A Roadmap for New Hires: 30 Rules to Survive and Thrive

An experienced FSO ambassador identifies the unique attributes Foreign Service personnel should have and offers a guide to acquiring and perfecting them.


Ambassador Steve McFarland with public university students in Guatemala during their annual protest march (Huelga de Dolores) in 2009. He was the first embassy official ever to engage with the traditionally anti-U.S. protest.
Courtesy of Stephen McFarland

You’ve arrived at post. You’re learning about your current responsibilities and where you fit in the section and the embassy. As challenging as it can be—especially if it’s your first tour, or your first embassy—you will learn quickly, and you will start to contribute as a member of your team.

But there is much more: this is also the time for you to learn about your broader vocation and your career goals and interests as a Foreign Service officer or specialist; about embassy interagency operations and how to navigate the different agency cultures and tribes; about how to understand, influence and negotiate with foreign governments and groups to advance U.S. interests; about how to lead—from below, as a peer, as well as from above.

You will learn to sharpen your habits to be more effective and resilient under adversity, stress and danger. You will get to think about the best ways to keep learning and to improve throughout your career.

Finally, you will develop professionally at a truly demanding time for U.S. foreign and national security policy and for the Foreign Service. We face global warming, resource competition and demographic shifts, the unexpected consequences of computer and bio technology, as well as strained relationships with China, Russia and countries in the Middle East, and non-state violence. Having the best high-tech military in the world won’t be enough by itself to address these and other challenges—diplomacy and development are just as essential, or more so.

What Makes FS Personnel Unique?

I spent a third of my career in countries with active wars and terrorism, including ironically named “low-intensity conflicts.” Those years were definitely conducive to reflection. Operating in extreme conditions gives you insights into how institutions and people succeed or fail. In the 2007 Iraq surge, when I supported tribal and municipal engagement “on loan” to a Marine Regimental Combat Team, I started analyzing what makes certain Foreign Service officers and specialists so valuable in such situations, and why the military and other agencies are usually so eager to work with State and USAID Foreign Service personnel. I pursued this inquiry in Afghanistan, and drew also on my time in the Peruvian and Salvadoran wars.

Here’s my list of the unique attributes of Foreign Service personnel that enable them to add value to the foreign policy and national security process—and where, if we do not maintain this expertise, other agencies and the military will fill the vacuum:

• Deep knowledge of the region, the country and its society, religion, history, geography, culture and language based on experience overseas. The ability to state not only why things happen, but also their relevance for the U.S. and what our next steps should be; the ability to relate specific issues and responses to broader U.S. interests, such as democracy and human rights. The ability to assess our policy critically even as we implement it.

• The ability to understand foreigners—even those from sectors opposed to us, or trying to kill us—and comprehend what makes them tick and what their contradictions and limits are under normal conditions and extreme stress, avoiding “mirror-imaging”; and the ability to work with foreigners and influence them, or to oppose and defeat them, to advance U.S. objectives.

• The ability to think and work “interagency”—based on knowing what State and the full range of agencies present in an embassy (especially USAID, law enforcement and intelligence) can do to advance U.S. policy, in concert with Washington and, as appropriate, with the U.S. military and other partners. The ability to go the “last three feet” to turn policies into actions.

• A shrewd sense for using diplomacy across the spectrum from peace to war—from the tactical to the strategic levels, from the short to the long term, and using elements of soft, hard and smart power—on issues shaped more by intense emotions and history than by cold logic.

• The ability to thrive in an environment of contradictory and ambiguous information and policy guidance.

• Leadership, including the ability to work with people under extreme stress; a positive attitude; and the ability to cope with hostile security conditions and their consequences.

While work at expeditionary and critical-threat posts tends to put these attributes into stark relief, they are just as relevant at less dangerous posts—not to mention the fact that today any post can turn hot very fast. Not all Foreign Service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan met these standards—we had some duds and the odd toxic leader—but most rose to the challenge, as did Civil Service members and limited-term hires such as State’s “3161s” and USAID’s Foreign Service Limited appointments. (Language was a major challenge—but that is another story.)

How to Get There

In the following 30 points, I discuss how to develop and hone these attributes. Some points can be absorbed quickly; others take years to master. Here is my roadmap.

