Robin Janvrin: Three Careers and An Afterlife

Marlburian Monday’s have delivered some fascinating talks and we were truly privileged on Monday 24th May to listen to The Right Honourable The Lord (Robin) Janvrin GCB GCVO QSO PC talk about ‘Three careers and an afterlife’; the ‘afterlife’ referring to a quip when, on joining the House of Lords, Malcolm Rifkind offered that they were ‘living proof that there is life after death’!

Robin’s life has been varied, fascinating, brilliantly successful and made in part through a willingness to change and allow fate to play its part. After Marlborough he joined the Royal Navy because ‘his Father was and that’s all he had ever wanted to do’, and despite the Master – John Dancy’s protestations on his final day in the College that he was making a serious mistake, he reported to the Naval College soon thereafter. After initial training and a little sea time, he was sent to Oxford, which proved wholly to the navy’s detriment as whilst at University it dawned on him that he ‘wanted policy work and not to be an action man’.  A subsequent secondment to the Foreign Office sealed it for him, though his departure from the navy was delayed by 5 years due to the navy’s frustrating insistence that he complete his return of service on their investment.

Whilst his eleven years in the navy were formative but rather frustrating, during his talk Robin repeatedly came back to the key lessons that he had learnt whilst in the navy and which played such an important part throughout his career. He said that it taught him about people, that it understands leadership and management and that they have much to teach other careers in that respect – if I may be so bold, I humbly but wholeheartedly agree!

So, aged 28, Robin moved to the FCO where he rapidly ‘found his spiritual home’.  Specialising in Defence and arms control during the thick of the cold war he was in his element being an expert, advocating, consulting and persuading people on some of the most important geopolitical matters of the day. The FCO subsequently took him to India where he fell in love with the culture and people but also where, due to many reasons, he became aware of the importance and impact of fate and luck on one’s life and career.

It was also whilst in India that he had a phone call from the Royal Household, enquiring as to whether he’d consider a role as the new Press Secretary in Buckingham Palace. Having already been considering the impact and importance of media and wanting to know more, this appeared a wonderful opportunity.  Thus, in 1987 after 12 years in the FCO he moved to career number 3 in the Royal Household.

Whereas Robin’s first 2 careers would be little understood by many of his audience, the Royal Family is of course different in that respect and it was during his early years in the Palace that he learnt the importance of a ‘clear sense of role and values’, something which has become synonymous with our Monarch and the late Duke of Edinburgh, in particular.  Robin also spoke of the challenge of the 1980s where a number of difficult happenings shook the Royal Family’s credibility. This in turn caused the need to consider ‘what and how the organisation could contribute’ but also taught Robin how to manage change, quoting Lampedusa he noted that ‘if things are going to stay the same, they have to change’.

Robin subsequently and in succession became the Assistant, Deputy and then Private Secretary to HM the Queen, the second OM it is thought to have held the post! On retirement, Robin was made a Life Peer in the House of Lords and a year later became Deputy Chairman of HSBC; he also remains involved with a number of charities and other organisations.

During his talk which drew a record audience of nearly 200 and far too many questions for the available time, Robin delivered a fascinating insight to 3 little known worlds, but it was his candid, thought provoking comments on what he had learnt on the journey that was of such value. Always one step ahead in his thinking, his preparedness and desire to change and refresh was plain to see.  He kindly left us with four top tips for career management:

  • Don’t make up your mind too soon – get in to your 20’s and get a feel for it;
  • Whatever you want to do, you have to do something else first;
  • Don’t be afraid to change,
  • …and acknowledge that luck does play it’s part!

A wonderful evening indeed and on behalf of the OM Club, may I thank The Lord Janvrin for giving us his valuable time and for such a fascinating and enlightening talk.

Nick Cooke-Priest (LI 1983-85)

Due to technical issues, the first few minutes of the recording are missing.