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Ten-minute chat
  1. Kate Richards


Kate Richards is the Principal Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for Scotland and she leads the private office team supporting ministers in the UK Government. She graduated as a vet from Edinburgh in 1985 and worked as a farm animal practitioner and partner in Scotland before moving to the pharmaceutical industry. Three years later, she joined Defra as a veterinary adviser.

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What was your path to working for a UK Government Cabinet minister?

I have always enjoyed challenges, stretching myself and being at the centre of activity. I enjoyed farm animal work, being paid to do a job I loved, and driving around the beautiful Scottish Highlands was a real privilege. However, after 15 years I experienced a strong desire to experience life that was not bound by the limitations of veterinary practice.

My time with a pharmaceutical company provided the opportunity to work with practitioners throughout the country and gain experience of our profession operating on a national basis. Based in London, I worked with colleagues across the globe. My location gave me easy access to meetings, and I began to know the people pictured in Veterinary Record. I was proud to work in the disease emergency control centre during the foot-and-mouth outbreak in 2001. I then completed a diploma in marketing, which had been on my to-do list for a couple of years, and moved into the company's marketing department.

I joined Defra in 2003, and have worked in several Whitehall departments. The Civil Service is an enormous organisation, with each department having a different culture and identity. My roles have included veterinary adviser (Defra), scientific secretary to a scientific committee (Defra), head of corporate communications (HMRC) and now principal private secretary (Scotland Office). I use many of the skills I learned as a practitioner, for example, communicating, influencing, people management, crisis management, analysis of evidence, prioritisation, multitasking and decision-making. All of these have proved invaluable.

How did you come to carve out this unique career?

While driving round the Scottish Highlands I remember thinking ‘I'm a vet . . . I can't do anything else’ and feeling frustrated about what I perceived to be a lack of career options. I toyed with the idea of a complete career change, for example, doing a degree in geology. It was when I was driving back from Edinburgh at 07.00 having completed a two-hour stint in an abattoir that I suddenly realised ‘I'm a vet . . . so what can't I do?’ Having recognised that it was my imagination that was limiting my horizons, I started my journey, not knowing exactly where I would end up. Having overcome my own imaginary barriers, I have had to convince some people that, while I am a vet, I am capable of doing non-vet roles, as I have transferable skills and a wealth of sound experience and expertise.

What do you like about your job?

My current role is fascinating. I work at the heart of government and to see first-hand the formation of the coalition government and coalition agreement was an amazing experience. I have had the privilege of working for three secretaries of state in two years.

Leading and managing a Cabinet minister's private office is demanding and extremely fast-paced. I have a team of staff who manage parliamentary business, correspondence, an overflowing diary, ministerial visits and engagements. No two days are the same and there is always something new to learn. I thrive on this diversity and work with colleagues across all Whitehall departments; it is a job where teamwork, communication, negotiation and influencing skills are keys to success.

What's the best piece of advice you were ever given?

You can only make decisions based on the information you have at the time.

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What advice would you give someone considering a similar career?

Believe in yourself, work hard and don't be constrained by yourself or others in moving towards your goal. Keep an open mind and look for opportunities.

What has been your proudest moment?

First, graduating from the Dick Vet. Secondly, my first public performance singing solo.

… and your most embarrassing?

I had gone to a call to see an animal with pneumonia. The reception on the two-way radio had been poor, but I was near the farm in question. The farmer was not there when I arrived, which was often the case. I identified the animal in the shed of 40 cattle, caught it with a lasso and was just putting on the halter when the farmer appeared asking what was I doing. The farm had the right name; the problem was that there were four farms with that name in the practice and I was at the wrong one!

Do you miss being a vet?

I am still a vet! There are elements of practice I miss: the people, the animals, the veterinary banter; and there are elements I do not miss: the kicks, bites and the on-call rota. I will always be proud to be a vet and use many of the skills I learned as a vet every day.

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