How I made that networking mistake, failed to secure British Council job in Ukraine.. and reminisced about my great experience networking with British Council people in Zimbabwe

by Andy Kozlov

US marketing strategist Dorie Clark in her recent piece for a Harvard Business Review blog lists three mistakes young professionals are prone to make when networking:

  • Misunderstanding the pecking order
  • Asking to receive before you give
  • Failing to specifically state your value proposition

I might have just made one of them. Now I wonder: will writing about it just add a fourth item to the list of common networking failures? — “Bragging about failure to achieve an unpredictable result.” But then we make mistakes to learn from them or maybe even teach others to excel.

Slightly over a month ago, my former UN boss in Ukraine, Nina Sorokopud ( ‎Regional Public Information Officer with UNHCR in Kyiv),  signalled to me a job announcement that I considered to apply for since my past experience, I thought, presented me as a competitive candidate. Little did I know.

British Council in Ukraine was looking for a communications manager. Following of key principles of communication — Know your audience –I logged onto their site in trying to guess who would be making the employment decision based on my application. I reminded myself about the organization’s history.

Interestingly, in 1946, the writer George Orwell advised serious authors not to work for it as a day-job arguing that “the effort [of writing] is too much to make if one has already squandered one’s energies on semi-creative work such as teaching, broadcasting or composing propaganda for bodies such as the British Council.”

I wondered whether I should show attention to detail and somehow juxtapose that information with what Nasser Ameri, Assistant Director Teaching Centre, writes about his interests on the British Council in Ukraine site:

In my free time, I love cooking, reading (my favourite authors are George Orwell, Graham Greene and Saul Bellow)..

But the trick up my sleeve was my cover letter. In 500 words, I took to explaining why I am “suitable for this role, focusing on the skills and knowledge that I bring.” This is probably when I commited the ultimate mistake of ‘misunderstanding the pecking order.’ I never heard back from British Council in Ukraine: not an ideal attitude exhibited by their staff. But I did take a closer look at how helpful I had found British Council-related people in Zimbabwe.

Text of my cover letter follows.

This Athienitis Spar bakery in the heart of the Avenues, a neighbourhood in Zimbabwe's capital Harare, was one of the places where I stocked up on scones and other British food delights. Established in the 1970's, according to their official website, the supermarket has continuously played its part in uplifting and developing the Avenues community.
This Athienitis Spar bakery in the heart of the Avenues, a neighbourhood in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, was one of the places where I stocked up on scones and other British food delights. Established in the 1970’s, according to their official website, the supermarket has continuously played its part in uplifting and developing the Avenues community.

“My close encounter with British culture occurred in a location most Ukrainians are not likely to associate with the UK — a Matabeleland primary school some 100 km south-east of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Scones, chicken pies, preference for building names rather than numbering them — all these attributes of British-ness duly revealed themselves to me throughout my project management stint in Southern Africa.

I finished watching Niall Ferguson’s “Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World” only last month. But the premise of the Channel 4 television series by the Scottish historian came forth vividly to me already in 2010, while I was busy persuading Zimbabwean youth to read literature regardless of whether they have to pass O levels. People who introduced me to British Council back then were the institution’s long-time executive Ignatius Mabasa, and dedicated librarian Maureen Stewart in Bulawayo. Sitting in meetings with them or unloading another Book Aid shipment, they inconspicuously taught me ways to put UK ideas in a local context. While British Council-supported lecturers like Anamaria Wills made me feel even more entitled to “create genuinely new solutions that may not be obvious.”

Maureen Stewart of British Council Zimbabwe and her beige Volkswagen Type 1 at Mzilikazi Public Library in Bulawayo, 2012 (Photo: A. Kozlov)

Going through the Behaviours Dictionary this morning, I took mental note of two more principles:

  • do more than what is required of me if it will have a positive impact on others or on outcomes
  • help others to stand back from day-to-day activities in order to review our direction and approach

Regarding the first proposition, I’d like to take you back to my last day with the UN Agency for Refugees in Kyiv. In fact, I was already officially on annual leave when I finally managed to get my supervisor into a negotiations room with her colleague from Danone in what promises to be a delicious outcome for scores of refugee children in major Ukrainian cities.

My recent experience with UNHCR in Ukraine and keeping in touch with growing network of African culture and media practitioners culminated in my participation in Discop Africa, a major media event on the continent, giving interview to UK’s SmartMonkeyTV about the first Ukrainian-Nigerian love story film and further synching of Ukrainian creatives with peers overseas. I spent thousands of US dollars in personal funds and invested months of red-eye research, networking to take these humble achievements to an even higher level, one step at a time.

The Bakkara Art Hotel in Kyiv year-round hosts and sponsors a great number of cultural events in Ukraine’s capital city

So when I got a chance to chat to Mr [Martin] Dowle during a coffee break at Cinema for Peace and Tolerance Symposium last October, I couldn’t resist sharing my global observations encouraging him to “stand back from day-to-day activities.”

He kindly gave me his British Council card and reciprocated by inviting me to email him my ideas in a more structured way. Now, three months later, and with my schedule significantly freed up from other important obligations I would like to take the opportunity of a job interview to continue that Bakkara boat conversation, while gladly offering my ideas, skills and network to contribute to British Council’s communication and partnership initiatives in Ukraine.”

In this letter, I was more driven by promoting idea of working with Africa rather than obtaining a fixed job in Eastern Europe. Did it come through this way?

In the end, George Orwell could be right and I all I should do is keep networking with British Council experts to foster South-South partnerships in culture rather than WORK for the organization that is a great proponent of creative industries worldwide.

With questions or suggestions, please email the author on

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A rookie-s take on Russia-s creative industries

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How do you increase South-South cooperation within creative industries? Using Information Technology?

The first Nigerian film production in Europe. It turns Ukrainian phones red and challenges (Half of A Yellow Sun) in authenticity

Zimbabwean hospitality

‘Odd hotels’ of the developing world

How culture contributes to development: an UNESCO indicator suite

Toyota encourages Zimbabwean kids to dream up the cars they will drive when they grow up

Sogetsu School of Ikebana experts from Japan to teach Zimbabweans in Harare

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Nigeria-s ‘Chekhov’ unravels Ukrainian toddler-s misconception of the smoking African

Afriwood to participate in 2012 Ukrainian Content Market

What you can learn about doing business with Africa, at Kyiv Post Employment Fair

Culture Fund of Zimbabwe gave out over US $345,000 in grants

Whose premise: UNESCO-Harare or UNESCO-Paris?

UN4U in Eastern Ukraine

Making sure that Zimbabwe Reads

Being blind in Zimbabwe in a global digital age

Zimbabweans put indigenous readers onto Amazon

Making sure that Zimbabwe reads II: from Boston via Beira to Harare


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