Getting to Know People Better and Shaping a Better World

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Sep 03, 2020
by Mira Merchant
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Getting to Know People Better and Shaping a Better World

Salzburg Global Fellow Leigh Turner reflects on his career as a diplomat, and Salzburg Global Seminar's impact on his professional journey Fellows taking part in breakout groups, 1987 (Photo: Leigh Turner)

Salzburg Global Fellow Leigh Turner is a diplomat who serves as the British Ambassador to Austria and U.K. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations in Vienna. A member of the fellowship since 1987, Turner’s career in diplomacy has taken him around the world. We sat down with him to learn about his career and how his time in Salzburg played a role in his professional journey.

Salzburg Global (SG): You attended Session 260, The International Negotiation Process, in 1987. What was your experience like?

Leigh Turner (LT): In 1987, I had been in Austria for three years as the second secretary political in the British Embassy in Vienna. And I received this invitation from the Salzburg Seminar to attend this course… I remember seeing a list of the participants, and they were literally from all over the world with various people from Turkey… northern Cyprus and Israel, Jordan, and further afield as well. And I thought, “Well, this will be just fascinating to meet those people, and maybe I’ll learn something about negotiation at the same time.” … And when I turned up on the first day, I found it was very much as I’d hoped. It was a very vibrant community of different people, interesting people. And that particular session was for two weeks… And so we had plenty of time to get to know each other, both during the course and the weekend in the middle where we had some spare time… And it was a very fulfilling experience altogether.”

SG: Were there any takeaways or lessons that were particularly memorable from your time in Salzburg?

LT: The course itself was run by a guy called Roger Fisher, who had written a book just a couple of years earlier called Getting to Yes, which is even now… a bit of a classic textbook on negotiation. And I think he was at Harvard. He had another guy with him who was a younger guy also from Harvard, and they were good teachers… I still remember some of the lessons, some of the basic principles that they explained to us about negotiation and seeing the other person’s point of view and planning your best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

SG: How, if at all, have you have remained connected to Salzburg Global Seminar and the Fellowship since you attended the program?

LT: Back in 1987, I don’t remember much of a focus on the alumni program, and I don’t have any records of joining one.  I stayed in touch with a few people for a while, but after I returned to the U.K. later that year, I lost contact with the Seminar - until I returned to Austria, and Salzburg, in 2016 and thought - I must get in touch with the Salzburg Seminar guys again!

SG: At the time of your program, what did your professional journey look like so far? How, if at all, did your time in Salzburg shape your career trajectory?

LT: I had been a diplomat at that point for four years. And prior to that, I had been a civil servant in the United Kingdom for four years… I think that [the program] was an excellent experience for me and mixing with a whole group of very different people and listening to them. I remember some of them talking about how they found Austria and what an extraordinary experience was to come to such a prosperous, well-run, organized kind of country, and it really was a bit of a window into a very different group of people and their concerns and what they were interested in and how they saw the world. And I think that kind of experience, having those contacts with a wide range of people, is really valuable when you’re heading for a people-orientated business such as diplomacy. Just getting to know people in a bit more depth from different backgrounds helps you to understand them. And that is the bread and butter of becoming a diplomat or working in international relations. 

SG: What is the importance of having these global meetings for conferences, particularly for those who might be a bit earlier on in their careers?  

LT: I think that it’s a valuable opportunity for you to understand other cultures, understand other people from different backgrounds. I would say if the course had comprised entirely people from the United Kingdom or people from Austria, it wouldn’t have had the depth and the richness of the course that I attended. And so I think people who are thinking about developing their careers could do well to take a week or two… out of their busy schedules to go and experience a very different way of thinking in a different way of living for that period, which may actually make an effect on the way they do their work and where they live their lives.

SG: Thinking back to the very beginning of your career, what drew you towards this world of diplomacy and international relations?

LT: I think it’s because I was the child of parents who traveled in my childhood. I… spent the first three years of my life in Nigeria…Then we moved back to the U.K., and then later we moved back to Lesotho… And it’s for another six years till I was 12. So [those were] very formative years. I was living overseas, and the idea of living in one country for all my life after that childhood seemed improbable. So I was always attracted to the idea of a job that would take me to different places in the world to meet different people with different backgrounds and to interact with them. That certainly has been the result of a career in the Foreign Office.

SG: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve ever received in your career?

LT: [It’s] the idea that if you’re a young person starting off on a career, you should be in charge of that career. And if you’re hoping to be successful, you have to set out your path and how you’re going to get there and really work on it and actively try and make that happen. If you just passively wait for it to happen, the chances of it happening are much less.