Lyndall Sachs is the Chief of Protocol at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. She previously served as Ambassador to Iraq (2011-2015) and Ambassador to Lebanon (2006-2009). In our interview we discussed her path to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and her advice for young professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs.
You’ve had a very varied career having worked for the United Nations, as the Ambassador to Iraq and Lebanon, and currently as the Chief of Protocol at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Can you tell us about this career journey and what your role of Chief of Protocol entails?
My interest in international affairs was piqued as a teenager reading about or listening to inspiring and pioneering Australian women including the likes of Diane Willman, reporting from Vietnam and Lebanon. My father’s and uncles’ stories of their wartime experiences in WW2 reinforced to me the importance of diplomacy to addressing the world’s many challenges. The journey from the University of Queensland armed with a degree in Japanese language and Asian modern history, to my current role as Chief of Protocol entailed a few diversions, including working for the Australian Immigration Department, UNHCR in the then Yugoslavia during the conflict in the early 90s and the Rwandan crisis in 1994, a stint working for a major British charity which focussed on women’s health, and then to DFAT. In 2006, I was appointed Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon, arriving in country three months before the 2006 conflict broke out and I oversaw the evacuation of over 5000 Australians. Despite the challenges of this and ongoing political instability in Lebanon, it was an intensely interesting and rewarding time with plenty of opportunities to get to understand this fascinating, beautiful and complex region. My next job was as Commissioner General of the Australian Pavilion at the world’s largest international expo in Shanghai. With over 8 million visitors to the Australian pavilion and a very large business development program over 6 months, the position required a lot of stamina! My abiding interest in the Middle East and countries in conflict drew me to Baghdad in 2011, where I managed Australia’s engagement with Iraq at a very challenging time. On my return to Australia in late 2015, I assumed the role of Chief of Protocol. This position combines a representational role with overseeing the almost 7000 strong foreign diplomatic and consular presence in Australia. On any day, I can be called up to represent Minister or the department at a formal ceremony involving senior dignitaries, engage foreign Ambassadors accredited to Australia on issues of mutual interest, or to make an assessment on a complex diplomatic immunity matter.
What has been the most rewarding part of your time with DFAT, and have there been any other stand-out moments?
The standouts for me have been the opportunity to be a part of diplomacy in action, to help shape Australia’s responses to some of these complex problems and to represent Australia. I have also taken pride in demonstrating that a woman can be successful in a tough environment, be it physically demanding or a traditionally male dominated one. And with my boundless curiosity about other cultures and world views, I feel privileged to be able to live and work in these fascinating parts of the world and delve more deeply into them.
Going back to the very beginning of your career, what did you study at university? What was your first job when you graduated, and how did this background help you build the career you have today?
My academic background gave me a strong insight into the importance of understanding history and how it can inform the present and shape the future. I started my professional career as a Graduate Trainee in the Australian Public Service. The training and work experience I received gave me a solid foundation in the broader skills required to be a professional public servant, including negotiation, networking and collaboration. My career has taken me to regions as diverse as the Soviet Union, the Balkans, Central Africa, China and the Middle East, and in roles ranging from humanitarian, to trade, and to foreign policy. I find I regularly draw upon some past experience to shape and inform the work I do today. I believe two key skills have contributed to my career: being an active listener and knowing when and how to put forward a view or judgement.
From your experience in Australian foreign affairs, is there anything you would like to say about the state of international diplomatic challenges and Australia’s role in them? What skills and experiences will the future members of the international relations field need to tackle these challenges?
Humankind is facing unprecedented global challenges, both in scope and pace. In such a complex and uncertain environment, Australia has an important role to play through forward leaning diplomacy and building strong partnerships to maintain our way of life, to contribute to global cooperation and to work to address the many global challenges that are shaping our world. To achieve this, we need a team of energetic, committed people who can communicate with influence, build alliances, think strategically, are flexible in their approach to their work and in their thinking, and are team players. A career in DFAT can be as diverse as helping Australians in distress overseas, managing Australia’s humanitarian or development programs, preparing reports and analyses on political and economic developments, organising international meetings or visits by Australian ministers and dignitaries, running public diplomacy events and managing our media presence, and advocating on behalf of Australia on a range of policy issues.
What advice would you give to young and aspiring Australian professionals looking to pursue a career in international affairs?
There are many paths to a career in international affairs. While subject matter expertise in areas including law, international relations, economics, development or languages can be an asset, DFAT recruits graduates from a broad range of academic and professional backgrounds. We are looking for people who are interested in the world and Australia’s place in it. We are looking for graduates interested in working across a range of different issues – this may be bringing their particular expertise to the department’s work but at other times will mean that they will be working on new or unfamiliar areas. Adaptability, resourcefulness and excellent communication skills are key attributes. As well as graduates looking to work across the department’s broad policy agenda, we are also looking for graduates to contribute to corporate management work, in areas as diverse as helping to manage overseas posts, providing consular and passport services to Australians, working on IT, security or human resource management.