Continuing our series of profiles of women of colour making their mark across industry, community and work. Karlene Agard is currently an Inquiry Manager at the House of Commons the publicly elected chamber of Parliament. She is on secondment from Transport for London.
Briefly, describe your current job responsibilities
My time at Parliament has been varied. The core of my job is supporting MPs on the International Committee in scrutinising the work of the Department for International Trade. Research is a key part of this.
Some days I’ll be preparing a brief for the Chair and getting to grips with cabotage in the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), whilst others I’ll be supporting longer-term trade inquiries; producing terms of reference, sourcing witnesses for public hearings and writing reports.
What were the key decision points that were important in deciding your career path?
I graduated from Warwick University without a clear sense of what I wanted to do next but a vacancy arose at Network Rail and the organisation aligned with my strengths in STEM. I had a number of promotions (every year and a half, on average) working on change project management and major projects. I developed a real passion for helping set major projects and programmes up for success from the start using risk and value management.
This led to working on Thameslink, Crossrail 2 and a billion pound portfolio, as well as being recognised with a number of awards. My next role was as a Risk Manager at Transport for London. Whilst there, I worked with a great Career Coach who helped me to outline my longer-term goals.
Working in Parliament was not actually part of my plan but the opportunity was well worth pursuing! It aligns with my wider interests, broadens my horizons and allows me to work on skills that complement my core capabilities. I’ve also taken concerted efforts to keep them honed.
What do you enjoy most about your current role?
The UK is building its expertise in trade policy. It’s interesting to be at the forefront of such a significant area. I’m really enjoying the challenge of getting to know such a complex field.
An additional benefit of the job is that Westminster Palace is beautiful!
What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?
Following the election, Parliament has recently agreed on Membership on the International Trade committee. This means there will be new inquiries requiring in-depth research on trade policy and practice. Staying up to date in a constantly changing field is a challenge.
Following the news is fundamental. Building a network of experts to consult externally and internally has been useful. The House of Commons Library has a wealth of knowledge and expertise. There is a plethora of resources to consult, as trade currently attracts significant interest from academics, think tanks and the media. RSS readers are useful for staying abreast with developments in specialist topics. Of course, there is a need to filter for credibility with online research in particular.
What has been the most defining moment in your career to date?
It’s hard to pick a single moment but a recent pinnacle has been securing this role as an Inquiry Manager for the International Trade Committee.
Who is the industry figure that you admire? Why is this?
From the perspective of transport, I have great respect for Edward Morley. He’s the most senior person I had a one to one meeting with whilst at Network Rail.
I did not know he was the Head of Business Engagement but I noticed we both went into ‘The Quadrant’ office. I enjoy meeting people, so I introduced myself on the train. We stayed in touch and when I was researching his department for a presentation, Edward was generous with his time and knowledge. It was abundantly clear that he is highly intelligent with a creative way of thinking.
Best piece of career advice you have ever received? And who was it from?
Always examine your ‘why’ to make sure there’s a meaningful foundation on which your career goals are based. This will sustain you through difficult times and motivate you to excel. I worked with a really insightful Career Coach, Rachel Montanez of The Career Bean.
Away from your work role, what are your passions?
I’ve spoken at a number of careers fairs to inform young people of the opportunities available to them in risk, value and project management and the transport industry. Equality of opportunity is really important. It’s awful that circumstances conspire to stop people achieving all that they are capable of and that the world needs. I’m looking forward to doing more in this area.
I love dancing. I’ve done many different genres since I was a teen but my passion for dancing has never waned. Currently, I’m focussing on salsa. Dance performances are one of the most exhilarating things I’ve ever experienced.
I really enjoy capturing the sky on camera; sometimes more successfully than others! Few every-day things are as beautiful as the sky. Clouds even manage to make shades of grey appealing! I spent a night by the beach in Jamaica and struggled to tear myself away from the breath-taking view of the galaxy. Appreciating its scale helps provide a perspective on the significance of one’s problems.
What are the three (professional or personal) books/websites/ or resources that you would recommend to others?
- The British Library, for those in the UK. They have a wealth of resources and excellent Researchers;
- The Institute of Directors for informative events and opportunities to meet dynamic people;
- Find a local park that you like and visit it in the morning. The combination of fresh air, the beauty of nature and a chance to run make for an ideal start to any day.
What do you know now, that you wish you had known as you started your career?
The more I know, the more I realise I have to learn! I’m always having to recalibrate my view of what’s possible. Surround yourself with people who inspire you, think big and have complementary strengths. There are a multitude of options available: technology is the great enabler.
Seek a career that you find fulfilling and don’t settle for just a pay cheque. Money is not everything and besides, finding out what you’re passionate about, excellent at and what the world needs will soon be far more profitable than merely punching in.
I have lots of experiences in facilitating lessons learned sessions and it’s only this year that I’ve started applying it to my personal life. Don’t compartmentalise your skills: if there’s a professional skill that would help you in your personal life, use it!
Do you have any advice for women entering your industry?
Everything is a learning opportunity: it’s much healthier to view disappointments in this way than to let them get you down. Ask yourself ‘will this matter in one to five years?’ If not, it’s probably not worth getting upset over.
Make sure you understand the underlying reason for things that you’re asked to do: you may be able to find a more efficient or effective way to achieve the overarching goal. At times, the purpose itself may need to be challenged.
Don’t be afraid to sacrifice in the short-term to meet your longer-term goals.
If you weren’t in this role what would be your alternative career?
I’d support Project and Programme Managers in setting major projects and programmes up for success from the start, using risk and value management.
It’s far more effective to invest time and effort in beginning them well, than trying to course correct when things are going wrong! There’s a tendency for the project community to jump into solution mode before they’ve had a chance to fully evaluate the desired outcomes and all the ways those outcomes could be achieved.
It’s really satisfying to help project teams avoid unnecessary spending, delays and stress associated with rectifying problems. Since my first role in construction, I’ve loved being able to point at a landmark and say ‘I helped make that happen’.
Connect with Karlene via: Twitter @Karlene_Agard