Relationship-building advice from a career diplomat

The UK's ambassador to Poland has used his management accounting skills to formulate strategy, negotiate, and manage relationships.
Jonathan Knott, FCMA, CGMA, the UK’s ambassador to Poland

Jonathan Knott, FCMA, CGMA, is a career diplomat who throughout a successful career in the UK's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) has relied on his management accounting training — both in commercially focused jobs and other roles.

And while language training is a staple for any diplomat, Knott remains committed to CPD and a much wider version of lifelong learning. "Successful people", he said, "don't stop learning. I really ... appreciate opportunities to keep on improving what I can do."

After a series of early jobs in London and in UK embassies in Cuba, Mexico, and France, Knott became the FCO's deputy finance director — an opportunity to study for the CIMA professional qualification.

It provided, he said, the range of skills needed to run large organisations, "which was exactly what I was after and what I find so stimulating".

The FCO at that time was looking at how to improve its management information, business planning, and risk management.

Knott's success in this role was recognised by his being awarded the newly qualified UK government accountant of the year award in 2007.

A series of other jobs followed — in South Korea as deputy ambassador and head of investment and trade and then to Budapest as the UK's ambassador to Hungary and leading the UK's investment and trade work for central Europe. Today, he works from Warsaw as the UK's ambassador to Poland and the FCO's director for central Europe. He was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) in the Queen's 2019 Birthday Honours.

His management accounting skills have provided a "really important framework and body of evidence to come to decisions", he said. And on specific financial issues, the skills "help me to ask the right questions and know when I'm getting good answers from my accountancy teams".

Strategic thinking is a key component of his current role in central Europe — for example, working out the strategy behind a communications plan or how best to engage with a foreign government on a particular issue.

Knott also uses his risk management skills. "Every major project that we do, every major project that we lead ... the role of identifying and managing risk is absolutely crucial."

Change management skills have also been useful. "Most organisations that I have been involved with ... and led have gone through a series of major change. ... Very regularly I have felt the need to review how my organisations look, and to feel confident about introducing the changes that I need to."

Relationship management

International relations, Knott said, is fundamentally about relationship management. "Establishing a relationship and maintaining a relationship isn't always straightforward, but I've found that it really helps to have structures in your mind which can help you achieve what you want to."

He added: "I've used [those structures] with very senior business people in Poland, in Hungary, in Korea, where I've worked. I've also used them when it comes to business and government relationships back in the UK. Government is an enormous organisation, and it's important to establish those key relationships in London just as it is in the place where you work."

Knott sees the following as key steps in building and maintaining relationships:

  • Be yourself. No relationship will survive if it's based on an act.
  • Identify mutual interests — professional and personal. They will be the basis for the relationship.
  • Do a favour/ask a favour. Either of these really strengthens a relationship.
  • Don't neglect even strong relationships. If you've had no contact for a few weeks, check in.
  • There's a limited number of people you can have really strong relationships with. Pick carefully.

"As for negotiations", Knott said, "it's really all about establishing trust, understanding what the person on the other side of the table needs, what they are looking for out of this negotiation, so that you can navigate a way to a result which works for both of you."

Knott's advice to get the best result from a negotiation is to:

  • Create a relationship.
  • Understand clearly what you want from this negotiation — and what is not acceptable.
  • Understand what the other person wants — and what they can't accept.
  • Establish a pace of discussion the other person is comfortable with. Don't rush them.
  • Check in with them to make sure you stay on the same page.
  • Respect emotion as well as logic: You need both to get to a successful outcome.

Oliver Rowe is an FM magazine senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at