In the third and last part of our series on diplomats stepping out, Gregory De’Eb, former acting CG for South Africa to Hong Kong, shares his story 15 years on from the service.
While Mario and Andrés still have diplomat-like roles connecting them to their native countries, government and international business, Gregory De’Eb’s story offers a different case study. Moving on from 15 years of diplomacy representing South Africa , Gregory embarked on a successful career in fine wine storage with Crown Wine Cellars since 2002. Prior to that, Gregory held the position as Acting Consul General of South Africa to Hong Kong.
A new home
Gregory attributes his career change to a combination of factors. During his time as a civil servant, Gregory experienced the “Glory Years” when Mandela had been released and what he describes as a “talented, broad-minded, well educated” administration came into power. Yet in the late 1990s, things seem to have changed for the worse. “It was as if there was a pendulum that was beginning to return to a very similar system that was there in the 1980s,” Gregory remembers.
Diplomacy as a profession also changed during that time. Instead of the more traditional career based profession, South Africa began to follow the American model of diplomacy, which is generally by appointment. As a result, the career stream diplomats would then typically remain no.2 and below, while the no.1 positions were political appointees with little experience.
“No matter how senior you were, there were always 300 people at head office more senior than you. You would always have to defer to their corporate message and there was no area of flexibility in between,” he explained, and that was when he wanted a change of scenery. “I was essentially a frustrated entrepreneur and believed that I could actually make a really good run within the business sector. The only way to find out was if I gave it a try.”
At the same time, Gregory had fallen completely in love with Hong Kong and soon came to call it home. “I had realised that by 2000 I had already spent a large part of my adult life in China and as time passed, I have spent more time in Hong Kong than in any other place in the world.” He would then go on to gain Chinese citizenship. “I realised I actually loved Hong Kong more than I had ever loved South Africa.”
The change was drastic for Gregory as he changed his career, his nationality, and his home all at once. “I gave up the job, gave up the car, gave up the driver, and gave up the diplomatic residence.” His wife’s support was critical to him. “She said to me, “At some stage you’re going to take a deep breath and realise you’re just a regular Hong Konger,” and at that moment I realised there was nothing wrong with it.”
Unlike the other two interviewees, there was definitely no going back for Gregory, “I didn’t have the gift of time to make mistakes, so I had to make sure this was a good purpose.” Fortunately enough, Gregory’s new boss in business, Jim Thompson was much more experienced and acted as a father figure whom Gregory could always go to for advice. This gave him the ability to go head first as an entrepreneur. When tasks seemed impossibly daunting, having a solid supporter behind you is invaluable.
When asked what advice he had for fellow diplomats, Gregory borrowed something a senior colleague once told him, “Never get the person and the position mixed up.” He further explains, “Some people fall in love with hearing “dear consul general”, “dear ambassador”, or “your excellency”, but you realise that all that is happening simply because of the position you’re in – when you leave it doesn’t mean a thing.” He advises, “When you leave and people still welcome the person, that’s when it means something.”
Words of wisdom
To conclude our three part series, Mario, Andrés, and Gregory each shared their unique experience transitioning away from a career in diplomacy. One thing they all emphasized was the importance of having full support from their family. Making that dramatic transition is always a family matter and amongst the three stories, prolonged dialogue with their loved ones was definitely a common theme.
Mario spoke about challenging yourself and gave very pragmatic advice. Andrés suggested that being a part of the game would catapult a diplomat to a much higher level of understanding. Gregory spoke about the importance of mentorship and personal clarity. Now the most removed from diplomacy of the three, he also said this, “don’t make any decision that you’ll regret in the sense of not making decisions. Go out there, try, fail, try again – at least then it improves the colour of your experience.”