My Office: John Pearson

In our My Office series, we explore the working spaces of alumni around the world to give you the inside view into what careers are really like – and hopefully provide some inspiration along the way.

Our latest sees us take a trip to the exotic climes of Laos to visit the office of John Pearson (Geography, 1990). As a member of staff at the Foreign Office, John has represented Britain’s interests across the world for over 30 years before settling in his current position as British Ambassador to the country.


Name: John Pearson
Job: British Ambassador to Laos
Office: British Embassy, Vientiane

Hello John! Tell us about your career journey to this point?

After graduating from Nottingham I went straight to work at the Foreign Office. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, which gives you an idea of how long ago that was!

I’ve had a fairly typical Foreign Office career since, in that I've spent about half of my time in London and about half of my time overseas. My time in London has been a mix of jobs; some have been geographic, covering certain parts of the world, and some have been focused on a particular area of foreign policy.

My overseas postings before Laos were in Madrid, Brasilia, Montevideo, Singapore and Mexico City. I began my posting in Laos in 2019, the first time I have been an ambassador.

Tell us about your day job?

In a nutshell I am the British government’s formal representative in Laos. So any dealings which the British government has locally, I am responsible for. These dealings will be with a range of institutions locally, mainly government to government, but also British companies and civil society organisations. We also deliver a development programme locally and are here to provide urgent assistance to British nationals who require it.

Our day-to-day work is a mix of responding to directions from London, and having the freedom to decide our own priorities too. For example, if there's going to be a debate at the United Nations and we want Laos to support us in the debate, then we might go and lobby the Laos government on the issue.

Likewise, we might agree with London that climate change is a key priority, to try and influence Laos to invest more in renewable energy, but how we then deliver on that is down to our team here.

What are your current priorities?

Laos is a member of ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and it’s going to be the chair of ASEAN next year. So at the moment we’re liaising with the Laos government to see how we can support them as the country gets ready for that chairmanship because that will be important for them.

We also fund Laos around £3 million a year to clear unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War. During that war, on average every eight minutes for nine years, there was a bombing raid on Laos. As a result there are still millions of unexploded bombs here which need to be made safe, otherwise people can’t farm the fields, or use the drinking wells and it’s unsafe for children to go to school.

Finally, we focus on improving health and education, as Laos is a developing a country. The investment in these areas is crucial to give the next generation the infrastructure to thrive.

Can you give a sense of what your office is like?

It’s a bit of a strange existence in that I’m living in a compound within the embassy, so my house is next door to my office! But that’s typical of a number of our embassies overseas. Vientiane is probably one of the quietest Southeast Asian capitals, you certainly don’t have big traffic jams like Bangkok or Manila!

I spend perhaps two-thirds of my time in the office, one third out. I have a representational role, so we host events here at the embassy. You can’t see it now, but we have a lovely garden, and we’ll host evening events in it regularly.

Was there one career-defining moment which put you on this career path?

The first thing I’d say is that I always wanted to do work which I felt was important and could change the world. One of the pros of a career in the Foreign Office is that the work really matters.

I think a lot of people see diplomacy as the type of job where you’re just trying to get on well with people and maintain the status quo. But I think that’s untrue. Real diplomacy is about effecting proper change, really trying to make things better, helping to improve the organisations and institutions that you're working with.

Secondly, it is interesting. Living in a foreign country, meeting people from different backgrounds, dealing with lots of different issues. Each day I'm dealing with development issues or business issues or I'm doing social media or trying to analyse political relations between our two countries.

I know it's a cliche when people say no two days are the same. But I think with me it is really nice that every day I'm doing something different, and I do get a chance to get out of the office and go and meet people.

What are the key characteristics of someone who does your job?

I think my time studying Geography at Nottingham definitely gave me the tools that are very useful for diplomacy.

Firstly you have to be able to identify the key issue that you are dealing with. Secondly, you have to be able to know where to go to get sources of information. Thirdly, you have to be able to judge if those sources of information are reliable.

Fourth you then have to be able to analyse that information, make sense of it and draw conclusions. Then you have to be able to present those conclusions in an accessible form, and that could be in writing, by video, through a map, whatever. But communication of your conclusions is key.

And then finally you have to be able to work with others to get those conclusions across and get other people on board with you. So there's lots of different skills you need, but for me, my university education gave me those tools of analysis, communication and working with others that I think are key in a career in diplomacy.

How would your colleagues describe you?

Driven by trying to change things for the better.

What do you most love or hate about your office?

There’s a vegetable patch in the Embassy garden which we put in when I arrived which has fruit trees and vegetables. We've got mango trees, lime trees, tamarind trees. We've got beans and mint and lettuce.

If I have a visitor, I'll take them out into the garden and I'll show them our fruit trees and our vegetable patch. Because for me, when we use the produce in the meals that we serve here, that's a nice thing that we as an embassy can do. Growing fruit and vegetables, putting a little bit back into the world in a positive way.

Is there one thing you couldn’t live without in your office?

Music. If I'm tackling a tricky piece of work, I'll close my door and put on some Keith Jarrett or Snarky Puppy, and I'll just use that as background for me to focus on a really challenging piece of strategic analysis.

What has been your biggest highlight of the job?

We support a British organisation called Women of the Future, which identifies talented young women around the world and tries to support them in their career development. The organisation has a series of awards, which not many people knew about before I arrived.

We've tried to really push them locally, and this year we had five nominees from Laos, which was by far the best we've ever had. We held a ceremony at the embassy about a month or so ago with an all-female guest list. All the speakers were female, and we invited all the nominees for the awards, presenting them with certificates and prizes on the stage.

There were about 50-60 people there and for me that was a really nice way of being able to support young women in Laos, some of whom are not from privileged backgrounds, and put them on a global stage. And for them to get recognition for their work was a really nice feeling.

And the most difficult moment?

The most difficult moment for me is pretty clear. It was in late March 2020. Covid-19 was coming, and Laos closed all of its international borders, stopped all of its international flights and so we as a country were cut off, with about 200 British tourists who were stuck with no way of getting home. It became our responsibility to help those tourists get back to the UK.

With no scheduled flights and no buses over the borders, we managed to secure places on a few charter flights and some repatriation flights run by the French, Swiss and German governments. We managed to get everybody out. It was difficult because we as an embassy were under stress dealing with a lot of unhappy British tourists, understandably.

It was personally difficult for me because the Foreign Office sent my family back to the UK because they didn't want them here in Laos as Covid-19 got worse. So the circumstances were challenging, as I was on my own and also worried about my family in the UK. But we did it. We got everybody out. But I wouldn't want to relive that month!

Do you have one piece of advice for someone considering working in an office like yours?

Follow current affairs - the best thing you can do is read the Economist every week. Go to lectures and talks. Read material in the media, on Twitter, develop an interest in international relations, international politics, international development issues and get involved in societies or organisations which do the same. Also learn a language if you can as well.

And finally, how do you take your tea?

I'm a really bad British Ambassador because I don't drink tea or coffee - the caffeine makes my hands shake! I don't drink alcohol for the same reason. Instead I'll have a nice rooibos or peppermint tea please.

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