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“I was a real geek – I always knew that diplomacy was what I wanted to go into,” says Jules Chappell. It’s a line which sums her up: self-deprecating yet confident, down to earth yet ambitious.
It’s an approach that has worked more than well – having clocked in as the UK’s youngest ever ambassador aged just 31, she is currently busy gaining some private sector experience by working as a partner at a communications agency in London. No wonder the World Economic Forum tapped her as one of their Young Global Leaders last year.
Going global – Jules style
Although Chappell – warm, funny, instantly likeable – is the antithesis of the traditional image of a Foreign Office mandarin, it is also clear that the need to make a difference and explore what the world has to offer runs deeply through to her fingertips. “When I was growing up, a friend of mine’s parents were both diplomats and I was hanging on every word of their stories from around the world,” she recalls. “It was a combination of actually living overseas – being able to absorb the language and culture – but also the sense of being at the heart of interesting things happening, which is what I was seeking out.”
She succeeded. Her Foreign Office career saw her posted to Jordan, Iraq, the State Department in Washington and then Ethiopia. And in between her foreign postings, she also helped to lead and expand the award-winning GREAT Britain Campaign, which promotes the UK globally for trade, tourism and study, and delivered the National Security Council’s Emerging Powers Strategy, which aims to position Britain with the world’s key growth economies. All that as well as serving as ambassador to Guatemala.
Chappell admits she purposely sought out the unfamiliar. “I wanted to go to different parts of the world,” she explains. “Every country does this differently. The US has real anchors in terms of what you focus on, so you have diplomats there who just focus on the Middle East, for example. The benefits of that are you gain many more years of experience and also networks – the people you start with are still going to be there 20 years later, which is obviously incredibly helpful. But what I genuinely loved was the ability to take lessons from one region to another. If I had a rule for any of my postings, it was just to try and soak up as much as possible and to be flexible – don’t rule something out just because it didn’t work elsewhere, as often it can be about timing and context.”
One of her primary experiences as a diplomat was her period in Iraq – both before and after the war. Asked what it was like for someone in her early 20s to be thrust into that kind of environment, Chappell is keen to accentuate the positive. “As much as anything it was just simple reporting,” she recalls. “This was just before the war, and Iraq was a country of keen interest because of the perceived threats and ongoing negotiations at the UN. So I was reporting what kinds of things were available at the markets and at what price. I went around with a lot of British NGO workers, including Margaret Hassan, a wonderful woman who was later killed, and she would take me out on visits to hospitals and the like.”
After the war she was seconded to the coalition in Iraq – a role which prompted her OBE honour from the British government. “I was working for Ambassador Bremer and I know he has been slated since, but I was actually very impressed by him,” she says. “I genuinely think he was trying to do the best job and had good intentions. Particularly in those summer months when you’re being rocketed every day and night and you’re dealing with 50 degree heat and all sorts of pressure and stress, his job was far from easy. But I also remember there was a real sense of opportunity, as people who had previously kept their heads down were coming flooding back. It’s the kind of situation where you learn more in a year than you would normally do in a decade, not least as you’re working seven days a week.”
In 2009, Chappell packed her bags once again and set off for her next posting. This time, however, there was one big difference. Instead of being an advisor, she was going to be the leader – a shift which took some getting used to, it transpires.
“What I really underestimated about being an ambassador was the step up to being a visible leader,” she admits. “I’d always advised leaders and suddenly I was the leader and had to get used to not pleasing everyone. And I’m a natural extrovert, so when I talk about ideas with my team I like to brainstorm – this is my way of bringing people along and also genuinely getting stuff done. I suddenly realised that as ambassador they take your brainstorming ideas as read, which wasn’t the case at all. So I had to adapt very quickly to that level of scrutiny, which I hadn’t experienced previously. I had completely underestimated the pressure that it brought on me and my boyfriend at the time.”
During her time in Guatemala – where she also covered Honduras and El Salvador – Chappell says that she learned two big lessons. “Firstly, you have to have a vision and be quite focused on what that vision is,” she says. “At the start I wanted to do a lot of things, but towards the end I was clearer about focusing on two or three priorities I could really make a difference on. It’s quite hard as you have to say ‘no’ to a lot of things which are put on to your agenda, but in terms of your narrative it’s about becoming known for specific issues.”
And the power of strong relationships was her second key takeaway. “They allow you to multiply things bigger than yourself,” she explains. “If you are a leader you naturally have a certain influence, but where you really get rock and rolling is where you can build the relationships and platforms to multiply that impact time and time again.”
To the private sector
A couple of years ago, Chappell decided it was time for a change and upped sticks to start work as head of international relations at Hawthorn Communications, a boutique agency based in London. “I’m on unpaid leave from government,” she explains. “The Foreign Office does this brilliant thing whereby they encourage people to get private sector experience. As ambassador a big part of my job was lobbying British expertise in certain areas or where there was a sense of a British company not being given fair treatment. This type of work is so much easier – I think – if you’ve had experience of working in a business and understand how different organisations do different things.”
Chappell – who has subsequently been promoted to partner – says it has been quite a learning curve. “The thing I’ve learned which I didn’t expect to learn was the public-private link-up,” she says. “With the network I have now and what I know about how different groups work and who is interested in what, the amount of private sector partners I can now loop in is really increased.”
She also admits to being surprised by how difficult it is for outsiders to penetrate the closed doors of government. “Being on this side, what is striking is how difficult it is to know the entry point into government and, because it is so opaque, people don’t often bother – which is a real shame because there is so much goodwill,” she says. “I’ve noticed this particularly post-Brexit as people understand that this is a critical time for the country and they want to help but they don’t always know how to.”
While there is no doubt that Chappell is both enjoying and flourishing in her role with Hawthorn, it seems equally clear that the siren call of government service will return before too long – maybe when her twin baby daughters are a little older. For now, though, she is focused on “doing her bit for Britain” by bringing together individuals, organisations and foundations keen to make a positive impact on the world.
Chappell – not yet 40 – has already done this herself in multiple locations and environments. Where will she go next? Stay tuned…
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