Spiro Marcandonatos is a recent MSc Global Governance graduate from the University of Exeter, he’s also a self-employed Fragile and Conflict Affected States (FCAS) Advisor. Spiro first studied at Exeter for his undergraduate degree thirty years ago, before beginning his career in the Army. In this post he reflects on his career in the armed forces and where his MSc will take him next.
My journey started at University, where I was studying BEng Chemical and Process Engineering. While I was interested in joining the Army prior to Exeter, it was in my Penultimate year when my tutor stated: ‘If you want to go into Engineering and in four years’ time you don’t like it, then you can’t join the Army. However, if you want to join the Army and in four years you don’t enjoy it, you can always come back to engineering.’ At the time the Army had an age restriction of twenty six; so that was a clear path to me in my dilemma.
My interest in the Army started when I was at school, during my time with the Scouts – other young people also considering the Army as an option. We would disappear on long hikes north of Ullapool, staying in Bothies. I enjoyed the outdoors, the physical activity and the challenges, as well as engaging with people. I attended a military camp one summer during my time at University and loved it: the humour in adverse circumstances, the camaraderie and the various challenges put our way. All of which convinced me to give it a go.
The Army process to become a Commissioned Officer involves interviews and a Boarding process where you are either selected, or not, to attend The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, all of which requires a Regimental ‘sponsor’. This Commissioning Course lasts a year, during which you’re ‘tested’ in various ways: physical fitness, mental ability and your personality. The latter probably being the most important and significant – you need to ‘fit’, otherwise it’s not the place for you. And even within the Army there are certain organisations/Regiments that you may suit better than others – they are for good reason, different.
Sandhurst itself was extremely daunting initially; its history, the institution and the buildings, combined with the personalities who were to be our instructors. Not coming from a military background, it was all pretty new and took time to settle and understand the rubric.
The first few weeks we were short on time in everything we did; we were introduced to new things and then expected to deliver and replicate quickly; we were put in charge of each other in varying roles; sleep was minimal, lots of ironing and tidying of rooms and kit; a lot of physical exercise and learning drill; and field exercises where again we were put under pressure at varying times. Much of it to bring the platoon (team) of cadets together, as well as assess and strengthen our resilience. Thereafter, each term built on the other, with assessments, physical, mental and command throughout, in barracks and in the field – individually and as a platoon, in competition with other platoons at the same stage.
We learnt quickly to work for each other regardless of nominated roles; identifying our own and others strengths and weaknesses we supported each other in our own time, in areas we needed to improve; maintaining our sense of humour no matter what, and always seeking to apply the values and standards of the British Army (Respect for Others; Courage; Discipline; Selfless Commitment; Integrity; Loyalty) – ones that translate across to general life – which are designed to ensure that all behaviour is lawful, appropriate and totally professional. All of which is to prepare you for your first role in your Unit as a leader of people.
On leaving Sandhurst I was filled with more confidence about my ability to do the right thing, lead soldiers, take on new challenges, and the recognition that to really learn you have to make mistakes, but be able to pick yourself up and get on with it. And whilst physical fitness is paramount, it’s your mental strength and dexterity that is truly tested and developed.
I was fortunate and privileged enough to join The Royal Gurkha Rifles with a first posting to Brunei. Fortunate because I had had no prior experience with Gurkhas, which seemed to be a pre-requisite before Sandhurst, and fortunate enough to have one of my directing staff as a British Gurkha Officer, who introduced and then supported me through the application and interview process.
In the subsequent years my time was predominantly spent with these amazing soldiers, but was also spent on courses for development in leadership, ‘staff’ work and technical skills, and posting to different Units and organisations at differing levels within the Ministry of Defence, in the UK and abroad. Latterly my time was spent working at a more Cross-Governmental level, at Strategic, Operational and Tactical levels.
Looking back, none of it was really planned; it pretty much fell into place as the system and I realised where my strengths lie (calm and rational in conflict, building and developing diverse teams, multinational/culturally sensitive and aware, planning, change management) and where my interests lie (people, harnessing diversity, understanding drivers of conflict and/or situation, enjoyment of complexity and challenges), but you have to take a gamble or several along the way. I would add that these were encouraged through the people and system, as long as you were also prepared to do some hard-yards.
After I left the military in January 2020, I worked for the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office in various roles:
- South Asia and Afghanistan Directorate supporting the development of a Regional programme. This then morphed, due to Covid, into developing a programme that would consider secondary effects of Covid in the region.
- Asia Pacific Directorate. The delivery of a scoping paper on the Asia Pacific and future programming within the constraints of the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).
- For the Stabilisation Unit, supporting the lead on the delivery of a conflict analysis of the Indo-Pacific in support of the Integrated Review 2021.
All of these required wide engagement with individuals and different departments across Whitehall, and across the region, holding and running meetings, conferences and briefings, whilst ensuring I understood the policy documents by which Government abide by e.g. Building Stability Overseas, UK Government’s Guide to Stabilisation, Elite Bargains and Political Deals, Serious Organised Crime Joint Analyses, Country / regional / departmental plans. All utterly fascinating, and then trying to synthesise into documents that were easily understood with clear recommendations.
Additionally I have conducted several Annual Reviews on programmes delivered under the CSSF, ranging from UK support to the UN, The Maldives and Sub- Saharan Africa.
So what I have learnt?
For me, that’s what it’s all about.
There will always be people you’ll find it difficult to work with, but you must learn how to do so. We’re all different and have different perspectives, backgrounds and experiences. Sometimes there are people we just don’t click with, and whether we are working for them or with them, in order to get the best outcomes remaining professional is critical.
At the same time, it’s worth looking at individuals in role and out of role, and if there are traits and/or actions you consider negative, ensure that if and when you are in the same position you don’t act in the same way. Equally, if you see someone doing good things then always note this behaviour and utilise it yourself when needed. I used to keep a notebook: at the front all the negative things I saw, and in the back all the positive – in soldiers, peers, commanders – it served as a useful reminder when put in particular situations.
Serving with Gurkhas taught me a huge amount in engaging with people from different cultures and backgrounds. It taught me to ensure you seek to understand things from the other’s perspective; patience; language is important – verbal, as well as body; actions speak louder than words; never ask someone to do something you would not do yourself; never take people for granted; assume nothing; detail is everything when looking after the lives of others; understand those you are put in charge of – really understand them, their family, their background, their everything; enjoy what you do; always be prepared to laugh at yourself … and likely much more!
Nationally and organisationally I believe we have become risk averse and output focussed; we must be risk aware and outcome leaning.
What’s next for me?
As of now I am still working out where my interests lie and where I want to focus my knowledge, experience and skills. The Masters is serving some of that purpose, but also deepening my understanding of how conceptualisation and policy inform programming and delivery, as well as having the time to understand and develop how to do better research and evidence collection.
To be able to add value back in to the system I need to develop my non-military experience and perspective, and so down the line a deployment as a civilian into a stabilisation role would be my ideal, and would be able to offer back a balanced perspective on a given situation that would be applicable across the spectrum. And I am excited and thrilled to be on my next career, wherever it may lead, whilst of course balancing my aspirations with family life – married, with a daughter and two small dogs and a love of fly fishing.