Geographic, Policy and Language Expertise

1. Keep learning about the host country—find a part that interests you and become as expert in it as possible. Read its literature, listen to its music, discuss its politics, history, religions and economics; attend cultural and sports events. Within your security constraints, travel widely outside the embassy “bubble.” (Carrying a nine-pound, 2-year-old girl from a farm to a USAID child malnutrition feeding station in Guatemala, for example, and listening to her parents’ survival strategy—feed the older brothers, not the baby girl—taught me what no briefing paper could.) Figure out what makes the society work the way it does, and what its contradictions and dynamics are.

2. Meet and build relationships with host-country people from as broad a range as possible—our profession is ultimately about people, not policy papers. Reach out across invisible barriers of race, class, sex and region, and get outside the embassy. Don’t hang out just with those who speak English or who are from the ruling class or who always agree with the United States. Local elites are important, but are often disconnected from the reality we need to understand and influence.
     Don’t emulate those who always disparage the host country or local groups; foreign partners will pick up on the condescension and will cooperate less. Our enemies gain an advantage when we underestimate them.

3. Improve your command of the local language, slang and idioms. Diplomacy is about precision and nuances, and about connecting with those who don’t speak English. If there is a second or third language spoken by minorities, try to learn it. Even a 1/0 in such a language will provide unexpected insights and entrée.

4. Keep learning about history and foreign affairs, and stay abreast of current events in the United States. You represent the United States 24/7—you may be the one American a foreigner remembers, especially if you are a consular officer. Read about issues and trends outside foreign policy, too; you will need this breadth as you advance. Foreigners follow U.S. events closely, and they will look to you for the U.S. government and the American perspectives.

Embassy Operations

5. Start learning about how embassies work—within the embassy, with the host country and with Washington. When done right, the U.S. government is without peer in terms of effective interagency operations under the authority of an ambassador or chargé (read the standard instruction letter for a new ambassador). At the same time, a good embassy is also a community (unlike the interagency in Washington). Keep an eye on employees’ and dependents’ sense of mission and morale; how the embassy carries out day-to-day as well as longer-term operations; how an embassy leads and manages organizational and policy change; how it manages security and prepares for crises; and how it carries out career development. You can also read about other U.S. embassies and posts at www.diplopundit.net.

6. Know the mission of your embassy—read the Mission Strategic Plan, the USAID Country Strategy, and relevant speeches and testimony for starters. Talk to people in different sections and agencies; if possible, attend ambassador or deputy chief of mission (DCM) briefings. Ask yourself if the U.S. government’s assumptions about the host country are correct, and if its policy objectives are realistic. Try to see how the embassy takes in information, receives human and financial resources, applies policies, carries out projects, engages the public and gets results.

7. Start learning how other U.S. agencies and the military carry out their work and how their operational cultures, values, roles and objectives can differ from and complement—and at times conflict with, overlap or try to supplant—those of the Foreign Service and State. State Department personnel are a minority at almost all embassies. Most of our cutting-edge work overseas is interagency and with other foreign partners. All U.S. military services have reading lists that offer insights into their cultures and strategic thinking; Foreignpolicy.com’s “Best Defense” blog and Warontherocks.com are also quite informative. The Foreign Service is an elite organization of which it is right to be proud, but don’t be elitist or arrogant.

8. Learn about the different sections and cones and specialist tracks within State and the backstops in USAID, as well as the Foreign Commercial Service and the Foreign Agricultural Service, if they are present. If there are State Civil Service personnel on an excursion tour, learn about their profession. Learn about—and appreciate—the critical role of the Locally Engaged Staff (Foreign Service Nationals or FSNs, as they used to be called and still prefer). Support the FSNs and the FS specialists; they actually make the embassy work. Don’t confuse rank with knowledge, authority, the ability to add value or power. As an Iraqi tribal leader once told me, “just because one has a degree does not mean one has wisdom.”

9. Respect the chain of command—but if no one can address your problem, see the DCM; if that fails, see the ambassador.

10. Participate in the full range of embassy life—even when you don’t feel like it. It’s your community, and it’s a leadership thing.

