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How to Create a Career out of Public Service

Claire Barnett, the Executive Director of UN Women UK, has always fought for change. Now it’s her main gig

By Florence Robson

3 March 2021

rom being the first woman from her Oxford University college to become student president, to supporting senior executives as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company, Claire Barnett is a leader who builds movements as skillfully and strategically as she scales companies. She’s now the Executive Director of UN Women UK, a global organisation working towards gender equality, from grassroots projects to working with governments on policy. Here is her advice for creating a career out of public service and the lessons she has learned along the way.

Be an activist, and start early

“People often ask: “Did you grow up in a really politicised household?” and the answer is: not at all,” Claire says, “but I have always had something in me where I can’t see injustice without wanting to do something about it. My parents are teachers, and coming from a family in the public sector, you see the direct consequences of things like budget cuts. From a young age I was engaged with community organising, working with local councils and trying to make change happen.”

Image by Claire Barnett & LIVING PROOF

Follow your passions

“I never sat and thought: ‘I want to be in an executive role, how do I get there?’”, says Claire. “I just pursued the things that moved me so much I couldn’t ignore them.” It was this approach that led her to do a master’s in Culture, Behaviour and Identity, something that she admits seemed an odd choice at the time, as it didn’t clearly translate to a high-powered job. “But I was fascinated by the subject and wanted to learn more.” The message? Follow what you love and you can’t go wrong.

Listen to feedback

Feedback is crucial to professional development – and not just from the people who are more senior than you. “Management consulting taught me the importance of feedback from people both above and below you, not only around where you need to improve but also on what they see as your strengths. It helps you to tune into your superpowers.” Claire also suggests creating your own personal “board of directors” – people with the skills and knowledge you don’t have, that you can reach out to for advice throughout your career.

Image by Andree Martis

Ask for recognition

Sometimes you need to ask for a “yes”, even when a “no” seems certain – something Claire knows well. “On one occasion at McKinsey, I had taken over leading the team creating a report on the impact of gender equality on GDP, and I wanted to get my name on it,” she says. “When I was told it wouldn’t be possible, I listed all the reasons why I felt I deserved recognition. Unfortunately, in this instance it didn’t change their minds, but I still think it was the right thing to do.”

Go beyond party politics

While some campaigns require you to take a more overt political stance, Claire believes that a cross-party approach can be useful in getting things done. “I work with people from all parties, so it’s important for me not to show any particular political leaning, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not involved in politics,” she says. “My work involves connecting people with specific spheres of influence or skills to make change happen. Politics affects everybody.”

'My work involves connecting people with specific spheres of influence or skills to make change happen. Politics affects everybody'

Find your role within a movement

So you want to make a difference – but where do you even start? “The reality is that there are lots of different roles within a movement, and it’s about deciding which one you’re going to play,” says Claire. “I’m a bridge-builder, but other people are frontline activists, or experts, or working behind the scenes. Ultimately, what matters is just getting involved.”

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The Short Stack

If you want change, you’ve got to be direct to make it happen: ask for what you want, ask for feedback, and find and use your superpower.

By Florence Robson

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