China strategy team.