11. Keep in mind that, though they can be enjoyable, representational events are work. When you get an invitation from the ambassador or DCM, you are generally expected to attend. If you have questions, check quickly with the office manager to see if it is a command performance. “On time” means arriving early. Focus on talking with non-embassy guests or with Washington visitors—ambassadors and DCMs notice this. Ask your boss when you can leave.

Study the moral aspects of leadership and responsibility, because your actions can have a direct impact on people’s lives.

“Corridor Reputation” and Personal Skills

12. Improve your communications skills—listening, writing and speaking. Active listening, which includes observing a person’s mannerisms, pitch and nonverbal cues, is crucial to your later work in negotiations. When I negotiated by cell phone the unconditional release of Americans and Europeans held by armed hostage takers, active listening—identifying nervousness, pride and indicators of ethnicity and class—played a key role in our success.

13. Shape your professional persona, the “corridor reputation” you will inevitably develop. Identify what you want to be known as and for. At the start of the hostage event noted earlier, I picked two first-tour officers, a vice-consul and an assistant regional security officer (RSO), to travel to where I anticipated the hostages might be released. I chose them for their judgment, initiative, language skills and teamwork, and they excelled. Leaders observe you.

14. Take the initiative in preparing work requirements (30 days after arrival is the deadline) and in scheduling Employee Evaluation Review counseling sessions. For the latter, always take notes, even if the feedback is positive.

15. Volunteer for public speaking. This, and dealing with the press, will be a big part of your work as you advance. The public affairs section will help. Learn to brief succinctly and to make improvised remarks, in English and in a foreign language.

16. Learn to entertain at home. Invite the DCM and ambassador to an event with your host-country friends and contacts.

Security Awareness and Crisis Preparation

17. Support and respect the Marines and RSO staff—they will risk all to protect you. Go to Marine events; attend promotion ceremonies if invited. Four times I’ve been at embassies where the host-country security vanished in the face of attacks, leaving only the Marine Security Guard at Post One. I think about that each time I walk past Post One; you should, too.

18. Understand your role—and your colleagues’ and bosses’ roles—in carrying out the Embassy Emergency Action Plan. This, too, is an essential part of leadership. When a crisis management team comes to post, try to participate in the exercises. Prepare yourself and your family for emergencies. Learn advanced first aid.
     The ultimate test of an embassy is how it handles a crisis. Often lives are at stake, including yours. How well the embassy and you perform will depend largely on preparation, training (you did take those drills seriously, right?), teamwork and thinking through assumptions, worst-case scenarios and alternative courses of action. Often, you just have one chance to get it right.

19. Start developing your own security awareness, and start thinking critically about how we in the Foreign Service balance our safety with the imperative to carry out a mission in often dangerous circumstances. “Nothing is more important than your security” sounds great, but we cannot deliver if we only hunker down in hardened embassies. Obey RSO rules—a lot of experience goes into them, and your DCM and ambassador will demand this of you. Raise any disagreements with your supervisor and RSO; sometimes you can persuade them. However, the RSO cannot foresee everything, and at times makes the wrong call, so you must augment the rules with your own observations and experience.
     Beware of complacency: it is sobering to see how a handful of committed attackers can use initiative and surprise to kill and cause damage to a heavily defended target. Remember, outsiders are collecting information about you and your embassy.

Becoming a Leader

20. Study leadership—you can start with former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership. Read and think through the consular leadership tenets and State’s leadership and management principles. Observe how people lead at your post. Even bad leaders—sadly, we have some—teach you, if only how not to lead. Leadership is not just for senior officers: you can and must lead from below, and with your peers. In fact, you never stop leading from below, even as an ambassador.
     Study the moral aspects of leadership and responsibility, because your actions can have a direct impact on people’s lives. As you move up, you may have to send people into harm’s way or authorize the use of lethal force. What, you should ask, gives you the right and the ability to do so? When those times come, there’s no easy checklist, and there’s precious little time to think—you need to have already developed a framework for moral and competent leadership.

21. Understand and internalize professional discipline. One aspect of this is to be able to take challenges and annoyances in stride. A second is to speak truth to power, respectfully but clearly. A third is to articulate and defend U.S. positions with which you may disagree strongly—in my own case, for example, the Iraq invasion and waterboarding. As you advance, you will be put on the spot increasingly to defend or implement positions with which you may disagree. Remember, “assess critically and implement faithfully.” Understand the mechanisms for dissent and use them if needed. Take pride in your work as part of a larger effort to advance U.S. interests.

