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Liz McBain

North-South Project Manager
British Council

What does your job entail?

I work as the North-South project manager for the British Council, which is the UK's international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We work in over 100 countries worldwide providing a valuable connection for the UK. The organisation operates on the ground in many turbulent places throughout the world working closely with people at ground level helping to build trust and mutual understanding -- working with them to build a prosperous and sustainable future. Although, my job is based closer to home it is still very much centred on the importance of the international dimension and worldwide relations with the UK. My role is focused on ensuring that we make best use of connections with our colleagues in Dublin in the British Council Ireland office. One such area which has resonance for both directorates is climate change and our international climate project, Challenge Europe, is a shining example of effective collaboration across the island of Ireland, Great Britain and the rest of Europe.

How did you get into this line of work?

I have always been interested in languages and different cultures and previously studied and worked in both Spain and France. On finishing my postgraduate studies in Belfast, I began looking for a job which would allow me to utilise my languages and further develop my interest in international relations. Not an easy task at that time in Northern Ireland. After a few months of searching, I came across an advert for what seemed like an ideal post -- European resource centre manager for the British Council, an organisation I became aware of through the school Language Assistants Programme. I applied, attended an interview (which included giving a presentation on the pros and cons of a single European currency) and was given the job.

So working in this sector was a natural fit?

Yes, more or less since I finished my studies in 1998. I began by establishing a European resource and information network for schools, colleges and educational authorities across Northern Ireland and then worked on various EU-funded education programmes, before being appointed as North-South project manager in 2008.

How has your previous experience helped you in your role?

Having studied languages and international business, growing up in a border town in Northern Ireland and spending time living abroad, I have developed an intrinsic appreciation of the value and richness of different cultures and the importance of dialogue and interaction between cultures both locally and internationally. This appreciation has certainly proved a great asset in my current role as North-South project manager. Working on a range of European education initiatives has also taught me a great deal about the value of cultural relations.

What qualities are essential for your position?


Faced with the daily complexities of working for a global organisation, excellent team working and communication skills are essential. In this digital age it's also no surprise that video-conferencing, tele-conferencing and tools such as Facebook, Ning and Twitter are my new best friends. Being North-South project manager also demands total impartiality and a sensitive approach at all times.

What would an average day involve for you?

I co-ordinate our new British Council strategy to develop collaborative projects involving Northern Ireland, Ireland and various countries across the globe. The projects might involve intercultural dialogue, the arts, education or climate change and my role is to help ensure the development of this strategy through on-going staff engagement, monitoring/evaluation and external stakeholder activities.

I also have direct project management responsibility and I am currently involved with Challenge Europe -- an international climate initiative which enables ambitious individuals, from 13 European countries and all walks of life, to improve their knowledge of climate change issues and provides a platform for them to develop innovative ideas that will reduce carbon use. Since 2008, a network of over 400 'Climate Advocates' has developed approximately 80 projects across Europe.

In Northern Ireland and Ireland, participants have worked on an ambitious range of projects from the formation of a national network of food growing communities to the creation of policy initiatives involving electric cars, food and cycling. We are now entering the final year of Challenge Europe and our next deadline is only a few days away on April 30, 2010. So for any interested early-career individuals out there, there's still time to apply and although biased, I would genuinely recommend the project.

What makes the work interesting?

Cultural relations is not something which is easy to explain in a soundbite, but sometimes making small but significant differences locally, nationally and internationally makes working in my industry very interesting.

The work of the British Council builds capacity for change and has the potential to make a real difference. Because of the positive impact of what we are doing my work remains interesting and significant from one year to the next.

What kind of personality do you need to do your job well?


Above all, you need to be open and friendly, with an understanding and respect for cultural diversity. In many ways, people are the same the world over and a willingness to simply engage and connect one person to the other is hugely important. Cultural differences do also exist, however, and therefore an appreciation of difference and a sensitive approach to working relations internally and externally, locally and internationally, are the key to success.

What do you like to do in your spare time?


Most of my spare time is spent with family, friends and my rather lively border collie, Oli. Oli's training is a full-time occupation in itself. I also enjoy music, computers and travel -- though since Challenge Europe, the size of my 'carbon footprint' often dictates where I go and how I get there.

Who has inspired you most in your life?


Lots of people in lots of ways but my mother above all. She had an incredible inner-strength, a quiet determination and powerful zest for life which were unrivalled. With her dignified air and dry wit, she lived life to the full, teaching me as she went. She was an incredible person.

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