Learning in practice: sharing experiences between embassies

To keep up with the constantly changing circumstances and developments in work, it is necessary to keep developing yourself. At BZ, we believe that learning is much more than taking a course. For example, by exchanging experiences and looking around at another embassy. Karin Overbeek and Anne-Marie Smit of the embassy in Lisbon went to the large neighbouring embassy in Madrid for this purpose.

Karin Overbeek en Anne-Marie Smit
Image: ©academie
Anne-Marie Slot (left) and Karin Overbeek (right)

Karin Overbeek is senior consular officer and has worked at the Embassy in Lisbon for 28 years. As the most experienced member of the team, most of the complex issues land on her plate. Anne-Marie Smit has worked at the mission in Lisbon for ten years now, two of which as operational manager. We developed handy routines, but some blind spots as well. They felt a fresh perspective was needed. I’ve never even seen the inside of another embassy,’ says Anne-Marie. ‘Because of the pandemic the follow-up days and other exchanges were cancelled. The chance to interact with other missions was something we increasingly missed.’

Putting faces to names

When she took up her post as ambassador in Lisbon, Margriet Leemhuis resolved to ‘drop by the neighbours’, as she put it. She felt it would be useful, not just for the consular and operational staff, but also for the economic affairs and political sections.

Anne-Marie and Karin were keen to get to know their colleagues in Madrid better, so were delighted with the proposal. ‘It is essential to lay the groundwork well’, Anne-Marie explained. ‘It’s important to say exactly what you hope to gain from the visit, so that you have a good two-day programme. We were asked beforehand what questions we were keen to put to our colleagues, with a view to getting the most out of the encounter.’

Concrete examples

Their first sight of the embassy in Madrid was overwhelming: it’s housed in a giant skyscraper, one of the tallest buildings in the Spanish capital – very different to the premises in Lisbon. At the same time, there was plenty that was familiar: like furnishings in the standard style. ‘You could really feel that connection with BZ; that you’re part of a bigger whole,’ Anne-Marie says.

They were given a full tour of the embassy, spoke to staff in all sections and met representatives of the public prosecution service. Karin was delighted with the chance to learn more about child abduction and custody cases. ‘It was great to get background information from the public prosecutor, who deals with cases like this every month. Concrete information like this helps us to reassure people in Portugal caught up in similar situations.’

Better allocation of tasks

Karin and Anne-Marie were keen to know how they could organise work more efficiently, for example by allocating tasks differently. ‘It was reassuring to hear that colleagues in Spain faced the same challenges, even though the mission in Madrid is bigger,’ Anne-Marie explains. ‘We sometimes wonder whether we’re tackling things properly in Lisbon, but we saw also overlap in the way they approached things. Each mission is its own little island, despite the fact that we could learn a lot from each other.’

Karin: ‘As a smaller mission in Lisbon, we have to be all-rounders. At the same time we like to structure our work as efficiently as possible. After our visit, we tailored the consular working document to our own situation in Lisbon, with a view to onboarding new staff. For example, we incorporated standard emails in it, with direct links to help them deal with certain questions as efficiently as possible. That saves us a lot of time, because it means that new staff members learn the ropes quicker. And colleagues have less questions to answer. We can already see the benefits , so we’re going to share this approach with Madrid.’

Informal contacts

After returning from Madrid, Karin and Anne-Marie shared their experiences with their colleagues in Lisbon. Karin particularly liked the opportunity to learn from informal contacts there. ‘I found the conversations I had in the margins of the visit the most interesting of all. I was also very impressed that all colleagues spoke Spanish with each other.’

Anne-Marie: ‘I found the visit really energising. And it was interesting to see how Madrid had tackled the renovation for hybrid working. It inspired me and with that knowledge, I also made adjustments in Lisbon.

The experience made Anne-Marie and Karin decide to visit other embassies. ‘The Austrian embassy is in the same building as us, but I’d never been inside it,’ Anne-Marie says. The consular team now also has more frequent contact with social support agencies in Portugal. Karin: ‘I’ve often visited them myself over the years, but now we go with the whole team. That means that when one of our staff leaves, we’ve still got shared contacts with these agencies.’

A listening ear

Anne-Marie and Karin believe that working visits to neighbouring missions benefit not only smaller, but also larger missions. As a result of their trip, it is easier to call a colleague in Madrid now, knowing that we’re up against the same problems.’

We encourage all our colleagues to visit another embassy or consulate. It is valuable for management assistants to visit the mission in Paris or Brussels to see how they tackle the database there. Besides it being helpful to shadow someone in practice, it also broadens your outlook. Visits like that reinforce the feeling of being in a team – because when it comes down to it, we’re all working for the same organisation. And it’s precisely that feeling of solidarity that’s important to keep everyone motivated.’

Read more about our viewpoint on learning and development