22. Ensure that you look at all issues—work, foreign policy and personal—through an ethical lens. You’ll appreciate the habit as you move up. So will your subordinates.

23. If you see something, speak up. I always told personnel new to the embassy that there was no room for any discrimination, sexual harassment or abusive treatment of anyone in the embassy by anyone else, and I insisted they meet these standards. I would tell them that while I hoped that they would never encounter such problems, if they did, or if they became aware of others who did, I expected them to inform the DCM and me.

24. Volunteer for additional duty outside your day job where you can develop management and leadership skills: e.g., with the housing board, employee association or commissary board; as an Equal Employment Opportunity representative or AFSA post representative; as a control officer for VIP visits; or on employee evaluation review (EER) panels. Consider local volunteer work, including teaching English at the American center. Activities that demonstrate your initiative, outreach, ability to develop a budget or execute a project, no matter how small, will stretch you and impress promotion panels.

25. Develop bureaucratic skills, especially how to participate in or run a meeting (hint: to arrive on time, arrive early) and identify the results you need from the meeting. You will spend far too much time in meetings, so you should get the most you can out of them. Read Richard Haass’ The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur.

26. If you are a first-time supervisor, seek advice on setting objectives, giving guidance, counseling and addressing any performance issues. Ask yourself how your leadership adds value to your team’s work. You can be frank and firm, but never yell at or demean your subordinates; “leaders” who do so are bullies and ineffective. Take care of your people and praise their successes to your bosses. Learn to learn from your subordinates.

Resilience, Health and Passion

27. Balance work with family and personal needs. Your family will be there when the Foreign Service is not.

28. After consulting a doctor, give serious consideration to more exercise and better physical fitness. Physical fitness is still undervalued in the Foreign Service, but I’ve found it extremely helpful in dealing with the stress and dangers of our profession, and it’s essential if you engage in expeditionary diplomacy or if you are an RSO. Bonus points if you join the Marines on a physical fitness or combat fitness test. Keep tabs on your emotional health, too. If you see or experience something traumatic, it’s smart to consult a mental health professional rather than try to tough it out on your own.
     The combination of physical, mental and spiritual fitness and agility, along with your sense of mission and teamwork, will determine your effectiveness and resilience when, not if, you face adversity and danger.

29. You will make mistakes. Acknowledge them, apologize as appropriate and learn from them. Much of your professional development will be on-the-job training, with advanced study in the school of hard knocks.

30. As you work on these issues and as you advance, try to maintain a running conversation with your inner self about why this work matters to you. Developing, refining and redefining your passion and purpose as a professional is extremely important and healthy.

Thank you for volunteering for the Foreign Service. We need you. Go make a difference!

Stephen McFarland is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer (1976-2014) and former ambassador to Guatemala (2008-2011). He is currently chief of party for USAID’s Access to Justice project in Colombia. His career, spent mostly overseas, focused on conflict and post-conflict countries, and on supporting democratic transitions, peace processes, rule of law and human rights, and counterinsurgency. His earlier tours as human rights and insurgency reporting officer and as political counselor in wartime Peru and El Salvador motivated him to take a more activist approach as a diplomat. He served in Afghanistan and in Iraq, where in early 2007 he set up a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) embedded in a Marine regimental combat team in Al Anbar province.

McFarland grew up in the Foreign Service in Latin America and the Middle East, and in central Texas. He speaks native Spanish and more limited Dari, French, Guaraní and K’iché. He is a graduate of Yale University and the Air War College, and attended the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course (JR). He and his wife, Karin, who works at USAID, have four children. He likes to play soccer, hike, dive and ride horses.

Note: This article contains the author’s personal views, drawn from advice he provided to new personnel during 21 years as ambassador, chargé, deputy chief of mission (DCM), PRT leader and political counselor. The views are based on experience at 12 overseas critical-threat and hardship posts during a 38-year career. These views do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Foreign Service, USAID or Checchi and Company Consulting, Inc. Comments and questions are welcome at mcfarlandsg@gmail.com.